Understanding the Fight

“From an early age we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions: we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”

Peter Senge - American systems scientist who is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management Tweet This

The conventional approach Senge describes above is fine for mechanical processes, but is wholly inadequate for problems that are organic, and complex — things like weather systems, ecosystems, or human beings engaged in interpersonal violence.

Even though what I note above may make intuitive sense, it is not lost on me that the vast majority of martial arts instructors present what they do, and teach it to others in a linear, reductionistic way. In other words, they teach from a linear method, where  “A leads to B, results in C” perspective. This way of seeing the world, is the byproduct of our industrialised education system. It’s also arguably why we have such messy problems in our world. Paulo Freire, educator and philosopher refers to this as the ‘Banker-Style’ education system, designed to maintain the status quo. It is no surprise then, when it comes to teaching martial arts, this is how it is taught too.

I present what I teach both to my students and trainers in an entirely different way to the above. I view the fight game as organic, chaotic, complex and unpredictable (at least in so far as trying to reduce a fight to smaller parts, often unconnected from the whole). I see a fight as  a series of interconnected and interdependent systems. Everything that the fight may entail is part of a larger whole and that the connections between all elements are critical. Change one element, and the outcome of the fight may very well change too.

Conversely, teaching built exclusively on step-by-step responses sees  a fight in complete opposition to what the experience will actually be like.  Most martial arts instructors focus on independent parts of a fight, thinking that in doing so it can later be understood by the sum of those isolated parts.

The Mindset of Addressing the Fight Problem

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

Thinking about the puzzle of attempting to understand the fight, and how to solve it so you can be prepared to successfully engage in one if needed, takes a very different kind of mindset. As I noted in the beginning, we have, through our educational system specifically been conditioned to see all problems as reducible to parts. As such, most martial arts instructors try to understand the behavior found in the complexity of the fight by isolating the parts to (i.e., one and three step sparring, predefined drills, predefined canned responses to specific martial problems are examples of this reductionistic approach to the fight game).

In my approach to exploring and teaching the fight game, I seek to understand the behavior arising out of the complexity in a fight by exploring the emergent nature of the fight as a whole. In other words, the behavior observed in a fight does not depend on its parts, but on there relationships to one another.

A simple example I often use to highlight this point is balance. If someone is out of balance, they are not just physically unbalanced, but it affects their system of defense, tight economical structure, and in extreme cases physiological and psychological balance too. Seen from this perspective then, a student struggling to apply appropriate defense, may not be because of their defense per-say, but rather because they are out of balance. In the way most martial skills are taught, if defense isn’t working, then what needs to be fixed is defense. 

My approach is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Now this is not to say that there are no parts to the fight game. But the fight as a system is composed of individual parts, but yet, something arranges those parts into a structure. The structure then determines the behavior of the fight system itself. In my desire to understand the fight, one of my key insights is that it is the arrangement of the parts of the fight, and not the parts themselves, that makes the big difference in a fight. In other words, at the heart of this concept is that the behavior of a fight system is an emergent property of its structure, not its parts.Most martial arts instructors believe the complex nature of learning and being able to fight can be solved by improving isolated parts of the fight game, which will in turn improve the whole.

My experience has shown me that to improve someones fight efficacy it requires the improvement of the whole through improving relationships between structures (and in turn the parts of the fight game embedded within them). The truth is,  most action arising in a fight has unintended consequences. It therefore needs to be tested, while seeking feedback and adapting responses. In most martial arts schools however, students are taught in a linear process with clear steps, from start to finish. But to truly teach someone the fight game from a performance stand point requires multiple entry points, a nonlinear process, which is focused on learning and iterating. Below I outline my top three ways of thinking differently about learning and engaging with a fight experience.

1. Everything is Interconnected

There is no part of the fight game that is disconnected from another part of the fight game. Even if you are learning a specific aspect of the fight game, you need to remember that it is one part of a greater whole. A jab for instance is connected to the fighting platform, with both being connected to movement, while all three being connected to balance and so on. 

2. Everything is Circular

 Even if you think something in the fight game seems to move in a linear progression — and even if a problem you encounter in your own game seems to have a linear answer — its not true.  Everything we experience in the fight game is circular. One thing always leads back to another in the end. Understanding the circle of performance can give you a much clearer insight into improving your readiness to engage in the complexity of a fight.

3. The Emergent Nature of a Fight

The fight game cannot be understood in isolated form. The fight game itself is inherently emergent.  The only way then to understand the behavior of a fight, is that the system itself does not depend on its individual parts, but rather on the relationships to one another. Thus emergent behavior cannot be predicted by examination of a fight system’s individual parts — you need to look at the big picture.