Old Guys in the martial arts, Part three

In part two of Old Guys in the martial arts I gave some examples of older martial artists I’ve met and trained with and how my skills paled in comparison. In this post, I’d like to offer some theories on why that is even possible. Because as John originally said, most people will doubt a 60-year old guy can beat a 25-year old hot-shot in a fair fight. Which is true. But who said anything about fighting fair? :-)

Anyway, to explain the way I think it works, I have to give you some theoretical information first and you’ll have to read all the way to the end for it to make sense. So let’s start by bringing in the man all modern athletes owe a debt of gratitude to: Tudor Bompa.

Tudor Bompa gave the world periodization. This is a systematic approach to optimizing performance in which you alternate different types of training, depending on which phase the athlete is in. If you are serious about training and becoming skilled, there is no way around this concept. In fact, if you’re not applying it, you’ll never achieve your maximum potential. So I very much recommend you read Mr. Bompa’s books, even though some of them are expensive. They’re worth it in how much time they’ll save you in making continued progress.  To a large degree, most martial artists ignore periodization though. I should know because I was one of them. Until I learned about it and implemented the system: instant results.

But that’s not why I mention Mr. Bompa’s work. I’m bringing him up for a different reason:

The pyramid

In his excellent book, “The Science of Martial Arts Training“, Charles Staley explains Bompa’s system of classifying different aspects of training an athlete. This classification serves as an analytical tool but also a hierarchical system which helps you create a logical and progressive training environment. Here’s what it looks like:

Old guys in the martial arts

Bompa's pyramid for sports training

As you can see, physical training is the foundation: if you lack power, speed, endurance, etc. your techniques will suck. Which means you won’t be able to depend on them to follow a specific strategy, as they’ll fail in reaching the goals you need to meet. Which in turn will undermine your mental toughness and self-confidence. So all the levels of the pyramid are inter-related and each level builds on the previous one:

  • Good physical performance makes for better techniques.
  • Better techniques allow you to efficiently implement strategies and tactics.
  • These last two give you increased confidence in your abilities and the correct mind-set to fight well.

The key element to remember is that: the training you do at any given level of the pyramid is very different from the others. You don’t train the mental toughness to last 3 rounds of 5 minutes in the Octagon the same way you train the  technical details of a rear naked choke. Each requires a different focus and is best learned at separate stages, at least in the beginning.


You can also use the pyramid to analyze problems. Let’s say you’re sparring and your opponent always lands a leg kick. Then you can look at the different levels of the pyramid to see how you can fix this problem:

  • Physical: Are you not strong enough to block? Not fast enough?
  • Technical: Are you blocking incorrectly and as a result he can still power through? Is your fighting stance too wide so you can’t shift your weight in time to lift the blocking leg?
  • Strategical/tactical: Are you staying at the wrong range too much, giving him an opportunity to land the leg kick? Are you missing how he sets it up?
  • Psychological: Are you scared of the pain and therefore not making him pay for landing the leg kicks? Is that fear making you lean back or try to flee and make it even easier for him to kick you?

You go through each of the levels of the pyramid and see if there’s anything you can do there to fix the problem. Eventually, you’ll find it and can work on a solution. As you can guess, in many cases, there will be one primary level to work at but the others will be involved to some degree too. It’s all connected.

The caveat

Mr. Bompa clearly states that this model is not the same for every sport. How much time exactly you spend at each step of the pyramid and what exactly you do there depends on a number of factors:

  • The specific sport. Judo matches have different requirements than a muay Thai or MMA fight.
  • The athlete’s age.
  • The athlete’s skill levels.
  • Etc.

Which brings us to the reason why these older martial artists can take my lunch and get away with it:

Self-defense and real combat are not a sport.Therefor the pyramid that applies for sports fighting doesn’t apply for self-defense.

When you look at a typical MMA fight in the UFC, it can last several 5 min. rounds. That means a fight can go on for 15min. However, 15 minutes is an eternity in a street-fight. Even 15 seconds is a lot when time is measured in fractions of seconds. And that’s where the real secret lies:

If older martial artists train consistently so they keep their physical capabilities to a reasonable degree, the other levels of the pyramid can compensate for the younger guy’s better physical attributes.

They won’t fight in the Octagon where they can’t hope to match a young guy’s stamina and endurance; that’s just no longer in the cards. But they don’t train for that stuff. They train for self-defense, where you generally don’t have to fight for such a long time. A real fight often only last seconds before the decisive blow is dealt. True, sometimes it takes longer. But longer than a couple of minutes is pretty rare.

So for self-defense, the pyramid just might be reversed:

Old guys in the martial arts

My pyramid for self-defense training

Taking it one level at a time, here’s what this means for older martial artists:

  • Psychological: The mind-set, focus, perseverance and stone-cold determination to get the job done of an older martial artist can be awesome to behold. Like Clint said: they don’t fuck around. They won’t give you five warning shots before they act decisively; they’ll just put you down right away. And as most self-defense instructors will agree, mind-set is the most important part. Older people have had a lot of practice with that, or they wouldn’t have made it that far in life…
  • Strategy and tactics: Once you have a viscously strong mind, you can use it to get sneaky in all sorts of ways. If you’ve been training for 50 years, you’ve had plenty of time to find every dirty trick and know how and when to use it. You’ll also have a much greater capacity of choosing the right strategy every single time. Simply because you’ve done it so many more times than a young guy.
  • Technical: This is a bit different. Technique depends a lot on physical factors. If you have loads of fast-twitch muscle fiber, you’ll always be explosive in everything you do and training will make you even faster. If you don’t, you can still be explosive; it’ll just take a lot more work to get rid of all the technical flaws that eat away at your techniques’ effectiveness. It takes decades to perfect them to the point where this technical excellence compensates for any physical deficits.
  • Physical: This is where the young guy has the advantage. If the older martial artists did the kind of fighting that lasts for 15-20 minutes, he’s probably going to lose big time.


There is a common theme that runs through my pyramid and it’s also the reason why these older men can still kick a young guy’s ass: experience. They have decades, even lifetimes more experience than the young guy. Which brings me to the final point:

The only level of the pyramid where your skills, by definition, decrease over time is the physical one. At all other levels, the longer you train and the more experience you get, the more skilled you become.There is no limit to those levels.

If my version of the pyramid for self-defense is accurate, then this explains why older martial artists are still hell on wheels to fight, despite being 30 or 40 years older than their attackers. They’ve just spent so much more time at those other levels and have gained such an amount of experience, it can compensate for what the young guys have more as far as physical attributes goes.


Just to be clear:

  • I’m not saying older men will never lose to younger men; there are no guarantees in a fight, for nobody. Of course it can still happen. Never said otherwise. I’m just trying to explain how come these older guys can still kick ass.
  • Don’t forget the caveat I wrote: If older martial artists train consistently so they keep their physical capabilities to a reasonable degree. If they don’t do this, then all bets are off. The physical level may be less important in self-defense, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a minimum level there. Thinking you can rely on the other levels alone is suicide.
  • I also didn’t say that every older martial artist falls in this category. For every Dan, Loren or Bob I encountered, I’ve seen tons of senior practitioners with mediocre skills at best. It’s not just the fact that you’ve trained for 40 years. It’s how you spent those 40 years of training that counts too.

Which brings me to the what I’ll talk about in part four: How do these men train to have such amazing skill later in life?


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  1. Charles James says

    Hi, Good Article. Here is a quote I like that may appeal to you.

    “As you get older, you find that life begins to wear you down. Does not matter who you are or what you do, it happens. Experience, time, events – they all conspire against you to steal away your energy, to erode your confidence, to make you question things you would not have given a second thought to when you were young. It happens gradually, a chipping away that you do not even notice at first, and then one day it is there. You wake up and you just do not have the fire anymore.

    Then you have a choice. You can either give in to what you are feeling, just say “Okay, enough is enough” and be done with it, or you can fight it. You can accept that ever day that you are alive you are going to have to face it down, that you are going to have to say to yourself that you do not care what you feel, that it does not matter what happens to you because sooner or later it is going to happen anyway, that you are going to do what you have to because otherwise you are defeated and life does not have any real purpose left.

    When you can accept the wearing down and the eroding, then you can do anything. You just have to get past the fear.” – The Owl, “The Elf Queen of Shannara.” by Terri Brooks

  2. I recently had the pleasure of watching a 74 YO ex SAS Trooper deal with a 32 YO thug.
    The outcome. The thug lost his right eye after the car key went into it .This was followed by a knee to the groin.
    The “fight” lasted all of 20 seconds.
    Who says old men cant fight.

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