The Ideal Martial Art

Cartwheel in the park

This morning I’m going through my collected notes on martial arts training. My earliest notes start around 1990, when I started to really teach. Over the years I’ve experimented a lot, tried a lot of things, learned a lot of things.

It all started to click about two years ago, when I had the opportunity to work with a group of new students with no prior martial arts training. I started some new things, and it all fell into place. Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to really build on the that work with the students. Towards the end of that time, I wrote down a grand plan for an ideal way of training students. I’ve briefly shown an outline of that plan to two people, but I haven’t shared the complete method with anyone. Part of the method based on some comparatively new approaches to mental and physical training, part comes from my answers to things about the usual approach that bug me.

One thing that bothers me is progression in martial arts training. I really dislike knowledge-based progression. This is the idea that you learn a set of skills, pass a test on those, and then learn a new set, and repeat. It seems like a common sense idea, and it is. What I don’t like is that it doesn’t make sense in practice. When I studied tradition Japanese arts, the things you learned at an advanced level were not significantly different than what you learned at the beginner level. Indeed, I was taught that some of the advanced kata were formerly taught as beginner kata.

In developing the curriculum at previous schools, progression was a mixed thing. I had statistical data collected over years that demonstrated common plateau’s that students reached, and I devised some strategies at each level of training to guide students through those plateaus. But when it came time to adding breadth the material, such as adding new weapons or the study of historical manuals, the decisions about when to add those materials were either arbitrary or the result of spurious logic.

None of this sat very well with me, but I only had some ideas of how to make things better. I knew how to progress and cycle physical development for peak performance, and I knew how to build people up to learn complex tasks from simple tasks, but… Martial arts is a bit different from other things. Complex physical tasks that would challenge the most developed dancer combined with supreme tactical reasoning and absolute decisiveness. I found rote memorization and principle-based learning failed, no matter how much thought I put into program design.

I found my answer in a challenge-based progression. I defined a series of tasks that a student needs to solve, and the solution to each task requires a level of development be achieved beforehand. The tasks are physically impossible to solve without the physical development achieved at the previous level. The first level, introduction, classes are all workout based. Students learn nothing other than the exercises they will need to pass the first level physical test. Advancing levels include more and more challenging physical activities, and also include tests of increasing tactical prowess. The art I designed is entirely built of exams, with only suggested class content. I created a series of hoops for a student to jump through, and jumping through the hoops will give them each a solid, definable ability at the end of the sequence. How a student gets through those hoops is up to the student. Anything is acceptable, since the hoops are narrowly defined. The art is entirely results-based. If you don’t get the result, the training is wrong for the student and must be adjusted.

7 thoughts on “The Ideal Martial Art

  1. Tomas de Courcy

    Are you looking at a circular model where you revisit the same concepts frequently but because of your previous training each time you can gain new insights from what was a basic concept?

    I like your idea of challenge based learning. It does take more one on one time than progression based though. Is that going to become an issue, or will you have senior students work with the newer ones to reduce the load and help the senior students internalize concepts by teaching them?

  2. admin Post author

    The program as it’s written now should involved very little teaching. I’ve tried to define the challenges clearly and narrowly, with the idea that the student would be free to develop their own methods to overcome the challenges. Instructors would be mostly coaches and role models…when they were not being the actual obstacles.

    Physical examples would be like the L-sit progression. You simply cannot do a 60s ground L-sit unless you can already do a 30s chair L-sit. Some of the movement skills at the higher level are not possible without the fully rounded physical skills developed in the lower level.

    The combat end of things is covered by having students first develop a sound ability at defense and counter-attack…due tempi responses. The next level assumes those skills are fully in place, and adds a level of complexity on top.

    Imagine Capo Ferro’s inquartata or scanso de la vita for example. Performing the physical motion is not to difficult. Executing in regularly and correctly in a fencing bout is another thing. One can certainly attempt it at any time, and discover through trial and error a way that works. But if the student is first prepared with a confident knowledge of parries, of measure and changes of measure, feints, closings of line, etc. at a certain point the execution of a well formed scanso of the body with counterattack is not just second nature, but an obviously logical next step for the student. …if they are led down the right path.

    For an example of how this works, check out the La Canne article on wikipedia, under Grades->Topic
    As an experienced tourney fighter, you will recognize in the somewhat obscure phrases experiences you have had fencing. I’ve used this idea as a germ…

  3. Tomas de Courcy

    I like the idea. It would require a much more precise and detailed practice plan than traditional teaching though. But that’s also it’s strength.

    Makes me wish I lived closer in.

    1. admin Post author

      Let me know next time you are in town and available for coffee. I’ll show you the mind-map I used to put together the training plan.

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      Not yet. I haven’t got training facilities at this point. I’m hoping to change that in the next few weeks and at that point we’ll be starting from scratch. I’m looking forward to it, and will update on the blog as it takes place.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.