As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing martial arts for a while; most of my life if you count high school wrestling. I recently switched from Traditional Taekwon-Do to Karate after moving to Phoenix.

One of the things I love about martial arts is how many lessons on life you can draw from it. I had another one of “those” experiences Tuesday night.

Where I train is more than just a Karate dojo- there are three training floors with a bunch of different instructors from different arts; each a real instructor in their art, not just some dude with a black belt in one style, and 3 random classes under his belt in 8 others. A couple weeks ago they started a Mixed Martial Arts program (MMA). Yep, we’re talking Ultimate Fighting Champion! While I like to delude myself into thinking I’m too pretty to fight full contact at the ripe old age of 36, you can attend the class without going to the nose-bursting extreme.

The combination of switching styles and playing with MMA really highlights something about most martial arts. While one goal of sparring is supposed to be a way to simulate a potential real-life fight, most arts end up constrained by whatever rules they decide on for sparring and tournament competition. Problem is that none of those rules exist in the real world.

In TKD you can’t grab or throw, so there are a lot of high kicks and multiple kicks. In Karate you can do basic grabs and throws, so I quickly learned to pull that leg back in darn quick. But in Karate certain kinds of techniques don’t score, even though they could do some damage if they connected. For example, there’s something called a hook kick; I’ve noticed in Karate that the version taught is not a version you’d ever use for real- it’s totally worthless outside a tournament. Because of the rules, most tournament matches are won and lost off a few basic techniques, so that’s what you spend most of your time on in class.

It’s the same for pretty much everything- boxers don’t have to worry about takedowns or kicks. Wrestlers don’t have to worry about getting kneed in the face. No one has to worry about getting kicked in the nads or fighting more than one person at a time. As one of my instructors in Colorado puts it, “any martial art is only as realistic as the last time it was used in combat”.

In nearly every martial art I’ve trained in, the rules for sparring and tournaments have a dramatic influence over the techniques a student learns. Even MMA has rules, and being more of a sport than a specific martial art those rules define how people train, and how you train defines how you will react- be it in the ring or on the street.

Now most of us don’t get into all that many street fights anymore, but this is one of those analogies that easily extends. For example, how many of you, in your day to day job, expect your customers to behave according to the arbitrary rules of your business and become upset when they act differently? A customer/client/john might ask you for something simple outside your normal process, and even if it’s easy, even if it’s beneficial to both of you, even if it doesn’t violate policy, your instinct will be to say no. Why? Because you don’t think you can do it. You’ve allowed arbitrary rules to define your capabilities.

As Rob Tobin, another master instructor (and great friend who died long before his time) once said while we were doing some business together, “don’t make it hard for people to give you money”.

And the worst culprit? Compliance, but I’m not going to talk about that here.

As a martial artist I constantly strive to train according to the rules without letting them limit my capabilities. To be honest, it’s a lot easier to do on the training floor than in my professional and personal lives.

Keep it real.