The practice of martial arts has come to be diverse in terms of the wide range of arts and schools available and in terms of the population that is involved. Physical fitness and talent may only be required to a small degree, or they may be paramount to success. Students may be dedicated about conditioning, or they may be “weekend-warriors” whose primary physical activity is a class. An instructor may be qualified in a technical realm but not be a good source of information in others, such as the nature of violence. The need for Evidence Based Practice (EBP) is just as high as in any other vigorous physical activity, yet appeals to tradition, history and authority and “experts” often lead students and practitioners to accept dubious information or ignore new information, which can have consequences on a number of levels. For this discussion, the practice of the various martial arts can be divided into two realms: non-competitive recreational (i.e., oriented at self defense, fitness, cultural pursuit, etc.) and competitive (amateur or professional competition). Most of this discussion will focus on the recreational realm.
What is EBP?
Briefly, evidence-based practice can be seen as a tool for:
- finding evidence to support decision making and for analyzing the quality of the available evidence
- distinguishing low quality sources of qualitative and quantitative information from high quality sources
- promoting critical thinking and synthesis of the literature
- recognizing that best evidence may change over time
Evidence-based practice is a key feature in modern medical education. In the above diagram of EBP components, it doesn’t take much effort to exchange “patient” for student and “clinical expertise” for instructional expertise
It’s also important to recognize what EBP is not:
- A cookbook approach to training and decision making
- Not based solely on hard evidence- empirical experience, intuition and active experimentation have a role. EBP considers personal experience, judgment, values, etc. alongside information from objective, quality sources.
- Not restricted to RCT’s and meta-analyses
Failures of EBP in the Fighting Arts
An extreme example of a lack of critical thinking and evidence-based practice can be found in the cult of personality that has developed around Ueshiba Morihei, founder of the Japanese art of Aikido.
Aikido specializes in a kind of grappling that seeks to redirect the offensive actions of an opponent with minimal effort on the part of the defender. Ueshiba had developed skill in multiple martial disciplines prior to formulating Aikido, and his overall technical skill was considerable. As he aged and adopted an esoteric approach to teaching, some of his followers began to circulate fantastic stories about his ability to disappear and reappear in different locations, to stop time, or to deflect attackers without physical contact (Friedman, 2005). These stories are patently, obviously false, yet they persist into current times. In such schools of the art, the “mystical” interpretations of Aikido can lead to a serious neglect of the practical elements. Students are encouraged to believe that sufficient chi in Aikido technique is enough to overcome a strong, determined attacker. The fact that chi is an immeasurable force that is not observable under controlled settings, and “demonstrated” via parlor tricks does not seem to be taken into account by the instructors who sell the idea to students, or by students who accept such claims. In this case, assumptions based on these anecdotal tales have had an influence on how groups approach training.
In recreational martial arts schools (and possibly some competitive ones), many generally accepted ideas about training methods and the nature of fighting come from low quality sources. Commonly accepted ideas about training may have their roots in fictional stories and movies, which in some cases have been passed down for decades as factual accounts (Kennedy & Guo, 2005). With the rise of martial arts action and fantasy films and elaborate fight scenes, separating fact from fiction has become more difficult. In my experience this in itself can predispose otherwise intelligent people to believe elevated or absurd claims by manipulative guru-types (Ninjas, Shaolin monks, death touches, super-powerful secret methods and techniques, secret gradings by secret masters, fraudulent military credentials etc.). These practices will persist as long as people want to believe in such things and are willing to pay for someone to confirm them.
Some instructors separate themselves from such practices by citing historical information related to their school. Historical research is valuable but its place in informing EBP is highly variable. While historical knowledge of how a specific martial artist or school trained can be instructive, such methods are not necessarily safe or smart and should not be taken as prescriptions for how we should train today. For example, physical conditioning methods and technical training methods may produce certain improvements at the cost of creating chronic or acute injuries that impair performance. Assumptions about the functioning of muscles may lead to teaching methods that actually degrade a student’s ability to move freely and fluidly in free conditions. Adherents of so-called traditional schools may pass these methods on to their own students in a well meaning yet uniformed way (see Russell, 2009 for an excellent discussion of this factor). Faulty or outdated understandings of anatomy and physiology embraced by a well-meaning instructor will dictate how physical training affects the body for better or worse. Many martial arts expect that the student will be committed and dedicated to his or her school and instructor(s), yet the obligations of the school and instructors to the student are often not as clearly defined or accepted (Miller, 2011). If a conditioning or training method causes injuries or long-term health problems, the goals of the art itself are undermined.
There are several areas in which a lack of EBP tends to degrade the quality of skill-based training and of physical conditioning for these goals. These can be outlined as: physical conditioning methods, efficacy of techniques, and information concerning the nature of violence. The last two are closely related and might be productively considered as one category. For many of these areas there is not much information in the research literature about the specific practices of specific arts, or the success of these methods. Citations are provided where possible, but in cases where this is lacking, I intend to provide suggestions for improved EBP usage based on my observations as an experienced student and instructor of an eclectic fighting art, and as a producer of EBP materials for the wider fighting arts community.
A useful hierarchy for determining the relative quality of informational source. In expanded versions of this pyramid, “expert” opinions are the lowest quality source of quality information. In fighting arts circles however, they tend to be given high, occasionally unquestionable regard. Careful consideration is required to evaluate whether or not expert opinions should be the basis for training practices.
Physical conditioning methods
The demands of a martial art can be just as high as those of a sport or other physically-intense recreational activity. Students in non-competitive martial arts schools may train for a number of goals, such as self-defense or a novel exercise option, but training can be approached as a thing in itself, independent of other physical training concerns. Practices such as “impact conditioning,” repetitive open chain striking, striking of targets, and the torque, tension, compression and shear forces on joints from various grappling techniques take their toll on the body, yet the potential for overuse and overtraining injuries are not likely to be addressed. There is not much scientific research into the effects of many traditional or common practices, but research from athletic fields can inform our approach to them. Instructors may be practicing traditional or accepted methods in a way approved or defined by tradition or an organization, but this does not discount them from a responsibility to understand how such stress to the body negatively effects a student, and how such training can be balanced by evidence-based corrective methods and programming. Other training methods may be contraindicated by modern sports science research findings, such as the practice of “bunny hops” that was (and still may be, depending on the school) common as a leg conditioning exercise in the Japanese interpretations of karate (and their Western derivations).
“Toughness” is often conflated with the degree to which one is fit for the activity, and obscures the need for a sensible approach to higher-intensity training activities. Simply doing more of the same is not always the best way to improve or overcome injuries and performance deficits. A great example is found in many styles of kung fu and Okinawan karate, in which impact conditioning of the arms and legs is routinely practiced. This typically involves banging the various aspects of the forearms into those of a training partner, or hard surfaces of training equipment. In the legs this takes the form of kicking each other in the outer thigh, inner thigh and lower peroneal complex. Practices such as these may be necessary for a student of a fighting art to experience such contact in a graded way, but the degree and the intensity to which it is practiced can have detrimental effects on a practitioner. The “if some practice is good, 1000 times must be best” mentality that is often encouraged will encourage the development of muscular imbalances, which in turn can cause avoidable injuries in other training activities (via hypertonicity and fascial remodeling of the struck muscles, leading to synergistic dominance and altered joint control). With a little knowledge of information on the effects of such contact affects the muscles and connective tissues, an instructor can modify his or her approach to it, leading to improvements in performance and injury-free training time.
Risks inherent to the activities of an art present an ethical concern that the instructor be familiar with preventive measures and warning signs, both in conditioning activities and training activities. For example, trauma to the neck consistent with chokes and falls may cause vertebral artery dissection, and care must be taken to ensure that a student has the appropriate levels of isometric neck stabilization ability prior to experiencing these techniques at speed or force. Conditioning activities should reflect this need, and the parameters of high-risk activities should be carefully defined so that the relative control of a student is appropriate to his or her training partners experience level. Simply doing more of the activity is not necessarily an effective or smart way to mitigate such risks.
Concepts such as periodized training are still somewhat “new” to martial artists, much more so in the recreational arts. Tales of a master’s dedicated daily practice of one method or another often substitute for research-based programming strategies that take specificity, variance and recovery into account as critical factors in learning and improvement. The notion that improvement only comes from “more time on the floor” is very common, despite examples of practitioners who suffer avoidable injuries as a result. Adopting modern training strategies such as periodization can offer improved training and performance to students, as well as a very flexible but logical progression for instructors to use in planning classes for days, weeks or months at a time. The relative necessity of certain training must be considered alongside the adaptive costs to the body and programmed accordingly. Necessary but potentially injurious activities such as intense free sparring or Randori can be phased into training after periods of appropriate conditioning and technical instruction, and phased back out for recovery periods of less intense activity. A wealth of evidence-based programming information is available but in order to reap the most benefit, it must be applied to training without placing an inflated authority or value on traditional ideas (confirmation bias in particular, which can lead an instructor to say “well Historical Figure X used weights, so it’s already in karate/etc.”, when in reality Historical Figure X knew a fraction of what the average strength & conditioning coach knows today).
A potential remedy for these and other problem examples is for organizations and individual instructors to place a priority on gaining education and certification through evidence-based groups such as NSCA (National Strength & Conditioning Assocaition), NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) or ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine). Such programs can provide instructors with access to EBP information and guidelines, as well as resources for further adapting modern sports science guidelines to their practices. Knowledge of injury prevention and action would also benefit from basic first-aid and CPR training, as well as a review of the literature on topics such as injury occurrence per art or competitive format. An EBP trained instructor can recognize that the student with a history of heart conditions needs to consult his or doctor before starting training, that a student with symptoms of IT band syndrome should lay off on the leg impact-conditioning, or that the student who is dazed following an unexpected fall requires careful evaluation, or medical attention if certain signs are present.
Nature of violence & efficacy of techniques
Several claims are common to recreational martial arts schools. The first of these is that training will provide self defense skills, which are often tied to historical claims or lineage and prowess. Related to this is the claim that X method or school is the “deadliest/most effective fighting method out there.” The reality is that there is no most effective martial art. Yet the fact remains that martial arts propose to teach people how to protect themselves and fight when necessary, and this creates an ethical obligation on the part of the instructor to provide the best possible instruction to students training for these goals. Physical violence is not a static thing that always takes on one aspect or another and the concerns that one individual may have are not necessarily the same that another may have (Miller, 2008). Martial arts instructors therefore have a lot of ground to cover, and appeals to authority, tradition and history seldom provide sufficient guidance in preparing a student to have a better chance of surviving violence.
“Effective self-defense” is associated with most martial arts, yet competitive methods and what might be called anachronistic training are often conflated with pragmatic goals. Training must be appropriate to a practical goal, not training appropriate to another goal. For example, a woman living in a college undergrad dorm does not have the same risk factors and defensive needs as young man living in an urban area (United States Department of Justice, 2007). A competitive MMA fighter, wrestler or boxer does not have the same training priorities as the college student or young urban man. A competitive fighter knows when and where his or her next “fight” will occur, and by virtue of the rules of a competition, has the advantage of knowing exactly what techniques and methods an opponent may use, and which ones they will not use. The student seeking to survive a violent assault does not know any of this until it is happening. This is an important distinction for an instructor to be able and willing to make, especially if students expect that training will enable them to protect themselves or fight.
Research and EBP guidelines can provide an instructor with a wealth of knowledge that is more reliable and more accurate than appeals to tradition or “expert opinions.” Traditional understandings of skill training and learning in the martial arts are often anecdotal or inaccurate, and this affects how training to survive violence is approached. An example of a EBP guideline with relevancy in this area is the research finding that ability in one area is not predictive of ability in another. This supports the observation that training for one type of violence does not automatically transfer to performance across all levels of violence (Magill, 2007). Other EBP guidelines can clarify why the idea that “perfect form” translates to perfect execution is not accurate. A learner must obtain a basic movement pattern in early training, but for the demands of something as chaotic as fighting, parameterization (adapting the pattern to the demands of a given situation) is of more importance. Training that focuses predominantly on improving the “form” of a technique over parameterization actually degrades one’s ability to modify the movements of a technique or skill to unpredictable or novel situations (see Wulf, Schmidt & Deubel, 1993). Yet form training is often highly prioritized in recreational martial arts settings and conflated with development of general fighting ability.
The research finding that 10 years of dedicated practice are required to produce expert-level practitioners has found favor in traditionalist circles lately, since it supports anecdotal ideas about how long it takes one to learn to actually use an art. But the implications of the research are often eclipsed by the popular presentation and filtered through stylistic bias (the sources studies are Ericsson & Smith, 1991, and Ericcson, Krampe & Tesch-romer, 1993, and popular renderings aren’t necessarily representative). When Ericsson and colleagues state that expertise comes from 10 years of intense and deliberate practice, this does not mean that form drilling or competition-style sparring will produce a student who will survive a violent assault. What it will produce is someone who is good at performing the form or scoring points within a rule set. 10 years of practicing something like karate’s Sanchin kata will not prepare a student to give or take a serious beating. Practice of Sanchin will produce someone who is good at performing the kata and responding to shime (impact testing) in ways that are rewarded by an instructor’s approval. EBP can inform practice towards a goal, but caution must be used in projecting traditional or anecdotal notions onto research evidence.
The ways in which a practitioner actually develops more practically-oriented skills are usually not given as much attention as the signature training that is associated with a particular school or style, and so the myth persists. Deliberate practice involves specific activities designed by an experienced instructor to improve specific aspects of a student’s performance. The closer an activity resembles the specific element that it is meant to improve, the better. Tradition and history cannot provide the information or ideas that an instructor will need to devise such training, especially for special populations (the elderly, frail, handicapped, etc.) 10 years of practice only means that the student has had 10 years to reinforce their responses to training demands, not necessarily those of actual conflict.
A failure to move past the exaggerated attack or complicit-attacker stages of training means that the student is being trained to operate within very narrow and artificial windows of opportunity. Statements such as “timing and distancing are the most important skills” are a reflection of such misguided practice. Skills that are dependent on timing and distancing may operate well in a pre-planned duel-type match, or a voluntary fight that takes place in optimal conditions, but not necessarily in the conditions of unexpected assault or extreme, overwhelming violence. Again, the methods of training do not necessarily mirror the goals. EBP instructors can take a critical look at how well a valued or standard training method actually achieves the purported goals of preparing one for violence.
When the multi-faceted nature of violence is taken into account (Miller, 2008 provides a good starting point), it becomes clear that teaching self-protection and fighting skills presents an instructor with a lot of ground to cover, which does not always jive well with the neat syllabi of organizations or traditional schools. The practical implications of the research examples above are clear. Being good at the limited format of point sparring does not automatically make one competent in a serious fight or violent assault. A woman who has practiced self-defense skills designed around a naive understanding of sexual assault + is not necessarily prepared to fend off a a familiar person (sexual assault by strangers or non-strangers may be more or less likely depending on context; DOJ, 2007) who has pinned her to a couch or bed, severely limiting her ability to move and produce force. Practicing techniques in the air or via imagination does not prepare one to use them in real life. Highly scripted and controlled partner practice does not necessarily prepare one to fight a determined, motivated or unpredictable attacker. Finally, a black belt or similar rank does not make one an expert on violence, fighting, transferable skills training, predatory behavior or avoidance methods, no matter what historical or traditional claims support it. Using evidence-based approaches can lead to a more useful understanding of violence and inform training that reflects specificity relative to situational goals.
As discussed in a review of EBP intervention methods studied in health-care settings (Bazian, 2005), access to EBP guidelines and new information does not necessarily mean that an established practitioner/clinician will read and use them. Practitioners may have access to databases of the best current information and reviews, but in many cases these resources are hardly used, if at all. Access does not equal usage- usage must be motivated by a recognition that competency in one’s art is not enough; being a “black belt” or whatever rank is not enough; doing things the way they’ve “always been done” is not enough. Several suggestions along these lines could go a long way in providing a better standard of quality in martial arts, particularly in the recreational realm:
1. Instructors and practitioners can only benefit from seeking out and critically using information from qualified sources. For the martial arts instructor or coach, summaries and synopses of several studies (abstracts, current text books) are the most accessible and useful. Individual studies, synopses and meta-analyses are found in peer-reviewed journals, many of which are available free online and in research databases such as PubMed and JStor. Access to such information is at an unprecedented level and the onus is on instructors to seek it out. Popular magazine and book reporting of research information can be unreliable, over-simplified and biased, and should be used with discretion. “Expert opinions” are the lowest source of reliable information and should not be taken at face value. When in doubt, find it out.If you’re not sure, look for more.
2. To develop knowledge of current safe and effective physical conditioning and training concepts, a reliance on tradition, history and authority figures within a school/organization is not sufficient. There has been a revolution in the athletic training and movement science fields in the last few decades, yet many martial artists, particularly the so-called traditional groups, train in ways that are badly outdated and related to increased risk of avoidable injury (as well as improving in-class performance but not recall or transference). Skilled martial artists are not necessarily good sources of current and accurate training information. Including basic to advanced certification by groups such as the NASM or ACSM as a requirement of instructor training can promote critical appraisal of existing training methods, provide rationale for such methods, and encourage adoption of updated methods where required.
3. Basic first aid training and a familiarity with the injuries common to an activity/training method can enhance an instructor’s ability to prevent, recognize and respond to potential injuries in training. A basic knowledge of anatomy and the injuries common to an activity, as well as basic first response skills, enables the instructor to plan training to best avoid high-risk situations and to structure training in a way that adequately prepares the student for potentially high-risk activities.
4. Instructors who claim to teach self-protection and fighting skills have an ethical obligation to provide the best possible instruction for a student’s circumstances. Standardized systems and syllabi are not adequate. Historical claims of “deadliness” or effectiveness art not adequate. An instructor’s ability to provide such instruction can be greatly enhanced by using EBP methods to find relevant data regarding violent attacks and rates of incidence per population. Quality information from the Bureau of Justice and similar sources is far superior to tradition, history or “expert opinions” in identifying training priorities by population and scenario. Prioritization and parameters of training methods should change to reflect relevant information. If you do not wish to take on the extra work that this will involve, or feel your interpretation is beyond improvement, consider dropping terms like “effective self defense” from your advertising. Terms such as hobby martial arts, historical/anachronistic martial arts, LARPing, etc. may be more accurate.
Epilogue: when past examples can be useful
The various martial arts embody a tradition of active research and open borrowing of other methods and new methods. No one culture has developed the most effective fighting or self-protection. Many techniques overlap, what is “secret” or advanced to one group may be basic training to another. No one method has ever gotten everything right, but some have made much more progress than others. Progress is made by critical evaluation of one’s goals and methods and honest reflection on how well one serves the other. Seeking out new methods and knowledge (experiential or otherwise) to achieve a practice’s goals is called for as opposed to blindly adhering to traditions, especially when they fail on the levels mentioned previously.
My primary background is in karate, which is about as big of a mutt as something can be. Okinawa occupied a middle point in the shipping lanes between China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Siam (Thailand) and the Pacific island groups. Contact with other cultures through trade was diverse, and Kerr relates that Okinawan culture was influenced by ideas, tools and knowledge from all of them (Kerr, 2000). Among the local martial arts this led to extensive and eclectic cross-training with new concepts from visitors who possessed a martial art background. A very wide array of training methods and conditioning tools were developed and used, from the simple (heavy rocks with handles set in them) to the sophisticated (“wooden man” dummies, striking posts, punching bags, etc.) (Bishop, 1999). By the time karate attracted the attention of the outside world, many influences were integrated so that Chinese, Indonesian and Siamese weaponry, a heavy influence from Chinese kata (forms) and conditioning tools, Chinese medicine, Japanese combat strategy, and the indigenous sumo-type grappling arts all commingled. The result is that karate is a family of interrelated folk arts rather than the modern perception of it as one particular thing.
As karate established in the Japanese mainland, more and more influence from Western science and medicine began to shape training. Okinawan teachers and their students began incorporating updated warm up, stretching and resistance training methods into their training, some using old tools with new information and some totally new altogether (Cook, 2009). Several systems of karate still use these methods, although the underlying science or rationale for many of them is now quite outdated. The challenge to each generation of practitioners and instructors is to seek out the best new information and apply it to their training. This may involve science and research, but the application of EBP guidelines to training involves trial and error, and finds much in common with the challenges of art. Simply repeating past practices without alteration might continue the practice of a particular tradition, but it does not mean that its underlying goals (or those of the student) will be fulfilled.
Within all martial arts and sports there’s a rich history of active research by people who were pioneering in some ways but who were still limited to certain understandings of their times. Their contributions are valuable, but should be open to evaluation and modification in light of modern information, research and student needs. Traditions and past practices can guide us in our approach to training, but when they become firm boundaries instead of examples the benefits of training may be undermined or lost altogether.
The precedent set for modern practitioners by past developments is one of innovation and flexibility in approach, guided by honest and critical appraisal and informed by an evidence-based approach to practice. If instructors and practitioners are able to recognize the benefit of evidence-based practices and guidelines within their training, their practices will continue to evolve and improve instead of stagnating into historical curiosities with little to offer to the pragmatic student.
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Bishop, M. (1999). Okinawan Karate (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing.
Cook, H. (2009). Shotokan karate a precise history (2nd ed.). England: Page Bros.
United States Department of Justice. (2010). Criminal victimization in the United States, 2007 statistical tables. Retrieved from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cvus07.pdf
Friedman, H. (2005). Problems of romanticism in transpersonal psychology: A case study of Aikido. The Humanistic Psychologist, 33 (1), 3–24. Available at http://eurotas.org/uploads/pdf/AikidoTHP.pdf
Magill, R. A. (2007). Motor learning and control. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Miller, R. (2008). Meditations on Violence. Westboro, NH: YMAA
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Miller, R.J. (2011) Who’s this stuff for? Retrieved from http://tkriblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/whos-this-stuff-for/
Kennedy, B., Guo, E. (2005). Chinese martial arts: A historical survey. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Kerr, G. (2000). Okinawa the history of an island people (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing.
Russell, G. (2009). Epistemic viciousness in the martial arts. Retrieved from http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~grussell/epistemicviciousness.pdf
Wulf, G., Schmidt, R.A., Deubel, H. (1993). Reduced feedback frequency enhances generalized motor program learning but not parameterization learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 19 (5), 1134-1150.