Saturday, January 03, 2009


Here's a problem.  Martial arts are usually taught from a tool- or skill-based perspective.  What are the basics of your system? Strike and block? Nage-waza and Osaekomi-waza? Irimi and shomen-ate? Block-check-strike? The long form?

Learn a technique and play with it for awhile. Learn a second technique and play with that. Put them together and play with the combination... when all of these techniques assemble into a system it turns out to be a tinker-toy construction incapable of doing a job or supporting weight. In the martial arts, this is where the instructor steps in to explain the 'advanced aspects'.

That is so, so wrong. The advanced aspects, too often, are principles and strategy.  These are the true basics.

Every real system has some things in common: they evolved in a specific environment; they addressed a particular type of threat; and they revolved around a strategy that respected those two facts.

Given that these are the central essences of a system of self-defense or combat, why are they considered advanced?  These are the basics of the basics. the things that make everything else make sense and, possibly more importantly, if something doesn't mesh with these core values it doesn't belong. Splitting your strategy weakens everything. (Theoretical example- if the core strategy of your system is to pull someone close and strangle, where does pushing away fit?)

No matter what you incorporate as physical basics- footwork, power generation- make sure your students understand two things from day one: 
1) The problem the system was designed to deal with. One of the most popular systems around was designed for the sole purpose of beating Japanese karate in karate tournaments of the 1950s. It is masterful at that. My system was designed for medieval emergencies. It wouldn't work well in a 1953 karate tournament. If the focus is on self-defense some time has to be spent on how criminals think and act and how assaults happen. You must learn diagnostics before you can apply the cure.
2) The strategy chosen to deal with the problem. Different strategies can deal with the same problem, that's fine. Mixing strategies or adding techniques to a system that are incompatible with the strategy just create confusion. Trapping is an aspect of controlling the movement of the threat. It is feasible, maybe critical, for a strategy of "Control the arms to create an opening". It isn't compatible with a more brutal "Close and do damage" strategy. Techniques or types of techniques should only be added to systems if they serve the strategy.

This doesn't mean "don't go out and try new stuff." One of the things you need to prevail is something that I can only call 'clean'.  Just as mind, body and spirit have to be in accord, strategy, tactics and techniques have to work together. If they are at cross purposes, the entire structure is weakened.

Strategy and threat assessment are basics.


Steve Perry said...

Hmm. Trying to listen here and not hone my own axe ...

My hit on fighting arts maybe needs less introspection:

1) Shit hits the fan.
2) If you are in range, you need to do something if you want to avoid being hit by it.

The nature of the event is such that some of it is almost certainly going to get on you, but you must have some means of dancing, dodging, blocking, or whatever if you are to stay relatively clean.

So the notion of, say, building a house and being inside it when the SHTF isn't altogether a bad way to avoid the untoward effects.

I agree that handing somebody a hammer, saw, and some nails and saying "Build a house." is probably not going to do the job if they have no idea as to the construction necessary.

And certainly threat-assessment is part and parcel of the blueprints. A guy steps out of an alley with a knife and heads your way waving it, you need a sense of what that could mean.

I don't think his reason for doing it matters as much in the moment, unless it offers a way to stop him.

That his daddy beat him cruelly as a lad and warped his outlook on life might matter to the shrink that treats him. It doesn't to me, in the moment, save if I know the key phrase his daddy used to turn him into a fetal ball.

Sometimes, I think I hear you saying that you need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and I am not sure I agree.

When I say "tool," I'm not talking about left-outward-block-right-punch sitting in a box all by itself, but also with a set of principles -- the how-to -- that comes with it. This is more than the usual definition, but it's what I use.

Somewhere along the way, somebody needed to be a chemist to come up with the concept of a friction-makes-quick-fire device to create a match. They needed to know the elements necessary for theory and then practice -- what chemicals to mix, how to get them to adhere to the stick, what to strike it against to insure the fire -- but I don't need to know any of that to get my fireplace going.

If I am driving on the snow and the back end of my car breaks traction and comes around, I don't really need to know the physics and coefficients of friction and how the internal engine works in that moment. I need to know to steer in the direction the back end is going, to keep my foot off the brake, and whether to shift into neutral or tap the gas. And it is counter-intuitive to do these things, so I need somebody who has done them before to show me that it works. I can puzzle out the why later ...

You need to be a rocket scientist to create rockets. You don't need to be one to push the button that fires one off. And I don't think you need to be one to fight ...

jks9199 said...

Steve, interesting take -- but I think you went a different direction than Rory.

The way I read this is distinguishing between two elements of "basics." There's the pure technique level of basics: how do I punch/kick/lock/throw/whatever; and, how do I use those techniques to achieve my goal.

All the technical skills in the world are useless if you don't begin to understand when and how to apply them. I've seen people with masterful forms/kata; they look great, all the elements of what they practice are there, and they're a joy to watch. Put 'em under pressure, though, and at best you get poor kickboxing. Because they don't understand the ranges and purposes of the movements in the forms/kata (note: I am presuming that these are functionally intended forms/kata), the why's of the movements -- all their expertise in performing them doesn't help a bit when they need them.

Here's the real question, for trainers: How do you convey those aspects to students so that they don't end up with the fragile tinkertoy set Rory described?

Rory said...

Perfect example, Steve:

" A guy steps out of an alley with a knife and heads your way waving it, you need a sense of what that could mean."

Since an assault almost never happens that way and if it did, there is nothing preventing you from running, training for it is a classic Low Frequency/Low Risk- in other words a waste of time. Exactly what I mean.

If students have never been taught how criminals work, e.g. the most common knife assaults, e.g. a stranger gripping or shaking their hand while his left hand slips behind his back... they will be gutted like a fish.

I'm not talking motivation or origin of a villain, but how threats target and assault. They work to make it subtle.

Choosing (or excusing) not learning how they attack compounded with fantasy training based on how we wished that they would attack is combining willfully blindness with stupidity... not something I can advocate. That can't be what you are trying to say here, but it is what am reading. Expand? Or are you tossing me an easy one?

Rory said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Perry said...

No, I'm not throwing a fat softball. I think that sometimes experts in any given field tend to offer names of things as if that is a kind of magic that is the same as knowing the reality. .

Consider the OODA Loop. It makes logical sense, but if you can't get it instinctively, it doesn't help to intellectualize it. Unfolding circumstances, outside information, interaction feed forward into the experience, genetics, cultural and analytic aspects that offers a point of decision and then an action.

If you can't do that faster than you can make the acryonym, it's not helpful. You could apply it to an incoming baseball, and none of it helps you hit the ball, because conscious thought is simply too slow.

PDCA -- Plan, Do, Check, Act, same difference.

Yes. Communication need words, punch-comes is past that.

Psychology is still mostly at the naming things stage, and that's necessary, but as you are fond of pointing out, the map ain't the territory, and sometimes what I hear is that the territory isn't even the territory.

One cannot be certain of things. Okay, I'll go with that. No guarantees. Threat mitigation is not the same as eliminating all the threat. Even the greatest master who ever lived could step on a bar of soap at the wrong time. All true.

I also stipulated that threat recognition is necessary, and that is where what you say has it's strongest bulwark. If you don't see it coming, that's bad. Training how to see it coming is good.

What it feels like to me is that you sometimes over-intellectualize things. And in the doing, come round to the conclusion that -- to my ear, mind you -- is that there's really not a lot you can do to prepare for the shit hitting the fan.

People have been walking away from violent encounters since forever. Along the way, there have been attempts to systematize ways to increase the odds of so doing. Some work better than others, and every system is limited by a number of factors, including and not least, the guy using it. But now and then, your fret that you don't feel that you can adequately convey how to do it seems to shade into a kind of shrug that it's so hard to do that it is seldom, if ever, done.

Maybe you haven't explained it right. Maybe I am missing it. Maybe its a combination of both. But if most people are wrong about most complex things most of the time, where does that leave such a debate ... ?

If it's just zen and all personal, what's the point in talking about it at all, other than to say that?

Swiegot said...

I honestly believe that these basics that Rory describes are taught at an advanced level mainly for a financial gain. A lot of students would stop showing up because they wouldn't get to "learn how to kick the crap out of someone", and money would be lost.

Unfortunately that is the mindset of most people looking to join a dojo environment.

Master Plan said...

I think it's hard to teach what you do not know, and most MA instructors don't know. I think that of those that do know most of them know tournament stuff and most of them are, honestly, and no offense intended, not...systematizing enough to break things down this way. They just teach as they were taught as their teacher was taught etc.

I've noticed, and was in fact writing about this very issue the other day. I'm terrible at a number of different martial arts, but in none of them have I ever been shown that, "do this, for this reason, use these techniques to implement that strategy".

In BJJ we covered a few chokes and armbars quite extensively, but never discussed was how do you get in to position to use them, when do you use that one instead of this one.

I think another aspect of this problem is that even if the instructor knows these things...the students won't, and most of them won't have any kind of intellectual framework to relate abstracted (or seemingly abstract or "abstract") concepts like principles and strategies to. So you have to start them with a form, some techniques, something small they can actually learn and do.

This, to me, is a larger issue, present in most physical forms, what you want (end result) can't come about ahead of a deeper understanding of a lot of other stuff.

Take salsa dancing (or Tango), basic steps, turns, spins, movement patterns, alternate footwork, then it's weight shift, space relation\control, and then, after 10 years of dancing w. the same person...then you can "really" start to dance's got basically nothing to do with steps, turns, etc, those are just the expressions of "dancing" which manifest in the moment.

It's a very tricky problem I think and one which applies in many situations. The goal of mastery can't be taught directly.

Which isn't to say that I don't think things in general could be improved, particularly in martial arts coaching.

But what do I know? Not much, less every single day.

Wim Demeere said...

In the tai chi I do, it's all out in the open. There's only three things we do to defend against an incoming attack. The strategies and tactics are all explained in detail as well, right from the get go.

The thing I notice with students is the inability to even understand these concepts until they have spent a lot of time training. Not that they are intellectually incapable of understanding. Just that it only seems to start making sense completely once you get past a certain point.
Once there, I repeat the same things I told them in their first class and suddenly the light bulb goes on. Been there myself numerous times.

On a related note, we have the "6 secret words" in our style. You only learn these after having spent a certain amount of time training. When you learn them, the teacher explains that they aren't secret at all, you know them already. They're just a different way of structuring things. But unless you have that time spent in getting things down, you can't understand what they're about.

So not a money-making scheme (there's no charge), just a tool that a beginner can't use yet. It's his if he wants it. He only needs to train for a while.


Anonymous said...

"On a related note, we have the "6 secret words" in our style. You only learn these after having spent a certain amount of time training. When you learn them, the teacher explains that they aren't secret at all, you know them already. They're just a different way of structuring things. But unless you have that time spent in getting things down, you can't understand what they're about."

That's annoying, and I think you would do a much better job of illustrating what you're talking about if you would just tell us what these "secret but not secret words" are.



Wim Demeere said...

"That's annoying, and I think you would do a much better job of illustrating what you're talking about if you would just tell us what these "secret but not secret words" are."

Hehe, nice try. :-) Like I said, it doesn't make sense unless you practice the style. So there's no point. The point was that it isn't black or white: just because you don't get certain information right off the bat, doesn't mean the teacher is ripping you off.


Steve Perry said...

Wim is right; I have had dozens of mini-epiphanies in my training, wherein something that i had heard a hundred times before and I thought I understood suddenly took a left turn: Oh. *that's* what that means! Son-of-a-bitch!"

This happens in other disciplines, too, to the point where I have come to expect it. Sooner or later, some activity I believe I understand will, of a moment, become something else. The same, but ... more so.

Kai Jones said...

You're all talking about the change in perspective that is supposed to happen if people have enough similar experiences.

Doing the same things I did is not the the only way to learn the things I know.

Needing to have the exact same experiences to understand the secret code the same way just means you've made those words into jargon and you haven't figured out any way to explain what they mean. People have to figure it out for themselves by sharing your experiences. I don't believe it.

I don't believe there's no way to pass on knowledge except through one specific set of experiences. I don't believe there's a kind or piece of knowledge that can't be shared some other way--one of the great thing about being an intelligent species is that we can learn from other people's experiences instead of having to do everything for the first time ourselves.

(Heh, my verification word is dulnesse.)

Steve Perry said...

"You're all talking about the change in perspective that is supposed to happen if people have enough similar experiences. "

Not really. In my most recent post, I'm talking about stages of learning -- ways of understanding and applying basic material in a more efficient, i.e., advanced manner. Such advancement having blossomed because the skill has become more comfortable and familiar through practice.

There are other ways to learn, but to polish a skill, you have to do the same thing long enough so that you understand them on more than just an intellectual level.

The monkey-brain and zen aren't the same at all.

The best way to learn a physical skill, far as I can tell, is not to talk about it endlessly, but to do it. And it takes a lot of practice to be able to do it well.

Crawl, stand, walk, run. Going from crawl to run might be possible, but that's not how the smart money bets.

Wim's notion, as I understand it, is pretty much pearls before swine. Until you have the basics of a thing, trying to learn the advanced moves probably won't do you much good. So a teacher who doesn't give you the advanced stuff first might be holding it back because you won't know what to do with it.

In our art, form and position are first. If you don't understand the move, and you start trying to do it fast and with power, chances are you will screw it up. Baby steps.

I'm not talking about strategy and tactics here, just simple gross physical motion.

Wim could give us the secret words and it wouldn't make any difference. We don't have the language to understand what they mean in his art.

If i say base-angle-leverage when referring to what we do, I'm revealing a major principle of our art. But even if I define them in great detail as we use them, you still won't understand them. What the words mean in your head aren't what they mean to your body.

I think such things can be taught and learned, else I wouldn't be doing them. But I also don't think we're talking about rocket science here ...

Kai Jones said...

The best way to learn a physical skill, far as I can tell, is not to talk about it endlessly, but to do it.

Even if it's the best way (which I don't grant without more evidence), it's not the only way.

I read reams about knitting before ever picking up the needles, and there's no doubt in my mind that the intellectual exercise informed and improved my first attempts at knitting. You can fake physical stuff, you can be doing it in a way that looks right but is coming from the wrong muscles (I'm pretty good at isolation, enough that my physical therapist no longer looks at me weird when I ask whether it's supposed to be a push or a pull when I do that). Having an intellectual understanding of what you're trying to accomplish can aid physical practice. My yoga teacher (back when I was studying yoga) *always* explained where the balance should be, what muscles you should be using, and how it felt when you were doing it wrong even if the pose superficially looked right.

Another example: childbirth. I knew what I was supposed to be doing because I had book knowledge of what the muscles needed to do to expel the baby. There's no way to practice birth! Yet they teach classes about it under the assumption that it helps to have knowledge before you have experience.

So why is your art the one exception?

Wim Demeere said...

Steve said:
Wim could give us the secret words and it wouldn't make any difference. We don't have the language to understand what they mean in his art.

If i say base-angle-leverage when referring to what we do, I'm revealing a major principle of our art. But even if I define them in great detail as we use them, you still won't understand them. What the words mean in your head aren't what they mean to your body.

That's exactly what I meant. You can't practice a certain system and then look at another system through that same lens and assume that you're seeing an accurate picture.

The differences are just as important as the similarities. And they're there for specific reasons: Rory already mentioned environment, there's also timing, mind set, body type, etc. It goes on.

You need a full body of knowledge to see the big picture as well as the details. Getting that is a process that IMHO never stops. The six secret words are a way of structuring the picture so the details make more sense.

I can't give you those but what if I say that a key to our sword techniques is "to invert". It means zilch on it's own. If I show you, you still only know a fraction of what it means. If I explain more, your understanding grows a bit. But only when you practice the system as a whole and for a long time can you see the full meaning and implications of the key word. In and of itself, it's useless.

Steve Perry said...

My art isn't the exception, it's the rule. You can read every book every written on how to swim and I guarantee that if you've never been in the water trying it, you won't get it from reading it.

Yes, a lot of things can go into the head and they will help you, but to do yoga, you have to do it. The teacher can help you with your balance, explain the asanas, but if you sit in a chair and listen to the tape without trying to do it, you won't get it.

When we talk about physical things, we are talking about something that needs physicality. My wife took the natural childbirth classes. What they offered were breathing exercises -- which we practiced in class -- and enough understanding of the process to help overcome the unknown, which powers much of the fear. But when she went into second-stage, she slapped the nurse, and the hormones weren't listening to the calm and rational mind.

Intellect is wonderful. You can't ride a bike, play basketball, or deal with an incoming punch based on something you read in a book and have never tried unless you are wired differently than most of us.

Rory said...

Several things- first, I've had a bunch of epiphanies in training and I get the 'it takes a lot of practice before you can understand it' but at the same time, it's probably bullshit. When that happened, almost every time, it was on my own, I would say it to my instructor and he would say that I now understood blah blah blah. It seems far more likely that it is a lack of skill, or, in many cases a lack of understanding on the instructor's part that makes what little guidance they give cryptic.

I have worked with exactly one instructor who taught not only strategy but also could explicitly state the levels of understanding students would go through. Advanced students who came to him made huge gains in short times simply from assimilating the physical skills that they already had into a coherent strategic framework.

Using his teaching method with my stuff it takes about an hour to get someone up to speed on locks to a level that takes years in a locking art working through 'tinker-toy' construction. AND IT'S NOT HARD.

It _is_ a physical skill and you do have to practice physically; but it is an integrated physical skill, not a collection of techniques and you need to know the key to the integration.

This is for people training self-defense or combat: Ask the instructor what you are preparing to defend against. If he says "Everything" then he deserves to be shot in the head from a hundred yards, 'cause that falls under the description of 'everything'. If he says, "The most common attacks." and he either 1) doesn't know what attacks predators use or 2) describes some monkey dance crap you could walk away from; then he doesn't know enough about the problem to be teaching answers.

Every art has core principles and every effective art has a single core strategy. If the instructor can not articulate them he may not know them. He may embody them, but not know them. If he doesn't have it at all, he can't take you there. If he embodies it but can't explain it he can but it will take much longer than necessary (with one exception- if you as the student have the skill to discern the strategy and principles.)

If he knows the principles and is withholding them-
1) It might be for money. We've all seen that.
2) It might be just words that he doesn't understand and he needs to condition the students until they have bought into the system too much to question (lots of seventies 'karate masters' with 'secret blackbelt teachings')
3) He may honesty believe that students cannot understand until later. To a level, that's right. I still get nuances and applications from stuff I have known for years BUT it is the exact same dynamic as treating children like they are stupid. It is bad teaching. Worse, it slows down learning at later levels because everything needs to be integrated or reintegrated with each revelation. The problem is that because of the integration the learning seems faster at those stages. It only seems faster because the learning before was artificially hampered.
4) It may be tradition. This ties into some other stuff but people used to be very afraid that rival schools would steal their secrets, so it took some time in grade to establish loyalty. Up to you whether we should be past this now.

So, reiterating my meta-basics:
1) Know how bad things happen and how bad guys attack. No argument for this one, so far.
2) Know the strategy behind your system. Lots of verbiage but is anyone saying that it is harmful to be exposed to strategy and principles from the first day?

Steve Perry said...

No argument with your two meta-basics -- they make perfect sense.

Always been one of my favorite comebacks when somebody talks about their art being "complete."
Really? What's your defense against a twelve-gauge shotgun at twenty feet? That rising block do it?

The notion that practice-makes-perfect gets shoved around a little these days, Now, it's perfect practice that makes perfect; or perfect practice makes permanent, yadda, yadda, but the concept that you build on basics seems pretty sound to me.

For me, the epiphany doesn't come when my teacher gives me a magical new concept. It's when I understand a basic one on a more functional level. When I see a new use for something I already know how to do but never considered before. The "Aha!" moment when I realize that, Holy crap, I can fix that with duct tape, too!

You might could bring me up to speed on locks in a short time, and there are places where it would be good to know them. Our art has a number of locks and we play with them now and again, but our attitude is rather desultory. Reaching for a lock is riskier for the reacher than an elbow to the temple.

In my experience, such that it is, you have to be pretty good to get a lock in a stand-up fight on the fly against somebody trained to avoid them. Yeah, if somebody gives you the opportunity, sure, take it, but we don't go looking for them. For us, this is a low-percentage effort.

Part of our philosophy is that nobody is gonna give you anything for free. And if you can't see the attacker's hand, he surely has a weapon in it. Even if you can, he might could get one out in a hurry.

Of course, we aren't having to deal with folks like a street cop or a deputy in a holding room full of felons, we don't have the same level of constraint and responsibility they do.

One size doesn't fit all, and nobody has all the answers.