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Friday, February 6, 2015


Got started on this line of thought after a conversation with Michael Scott out at Integrated Martial Arts. This post from Tony Dismukes prompted some further thoughts.

There seems to be a spectrum of codification in the martial arts. Some arts are extremely codified, to the point of complete rigidity in their training and teaching. Other arts are completely uncodified...there is no formal training structure, organization, or, well, anything. As with a lot of things, the middle ground is probably a good place to be.

At one extreme, you have arts like Muay Thai and Boxing. Yes, there are manuals and treatises on these arts, but those generally reflect one teacher's understanding of the art and training. If you go to a boxing club, there is no guarantee about the order in which you will be taught things, the way you will be taught them, or even what you will be taught. Hell, the names aren't even standardized. One of my coaches used something he called a drop step, which was different in application and purpose (and mechanics, to a degree) from the drop step in Dempsey's Championship Fighting. While there are some governing bodies out there, they mostly regulate the sport...they don't hand down curriculum, titles, or training methods. There is no boxing version of the Kodokan, for example.

My experience learning Muay Thai was similar. While individual classes might have structure, there was no larger organization to the training. It was all organic. No testing cycles, no scheduled rank tests. Just movement, drills, and learning. Whatever the coach felt we needed to work on, that was what we worked on.

Honestly, this organic approach works very well. It allows the coach to give the athlete what s/he needs, without worrying about conforming to a particular pattern that the coach is "supposed" to follow. Have a fighter who needs to work on their jab more? They work on their jab? Someone else needs to focus on leg kicks? Fine. Obviously, in a class structure, the potential for individual attention becomes limited, but it's still a very flexible approach. And it can produce some great fighters/martial artists.

There are downsides too. The lack of codification means that important ideas can get overlooked or lost. I once had a student get to a point where he was prepping for amateur Muay Thai fights before anyone realized that he lacked even a rudimentary clinch game. Because of the lack of a clear structure in his training, he managed to get pretty good at the boxing and kicking elements of Muay Thai, but no one realized that his clinch was lagging. It hurt his performance in training and fight day. My fault as a coach, but it could have been prevented with proper communication within a system.

There's a larger downside as well: the lack of codified, organized curriculum means that everything is inside the coaches head. Part of my conversation with Michael was about the fact that if Kru Mark was hit by a bus tomorrow, everything he knows would be gone. There's nothing preserved, nothing to revisit....we'd just have to try and figure things out, and probably re-learn some of the lessons he learned. That's a weakness in a teaching system.

At the other extreme are some TKD and Karate schools, where the curriculum is extremely codified. The student's entire progression, from white belt to high ranking black belt is laid out in crystal clear terms. Technique, fitness...everything. It's all there in clear, stark terms.

This can be a good thing. Dan John talks about the importance of knowing point A and point B when you're setting goals: these kinds of curricula give you those points. I can sit down with one of these curricula and, without even talking to a coach, know EXACTLY what I need to learn to get a black belt (actually learning it is another matter). That kind of road map can be very helpful for a lot of students, especially newer students who don't really know where they should be going.

Of course, this level of codification has it's limits too. A completely scripted training system doesn't allow for organic adaptation. It can be used as a way to restrict information in a way that is damaging, not empowering. It can artificially slow a students progress (or artificially accelerate it, which is the heart of a lot of "McDojo's" problems/business model)I have heard stories of students being chastised for practicing a technique that they weren't "allowed" to know. That is codification taken to far, in my opinion.

So what's the middle ground? Something with enough codification and structure to be organized, but not so rigid as to prevent organic adaptation in the hands of the coach. Principles clearly articulated. A curriculum that a coach can refer to or be guided by, but not hamstrung by. The PDR does this well at a fundamentals level, though the coach needs to do some work in order to adapt the curriculum to their school. Rodney King's CMD seems like it might fit this description as well, though I've not investigated it closely enough to know for sure. I get the sense that some of the older classical martial arts systems struck this balance as well, but I don't know nearly enough about them to say for sure.

Stuff to think about.

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