It’s remarkable, yet no coincidence, that the development of martial arts follows the same steps as the scientific method. The same logic that has produced our understanding of much of the world has lead to the development of martial arts. Using the scientific method to approach our own individual training has many benefits too.
The purpose of this article is two fold; discuss & chart the development of grappling and illustrate how one might use the scientific method to develop their training.
All learning starts with a question. This is the beginning of any inquiry or exploration. In martial arts, the question may simply have been “who is better at defending themselves?” or “who is the better fighter?”. Unarmed combat, in one form or another, has literally shaped human evolution & scientific revolution. The shape of the human skull has evolved a strong brow, cheeks and jaw to absorb the shock of strikes to the head and protect the brain. The invention of weaponry and development of combat has lead to technologies and ideas that have revolutionized society. We can observe this throughout history, whether it was the invention of gunpowder or the first person to sharpen a piece of wood into a point with the intention of stabbing man or animal.
You should be developing purpose and questions in your training too. This is the motivation that leads learning and innovation.
An example of this question could be: “Can I do a throw using x grip configuration?”
This is what we might call critical questioning. Without this questioning, we forgo the learning opportunities provided by thinking critically.
The next stage is to conduct research. By engaging with information and the findings of others, we can begin to establish a wider understanding of our topic & increase our understanding of where (or what) the answer to our question might be. One example of research being conducted within a martial arts context may be wartime conflict or sporting games. Often times, wartime provided the largest body of research for martial development. We can look at texts such as The Art of War to see just how much time and effort was expended in the pursuit of developing martial strategies. Sun Tzu, the author, was a military strategist who developed the theories within the text based on his observations and experiences as an adviser to generals & military leaders of the time. Historically, we saw martial arts included in games such as the early (and now modern) Olympics, and how much the approach to each martial art has changed in response to rules, different strategies, opponents and coaching styles.
Within your own training, research might take a number of forms. You might watch tape, either to identify your own errors or identify correct technique in practitioners you may be watching. Repetition and continued execution are forms of research too. By continuously using a particular technique or approach, you are building up a database of experience which will inform your learning.
A crucial part of research is insuring that one engages with a wide range of sources. You cannot hope to build a nuanced view of a topic by only engaging with a few sources of information. All scientists understand the importance of wide research.
Proposing a hypothesis is to produce a statement or idea that can be verified. This is a crucial stage for understanding the implications of what you have learnt so far and what you are putting into practice.
I may have begun with the question, “can I do a throw using x grip configuration?”.
After a period of research, I discovered y throw that is quite effective with the grip configuration I was using.
I may hypothesize the following: “Whenever I get x grip configuration, y throw is available.”.
As you can see, this statement is something that can be verified as we continue through the remainder of the scientific method.
Just as above, Sun Tzu also did this in The Art of War. Through many of his observations, he was able to develop hypotheses that were verifiable. Whether it was advice about where to pitch camp, or how to mount a counter attack, his hypotheses were verifiable statements that one could prove or disprove by experimentation.
This is where we design and perform experiments to test a hypothesis. It’s not enough for us to simply develop a hypothesis. Whether we believe our hypothesis to be true doesn’t matter. We have to verify it.
Continuing with our previous example:
My hypothesis was “whenever I get x grip configuration, y throw is available.”
As an experiment, I decide to use x grip config. to execute y throw in a competition. In preparation for this competition, I will use x grip config. to execute y throw in training at least 5 times in every session against different training partners.
As you can see, I have set the parameters for the experiment to test my hypothesis. As experiments go, it has rigor (meaning I need to have thorough and specific parameters) and is measurable (meaning I have a means to record outcomes).
There are many ways in which I can experiment in training to test a hypothesis. I could set certain time limits, count repetitions, execute a technique from a certain position etc.
I now need to record the data from my experiment and analyze the implications on my hypothesis.
During training, I attempted to execute y throw from x grip config. 5 times in each of 5 training sessions in preparation for competition. Of 25 attempts, 20 were successful, 5 were unsuccessful. This is an 80% success rate.
During competition, I attempted to execute y throw from x grip config. 1 time in Match One and 2 times in Match Two. The attempt in Match One was successful and resulted in winning the match. In Match Two, my first attempt was unsuccessful, but my second attempt was successful. This is a 60% success rate.
The more thorough and rigorous with my experiment, the better the data I will produce. Even though the above is just an example, I could be more thorough; recording variables like my caloric intake, my weight and my opponents’ etc. The larger my data set, the better the conclusions I will be able to draw from it.
This is one reason that I recommend keeping a training diary or journal. For 2 years, I kept a daily training record; objectively recording data and techniques. I found this extremely useful from a research point of view, but also in review I was able to develop a number of conclusions even in retrospect.
Once I have conducted my experiment(s) I can start to develop some conclusions that either support or disprove my hypothesis.
My hypothesis was “whenever I get x grip configuration, y throw is available.”
After my experiment, I saw an 80% success rate using this technique in training, however in competition I only saw a 60% success rate.
y throw seems to have a decent success rate, however I need a wider data set voer a larger number of competitions to see how successful it is.
I also did not enter the open weight, so I do not have any data about how successful y throw is against opponents outside of my weight class.
In conclusion y throw is not always available when I get x grip configuration. Despite having a mid to high percentage success rate, I need more data before I can conclude the availability of y throw.
By drawing conclusions about my training, I can establish what still needs to be done or what I should work on next. Do I need to develop a completely new hypothesis? Did I disprove it completely? Did I confirm it completely? There is so much constructive feedback to be gained about your training in this process.
I was always confused by the idea of ‘plateaus’ or ‘hitting a wall’ in training. Surely if someone was to just look logically at their training they could identify and begin to troubleshoot the issues? It takes critical thinking to learn independently. To grow and expand your understanding, learn how to use tools that allow you broaden your approach.
Thanks for reading.