A Professional Approach
This discussion is about consciously adopting a particular mental approach towards one’s combatives training. The study of Eastern martial arts is seemingly steeped in paradox; most teachers cite some variant of the phrase that they ‘teach how to fight so that students will not have to fight’. Combative sciences seem intrinsically paradoxical to the uninitiated – full of seeming contradictions, not the least of which is the fact that martial arts (and all Combative sciences) developed as a means to protect life, but require the practitioner to develop the mindset and skill set to take life (should that be needed to protect life). However if we view combatives from their historical origins, then the real paradox may be the general approach towards their study by a great number of contemporary practitioners and instructors. Prior to the advent of gunpowder, TASERs, etc, these combative sciences provided the tools, techniques, and strategies to repel invaders, protect families, and maintain order. The paradox is that today, the vast majority of practitioners have a recreational approach to these sciences. Today individuals are training for fun, fitness, competitive sport, and a variety of other reasons. Parents even enroll their children in programs hoping that 2-3 hours a week of training will improve their child’s concentration, self-esteem, and promote ‘self-actualization’ (somehow counterbalancing the influence of the remaining 165-166 hours in the week).
While all these are potential benefits that can be realized through any quality training program, the Midwest Academy’s perspective is that these are only secondary or tertiary benefits of training. These lower order benefits of training can only be realized if the primary paradigm adopted by practitioner and teacher is a ‘professional’ one. A professional paradigm, in our opinion, has nothing to do with one’s method of earning a living; it does not require that one wears a uniform or carries a weapon under a governmental authority. It is simply the opposite paradigm of ‘avocation’; an avocation is usually something that one does for enjoyment such as a hobby. A professional paradigm requires that one makes a commitment to mastery through daily incremental skill improvement of fundamental core skills. In combatives training, it requires the understanding, acceptance, and adoption of the reason that these skills sets have been developed, honed, and handed down; without that understanding, it is difficult for a practitioner to differentiate between skills rooted in “gamesmanship” and those that are “utility oriented”. A professional approach is fundamentally process oriented; its core process is the refinement of fundamentals. Conversely, one approaches an avocation casually and often for enjoyment without regard to improvement. It is not that the professional paradigm is not enjoyable, however; it simply is that the purpose of practice is not for enjoyment. The professional paradigm emphasizes that the purpose of practice is the development of a process that creates utility; however, the Midwest Academy believes that those who adopt the professional paradigm have a process that ultimately leads to more enjoyment than the paradigm of avocation.
It seems contradictory to offer that something taken seriously can be more ‘fun’ than something taken lightly, but our experience indicates that in the practice of combatives science, this is indeed the case. I have been training military, law enforcement, and civilians in armed and unarmed combatives since 1988 – nearly 25 years at the time of this writing. In that time and through my experiences, it has become my opinion that one of the greatest impediments to building a useful skill set is ‘burn out’. While there is little standardization within the martial arts, I offer, as an example, this study because it corroborates my general experience in combatives training; an article titled Martial Arts in 1976 relates that 95% of all students beginning martial arts training drop out within 3-5 years and do so without being ranked as yudansha (‘black belt’) (Kroll, 1976). It is not my purpose to discuss the accuracy of that statement, but, in general my experience suggests that the majority of people who begin to study a combatives science generally stop practicing it with the time frame of a few months to a few years.
‘Burn out’ is often quick to set in as a result of repetitive training. Most trainers that earn their income by training become ‘entertainers’ of sorts in an honest, but ill-fated attempt to mitigate the ‘burn out’ factor in their students; the variations and strategies that many of these trainers advocate as a result of ‘entertaining’ their students tend to become complex, unsound, and are often founded in “gamesmanship”. The ‘burn out’ gets worse for the student who has neither mastered the fundamentals, nor can consistently apply the ‘entertainment-based-advanced’ skills; as a result of poor performance, the student spends less and less time practicing which, in turn, degrades any existing skills resulting in even poorer performance and increasing ‘burn out’; this cycle repeats itself until the student ultimately quits. Therefore it is our position that while it may appear as though repetitive training promotes ‘burn out’, the real catalyst for quitting is a lack of progress in developing skills that have utility; experience shows us that the repetitive training of skills which do have high utility produces positive results including a proper skill set, mindset, confidence and enjoyment of the process.
‘Burn out’ is a failure of the training process by trainers/instructors not investing the appropriate time and energy in their students to develop a professional approach to their practice. Unfortunately, many instructors/trainers themselves do not have this approach to their own practice; it should come as no surprise that their students would be lacking in the same area. A professional approach or professional paradigm commits to mastery through daily incremental skill improvement of fundamental core skills – this means that rather than increasing the complexity of applied skills as a way to create greater value in a combatives skill set, the professional’s approach is to increase the complexity of the environment in which fundamental skills are applied. Rather than practicing a specific skill in a specific environment until the student “gets it right”, the professional’s approach is to develop a specific skill in a specific environment and then increase the complexity of the applied environment until the skill fails. The failure point provides a place for a deeper analysis of the fundamental skill; it gets re-worked until it is useful, or proves it has no utility and is dropped from the venue of training tasks. One note on this idea: a quality trainer/instructor and a quality system have already been and are continually in the vetting process. The basic level student should not have to “re-invent the wheel” from day one; if so, that student is not learning fundamental principles, but rather teaching him/herself through trial and error.
Therefore we can assess that a professional paradigm for combatives training includes the following elements:
• A commitment to mastery of fundamentals – as discussed, mastery does not occur in a static environment. Fundamentals include principles, strategies, theories, and tactics as well as specific technical movements. Once fundamental are mastered, the complexity of the environment should be increased until a new failure point is discovered; this failure point provides a nexus for further study of the fundamentals where they are re-worked, modified, or honed until the failure point is bridged. For this reason, we believe that amateurs train until they ‘get it right’ whereas professionals train until they ‘get it wrong’; once it is ‘wrong’, the real learning begins.
• Emphasizes an eclectic approach that is based in utility of process that create desired outcomes – in short, no fundamentals that consistently produce utility in environments of continually increasing complexity are omitted from training, and no fundamentals that only create utility in specific or controlled environments are retained in the training process. A process based eclectic approach is not really a system of, “if it works, train it; if it doesn’t, drop it.” It is closer to, “if it always works, keep training it and vetting it; if it does not work or works occasionally, stop training it.”
• Embraces disruptive technologies/strategies that cause environmental asymmetries and modifies existing fundamentals or innovates new ones that are useful for managing new threat environments while still providing utility for previous threat environments. Small changes in technologies/strategies are continually occurring in the area of combatives, however, disruptive technologies are ‘game changers’; the advent of the firearm is an example of a disruptive technology in the area of combatives. However, even today many martial arts students are training in processes that assume an environment where the firearm does not exist. However, since it does exist, and there is no definitive “non-gamesmanship” way of knowing if an adversary has a firearm on their person or not during initial contact, to train fundamental strategies that do not account for the potential of a firearm ultimately places the practitioner at an even greater disadvantage should the presence of a firearm create an asymmetrical environment for that practitioner.
• Concurrent development of skill set and mindset – a professional paradigm does not assume that proper mindset will develop correctly as a result of well intentioned training. Mindset must be as consciously developed as skill set; mindset must be as systematically developed as skill set; mindset must create as much utility as skill set. The fundamental mindset to develop in combatives is a “combat mindset”. Paul Howe defines combat mindset as, “The ability for one person to go into harm’s way against overwhelming odds and focus on a task at hand – to solve one problem at a time” (Howe, Combat Mindset, 2012).
The adoption of the professional paradigm ultimately generates the greatest value to the practitioner by removing the paradox of “gamesmanship” and “avocation” from a science that originated, developed, and has been continually honed for as long as man has existed simply for its utility.