Martial Mathematics

Martial arts is more like algebra or calculus than arithmetic. That statement probably doesn’t make any sense when you first read it, but let me take a few minutes of your time to explain it and help you understand practical martial arts better.

Arithmetic is simple. Take one clearly defined quantity and make it interact with another clearly defined quantity, and you get a predictable result. For example: 2 + 2 = 4. Simple, non-negotiable, and functional in a controlled environment. Arithmetic is the most basic form of mathematics. It has existed in one form or another almost since the beginning of civilization. In school, you learn early how to manipulate numbers accurately and quickly using the basic principles of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The early stages of martial arts training bear a striking resemblance to these basic principles. Individual techniques are taught as responses to clearly defined individual attacks, and the goal is for the student to achieve a predictable result. In fact, martial arts students who have only been training for a short time can fall into the belief that if they learn enough individual techniques, they will be prepared for any attack. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I have listened to interviews from hundreds of martial artists, and I have heard many times that “traditional” martial arts training failed them when they really needed it. In the dojo they practiced training cut and dried techniques against clear and specific attacks which were delivered by a willing participant. They did this until they were blue in the face and felt that they must be able to translate the technique into a live combative situation. What they discovered is that fights aren’t simple math. There are variables, unknowns, radicals, and “unreal” sums that they were never prepared for in the training environment. You see, when working towards solutions in higher mathematics, solving one equation often leads to the creation of an entirely new equation or set of equations. Each one having its own unique variables. When you apply those mathematical techniques to something like physics or fluid dynamics, the variables get broader and more numerous until it can make your head absolutely spin!

Real combat is complicated. There are at least two people involved who each have their own level of training, life experience, and moral (or immoral) guidelines. In addition, altercations rarely take place in a location that is free of obstacles or environmental variance. The ground, walls, furniture, traffic, and bystanders all become additional equations that must be factored into the primary equation. The good news is that our brains are incredibly powerful calculators capable of completing an unbelievable number of computations per second even speeding up to the point that time seems to slow down in high stress situations. With the right preparation, we can increase our statistical probability of success to an impressive level. The advent of MMA and RBSD style training has done wonders in the world of traditional martial arts by highlighting the need for more practical training methods. The concept of reality based training is not really new, however. The old masters understood flow and unpredictability. Genwa Nakasone once said “Karate has many stances, it also has none”. His statement was intended as part of his interpretation of Gichin Funakoshi’s seventeenth precept which says “Stances are for beginners; advanced students will use natural body positions.”  These two fathers of modern Karate understood that martial artists who intend to be effective must be able to flow through different body positions quickly and smoothly without being tied to a specific set of motions.

So should we stop teaching and learning individual techniques? Absolutely not. The stances and techniques taught to beginners are the foundation and building blocks we use to develop their mind and body. However, we should be honest with ourselves and our students that these static movements in the dojo are NOT reality. It is imperative that all martial artists understand that real fighting is ugly and unpredictable. As each person matures in martial arts training, they should be exposed to more realistic drills that will help them to prepare for the unexpected and show them that individual techniques can fail or be countered. They should also be exposed to training under duress so that they can begin to understand how they will respond in a high stress situation. Just as arithmetic is necessary in order to learn algebra, martial basics are also necessary for students to grow into true martial ARTISTS. Understand where you are and never stop growing!