Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Principles vs. specific techniques

There are many stages of study in the martial arts.  We learn the basics and we learn basic defenses from straight forward attacks.  We start feeling pretty good at how fast we get at defending until your opponent alters their attack.  Maybe they throw a hook instead of a straight punch, or gasp! a left instead of a right.

The basics give way to having some flexibility.  We add movement, a little Randori, multiple attacks or attackers,  and we see ourselves continue to improve.

We feel pretty good about ourselves and our technique and then Sensei shows us a counter to each one.  Now our minds are struggling again.  The tables have been turned.

We get pretty good at some counters, then Sensei tells us that there are approximately 5 counters to each technique he's taught us.  Now the curriculum, which was robust to start with, has increased 5 fold. Oh yeah, and there are multiple variations of every technique too.

Yikes!  How are we ever going to learn all that?  There's hundreds of techniques, often there's kata as well.  Is it even possible?  After all, didn't we read an article that said that the best martial artists only use a handful of techniques?

We continue to train and then we see some similarities.  Didn't we just use that same motion on that joint from an entirely different attack?  From the ground?  Yup.

As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of our art, we start to concentrate on principles versus specific technique.  Instead of trying to figure out what attack is coming and what response we are going to have to it, we react to what is available or what presents itself to us.  After all, a wrist can only go in certain directions, a shoulder can only travel across a certain plane of movement.

Assuming you've received the attack without serious injury, be it from evasion, a block, or even being hit, what have you got?  Did your opponent grab?  Did they leave their arm out?  Did they pull it back? Did they crash into you? Are you on the ground?  Against the wall? Instead of trying to plan what to do, you do what's available to you.

This is similar to the concept of Mushin, or no mind, in the arts.  It is what most of us strive for.  While this is sort of an ultimate goal for me, at this stage of my journey I take a slightly more pragmatic approach.

If I know I'm about to engage in combat, I usually have a pretty good idea of what attack is coming.  Body language, target fixation, twitches and 'tells' usually give away the intentions.  I can often (not always) respond well if I see it coming.

In the more likely event that someone tries a surprise attack of some sort, I train to be aware of my surroundings so I'm aware that there's a threat of some sort.  Assuming I'm unable to extricate myself from the situation, the attack is more likely to come in an unpredictable manner.  After all, real fights rarely start with two people squared off with lots of room to move.

It is in this type of unpredictable attack scenario that understanding principles trumps specific techniques.  I don't flatter myself to think that I can block or evade every attack with ease.  I'm more likely to minimize the damage caused.  My instinctive reactions are more likely to kick in over my martial arts training as an initial response to an unprovoked or unexpected attack.

The question ends up "So now what"  The attack came, you're still conscious, what have you got?  If you have a wrist, you turn it, an outstretched arm, you extend it, maybe striking the elbow.  If the neck's there, you squeeze it etc.

Understanding the principles allows you to manipulate your opponent from whatever position you and your attacker are in.

A deeper understanding the principles can even allow you to effectively defend yourself if you can't see.  You can feel where your opponent is and use his/her body against them because you understand the principles of your art, the body and the techniques.

One day I hope to train to a point where my instinctive 'flinch' type reaction is overcome completely and I achieve a state of Mushin. Until then, I'll continue to work at gaining a deeper understanding of the principles.

Food for thought.


  1. An interesting post. You have articulated your journey up the learning curve of martial arts very lucidly - it sounds like a familiar story! I too have come to appreciate the value of understanding principles of technique and strategy rather than just learning dozens of isolated techniques. I have found cross training between karate and jujitsu/kobudo has really heightened my understanding of underlying principles in martial arts. Sometimes I have had eureka moments when something I've just learnt in jujitsu reveals something about a karate application that I wasn't quite getting or vice versa.

    Regarding the instinctive flinch response - you don't want to lose it, you want to learn to use it! The flinch response is not a purely spinal reflex it actually has pathways that pass through the amygdala part of the brain. This means that with training one can learn to have some conscious control of it and use it to our advantage. I wrote a post about this last year - there is a link to it in my side bar under the section 'articles that may interest you' - if you're interested!

  2. Thanks for the comments and pointing my in the direction of your post.

    You are correct, it's best not to fight nature and it's just smart to use it to your advantage. I sort of said I'd accept that the flinch response occurred, and go from there, but perhaps I should embrace it and then go from there. I still hope one day that I'm so full or martial awareness that nothing ever sneaks up on me. Ha! wish me luck with that...

    Great points. Thanks.