Simplicity is critical. Any time you teach a complex subject, your goal is to break it into small, digestible pieces. These pieces can grow more complex over time as students learn to put them together. Students will learn best when given the simplest pieces possible. It’s not just about martial arts, it’s about pedagogy in general.

Any subject can be broken down into simple or complex discrete units. A discrete unit is like an atom, the smallest part of the whole which still retains its properties. An alphabet uses letters as discrete units. A phrasebook uses phrases as discrete units. Likewise, some martial arts use sequences or combinations as discrete units, while others treat simple, isolated motions as discrete. This is a fundamental difference which has cascading effects in the way a martial art is learned and implemented.

Simpler discrete units make learning more efficient. When you train the simplest piece of a technique, you can examine it by itself. You can see how an opponent can counter it, then how to counter his counter. This dialectic builds more complex sequences. It’s easy to make a simple technique more complex this way; you simply chain them together. But it’s not so easy to go the other direction. To examine a complex technique, you have to break it apart and look at it piece by piece. You have to identify the decision points – the points where you decide how to proceed with the technique – and you have to be willing to change plans if the opponent responds differently than expected. This is easy if you’re used to dealing with simple discrete units, because you already know where the decision points need to be. From this perspective, any given sequence is just one of many possible combinations which follow a simple initial technique.

If martial arts is a language, we want to be learning letters instead of words or sentences. You can learn a language by starting with an alphabet, or you can learn it by starting with a phrasebook. I’ll bet that the phrasebook method will allow you to speak the language quicker, but before long, you’ll reach a plateau. Phrasebooks are more efficient than an alphabet if you’re only interested in a shallow understanding of the language. But if you keep learning, then eventually you will have to break down those phrases and discover the alphabet underneath. At that point you begin to wish that the alphabet was given to you from the start. In the long run, it is much quicker to learn 26 letters than to reverse-engineer those letters from a thousand phrases.

This principle applies to nearly anything you can learn. Imagine you were learning to cook Mexican food. Mexican dishes famously use the same basic ingredients over and over: Corn, beans, rice, salsa, various meats, etc. The fastest way to cook would be to learn a complete recipe from start to finish. If you’re only interested in eating a burrito, then that’s probably the best method for you. However, if you want to learn how to cook a wide range of Mexican food(the entire Mexican food system, if you will), then it would be more efficient to learn the different ways to prepare each individual ingredient. Then all you need to do is mix and match your ingredients and preparatory techniques. Although this method of learning is more efficient in the long run, there would be a longer period in the beginning when you couldn’t make a single complete dish. Think of that period as an investment. Of course, we don’t really learn to cook this way because we never have to prepare unexpected dishes under time constraints against the resistance of a bloodthirsty opponent. The analogy is flawed in that sense. But on the bright side, that would make a great reality show.

This is a complex shape that fits the situation perfectly. But how versatile is it? (Courtesy of xkcd.com)

Simpler discrete units are also more versatile. When the building blocks are smaller, it’s easier to rearrange them according to your need. Imagine you started playing Tetris in the middle of someone else’s game. You had no control over where the previous pieces fell, so now you’re left with holes to fill. If your Tetris blocks are small and simple, they can fill up any hole. Likewise, if your blocks are huge and complex, then they are very unlikely to fit the situation at hand. The most appropriate shapes may, in fact, be complex(see picture). But if I had to choose in advance, with no knowledge of the situation, I’d be better off choosing the smaller, simpler blocks because they are more versatile. And because these discrete units are versatile, fewer techniques are necessary.

With fewer, simpler techniques, a system can reduce redundancy and become more cohesive. Think about simple blocking sequences, the kind that is taught to beginners: They tend to be simple, cohesive, and lacking in redundancy. Can the same be said of most kata? When techniques are simple, they can each fill a specific role in the system. When techniques are complex, you’ll need one for every situation, like the Tetris block above.

 

Now that I’ve made this distinction between simple and complex discrete units, two sets of questions naturally arise:

1. Why would we train complex techniques as discrete units? Doesn’t it make things harder for the students in the long run? Doesn’t it threaten the cohesiveness of a system? Won’t all that complexity have to be reversed eventually?

2. Is this kind of complexity inherent within the system? In other words, can it be simplified without damaging the system? Some people have claimed that entropy is a modern phenomenon, that martial arts used to be simpler. That sounds plausible to me. If this is the case, then the answer is probably yes.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, unsurprisingly. Being inquisitive usually provides more questions than answers. It’s a self-sustaining habit.

 

I see a tendency toward entropy in Americanized Asian martial arts. Some people are cynical, and believe that the entropy is the result of a deliberate attempt to make more money by increasing the number of forms and techniques that each student must learn. I’m cynical, but not quite that cynical. More likely, it has to do with students preserving their teachers’ additions for generation after generation. The problem is that the core of these martial arts becomes less accessible as entropy increases. It is never impossible to go back to basics, to practice with smaller discrete units. But with every layer of complexity, the student has an additional layer that must be stripped off in order to build a foundation. When martial artists talk about training fundamentals, they mean training simpler pieces. Train the simple pieces first, and the complex will follow.

 

Naturally, this topic once again raises the question of whether martial arts and teaching methods can be separated. For more on that topic, see my previous post on deconstructing martial arts, “The essence of a martial art.”

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