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There are a lot of controversies and battles fought within the martial arts and self-defense community/communities (another controversy is whether they should be counted as one or two), but one of the biggest is that of technique.

How important is technique? How much of a technical focus is constructive? Are the more difficult techniques in the traditional systems super effective, or completely useless?

Everybody has an answer, but I’m the one writing the articles, so you’re going to get my answer. I win. Anyway.

Let’s take them in order:

How Important Is Technique?

To give a full answer to this question, out of context, would take a lot more than the space of an article, but in short, the key points are these:

  • Technique cannot solve all your problems, no matter how great your technical-performance is.
  • Technique will help you solve some of them, and the more technique you have, the more help it is.

Which leads us to the next question:

How Much Of A Technical Focus Is Constructive?

This question might be a little unclear, but I’ll exemplify using some exaggerated stereotypes:

School 1 (The perfectionists)
Training-methodology: Drill exact angles, exact rotation, exact foot-placement, exact timing, and so on.
Philosophy: Flawless technical execution is our ally, and a powerful ally it is.

Comment: In my experience, and to the best of my knowledge, the idea that you are the sole controlling factor in a fight is a dangerous one.

It seems to me that things have a tendency to go wrong in fights, no matter how superior one participant is, especially in a self-defense situation where you’re trying to survive a fight that’s on someone else’s terms, and assuming that your first technique will be enough to subdue your opponent, on your first try, to the point of not preparing for anything but instant success, may cause you to end up in a situation for which you are not prepared.

In short, assuming that the first thing you do will be your last, may just make it true.

The benefit is that you don’t have to learn as many techniques. You only need one per attack.

Still, if you want to not only achieve, but even depend on this hypothetical level of mastery, you’re going to have train for a long time before your training becomes useful, and you’ll have to stay on top of your game constantly. No room for rust. Or sprains. Or cheap-shots. Or slippery surfaces.

School 2 (The principalists)
Training-methodology: Automatizing techniques, but also developing an understanding of the underlying principles (such as biomechanics), which are then applied more or less creatively as a means of problem-solving.
Philosophy: If the ax doesn’t work, I’ll bring out the chainsaw, and if that still doesn’t cut it, I’ll just dig it up, or set it on fire, or poison it…

Comment: Handles the fact that things tend to go wrong in fights, but while there are considerably fewer principles than there are techniques, this model still gives you quite a lot to learn, and so is nothing you put to use after a weekend course.

For some examples of “principles”, check out this article about force-reception.

School 3 (The minimalists)
Training-methodology: Learn as little as you can. Apply it aggressively.
Philosophy: AAAAARGH!!!

Comment: Often an easily countable number of techniques, a lot of padwork and two-person drills, this model is quickly accessible. Already after a few hours of training, you will have things you can put to immediate use, and things that you can fall back on, if one thing doesn’t work.

The lack of content and training however leaves you only with very few, very simple tools, often ones the success of which rely on you taking over the initiative from your attacker and ending the fight immediately following the opponent’s first attack, something which may not always be possible, and if you fail, you are like to end up in a situation you have no idea how to get out of.This approach can be best utilized observing our simple and free video series on knife defense.

For an example of a minimalist approach, check out this video on fundamental ground-escape:

So, what is the answer? What is the right amount of technique, in your training? The answer might be that it depends on what you are looking for.

And finally, the big question:

Are The More Difficult Techniques Often Found In Traditional Martial Arts Super Effective, Or Completely Useless?

Techniques are movements. Movements are like tools. If you try fell a tree with a yardstick, you will have little success, and look like an idiot, whereas if you sought to measure the length of something, a yardstick might be the tool to use.

It’s the same with movements.

An example of a movement, the use for which may not be entirely intuitive:

When we critique a “technique”, it is more often the application of the movement that we object to. I.e. “You’re trying to cut a tree down with something that’s obviously not good to cut down trees with.” That does not mean there is no use for the movement, just like a hammer being awful to cut down trees with does not mean the hammer is inherently useless.

So why does this happen?

A common problem with a lot of movements preserved traditional systems is that their actual application is unknown, leading some instructors to speculate, more or less competently.

The question here is therefore perhaps not about the value of the movements, but of the competence of the instructors

So what about the “difficult” techniques?


The argument here is often that both fights and self-defense situations are stressful, and that therefore, you’re not going to be able to perform too difficult movements.

And it’s true, isn’t it? If you tried to brush your teeth with your left hand, under great stress, chances are you wouldn’t be able to, would you?

Brushing one’s teeth is fine motorics, and that shuts down under stress.

… but with your right hand, you probably could, right? That’s not fine motorics anymore. That’s habit. You don’t even have to think about it.

This is why traditional systems practice their techniques tens of thousands of times, to make things that are initially complex and difficult, simply another natural way of moving.

The question of the value of difficult techniques can thus be said to boil down to whether or not you believe that to be possible.

But that is not something I will attempt to delve into in this article.

John Bishop

Category Tactical

Type article
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