On the Evaluation of Martial Arts Techniques - An Engineering Perspective

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

On the Evaluation of Martial Arts Techniques - An Engineering Perspective

by Michael Zimmer

Vorticity Martial Arts December 23, 2003

What does it mean for a technique to be desireable? When you start to examine critically your arsenal of techniques, a key question can crop up: "is this technique worth learning or worth maintaining?". Which techniques are the most desirable? In these discussions, the context for the technique is crucial: sport, hobby, self-defence, extreme sport, warefare, "druken uncle" scenario, fitness, and so on. The following paper discusses some of the considerations to keep in mind when trying to prune or supplement your art

What does it mean for a technique to be desirable?

What does it mean for a technique to be desireable? When you start to examine critically your arsenal of techniques, a key question can crop up: "is this technique worth learning or worth maintaining?"

Here is something to keep in mind - the context for the technique is crucial - it includes:

1 - Fitness - most of us

2 - Hobby - most of us

3 - Light contact sport - some of us

4 - Extreme combat sport (e.g., Thai boxing, boxing, kickboxing, mixed martial arts) - only a few of us

5 - Self-defence - some of us, maybe most to some degree

  • "druken uncle" scenario
  • minor quarrels (but you don't necessarily know the intent of your opponent)
  • serious predation (mugging, gang attack, assassination)

6 - Security work - a few of us

7 - Law Enforcement (police, sherrif, correctional officer) - a few of us

8 - Warfare - a few of us

9 - Other

In this paper, I restrict the discussion to technique, and not training methods (e.g., live training versus choreography), quality of instruction, or personnel attributes. Here are some of the things to keep in mind when evaluating an art for a given context:

1 – a desirable technique is a workable technique

2 – a desirable technique is legally appropriate

3 – a desirable technique is ethically and morally appropriate

4 – a desirable technique has a reasonable cost benefit ratio

5 – a desirable technique scales up

A desirable technique is a workable technique

If a technique is not particularly workable, why bother trying to learn or maintain it in your repertoire? Perhaps we should pose the question a bit differently: under what circumstances will the technique work, and how reliably will it do the required job, satisfying all of the requirements? The following factors are important for workability:

1 - a workable technique must be functional

2 - a workable technique must be efficient

3 - a workable technique must be reliable

4 - a workable technique should yield high performance

5 - a workable technique should be easy to deploy

6 - a workable technique should be capable of modulation

7 - a workable technique must be a valid solution

8 - a workable technique needs to be verifiable

A workable technique must be functional

If a technique does not meet the basic function required for the situation, it is not even in the game. A technique must be able to deal with the environmental constraints of the situation to be workable. Techniques must be functional – they must do what they are supposed to do. For example, does a given technique work for the specified problem (e.g., Countering a kick to the head, countering a takedown)? The following factor is important for functionality:

1 - A functional technique must be appropriate to the situation

A functional technique must be appropriate to the situation

A technique needs to be appropriate for the given environmental constraints in order to be truly functional within the context, the situation. A technique will not be functional if not appropriate for the situational constraints. Is the technique appropriate, functional within the environmental constraints of the situation (e.g., No shirts, sporting ring, on ice, multiple attackers, armed attackers, confined quarters, hazardous ground, bystanders, protecting others, and so on)? Is the technique appropriate within the rules (informal and formal) of a sporting situation? So, if you launch a head kick while standing on an ice-covered or rain-slicked street, you are not using a technique appropriate to the situation.

A workable technique must be efficient

If a technique is inefficient, it may result in failure. How efficient is the technique? If you have to work really hard to get the job done, you may run out of gas first, you may not be able to come up with enough power for the size and strength of the opponent, you may be too weak. On the other hand, an efficient technique may deliver very good results with a minimum expenditure of energy.

A workable technique must be reliable

If a technique only works a small percentage of the time, it is suspect. If a technique is not forgiving of imperfections in execution, it will let you down. A technique that allows adaptation to varying circumstances and counters is more useful. Technically, this is a measure of the average time between failures. In some sense, this gives a measure of predictable success for the technique. Given the many situational factors, the actual success rate is highly variable. Many fighters like to use the term "high percentage" to describe a highly reliable technique. The measurement here is based on the likelihood of a technique working. It is never clear just what percentage figure is meant by the phrase high percentage. In general this should be understand as a relative measure, ranking techniques in terms of reliability. Maybe the most reliable technique for a given situation only succeeds half the time. If no other techniques are better, half the time could count as a high percentage technique then. The following factors are important for reliability:

1 - a reliable technique must allow one to control and dominate situation

2 - a reliable technique must be easy to learn

3 - a reliable technique should tolerate mistakes

A reliable technique must allow one to control and dominate situation

If you can control the situation and dominate the opponent, you have won almost by definition.

1 - a dominating technique is not vulnerable to counters

2 - a dominating technique has stopping power

3 - a dominating technique has good biomechanics for balance

4 - a dominating technique has good biomechanics for mobility

5 - a dominating technique has good biomechanics for generation of force

6 - a dominating technique has good application of force and leverage in attack

7 - a dominating technique is inherently fast

8 - a dominating technique minimizes motion

9 - a dominating technique is not telegraphic

A dominating technique is not vulnerable to counters

A technique that is easy to counter is going to fail far too often.

A dominating technique has stopping power

A technique with no stopping power won’t win you the engagement against a formidable opponent. It can’t be weak because weak techniques are likely to be ineffective.

A dominating technique has good biomechanics for balance

Good balance gives you greater power and stability.

A dominating technique has good biomechanics for mobility

Mobility allows free movement and repositioning for optimal execution. Preferably, you will not unduly sacrifice stability for mobility. You need to move with good balance.

A dominating technique has good biomechanics for generation of force

Good generation of force through good leverage makes your technique more effective.

A dominating technique has good application of force and leverage in attack

Good application leverage and force makes your technique more effective.

A dominating technique is inherently fast

A fast technique is harder to counter.

A dominating technique minimizes motion

Excess motion slows down your technique.

A dominating technique is not telegraphic

Telegraphic techniques are easy to counter.

A reliable technique must be easy to learn (or to teach)

A technique which is easy to learn or to teach is going to be more reliable, because it is more likely to be learned well enough. There is a finite amount of time available for practice, and it should be allocated wisely.

A reliable technique should tolerate mistakes

A technique which is fault tolerant is going to be more reliable, almost by definition. Some techniques are not very forgiving of mistakes, of inaccuracy. They are not very tolerant of faults. Obviously, a fault tolerant technique is preferable. The following factors are important for fault tolerance:

1 - a fault tolerant technique should not need undue strength

2 - a fault tolerant technique should not need extreme accuracy

3 - a fault tolerant technique should not need extreme speed

4 - a fault tolerant technique should be simple

5 - a fault tolerant technique should be adaptable

A fault tolerant technique should not need undue strength

If a technique can not bring sufficient power to the situation because it is mechanically, inefficient, it may result in failure. A technique that requires a lot of strength to work is going to be less fault tolerant than one that can succeed even if you are not as strong as your opponent.

A fault tolerant technique should not need extreme accuracy

If you need to be extremely precisely coordinated, you will have problems. These problems will increase under stress and at high speed and intensity of attack, when you won’t move as well or think as quickly as you need to.

A fault tolerant technique should not need extreme speed

If you need to be extremely fast, you will have problems. These problems will increase under stress and at high speed and intensity of attack.

A fault tolerant technique should be simple

If your technique is complex, there are more things to go wrong, resulting in reduced fault tolerance. In addition, a technique requiring complex motor skills will degrade under conditions of high stress, where the system is flooded with adrenaline, and the heart rate goes up very markedly. Under these conditions, only simple, large muscle coordination works well. Vision and other senses will be impaired, and thinking will also degrade. Fine motor skills or complex motor skills are much impaired.
A fault tolerant technique should be adaptable

If the attack varies, as the opponent counters, can you accommodate the change? An adaptable technique that allows you to modify your motions to handle your opponents counters is going to be more fault tolerant. Will a technique accommodate change in the exact delivery of the attack? Will it accommodate modification as the opponent counters?

A workable technique should yield high performance

A technique that gives high performance is more useful. Can a technique handle the situation quickly enough? This is important in particular when considering that you may have to deal with multiple opponents, and don’t want to have to give them a chance to get in – if you can end it extremely fast, you have a chance of dealing with the other attack. Some techniques are inherently faster and more economical of movement – these are the ones that tend to be high performance techniques. A boxer’s jab would be an example of a high performance technique.

A workable technique should be safe

If a technique is not safe, it should be considered less workable. How vulnerable does this technique leave you to counter attack? This might especially true if the technique fails, are you then left in a very insecure position? Safety is related to fault tolerance, but the emphasis of fault tolerance is on making it work. The emphasis of safety is on making sure you don’t end up in a worse spot than before. For example, a potentially unsafe technique might be a heads-down football tackle. In general, this may work, but it is unsafe when your opponent is a grappler adept at applying a guillotine choke.

A workable technique should be easy to deploy

If you cannot deploy your techniques or tools in a timely fashion, you will suffer defeat. How readily can the tool be brought into play – e.g. How near to hand, ready in a timely fashion, ready for use? This is most applicable within the context of weapons. If you can’t bring your weapon into play in a timely fashion, you might as well not carry it. The following factor is important for ease of deployment:

1 - a deployable technique is highly available

A deployable technique is highly available

If a technique is not available, it is not deployable. If you have to get it out of a pocket, it is less deployable. If you have to get set first, it is less deployable. If you have to chamber your fist first, it is less deployable. Do you have the technique or the tool with you? Also, if you have an injury, some techniques are thereby temporarily unavailable. Do you remember the old joke about the guy who lost the fight because he didn’t have time to take his shoes off?

A workable technique should be capable of modulation

It is good to have techniques that may be used so that the degree of damage is modulated. One that ranges from simple control to lethal effects covers the full spectrum. Is it possible to easily modulate the degree of damage done by the technique, while remaining safe? You have to assess a technique according to some "use of force" continuum, and techniques that can only be lethal have real limitations in a number of contexts.

A workable technique must be a valid solution

A workable technique must validly address the requirements. Does a technique solve the right problem and can you prove that it does? Validity allows us to determine if in fact we are doing the correct job.

A workable technique needs to be verifiable

A technique must be verifiably workable. If you cannot establish that a technique meets your objectives through some validation and verification process, how will you know if it is worthwhile having in the repertoire? If you do a cost benefit analysis, techniques that fail the testing process are candidates for the garbage bin. If you have limited training time, why spend it on less than adequate material, even if historically it is part of your art? Verifiability allows us to determine if in fact we are doing the job correctly. The following factor is important for verifiability:

1- a verifiable technique must be testable and demonstratable

A verifiable technique must be testable and demonstratable

One of the advantages of training in a live fashion is that you are able to test both your own ability to perform a technique successfully, but also able to evaluate the worth of competing techniques in general. Some techniques cannot be ethically tested for effectiveness outside of real combat. Testability is an aspect of verifiability. Can you test a technique to demonstrate that it solves the problem correctly? You need to stress test techniques, in order to determine if they work for you under highly demanding conditions. Techniques such as gouging eyes, crushing tracheas, biting off noses, breaking necks, breaking limbs as part of the throw, smashing heads into concrete and so on cannot be tested ethically in a training context. We can assume that they will damage a person based on various bits of real world information, but we can’t test them ourselves in a training situation. One of the advantages claimed for judo is that by eliminating the more damaging techniques, practitioners could train at full speed against fully resisting opponents, and both improve their capabilities and test their capabilities.

A desirable technique is legally appropriate

There are problems inherent in using techniques in a way that will be illegal. Is the technique appropriate within the legal constraints of the situation? Is use of the technique defensible under the laws enacted for that time and place?

A desirable technique is ethically and morally appropriate

There are problems inherent in using techniques in a way that will be ethically or morally untenable. Is the technique appropriate within the ethical and more constraints of the situation? Is a technique overkill? Is there collateral damage?

A desirable technique has a reasonable cost and benefit ratio

It is always good to get a bargain. We all have limits on our time and funds. How much time and money do you have to invest to have a workable technique? In the real world, you should be balancing costs against delivered benefits. The following factors are important for costs:

1 - cost is affected by ease of learning

2 – cost is affected by maintainability

Cost is affected by ease of learning

If a technique can be learned simply, the cost is decreased. How much investment is required (time, money) in order to learn the technique? Do you need to have unusually superior physical attributes in order to learn the technique? The amount of training time is always constrained, because of competing activities, because of other priorities, because of limits on how much we can work. It is better to focus on techniques that are fairly easy to learn, at least until you have satisfied your main objectives. The following factors are important for ease of learning:

1 - ease of learning is determined by complexity

2 - ease of learning is determined by accuracy required

3 - ease of learning is determined by speed required

4 - ease of learning is determined by strength required

5 - learnability is determined by extensibility

Ease of learning is determined by complexity

Complex things are harder to learn. Poorly learned techniques are much more likely to fail. In general, how much do you have to do to make a technique work – how many steps are in the process? If there are lots of steps, you will have trouble learning it.

Ease of learning is determined by accuracy required

More practice is required for a technique requiring high accuracy. How close to perfect idealized motion do you have to be for success? Highly accurate motions require more practice, better teaching, and better native coordination. Accuracy includes both good positioning and good timing (this includes reaction time and rhythm)

Ease of learning is determined by speed required

More practice is required to for a technique requiring more speed. Some techniques require extremely high speed to work reliably. If you are not naturally fast, or have not been able to develop enough speed, you will have problems making it work.

Ease of learning is determined by strength required

More practice is required to for a technique requiring more strength. How strong do you have to be? Can you apply sufficient force, energy, power to the situation because of inherent biomechanics of the technique?

Learnability is determined by extensibility

If you have a more extensible technique, you may be able to learn fewer techniques, achieve some efficiencies and spend less time in training. You can perfect the ones that you learn to a higher degree. Can a technique be used to handle different types of attacks beyond those originally specified? Can a technique do this in real-time? How general purpose is it? If you are going to spend time learning over-specialized techniques that are not applicable to a broad class of problems, you have less time to devote to learning other techniques.

Cost is affected by maintainability

If a technique can be maintained with less time and effort, the cost is decreased. How much investment is required (time, money) in order to keep up your skills with the technique? Do you need to have keep superior physical attributes in order to retain your skill with the technique? The following factor is important for maintainability:

1 - maintainability is affected by ease of learning

Maintainability is affected by ease of learning (and by extension, of teaching)

A technique that is easier to learn or to teach will be easier to maintain. Some techniques are hard to maintain because of the physical demands such as strength, flexibility, and other things.

A desirable technique scales up

A technique that scales up to greater threats is more desirable. Scalability is a measure of how a tool or technique will accommodate increased demands such as multiple attackers, multiple attacks, faster attacks, larger attackers, more formidable attackers.

posted by Vorticity Martial Arts at 11:25 PM