Teaching martial arts is hard.

Motor learning for martial arts

As you teach new students, you often find your instructions are misunderstood, those students struggle, and you’re left pulling your hair out.

Learning a new skill is difficult, and that’s never going to change. But we martial arts instructors tend to ignore fields of study that could really help us serve our students better.

If this sounds familiar, please continue:

There is a way to substantially boost your students’ progress.

It’s not a silver bullet, and it still requires work, but it makes things much smoother for you as an instructor.

What’s this solution?

I’m glad you asked:

Motor learning is the study of the processes involved in acquiring and refining motor skills and of variables that promote or inhibit that acquisition. A related field of study, motor control, focuses on the neural, physical, and behavioral aspects that underlie human movement. An understanding of both motor learning and motor control is necessary to develop a complete understanding of motor skill acquisition. (p. 3)

The above quotation from Cheryl A. Coker’s (2009) Motor learning & control for practitioners immediately makes clear the relevance of these two disciplines to the teaching and training of martial arts.

Until recently, martial arts instructors have made little use of motor learning research to inform their practice as teachers.

Instead, they have tended to rely on outdated educational psychology and/or merely the anecdotes of their own instructors.

As Coker continues, it becomes explicit why neglecting this discipline poses serious problems for improving the teaching and learning of martial arts:

Such an understanding [of motor learning and control] provides the human movement practitioner with foundational knowledge that not only explains why a certain behavior manifests but also provides the basis for assessing performance, providing effective instruction, and designing optimal practice, rehabilitation, and training experiences.

In other words, it’s not enough knowing that a training method works: an instructor needs to understand why a method works so that he or she can continue to develop effective practices.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring how select chapters from Motor learning & control for practitioners apply to teaching martial arts and combatives.

Therefore, I’ll be quoting liberally from chapter 1 and following its general structure, adding clarifications and examples for martial arts.

Learning and Motor Skills: Defining Terms

In everyday conversation, we use words like “learn,” “learning,” and “skill(s)” in a colloquial fashion. This imprecision can lead to serious misunderstandings that in turn might corrupt an instructor’s ability to improve his or her teaching skills.

Precise, technical definitions are in order, then, so that we are able to discuss these terms with fewer hidden assumptions or biases that might cause misunderstandings.

Motor skills are movements meant to accomplish a goal

In English, the term “skill” has a few different uses.

Some people use it as a way to say someone is skillful; in other words, this person has a high level of proficiency in something. We also use skill to refer to a particular ability, regardless of one’s proficiency with it.

The latter use is along the lines of the definition Coker offers for motor skill, which she defines as an act or task that satisfies four criteria (p. 5):

  1. It is goal-oriented, meaning it is performed in order to achieve some objective.
  2. Body and/or limb movements are required to accomplish the goal.
  3. Those movements are voluntary. Given this stipulation, reflexive actions, such as the stepping reflex in infants, are not considered to be skills, because they occur involuntarily.
  4. Motor skills are developed as a result of practice. In other words, a skill must be learned or relearned.

Not all skills are the same. That is, not all skills impose the same kinds of constraints or burdens on a human mover. Rather, motor skills fall on a large spectrum between closed skills and open skills.

All motor skills fall on a spectrum between closed & open skill types

Closed skills are performed in predictable environments, with little or no change during an activity. Open skills, on the other hand, are performed in “unpredictable, ever-changing” environments (p. 8).

Coker explains:

The closed/open distinction is an important one for practitioners, as the instructional goals for each differ significantly. For closed skills, consistency is the objective, and technique refinement should be emphasized.

For open skills, where the learner must constantly conform his or her movements to an unstable, unpredictable environment, successful performance becomes less dependent on mastering technique and more dependent on the learner’s capability to select the appropriate response in a given situation. (p. 8; emphasis added)

Some examples of closed skills include buttoning up a shirt, throwing a baseball at a static target, and shooting a firearm at static targets. Some examples of open skills include walking through a crowd of moving people, biking, and punching a moving target.

Not all motor skills fit neatly on one end of the spectrum. Constraints, or a lack thereof, place each individual skill on its own place in the motor skill continuum.

Learning is a lasting change in skill based on practice

The technical definition of learning is the “acquisition of novel information, behaviors, or abilities after practice, observation, or other experiences” (APA, 2015). In relation to motor learning, however, the definition narrows slightly:

Learning is defined as a relatively permanent change in a person’s capability to execute a motor skill as a result of practice or experience. (Coker, 2009, p. 4)

This definition helps us conceptualize what it means to learn a skill in martial arts, but it doesn’t capture the whole story. Coker outlines a basic problem with gauging learning in the context of human movement:

Part of the problem we face when attempting to determine whether a motor skill has been learned is that we can’t actually see learning, because the underlying or internal processes that result in a relatively permanent change cannot be directly observed.

Coker continues, outlining how a movement practitioner might indirectly assess learning through performance:

What we can see…is performance. Performance is the act of executing a skill. Through repeated observations of an individual’s performance, we infer whether the individual has learned a skill. These inferences are based on changes that we observe in an individual’s performance over time, such as improvements in movement proficiency and consistency.

It’s important to note that we infer that a student has learned a skill by observing improvements over time. A single class – or a week of classes, even – is not enough of a sample, because students might be fatigued, injured, or afflicted by any number of conditions that interfere with their performance but “do not necessarily indicate a loss of capability” (p. 4).

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning is an important concept in movement learning and educational psychology in general. I’ll touch on it here briefly, but will explore it in more detail in later articles.

Coker defines transfer, or transfer of learning, as “the phenomenon in which the learning of a knew skill or performance of a skill under novel conditions can be influenced by past experience with another skill or skills” (p. 143).

A good example of this might be improved counter punching in a boxing match based on a the previous practice of counters in several focus mitt drills. The counter skill practice in the mitt drills transferred to the boxing match.

There are three types of transfer: positive, negative, and zero.

Positive transfer is when a past skill learned in the context of one activity (e.g. a drill) facilitates the acquisition of or the ability to execute a skill in the context of another activity (e.g. a fight).

Negative transfer is when the learning of a past skill in one context “hinders or obstructs” the acquisition of execution of a skill in another context (p. 143).

Zero transfer means that learning a given skill in one context has no influence on the acquisition or execution of that skill in another.

Transfer of learning is a deeply important concept to martial arts training at every level. A more rigorous study of it has implications for preparation for self-defense as well as high-level sport performance.

For now, however, we move to discuss how we can classify the motor skills in martial arts.

Where Are Martial Arts Skills on the Closed/Open Skill Continuum?

A researcher by the name of A. M. Gentile proposed what he called a “multidimensional classification system” for motor skills, also known as Gentile’s taxonomy.

This system has become a professional staple among physical therapists and other movement practitioners because it allows practitioners to know where a given skill falls along the closed/open continuum.

The two main dimensions of this system, or taxonomy, are

  • the context of performance

and

  • the action requirements of a given skill (p. 10)

Sport scientists and other researchers call these dimensions regulatory conditions and action requirements, respectively. Moreover, analyzing a skill according to these two factors will reveal how that skill is best acquired (or taught).

Understanding martial arts skills using a classification system

The two main dimensions listed above each further break down into 4 subdivisions.

The regulatory conditions are environmental factors that affect the performance of a skill. A practitioner must ask (1) whether or not the environment is stable or in motion and (2) whether there is inter-trial variability (changes in the environment on each try).

4 possible options for regulatory conditions emerge from these considerations, listed here in order of increasing complexity:

  • Stationary and fixed
  • Stationary and variable
  • Moving and fixed
  • Movng and variable

The second dimension, action requirements, deals with how the mover must move his or her own body in response to the environment as well as manipulate other objects in the environment.

Action requirements breaks into 4 subdivisions, listed below in order of increasing complexity:

  • Neither body transport nor object manipulation
  • Object manipulation only
  • Body transport only
  • Both body transport and object manipulation

Below is a table that recreates Gentile’s taxonomy (p. 12; changes bolded). It includes an example of a motor skill that corresponds with the dynamics of each category.

  Neither body transport nor object manipulation Object manipulation only Body transport only Both body transport & object manipulation
Stationary & fixed Doing a sit-up (1) Moving a chess piece (2) Climbing a ladder (3) Shot put (4)
Stationary & variable Writing ABC’s with foot for ankle rehabilitation (5) “Round the clock” in darts (6) kata / forms (7) With a partner, following a dance pattern that has been placed on the floor (8)
Moving & fixed Floating on a river in an inner tube (9) Playing a yo-yo (10) Running down a hill (11) Walking on crutches in a clear hallway (12)
Moving & variable Riding in a tube pull by a speedboat (13) Playing Fooze Ball (14) Skating on a crowded ice rink (15) sparring / fighting (16)

Let’s examine the two categories of special interest in the taxonomy: 7 and 16.

You’ll notice that I edited the original table as found in Coker’s text to replace her examples with kata for category 7 and sparring or fighting for category 16.

I don’t mean to be underhanded here by stealing Coker’s authority and wrapping it around my own views. So, I’m going to walk you through why I placed kata and fighting in the categories I did.

Applying the classification system to martial arts

Kata/Forms

Category 7 on Gentile’s taxonomy is the intersection of two subdimensions:

  • Moving and fixed
  • Body transport only

To determine if forms or kata fit into this cateogry, we must first describe what kata is.

Kata are usually solo exercises where an individual performs a prearranged sequence of attacks and defenses, following a stepping pattern on the floor.

Kata do not usually include object manipulation in the form of acting upon an opponent, and there is no variable opponent or object operating in the environment against the kata performer.

So kata performers must move (body transport), but they do not have to manipulate an object. This rules out action requirement subdimensions 1, 2, and 4.

There are also typically no variable conditions in the environment whenever a performer performs a kata (esp. no opponent), but the place where you start and end in a kata might change slightly between practice trials.

However, if theoretically you were to perform a kata exactly the same every time, following exactly the same beginning and end points, kata might actually fit into Gentile’s category 3 (e.g., climbing a ladder).

In fact, I think you could make a case that kata ought to fit into category 3 because kata is meant to be performed the same every time and good performers largely do, within a reasonable margin of error.

Nevertheless, these facts at least rule out regulatory conditions subdimensions 3 and 4. Subdimensions 1 and 2 remain a matter of debate.

This leaves us with kata at either category 3 or 7 because it is accurately described by those two sets of subdimensions.

Coker’s example of a category 7 activity was a dance performed to a set floor pattern (p. 12). Because this appears to me to most closely describe kata, I chose to place kata in category 7.

Sparring/Fighting

Category 16 lies at the crossing of two important subdimensions:

  • Both body transportation and object manipulation
  • Moving and variable

Sparring, fighting, and self-defense all share key underlying dynamics that place them each in category 16 of the taxonomy.

All three of these activities require

  • Body transport (footwork)
  • Object manipulation (acting upon, controlling an opponent)
  • Moving regulatory conditions (an active opponent)
  • Variable inter-trial conditions (opponents who act and respond differently every match or engagement)

Because all three of these factors accurately describe sparring, fighting, and self-defense, I contend that all three fit into category 16.

But because they fit into this category, the training methods that sparring or self-defense might properly entail are very different than kata.

You’re probably thinking:

What does this mean for forms/kata practice?

It means that forms practice has very little relationship to building the most important skills for fighting, sparring, and self-defense.

As a traditional martial artist, I found this difficult to accept.

I was and remain good at forms, and it was an extremely significant practice in my martial arts for 15 years…until I got into educational psychology.

But the research is clear and well-attested. In fact, Coker addresses it almost directly:

A second determinant of action requirements is object manipulation. Some skills require the performer to manipulate objects or opponents. Wrestling…and grasping fall into this category. Other skills, including performing step patterns in aerobics…do not require object manipulation. (p. 11)

What we see from Coker here is a contrast between two types of skill categories related to sparring and forms practice.

What about one step sparring?

Now, I’m sure it’s not lost on you that this doesn’t perfectly describe all kinds of formal exercises. I expect most of my readers to be current or prospective instructors, so you know your curriculum.

Best-known among formal exercises, besides forms, are the so-called “step sparring” routines. These differ the most from forms in that they are typically practiced with a partner.

But because step-sparring does not allow for unscripted attacks and responses – and furthermore, almost always follows a predictable floor pattern – it camps firmly in category 8.

This is still far off from category 16, wherein sparring, fighting, and self-defense skills are housed.

This raises some important questions about which activities we see as more definitional of martial arts as a whole.

In other words, do we see forms-practice or sparring as more definitional of martial arts as a whole?

A definitional change in our view of martial arts

Defining martial arts by its historical use

The notion that the martial arts is more than combat, that it’s a vehicle for self-improvement and moral education, is a fairly recent one in history.

Facing declining interest, and in some places extinction, Chinese and Japanese masters began to reframe the martial arts as less about combat and more about improving yourself. This led to efforts of integrating martial arts practice into schools and colleges.

I agree that martial arts training must be accompanied by ethical teachings for the sake of producing martial artists who apply their knowledge morally and with self-discipline. As a byproduct, this can help to produce genuinely better people, especially when students are very young.

What I do not agree with is that martial arts is primarily meant for personal development, as if its true utility is building character, and physical combat fitness might be a happy byproduct someday (or never).

This ignores the historical reality of martial arts. It was needed for warfare, both military and civilian, and that’s how it was practiced by and large until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nonarguments muddy the conversation about training methodology

Many thinkers throughout history have agreed that moral education is a necessary corequisite for combat training, but it is not as if combat training was in itself thought of as a vehicle to that end.

Yet, this whole discussion of training methodology is so often obscured by nonarguments like “martial arts is about more than practical self-defense” or “martial arts ins’t about fighting, it’s about self-improvement.”

This tosses up a smokescreen that conveniently allows critics to outright ignore better training methods.

Instead of critically examining the issues at hand, the goal posts are moved entirely. And yet, somehow, these same individuals will still argue as if their training methods are better than more research-based ones.

This general trend seems disingenuous, and is certainly damaging to the overall conversation about how instructors can continue to refine and improve their teaching methods.

But I digress too much. Today, martial arts is enjoyed by millions through combat sports like karate, taekwondo, judo, boxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

So given the millions who enjoy combat sports (fighting, sparring), and the countless millions of history who practiced martial arts for war and self-preservation, the proper view of martial arts seems strongly oriented toward combat and/or self-defense.

That doesn’t mean that martial arts cannot also envelope personal development, meditative exercises, and any number of other things that distinguish it from mere exercise.

What it means is that claims or arguments about ancillary issues like character education and personal development have no place in discussions about improving training methodology.

Martial arts is about combat.

Understood in light of both its historical and sportive uses, therefore, the martial arts exist at the intersection of the two most dynamic, variable, chaotic options within the dimensions of Gentile’s taxonomy.

In other words, defined as combat, the major motor skills required for martial arts are as open as skills can possibly get on the closed/open continuum.

Whereas forms practice heavily favors the closed skill side of the continuum.

As I cited Coker above, the two basic types of motor skills entail very different types of training methods.

Therefore, I submit to you that the combat focus should be the main focus of our approach to martial arts training if we purport in any capacity to teach self-defense and/or prepare athletes for a combat sport competition.

And this means that the traditional martial arts program, as a concept, must be turned on its head:

Implications of Motor Learning Research on Teaching Martial Arts

If we’re to take the research summarized by Coker seriously, it means that formal exercises like kata or poomsae do not have a significant positive transfer of learning to sparring, fighting, or self-defense.

(Indeed, they might well have zero transfer.)

Instructors who claim to prepare their students for self-defense or competition must tailor their training methodology and teaching strategies to the demands of a variable, unstable environment.

Assuming this is the case, formal exercises commonly found in traditional martial arts should not take up any significant amount of training time.

Instructors should instead focus on exercises or drills that most closely mimic the important dynamics of fighting or self-defense.

Besides sparring, there are several types of drills – known as technical sparring or positional drills, depending on the style – that can fulfill these criteria.

I’ll explore these drills, as well as better overall lesson design for this type of training, in forthcoming articles.

Conclusion

Teaching martial arts is hard, and martial arts instructors tend to make it harder on themselves by neglecting fields of study that could help them.

One of these fields of study is motor learning: the study of the processes underlying the acquisition and refinement of motor skills.

It turns out that a serious study of this discipline reveals that traditional approaches to martial arts training are problematic.

Using Gentile’s motor skill taxonomy, we find that formal exercises found in martial arts are in completely different categories than the dynamic activities in martial arts, such as sparring and fighting.

And because different motor categories entail different methods of training, this means that there is very little (if any) transfer of learning between formal exercises and something like self-defense or fighting.

Training for fighting or self-defense, instead, requires drills that mimic the crucial dynamics of fighting or self-defense as closely as possible.

Therefore, the traditional martial arts program, if it claims on any level to teach self-defense or to prepare athletes for combat sports, must revise its class content to de-emphasize formal exercises and spend much more time on dynamic-style drilling and sparring.


Check out Part 2 of this series: Movement Preparation and Martial Arts.


References

Coker, Sheryl A. (2009). Motor learning & control for practitioners. Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.

Learning. (2015). In Apa dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: The American Psychological Association. 594.