Feb. 7, 2023

Introducing "Scalable Live Training": How (& Why) to Safely Conduct 100% Live Training from Day 1

ATTN: Readers new to skill acquisition and/or ecological approaches:

A vastly simplified and shorter version of this article can be found here.

The purpose of this article is twofold:

  • Introduce martial arts instructors with no background in motor learning and skill acquisition science to a new and different approach to training their students;
  • Provide coaches already involved in constraints-led/ecological approaches with terminology to communicate their ideas in terms martial artists more readily understand

The Constraints-Led Approach (CLA) to motor learning and coaching is an evidence-based framework for practice design and feedback that is beginning to gain steam in the martial arts world. CLA is distinctive in that it advocates for “live” training nearly 100% of the time.

However, there are several issues with CLA that hold it back from mass acceptance among coaches. First and foremost, CLA is full of technical jargon that is difficult to understand – including even the meaning of “constraint,” which is not used in the colloquial sense of “limitation.” Second, CLA is a highly flexible framework that’s difficult to adopt practically without a thorough grounding in its theoretical basis and formal principles of practice.

Hence, there is first a need to translate the terminology of CLA into terms more readily digestible by martial artists. Furthermore, there is a need to add more content and structure to its practice to make it more easily approachable and usable by coaches that are new to constraints-led methodologies.

Therefore, I propose that we speak of the constraints-led framework to other martial artists as “Scalable Live Training” (SLT). I chose this phraseology for two primary reasons:

  • “Scalable” immediately communicates flexibility and developmental appropriateness in the methodology. It circumvents the charge that CLA simply tosses students into the deep end of the pool, as it were, where they either sink or swim. Rather, each SLT exercise is scaled to the current ability of the learner.
  • “Live,” an aphetic form of the term “aliveness,” is now well-known and at least cursorily understood by most martial artists, thanks to the work of Matt Thornton. Even without a deep understanding, most martial artists seem to know it denotes some degree of genuine, unscripted resistance from an opponent.

Scalable Live Training, then, is a simplified presentation of CLA; a sort of higher level framework built on top of the preexisting constraints-led substructure. It is not a new and separate methodology but rather a translation and extension of one already established.

Regarding extension, SLT must be more opinionated in some respects than is CLA. This helps to remove some of the ambiguities surrounding the practical application of CLA and thus bolsters the strength of its guidance to new practitioners.

Why Live Training Starts on Day 1

The rationale given here is not in itself a scientific argument. It is a statement of the principles which we have gleaned from science (and experientially from practice) in terms accessible to any coach with any level of knowledge about skill acquisition.

For this reason, I won’t be arguing or rebutting a lot of points from the broader discussion around SLT vs traditional methodologies. Instead, I’m simply laying down the foundational assumptions and principles of what we believe as practitioners of SLT.

For a more detailed treatment of the scientific concepts underlying this section (with citations), check out the article I wrote on motor control in combat sports.

Learning is a Process of Search & Discovery

The word “learning” is used in many ways. Within the Scalable Live Training methodology, we have a particular, two-part definition that is based in part on the understandings of the American Psychological Association and the Ecological Dynamics theory of human movement.

First, learning is a relatively permanent improvement in performance due to practice or training.

“Relatively permanent” is an important phrase in that definition. When you give a student instructions or corrections, you usually see an immediate gain in performance. However, that gain usually disappears by next practice.

This is known as the performance/learning paradox. Observing an improvement during training is not necessarily an indication of learning. Rather, you must observe the improvement persist in trainings over time and become a stable part of a learner’s session-to-session performance.

Thus, even though there was a transient gain in performance, the fact it did not persist indicates that learning did not take place yet because the behavior has not become permanent in any sense.

Second, learning is (a) the search for and detection of relevant information sources in the environment for solving domain-specific movement problems that (b) result in a learner’s exploration of functional movement pairings that consistently solve those problems.

This one is a mouthful, so we need to unpack things by defining terms:

  • Relevant information: openings and other information from the opponent or ring area that inform your body how it can move in any given moment. E.g., the position of the arms and visibility of the chest gear indicating what scoring opportunities are available moment-to-moment on a sparring partner in sport taekwondo.
  • Environment: everything within your immediate range of perception that affects how you perform during practice or competition. For combat sports, this includes the ring, your opponent, coaches, and the referee.
  • Domain-specific: knowledge unique to your discipline of practice. This includes the mode of performance, i.e. sparring and kata might both be karate but they are not the same domains of knowledge.
  • Functional movement pairings: moves made in response to specific openings that prove successful at achieving their goal or solving a movement problem at least some of the time.

This second part of our definition of learning is a key identity marker for the difference between Scalable Live Training and traditional methodologies. 

Whereas all methodologies are concerned with observing better technical proficiency, SLT is equally concerned with the improvement of a learner’s ability to read opponents and find the best information for action.

In the science of motor control, information that invites actions are known as affordances. Martial artists speak of this concept roughly in terms of openings: opportunities to strike, to score, to sweep, to throw, to advance position, or attempt a submission hold.

But openings aren’t just something you passively detect; they’re things you can create, too. Attacks, feints, fakes, and drawing footwork are all examples of tactics that can actively create openings.

The surface of your opponent’s body, the opening and closing of angles of the trunk and extremities, expansion and shrinking of the figure moving toward and away respectively – these are all critical sources of information used by your body to read and detect openings.

There aren’t an infinite amount of options available to you to deal with an opponent. Even if you’re a beginner, even if you’re inexperienced, there’s only a few moves you can do which might allow you to solve the movement problems presented to you while also allowing you to accomplish your goals.

This is why trial and error, or exploration and discovery, are the definition of learning in SLT. Research shows that movement solutions discovered by a learner are more impactful than solutions attempted by prompt of direct instruction. 

Ergo, “functionality” is the name of the game in SLT. We do not believe in “correct” or “proper” techniques: we believe in techniques that work to accomplish your task goals. For example, kicks and punches that score don’t always look like the ideal textbook versions found in forms and basics practice.

So dramatically less instruction and feedback is necessary for learners to improve within this methodology. Instead, we let the live training exercises, or games, do most of the teaching as learners collect effective tactics mainly by trial and error.

Put another way, a human opponent – who behaves like a human does within the context of fighting – is a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of learning how to fight.

In the context of combat sports and self-defense training, therefore, this means that:

  • 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.

To summarize our definition with positive construction:

  • 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 domain-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 domain-specific goal (e.g., score a point, escape, etc.).

Most people think of learning as the transfer of knowledge from one party to another, with some discovery sprinkled in occasionally.

In contraposition to this, SLT sees learning as an adaptation to the perceptual and physiological demands of your discipline of choice. Exploration and discovery are the norm. 

Therefore, learning within the SLT methodology requires that virtually all training be live.

Transfer of Training

“Transfer” is an improvement gained from one training to another – or, alternatively, improvement in competition based on what you’ve done in training. The purpose of training is to get better at the sport itself, so the goal of any training method is to produce strong transfer.

In the Scalable Live Training methodology, we believe transfer is most consistently achieved when the key features (more on this in a later section) of the sport are present in the training exercise. As long as these features are present, the activity is similar enough to the “real thing” to constitute realistic training.

Even though this definition of “realistic” is intuitive, and in line with the way most people use the word, it’s a bit of redefinition relative to how it’s often used in the martial arts community. Many martial artists understand “realistic” to be realistic in the way that a good painting might be realistic. Or scripted dialog. It’s about surface level appearances, not dynamics.

In SLT, we understand realistic training to be training where one’s partner behaves like he would if he were performing in the ring at a competition. Arbitrary or formal aesthetic standards, mental simulations, and speculations are irrelevant to what counts as realistic.

Conditioning vs Skill Work

In SLT, we believe in a separation of sport-specific training into two buckets that do not mix together: (a) conditioning and (b) skill work.

Conditioning is about improving the body’s base capacity to perform along athletic metrics: strength, explosivity, flexibility, endurance, and expression of power. It includes everything from general strength training to sport-specific cardiovascular and functional strength exercise programs. It is supplemental to skill work in terms of the overall training program.

From an SLT perspective, conditioning includes:

  • Weight training
  • Sport-specific kettlebell routines
  • Mobility drills
  • Stretching
  • Pad work
  • Bag work

Skill work is training in the sport itself. It’s practicing the perceptual and tactical skills necessary to become skilled at the activity itself – targeting, positioning, footwork, blocking, throwing, scoring, etc. 

You will notice that pad work is included in conditioning and not skill work. Because you’re using strikes, footwork, and even blocks, it seems like you’re doing skill work. But this is deceptive:

Pad work is not skill work because the information presented in pad work does not truly match the sport being trained. If the information from your opponent’s body is critically important to your own ability to move skillfully, that means pad work is out. 

That’s because the shoulders and other key sources of information are moving in ways conducive to holding pads and therefore are mismatched with what moves you should use if it were for the sake of winning a fight.

In addition to producing junk information, nearly all forms of pad work are missing the two most key features of any martial art/combat sport (unscripted and uncooperative) and thus produce minimal transfer of skill learning. We will consider those features in more detail in a later section.

It’s important that the two types of work stay separate because training time is not infinite for most – and neither is energy. There is research that shows that brutal warmups and combined conditioning/skill work sessions can fatigue the brain, impede skill learning, and even potentially lead to greater chance of injury.

In other words, conditioning and skill work are both taxing on the perceptual system and so should not be blended into the same sessions on those grounds. Total dedication should be given to one or the other and never both at the same time.

And because skill work is “alive” within the SLT methodology, there is always going to be some sport-specific conditioning benefit to skill practice anyway, since you’re doing the sport itself. Therefore, beginners should focus on skill work exclusively, only adding in supplemental conditioning as-needed to help prevent injuries, improve capability, or when becoming a competitor.

Skill work is always the most direct way to improve performance. Conditioning is always supplemental in nature, and the transfer to skill improvement is indirect.

How Live Training Starts on Day 1

Having established why we should start new learners on live training, the question now is how to do so in a way that is both safe and productive.

“Unscripted” & “Uncooperative” are the Key Features of a Scalable Live Training Exercise

Think about all the features or dynamics that make up the competition environment of the sport or activity that you’re training for. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of things that affect your performance.

For combat sports, I’ve identified at least eight:

  • Self-directed, unscripted behavior.
  • Intelligent antagonism or uncooperative behavior, making a real effort to attack and defend within the established rule set.
  • A high level of arousal and anxiety.
  • Intensity of attack and defense.
  • Structural perturbations (both landing and receiving blows, manipulations).
  • Constrained action space, i.e. a ring.
  • A rule set governing legal and illegal tactics and other behaviors.
  • Referees and judges that regulate the competition and enforce rules.

As you can see, it’s neither practical nor safe for all of those features to be part of training on a daily and weekly basis. It’s great to find ways to inject the other features into your training because it only makes your students better, but we know it’s not possible (or helpful) to include always.

This means we have to identify what the key (i.e., most fundamentally important) features of the competition environment are necessary for effective, live training. 

If you think about it, the only thing you really need in order to engage in a combat sport is a human opponent. And within the ruleset of your chosen combat sport, those opponents are always moving in a self-directed (unscripted) and antagonistic (uncooperative) fashion.

I like to call these features “unscriptedness” and “uncooperativeness.” Relative to the level of experience an opponent has, the fact they are unscripted and uncooperative ensures that their behaviors within a match or fight are authentic and realistic.

It’s also essential that these two features are always present together in any given practice exercise or game used in training. If opponents are unscripted but largely cooperating, the behavior is not realistic to competition. Likewise, if opponents are not cooperating, but they are working in a predictable sequence, then their behavior is not realistic to competition.

Applying our approach to learning expounded on above, this means that learners are not getting accurate information to control their movements. And because the information isn’t accurate, the transfer of training will be weak or nonexistent. 

Therefore, all Scalable Live Training exercises must include both unscriptedness and uncooperativeness.

Note: The key features of training don’t change if your goal is self-defense. What changes are the other features you can add into training to enhance it (i.e., scenarios, training in urban spaces, practicing tactical communication, etc.).

Scaling via Challenge Point

The challenge point framework is a concept from the scientific literature of motor learning that is vitally important for applying SLT. Without it, you don’t have a practical way to understand when (and how) to scale a live exercise to a learner-appropriate level.

What’s written here is a highly simplified summary of it:

A challenge point is the point at which the task complexity and intensity is at an optimal level to produce growth (i.e., learning). Too low, and the learner isn’t being pushed to the next level; too high, and the learner is too overwhelmed to improve.

Determining challenge points, on a practical level, takes some trial and error and close observation. That said, 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.

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 overconstrain or 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.

In general, it’s better to change, add, or remove rules which strongly incentivize behaviors you want to see rather than make hard rules to exclude tactics you don’t want to see in that session. This helps to maintain realistic behavior while also emphasizing an individual slice of the sport. Nevertheless, there are situations where hard exclusions are preferable.

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.

Tools for Intensity Control:
  • Effort cueing
  • Time constraint
  • Partner matchmaking

Warning: DO NOT ASSUME NEW STUDENTS MUST GO AT AN EXAGGERATED SLOW PACE. This assumption is wrong 9 out of 10 times. And going too slow or too light eventually breaks the uncooperative feature, thus breaking the usefulness of the practice exercise. If there is no apparent challenge point, the speed/intensity is probably not sufficiently scaled up.

Where Does Coaching & Instruction Fit Within SLT?

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 sometime thereafter.

Much can be said about cueing and focus of attention. Since this article is chiefly about Scalable Live Training in particular, and not coaching, I won’t go far into the details. Instead, we’ll focus on some “directional” notes to help conceptualize how coaching and instruction fit into the SLT methodology: 

  • Instruction is primarily describing task success conditions (how to score, what counts as a pin, what counts as a takedown, etc.)
  • Coaching is directing attention during (and after) practice
  • Guiding is to foster self-sufficient learning habits

In a later article, I will unpack the 3D Model of Coaching, which fills in a lot of gaps left here on how instruction, cueing, and feedback work within Scalable Live Training.


Scalable Live Training (SLT) is a methodology of training that translates the heady concepts of the Constraints-led Approach (CLA) into terms more readily understandable to martial artists. 

The point of SLT is 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. 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.


Button, C., Seifert, L., Chow, J. Y., Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2021). 2nd Ed. Dynamics of skill acquisition: An ecological dynamics approach. Human Kinetics.

Renshaw, Ian, Davids, Keith, Newcombe, Daniel, Roberts, Will. (2019). The constraints-led approach: Principles for sports coaching and practice design. London: Routledge. 

Vickers, J. N. (2007). Perception, cognition, and decision training: The quiet eye in action. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics.