Feb. 17, 2023

Scalable Live Training (Redux): The Quick Notes Version of How to Conduct Safe Live Training from Day 1

"Scalable Live Training" (SLT) is a methodology of practice design for martial arts that allows for live training to be safely used from day 1 of training. It is based on the belief that live training is more realistic and thus builds stronger, more adaptable martial arts skills than "dead" drilling and technique repetitions can.

It is thought that genuinely live training must be avoided by beginners because it's too overwhelming on the novice learner to produce learning. It can also, it is thought, lead more easily to injury and a loss of motivation. Consequently, instructors use sterile drilling and technique repetitions to scaffold a learner into live training, and then to support live training on an ongoing basis.

Scalable Live Training takes a different perspective:

First, it provides a framework to allow safe, effective, appropriately challenging live training at any level of skill.

Second, it rests on top of a scientific literature that shows greater degrees of instability and variability (which are created by aliveness) actually protect against injury -- and the search and discovery of live training is helpful for fostering strong motivation to train.

In essence, SLT maintains that live practice exercises can be appropriately scaled down to the level of a beginner without losing the usefulness of aliveness, but they can also be scaled up to enhance the practice of more advanced martial artists. In both cases, this creates training that excludes the need for drilling and technique repetitions.

The appropriate scale of a live practice exercise is determined by finding a learner's challenge point: the intersection of task complexity and intensity at a level just challenging enough to produce growth.

Live training can be scaled up or down to the optimal challenge point through two "levers": task simplification and intensity control.

While the contents of this post are highly simplified in nature, the statements of fact are based on the Ecological Dynamics theory of motor control and learning. For a fuller explanation, read the original SLT post: Introducing "Scalable Live Training": How to Safely Conduct 100% Live Training from Day 1.

How to Safely Conduct Live Training on Day 1

First, find the challenge point. This will require some trial and error on your part as a coach, but like any skill, you will dial in your instinct for SLT with greater accuracy. 

Remember, if a prospective challenge point is too low, the learner isn’t being pushed to the next level; and if it is too high, the learner is too overwhelmed to improve.

While getting a feel for this does require trial and error, there are signals to help you understand if one challenge point is too high or low. Some signs that the challenge point for a learner is too high might include:

  • Repeat failure to successfully complete the task
  • Lack of progress between failed attempts, i.e. tactical stagnation
  • Total shutdown or dominance by the learner’s training partner
  • Visible signs of frustration, exasperation, and deteriorating focus with/on the task

Just because a learner fails to accomplish his task, however, does not always mean you need to scale things down. Before you step in to adjust challenge point, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the learner making progress each trial?
  • Is the learner trying new things or being creative?
  • Does the learner seem to be having fun, or at least maintaining focus on the task?

If one or more of these are happening, then consider keeping the challenge point where it’s currently set and seeing what happens.

SLT has two primary “levers” that you can pull to scale exercises appropriately: task simplification and intensity control.

Scaling Lever 1: Task Simplification

Task simplification is the process of systematically changing the rules of the sport in a way to make the demands of it easier on a beginner or less experienced participant while still preserving its aliveness.

In other words, you keep the practice live but make it simpler – but in a way that also ensures your learners are able to perceive the right openings.

Cal Jones, one of the most qualified Judo coaches in the United Kingdom, designed a game that demonstrates task simplification beautifully.

The full game of Judo is vast, with hundreds of potential throws and pins being plausible ways to victory. Simply dropping a beginner into a randori (free sparring) match won’t help him develop effective ways to throw and/or pin his opponent.

To help work a specific range of simple foot throws, Cal Jones created a ring boundary to place two players inside of. Next, he gave them two winning conditions: a successful foot sweep or dragging your opponent outside of the boundary. All other throws and takedowns were excluded as winning conditions.

As a result of this game, his students rapidly develop sound foot sweeping abilities. But the genius of this specific design might not be immediately apparent.

A major mistake coaches make when applying the SLT methodology is to create too strict of rules for practice exercises. When they want to explore one particular technique or group of techniques, they’ll haphazardly exclude those with the rules, but this often doesn’t work. 

You see, if Cal had simply limited the winning condition to getting a foot sweep, both players would have quickly learned that they can just push their lower bodies back and stay out of range for a foot sweep. 

Stalemates would occur and students would rarely, if ever, gain a chance to read and recognize openings for foot sweeps. 

The genius of this design is the other winning condition: pulling the opponent out of the ring. Because of this condition, players are more likely to place themselves in a position that creates an opening for a foot sweep (standing upright) because it’s a biomechanical precondition of generating the leverage to drag someone from the Judo gripping position and also of defending it.

Because of that clever addition, students now will have plenty of opportunities to read and recognize the opportunity to foot sweep from the simple game.

If you understand how rules will affect player behavior, ask yourself these questions before you design an SLT game:

  • Will the rules incentivize learners to ever place themselves in a position where they create an opening?
  • Will my learners ever see their training partners present an opening?

If you don’t understand how rules affect practice behaviors yet, test out a few games and then ask these questions again on reflection.

If you're using SLT to enhance the training of a more advanced learner, then you want to add appropriate complexity back into the exercise rather than simplify it.

Mechanisms of Task Simplification:

  • Modifying rules (or the practice environment)
  • Adding rules
  • Subtracting rules

Scaling Lever 2: Intensity Control

Intensity control refers to the scale of vigor, speed, and/or tactical sophistication with which a training partner attempts to fulfill his task goal during an SLT exercise.

The most common way to instruct or cue learners on their intensity levels is to ask them to stay within a percentage of effort, e.g. "30%" or "80%" effort. Coaches also convey degrees of intensity control through "levels," usually on a scale of 1 to 10.

These methods are highly subjective and don’t always work, especially with young and competitive students. At a bare minimum, it will be necessary to remind some of these students to stay within a respective percentage or level of effort during the course of live practice exercises.

There is also a more objective way to moderate intensity. Adjusting time constraints can be an effective way to implicitly control energy expenditure without explicit instruction. Time constraints are simply the amount of time allotted to practice exercises.

Generally, shorter practice rounds encourage more intense and vigorous effort. To help scale the intensity down, longer practice activity duration will encourage students to be more conservative and judicious in their energy expenditure.

Finally, you can do your part as the coach to match students up with partners who will present the most appropriate challenge point. You can scale down by pairing partners of similar or same sizes or scale up by placing a partner with a much larger or more skilled opponent. Each students’ innate level of control and play style will also present opportunities for scaling challenges up or down.

Mechanisms of Intensity Control:

  • Effort cueing
  • Time constraint
  • Partner matchmaking

Why Start Live Training on Day 1 (instead of drilling and reps)

The SLT methodology maintains that the information presented by the tactical behavior of an unscripted, uncooperative opponent is a nonnegotiable part of skill learning. It is necessary to perceive openings to score and to gain the proper timing of when to use an appropriate tactic.

Live Training Alone Provides the Right Information for Skillful Action & Reaction

Opponents who behave in either a scripted or cooperative fashion do not present the the right information to detect openings or develop effective timing. 

In highly simplified form, our reasoning for scaled live training 100% of the time is this:

  • Realistic behavior creates realistic training
  • Realistic training has strong transfer to real life performance
  • Training behavior that is (a) scripted or (b) cooperative creates unrealistic behavior, which has weak (or no) transfer

Note: the key features of "unscriptedness" and "uncooperativeness" must remain together at all time or the realism of training breaks. Aliveness is defined by these two features. If you have one but not the other, behavior will not be realistic enough to provide the most useful information and feedback.

Learning is a Search for Openings & Discovery of Effective Tactics to Pair to those Openings

Most people think of learning as the transfer of knowledge from one party to another, with some discovery sprinkled in occasionally. In opposition to this, SLT sees learning as an adaptation to the specific perceptual and physiological demands of one's discipline of choice.

Exploration and discovery are thus the norm, and the specific perceptual and physiological demands of your sport can only be reproduced in training if there is aliveness.

Because of the above, we define learning a little different than many people. Positively defined:

  • Learning IS an improved ability to find and use (read) relevant environmental information to control your movement.
  • Learning IS a stable, improved ability to solve sport-specific movement problems in the moment by pairing an effective movement to that information source. 
  • Learning IS an ability to adapt a tactic on the fly to the unique circumstances of a match to accomplish a sport-specific goal (e.g., score a point, escape, etc.).

Defined negatively:

  • Learning is not the mere processing or consumption of instruction and feedback.
  • Learning is not a collection of discrete techniques, tactics, and options to recall and execute like a computer program.
  • Learning is not your ability to reproduce a movement that conforms to an arbitrary ideal, i.e. “proper technique.”
  • Learning is not the reproduction of a scripted sequence of movements.

In the martial arts vernacular, successful application = learning. In taekwondo, for example, this means that if you can’t apply a round kick to score against an intelligently resisting opponent of a roughly comparable skill level, you have not learned the round kick yet.

Therefore, our definition of learning demands that learning within the SLT methodology requires that virtually all training be live.

Coaching is Designing Practice & Guiding Discovery

Traditional approaches typically begin with detailed instruction and end with copious amounts of technical feedback. Instead, the SLT methodology seeks to engage in guided discovery and results-based feedback.

In SLT, we have an iron rule of practice design and coaching:

TRY first,


Traditionally, instructors want to teach all the fine details of a technique to a student before he tries it in any sort of live practice. As SLT coaches, however, we want students to try a practice exercise first, and only then we can step in to help optimize things afterward.

SLT in Summary

Scalable Live Training (SLT) is a methodology to start students in live training on day 1 – in a developmentally appropriate way. We believe this creates strong, adaptable, expert performers in a much faster timeline than traditional methodologies.

The chief mechanism of determining a developmentally appropriate live practice exercise is challenge point: the point at which a task is sufficiently challenging enough for a learner to improve. Challenge points can be adjusted by two scaling tools: task simplification and intensity control. 

Task simplification is the changing, adding, and removal of rules in the sport to make practice more focused and manageable for beginners and beyond. Intensity control is the modulation of effort intensity through means of cueing, time constraints, and partner matching.

The methodology as presented constitutes a practical framework for scaling live practice in such a way that drilling and repetitions are not necessary to scaffold learners. It also changes the nature of instruction, coaching, and feedback.