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Martial Arts Drills: are they all just a 'fancy mess' or more a question of context and intention

Is ‘The Fancy Mess’ and ‘Organised Despair’ in Martial Arts a Reality or Is it More a Question of Context And Intention?

Bruce Lee is often quoted as stating traditional martial arts offer little more than systems of seemingly pointless, inefficient and unproductive movements. He referred to to this as a ‘fancy mess’ in such quotes as:

“Instead of facing combat in its suchness, then, most systems of martial art accumulate a ‘fancy mess’ that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the reality of combat, which is simple and direct. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms (organised despair) and artificial techniques are ritualistically practiced to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of ‘being’ in combat these practitioners are ‘doing’ something ‘about’ combat”

“When you get down to it, real combat is not fixed and is very much ‘alive’. The fancy mess (a form of paralysis) solidifies and conditions what was once fluid, and when you look at it realistically, it is nothing but blind devotion to the systematic uselessness of practicing routine or stunts that lead nowhere.’


Bruce Lee made these comments with the specific reference to traditional martial arts drills and their relevance to free-flowing, consensual (sparring/competitive fighting) or non-consensual violence (personal defence/counter assault combatives). In that regard it is important to recognise and note the specific contextual basis for these thoughts. Bruce Lee wasn't attacking the traditional forms of martial arts wholesale, merely indicating that there are folks within the community who may cling to beliefs that are not entirely too pragmatic or practical.

The debate of relevance ebbs and flows like a continual under current within traditional martial arts. To the casual observer many of the activities taking place with a training session may well look like a somewhat strange form of dance, with or without a partner. However, even within the martial arts community, practitioners are often divided and quite offended / defensive/ offensive when questioned about the relevance of certain training modalities. Principal amongst these would appear to be the relevance of practicing sequences of movement in a solo form (tul/hung/poomse/patterns/kata) and set sparring drills, the like of 3, 2 and 1 step sparring within Taekwon-do. The ebb and flow of the debate appears to be centred around should these be included and what potential benefits (if any) do they have to the participants. Additionally there is an associated question regarding the predisposition of some practitioners to be 'blindly obedient', rigidly holding to the teachings of their 'masters' with a dogmatic sense of unquestionable loyalty. This pseudo-confucian mindset of piety and obedience, where critical thinking and analysis are not allowed or required, for some represents one of the fundamental limitations of traditional martial arts.

If the thoughts and observations of

Bruce Lee were considered accurate, it would appear at first glance that the martial arts have progressed little in the past 50+ years. The contention between the traditionalists and the progressives as to what is right and what is not still exists. Recently the debate seems to have surfaced again specifically around the relevance and importance of set sparring (particularly 3 and 2 step) as a viable training modality. The discussion on social media has inevitably (and unnecessarily) become quite personal and with some becoming very defensive in respect of their individual thoughts and perspectives. On one side there are those that consider the practice to be irrelevant, culturing no useful capabilities or skills. The opposing camp are those who defend the traditional form, providing the argument that this is the way the art has been formed, passed to us and therefore the way it is practiced. The main purpose of this article is to highlight there is a middle ground here. That there can be a relevance for both positions, if we address and understand the context in which the practice is being undertaken.

Taking a step back, Bruce Lee's thoughts on traditional martial arts were made with a specific contextual reference in mind. The application and efficacy of certain routines and training methods in respect of combat (consensual / non consensual violence). This argument would then suggest that there is but one reason due practicing a martial art, that of personal defence or competitive success (as a combat sport practitioner). Whilst it is absolutely the case that many practitioners seek this type of capability and validity for their abilities, it is far from the only potential reason for participation or benefit that can be derived from martial arts practice. Moreover, it is absolutely the case that the word 'martial' is derived from the Latin word Mārtiālis meaning belonging to Mars (Mars being the Roman God of War). The direct implication being that these are Arts of war and therefore proficiency in combat is implicit with the study of these arts. The assumed context that Bruce Lee established as his base for making these comments is then absolutely relevant, however it must be reinforced that they were based solely on this.

When we discuss martial arts we each are provided an individual perspective. This is doubtless formed by our own direct experience and influenced by the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of others. Often this perspective (individual context) can become dogmatic in itself, in that we come to believe that our point is the 'true way' and there can be no other. This limiting belief, whilst commonly held, becomes the basis for many conflicts, with experiences being narrowed, reduced and adapted to fit our individual biases. In reality there are many reasons for martial arts practice, there are then as many contexts in which we can view martial arts practice.For example one may choose to undertake martial arts practice for personal development (physical, emotional or spiritual); competitive success and recognition; health and well-being needs; or social and community support. Practically the list of potential motivations and therefore contextual positions from which to view martial arts practice is as varied as the individual choosing to study them. There is no one context intrinsically better than the next, there is only ever a difference and the martial arts are richer and stronger by means of this diversity and variation.

If we specifically regard the practice of set sparring, we can only truly evaluate the efficacy of the practice in light of the context within which it is set. As a complete set of combative techniques, focused on direct transferation personal defence, it is wholly possible to suggest that these drills have little function. Still further if we rigidly adhere to the idea that, for example, each individual 3 step sequence is constructed of specific techniques and there can be no variation or creativity permitted within this, then we further limit potential benefits of the practice as they specifically pertain to personal defence.

As a side bar consideration it is possible to suggest that this formalisation was never the original intent for these training modalities. Fundamentally, set sparring drills established a format where all techniques could be practiced, with 'roles' (offensive/defensive) clearly defined and 'set'. The two dimensional nature of the drills that predominate our art now, with a defender moving back in a linear fashion, repetitiously defending the same attack was not the original essence of this training modality. Indeed there is direct reference made in the writing of General Choi:

"...practised as the name denotes under prearranged modes with various assumptions…"

"The variou