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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Martial Arts Minimalism

One day, while in the process of poking around Amazon, as I am wont to do, I stumbled across a book on Minimalism. Specifically, Amazon had recommended the Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide. I don’t really know why…perhaps Amazon had decided that given the rate at which I accumulate books, I must need some guidance on downsizing a bit?

In any case, I was vaguely intrigued, and when I discovered that the book was written by a blogger calling herself Miss Minimalist, I figured that the blog would be worth looking at (reading blogs is free, after all). What I quickly discovered was there is an entire minimalist culture out there, with (perhaps paradoxically) numerous blogs, websites, and books, all devoted to the notion of minimalism.

(A little more digging led me to discover that there are even occasional spats between various minimalists, as certain members of that community declare that they are following the true minimalist path, and that the others are a bunch of posers. Or even that they’ve evolved beyond minimalism into something else. It’s nice to know that this kind of shit pervades just about every human activity.)

In any case, I found a lot of the ideas behind minimalism intriguing. Minimalism, at its core, seems to be about simplicity; reducing things down until you are left with only the most essential, most important stuff. Most of the time, minimalists are talking about either literal physical stuff, or things like schedules and time management. In my usual fashion, however, I’ve been thinking about how those same ideas might apply to the martial arts/combat sports/self-defense as well. Some of this ties into some really half-baked theories I have about the way the teaching of martial arts, particular Sino-Okinawan-Japanese arts, has changed in the 20th/21st century.

Leaving half-baked theories aside for the moment; as general rule, it seems to me that people have an insatiable desire to make combative systems increasingly more complex, despite the fact that complexity really doesn’t seem that useful. Virtually every single successful combat athlete I’ve talked to relied on only a few techniques when the chips were down. In some cases, these athletes might now dozens, if not hundreds, of techniques, but in any kind of serious competition, they went back to the few they were comfortable with. Likewise, several LEOs that I’ve spoken with allowed as how they consistently went back to a handful of things that they knew worked. Hick’s Law, among other things, tells us that fewer choices equal faster decisions. I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever run into who’s said “yeah, having TONS of options is how I win fights”.

And yet, people keep adding stuff to systems. I used to study Uechi-ryu, an Okinawan system that apparently started with three kata. Then it went up to eight. I think some organizations have it up to nine or ten now. As near as I can tell, there was no combative purpose in adding any of these forms. They were bolted on to accommodate perceived sporting or tournament needs; or to have a way to keep students around longer. Because let’s face it—the longer you make your curriculum, the longer you can keep students around studying it. Which, if the martial arts are your business, is a very good thing for you.

But it gets me back to the original question: how deeply could you strip down your practice and still retain what you needed to meet your goals? How many tools do you really need in your toolbox? How many different drills do you really need to do (I admit…given the choice, I’d rather collect drills than tools.)? If you cut your practice down to just those essential tools, how good would you be at those tools?

Part of me is tempted to try developing my own minimalist curriculum…to see what I can cut out of my practices. At the same time, I know I have some places where my control of those choices is out of my hands. Still, it’s an interesting exercise. I'm reading Kill or Get Killed right now, which seems to have a curriculum devised with this kind of idea in mind, though for a military audience. If nothing else, the process of trying to design such a curriculum might illuminate the things that I’m actually good at/use a lot. Might have to try it out.


Tim said...

This is why I only used the two throws in Judo, yeah, that's it, I was just being ahead of my time and minimalist....

Tigerwong said...

Reminds me of when i was training for the "Rumble Day" events in Rochester. I'd practice forms and stuff, but what actually got the most mileage (and, interestingly, what got me into the best fighting shape) was drilling simple things: just punches and kicks.

I think there's a certain practicality to learning lots of different things (forms, tools, drills) if one has the time. I think that, the more exposure one has to a wider variety of these things, the better it is can be for a student because they have more to choose from. When one does end up putting most of it aside for the sake of a few favorites i think the variety is helpful to a student in finding out what really works for them. Once they find those relatively few things that are their bread and butter, they can focus and become truly proficient.

I think it was Chuck Norris, while training with Bruce Lee; Jeet Kun Do had no kicks above waist level, but Chuck said "it wouldn't hurt to train higher kicks, because you never know." I think there's a good lesson in that. A little extra flexibility (literal and figurative) can't hurt.

Jake said...

@Tim...well, maybe not, but seriously. If you were getting good at those throws, why not keep using them? And get REALLY good at them?


Clearly, time is a factor in any of this stuff. If you have one hour to teach someone, you have to be a lot more selective than if you have 52 hours. Or 100. Etc.

Some of it's also context-driven. If your goal is to explore different methods of moving your body, more forms may not only be useful, but may actually be the goal. If you're looking to kick ass and take names, more does not really seem to be better.

I think there's also a question of definition here. High kicks, to my mind, aren't a NEW thing. They're a new application of an old thing. In other words, I can throw a te (Thai shin kick) at various heights depending on where I'm targeting. There are subtle mechanical changes, but basically, it is the same kick. I didn't have to learn a whole new set of mechanics for it. By contrast, learning a side kick, for example, would require me to learn a whole set of new bio-mechanics that I don't really have ingrained right now.

Of course, that's just how I classify things. If you think of low and high kicks as separate tools, then almost by definition, you'll have more tools than I will.

(Finally, I think variety is more important for teachers than students, but that's a whole long post, and I won't get into it here)

Anonymous said...

So this begs the question- how few moves are too few?

What about a boxer that threw only one punch?

The best wrestler in the toughest division of my HS wrestling perfected a double leg takedown. He would get the point, let his opponent get up, and do it again. Nobody could defend against his 'perfect' takedown technique.

Phil Nikero went to the baseball hall of fame with only 1 major league quality pitch.

what moves are you incorporating in your style that you would never actually use?