Development of Expertise in the Fighting Arts- Some Basic Notes

 What constitutes an “expert” in a fighting art or practice? Approaching the question from a motor learning perspective is highly useful, and has many obvious inroads into discussing pedagogy, practicality and transferability of a training method to a performance setting.Experts in any physical activity exhibit several common characteristics, regardless of the nature of the activity:
1. Superior ability to anticipate the likely outcome of a situation as it emerges. This is distinct from a conscious effort to guess what will happen, which we see in relative novices. Instead, this is more efficient perception-action linking. It manifests as shorter reaction time, with reaction time being the interval between stimulus and initiation of movement. RT is a reflection of the cognitive processing going on between perceptual and motor regions before a physical response is initiated. Combined with more efficient motor programs for the movement time, the result is a faster overall response time (RT and MT combined).
2. Less visual search for the important aspects of a developing situation. A relative novice looks everywhere, whereas the expert looks immediately at the salient areas (a shoulder movement before a punch, a slight drop of the forearm towards the belt line, etc.)
3. Consistent eye fixation on the important aspects of a situation once they have been identified. The relative novice continues to look at other elements even if he/she can recognize the important ones, whereas the expert will not change once the salient element has been identified and fixated on.
4. More efficient mental organization of knowledge about the activity. This is both conscious and procedural (unconscious) in nature. It is typically difficult for an expert to explain exactly the chain of events in how he/she responds to something with high efficiency, but it can be done; and it is equally difficult to accurately recall how one developed the skill (which is further conflated with training practices which may not have positively developed a skill, but are regarded as important anyway). An excellent example of both phenomena can be found in the introduction to Jack Dempsey’s Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense. After realizing that he couldn’t concisely teach his skills to younger boxers, he spent considerable time writing out notes on his developmental process as a fighter, noting that much of it was easy for him to perform but difficult to explain to someone else. The book was the result of his self-investigations.
5. For closed skills (those which the performer chooses when to initiate, in a stable, unchanging environment) fixation is required to develop expertise. Fixation is practice of the skill in unchanging parameters. For open skills (the performer has to time action to the outside environment and other people in it, both of which may be changing; fighting is predominantly an open activity) developing expertise requires diversification, or exposure to as many potential performance scenarios as possible. The interesting bit here is twofold:
a) The conditions present when a performer develops a skill will continue to influence his or her attempts to perform it, even when the performance conditions are different. It’s crucial that early phases of skill development match the crucial elements of the performance environment(s). Otherwise, the performer will have difficulty in performing the skill in contexts which are different than the initial learning environment (which ought to make one reconsider the usefulness of the fetish that exists in some arts for endlessly “polishing basics” in controlled settings).
b) Constant feedback and correction and repetition in a stable environment will lead to better performance in the learning environment, but not in the actual performance environment. Less feedback and more variety of performance contexts, alongside variability and the opportunity to make mistakes and solve them results in better recall and adaptation of a skill to unfamiliar or changing environments (blocked vs. randomized practice). Considering that most violence/fighting scenarios tend to be highly open environments, the implications for training someone to develop expertise in them are pretty obvious and huge.
Game Intelligence Skills
All of the above points merge into what has been referred to in athletic performance contexts as “game intelligence skills.” For combatives and fighting arts, GI skills can be regarded as:
Recognize Constraints

  • Constraints are the sum of Environmental Context and Action Goals. An affective domain is usually also involved.
  • Environmental Context: Characteristics of the environmental context, such as supporting surface, objects, lighting,  other people, confined space, open space, etc., which influence performance.
  • The EC may be in motion, or it may be stable;
  • EC may change from moment to moment or stay  the same
  • Action Goals– the desired outcome of a performing skill will influence one’s actions in achieving it:
  • an action may require body stability, or it may require transport
  • no object may be involved, or an object may be manipulated (weapon, tool, body part).

Identify Priorities

  • I need to reach the exit by evading/by fighting etc.
  • I need to protect a person to my left/right/rear etc.
  • I need to protect a vulnerable or injured part of my body
  • I need to hold the attacker off until help comes
  • I need to control this limb

Predict Outcomes

  • Examples: The opponent’s movements are indicative of an imminent punch to my head
  • If he completes the punch it will land at X…
  • If I don’t block or evade, the blow will/will not significantly affect my ability to achieve the priority
  • Blocking or evading will create/prevent an opportunity to counter attack

Perceive Affordances

  • Affordances are the possibilities for action that an environment or person offers or provides. For example, the point of my elbow offers smash-into-someone’s face-ability. The side of your face offers smash-an-elbow-into me-ability. A long necked lamp offers use-as-a-club –ability.
  • Position of a potential weapon or environmental feature relative to you or an opponent dictates our perception of their affordances
  • In this context, affordances fall into three categories:
    • Affordances of my anatomical weapons relative to the opponent’s body and position
    • Affordances of opponent’s anatomical weapon relative to my body and position
    • Affordances of features of the environment as a weapon

Adapt Familiar Skills to Novel Situation

  • Movements are behavioral characteristics of the limbs, head or body when performing a motor skill
  • Motor skillsare voluntary actions of the limbs, head or body with specific goals to achieve
    • Open Motor Skills- Motor skills performed in non-stable, unpredictable environment where an object or environmental feature is in motion and determines when to begin an action. Free sparring is an example.
    • Closed Motor Skills- Motor skills performed in stable, predictable environments where the performer determines when to begin the action. Hitting a stationary heavy bag is an example.
  • Different movements may be used to perform the same skill or to achieve the same action goals. Environmental context and the action goals (see Gentile’s Taxonomy) will determine what movements are used to perform a given skill. Fighting consists of predominantly of open skills in an open environment, often moving from open kinetic chain to closed kinetic chain actions.

It should be emphasized that these skills are predominantly procedural and motor in nature, and as such are not necessarily consciously directed (performance of motor skills tends to move from cognitive to autonomous); they do not represent a “flow chart” of how one does or should attempt to think during training or actual fighting. Any of these processes may occur in parallel as opposed to linear, or in a different order than is presented here. The GI skills model is a description of how expert-level performers tend to process and function in performance conditions, not a prediction or prescription.

Here are a few related citations that might be useful for exploring these ideas further:

Ericcson, T.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3), 363-406.

Gruber, H., Jansen, P., Marienhagen, J., & Altenmueller, E. (2010). Adaptations during the acquisition of expertise. Talent Development & Excellence, 2 (1), 3-15.

Mann, D.T.Y., Williams, M.A., Ward, P. & Janelle, C.M. (2007). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 457-478.

Simpson, R.E. (2011). Game intelligence skills of the fighting arts. (Unpublished, contact for reference). A.T. Still University/ASHS, Mesa, AZ.

Williams, M.A., Hodges, N., J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition. Journal of Sports Science, 23 (6), 637-650.

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.


2 responses to “Development of Expertise in the Fighting Arts- Some Basic Notes

  1. Pingback: A Brief Discussion on the Relativity of Skills | Fight Sciences Research Institute blog

  2. Pingback: More on Affordances | Fight Sciences Research Institute blog

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