The Process of Principles Based Teaching

Rory Miller's Blog - Fri, 2015-08-14 18:40
Partially in answer to Jim's question, largely this will be a draft of an article for Conflict Manager Online Magazine. I've been doing a four part series there, the last three are the steps towards application (deriving your principles, a touch of adult learning theory, stuff like that.)

So, background-- You have to know your principles, understand them. And you have to have a clear idea of what you are actually teaching (most common mistake, people equate fighting with self-defense.) Your ability to pass on knowledge is absolutely limited by the clarity of your understanding of that knowledge. And what follows is a process, but you must know how to teach and how to communicate separately from this process. For instance, criticism is rarely effective teaching.

The process:

On a psychological and emotional level, you have to prep people for learning. One of the most toxic things we have done in martial arts and in some of the reality-based systems is to make conflict special. People come to us convinced violence is alien to them, it is complicated, it is hard to learn. Emphasize that this is natural. The physics are the same as any other physical activity and the mentality is part of their evolutionary heritage. It's been hammered and brainwashed out of them, but they are all natural fighters, all survivors.
I like having an over-all game that skills will always tie back to. The game has to be well designed. Minimal bad habits (if people don't go to the hospital, there are safety flaws built in. If they do go to the hospital, they don't learn anything while recovering.) It must be what it is and no more (I never call the one-step a fight simulation. It is a geometry problem made out of meat, and your job is to solve the moving meat problem as efficiently as possible.) 
I like the game to have a competitive element to it, but no winner or loser-- you are going to strive to be more efficient than me, but if you excel at that, you haven't beaten me, just given me a more challenging problem to solve. The problem with full active resistance or any form of direct sparring is that the only the winner learns that "it works against a resisting opponent." The loser, who probably needs the skill more anyway, learns that it fails against resisting opponents. Failure is not a lesson you want to teach. Not at this stage. This is the play stage where you are familiarizing with principles and what you can do, and looking to increase efficiency.
I start with the one-step. That's the slow motion, taking turns, efficiency exercise described in Drills: Training for Sudden Violence, (That's Smashwords. Link to Amazon Kindle.) Next level up is to blend that into a faster flow drill. Flow helps to lock in the skills, but as you go faster the students will miss opportunities.  And that's always the balance-- you need speed to handle speed, and you need to practice speed to not be overwhelmed. But that always comes at the price of: 1) missing opportunities and slowing down learning. 2) The safety flaws become more important. A slow elbow to the head you can make contact, a fast one you have to pull. 3) The faster you go, the harder the training ingrains, good or bad. Including the safety flaws.
The third level is full blown infighting randori. Your students need supreme control and confidence to do this well and safely, and frequently, this one has a winner. It integrates skills better than anything I know, because it is too close and too fast to process cognitively.
So those are the games I tie back to. We play the game, the one-step first. Before any instruction whatsoever (they get an extensive safety brief and a demo) they play. The only criticism at that point will be for safety and staying within the rules. Like any other game, they have to learn the rules. Most important is time framing. It's a slow motion drill, so it is easy to get competitive and speed up to "win".Because they can do this successfully, it helps convince the student this is not special or alien. Gets them over that first big hurdle.
Next stage, you need to know your principles inside out. Then come up with ways to demonstrate them. Not techniques to remember, but sensations to feel.
Tie it back to personal experience "structure is just like pushing a car" but remind them it can always be more efficient. Or: when you do a squat, are you ever on your toes? Of course not. And you don't sprint from your heels. So heels down for power, heels up for speed. Basically, students may not have been consciously aware of their own bodies, but the body mechanics of physical altercations are the same body mechanics they have used every day.
Design or find a specific game that works a specific principle. Sumo is awesome for learning about the interplay between using structure and exploiting momentum.
Or demonstrate the common traits of a class of technique. I show one aspect of leverage by pointing out the different high-mechanical-advantage leverage points on the body and have the students experiment with them. The experimentation is key. And this is one of the places, where, as an instructor, you have to be careful. A lot of martial artists have been damaged by their previous instruction. These are the one who are always asking if they did it 'right' or which finger to use or how to grip. They are so used to being corrected that they are more concerned with the instructors criticism than success or failure they can feel. You have to deflect this by asking the only question that matters: "Did it work?"
Then bring bring them back to the general game, so the new stuff start to work with everything else. They shouldn't obsess on the new skill (e.g. only trying for leverage points) but the new skill will be fresh in their minds, and will come out a lot.
Repeat the cycle. Break them out of the game to work on something else, like targeting. Then put them back in the game. Theoretically, you could, after each skill, increase the speed. When they are starting to do it reflexively, pick up the speed to the flow level. Finally lock it in with a contest-level fast and hard game (infighting randori.
I don't do it that way. They can work on the principles in one-step forever. I move them to flow and randori based on their abilities and confidence level. Animals learn through play and the first exposure to randori should be fun and slightly overwhelming but shouldn't make them feel terrified and helpless.
The last, critical piece to self-defense is to occasionally run good scenario training. That allows them to use their skills in tandem with their judgment. And use more force, because of the armor. That said, scenario training is very hard to do well and safely and easy to do poorly. And poor scenario training can mess up students, physically, tactically and emotionally. It is better to stay away from the completely than to do them poorly. Last CCA for this post: I'll be running scenario training (and other things) in Rhode Island next month. Information is here:

So, Jim, not a single technique anywhere in that progression.There are some caveats, though:1) Done properly, it allows and encourages creativity. Which means your students will innovate some sneaky shit and beat you far sooner than if they train in techniques. This is not a good method for egotistical instructors.2) It can be hard to measure and test. Using this platform for jointlocks, we've gotten untrained officers improvising locks under pressure in an hour. And some of those locks would seem to be advanced. But they wouldn't have been able to name a lock or to demo a specific lock. Which makes organizations and concrete thinkers get the twitches.3) It's incompatible with most martial arts business models. The student/teacher relationship will shift to colleague/colleague very quickly. I like that, personally.

Concretes and Abstracts

Rory Miller's Blog - Thu, 2015-08-13 15:09
Technique-based training is concrete. "He throws a straight punch and you outside block, side step and throw an inside knife-hand strike. Go do a thousand reps." It's easy to teach. He does X, you do Y. Reps. But I can think of zero actual fighters who find this valuable (except as a business model). To deal with chaos you need to train with chaos. And train is the wrong word. You need to play.
Partially because play is the way animals naturally learn, partially because, in a complex system working rote drills hampers more than helps.

Principles-based training involves understanding the principles and applying them in chaos. It's much harder to teach, because knowledge isn't enough, the instructor must have understanding. It's less measurable, less "objective" but infinitely more useful under stress.

Technique repetition may lead to knowledge. Actual experience leads to understanding. Play, if the games are done well, can give you a start on understanding, maybe some insight.

As understanding deepens, you are able to "batch" more and more things. To integrate techniques that seem disparate into single thoughts. As you do so, you process things faster, you become more efficient and decisive.

A technique-based practitioner may go into a fight with a rolodex of forty hand strikes and twenty kicks in his head. He'll try to use this unwieldy mental rolodex and probably get his ass kicked. Memory is simply too slow. Taught in a principles-based way, one level of abstraction up is to understand that striking is just power generation, targeting, and conformation. If you understand it, your rolodex of sixty has become a rolodex of three, with a vast reduction in reaction, action and decision time but an increase in flexibility and adaptability. That's if you understand it. The problem is that if you only know it, you're going into the fight with three mental rolodexes that have to be cross-indexed under pressure. That's bad.

As your understanding deepens, your integrating concepts become simpler and more efficient. In Meditations on Violence I wrote about meta-strategies. Many of the extraordinary fighters I know have complete battle systems that can be expressed in a single sentence. "Destroy the base." "Defang the snake." "Take the center."

Simpler and more efficient, but also, expressed in words, they will seem more abstract. Memorizing techniques is easy. Nice and concrete. Teaching power generation, targeting and conformation is a good size to chunk the information. It gives beginners efficient tools and increases flexibility in hours instead of months. But every so often I want to go really deep, experiment with teaching a workshop on "Structure and Void". I think it would be a really powerful integrating concept, a good framework to teach. But I fear it's too abstract for most people. It would probably only be useful to people with a good depth of understanding already. There are far fewer of those.

KNX 15 – A unique experience

John Titchen's Blog - Tue, 2015-08-11 16:40

On the second weekend in August I travelled to Frankfurt along with other martial artists from around the globe to enjoy Jesse Enkamp’s second Karate Nerd ExperienceKNX 15. Attendees and instructors came together from North and South America, Europe, Africa and Okinawa to share their enthusiasm and knowledge in the beautiful facilities of the Frankfurt Sports Complex.

The momo-iro obi – more than just a belt.

Before I say anything about the instructors I’d like to make a comment on my fellow participants. I’ve seen a number of things written about the momo-iro (peach blossom) belt that is one of the signature elements of this event. From adults just out of college to a number of us with greyer hair and beards, throughout the event I had no idea of the grades or experience of my fellow participants. Grade was not relevant. What was relevant was an enthusiasm to learn, a clear respect for every other person on the mat, and the willingness to try new approaches. The belt was worn not only by the students but also by all the guest instructors. The momo-iro obi not only bound our waists, it brought us all together as a symbol of shared experience. 

So what was this experience? I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to have attended and taught at a number of national and international seminars at home in Britain and abroad, both in single disciplines such as karate or multiple martial arts. Without a doubt, forgetting for a moment the high quality of the instruction, this was the smoothest running event I have ever seen. Much of the credit for this is due to Jesse Enkamp and the team that he gathered together to run the seminar, particularly Matthias Golinski. From picking a good venue (with accommodation, training and social facilities all in the same building) and organising appropriate instructors, timetabling events and arranging video recording and cameras, communicating in advance and throughout the experience by email and social media, to welcoming us all with a goodie bag – everything slotted perfectly into place. For those of you that have read Jesse’s blog  this attention to detail should come as no surprise.

Holding for the punch.

Jesse kicked off the event by bringing us all together for a training session on four bunkai he had developed for a kata that was immediately identifiable to me (though a version from a system I had never practiced). This session and Jesse’s instruction set the tone for the entire weekend. Jesse is a superb technician and an inspiring teacher. Most people know Jesse through his Karate Nerd blog  as a successful competitor, and a good writer and researcher; as Jesse starts to teach more seminars I hope that more people will discover what a good teacher he is too.

Jesse was followed onto the mats by Swedish BJJ instructor Waldo Zapata from Viva Zapata BJJ . This was another lesson marked by good humour, training insights and high quality teaching.

Waldo Zapata

Imagine the challenge of teaching a number of ‘get-up’ drills to a class where the majority had little or no ground experience. It was a tough challenge, but the principles were explained clearly and movements broken down in such a way that the group progressed at a fast pace encouraged by Waldo’s enthusiasm.

Happy students at the end of the class.

The first evening began with a question and answer session with Okinawan Karate legend Hokama Tetsuhiro, 10th dan. Hokama Sensei was engaging and enthusiastic as he tackled the various questions the group put to him (and he was later interviewed by Jesse Enkamp for Jesse’s blog). Hokama Sensei kindly finished the evening by demonstrating his calligraphy skills, writing kanji for attendees on specially provided paper as well as signing copies of his latest book.

Hokama Sensei demonstrating.

Hokama Sensei taught three lessons on Saturday aided by two Uke and demonstrations from the attendees where he was impressed by their training. His lessons were marked by concentration, attention to detail, physical pressure and giggles. The combination of concentration, relaxation, hard conditioning (varying throughout the group depending on age and injuries) and laughter summed up what makes karate so appealing as a hobby, a form of exercise, and as a way of life.


In the middle of Sensei Hokama’s lessons the participants took a break from Okinawan karate to look at the dynamics of modern WKF competition karate under the tutelage of World Kumite Champion Jonathan Horne. Due to pain from a pre-existing back injury I sat and watched this lesson, which focused on understanding distancing, generating speed, using appropriate timing, and the economy of movement.

A composed Jonathan Horne giving a great demonstration of timing, distancing and economy of movement.

Karate is so broad that it can be easy to put ourselves into ‘camps’ or ‘factions’ and competitive karate is not my forte, but watching Jonathan teach I was able to identify principles of movement and posture that I have discussed elsewhere on my blog  as well as other commonalities with lessons taught by Jesse Enkamp, Waldo Zapata and Hokama Tetsuhiro. Although not the most physically demanding of the KNX sessions this was indubitably the most energetic and tiring, but the atmosphere created in the dojo meant that it was impossible to find a single person without a beaming smile while watching Jonathan demonstrate and teach.

On Saturday evening, as we gathered back at the dojo for the evening’s ‘secret’ activity, the group was still buzzing. Jesse had realised that we might be a combination of high spirits and tired bodies and had organised an introduction to meditation.


Suitably calmed and rested we all took advantage of the excellent social facilities to sit outside in the evening heat to informally discuss the day’s events over some nourishing cold beverages.

Before we knew it Sunday morning had come round and it was time for Jesse to deliver the final lessons. Jesse began by encouraging us to practice the combinations he had taught us on Friday before showing us how they related to the Ryuei-Ryu version of the kata Niseishi and teaching us the full solo form.

A KNX welcome.

As someone who knows two other versions of this form I found this lesson particularly fascinating. This session once again highlighted the quality of Jesse’s instruction and the precision of his techniques. It was also fascinating to see the slight variations in the performance of the same form caused by the different heritage of the various participants.

One last class remained. In a very prescient manner Jesse had scheduled a ‘recovery’ class to look at post training exercises to optimize recovery and therefore enhance our potential. This is a subject that is often ignored and it was good to see it covered as part of a more holistic approach to karate training.

While I am certain that there was more Jesse could have taught us, at that point the Dojo was stormed and taken over by another Master.


As we had failed to heed his warnings, travelling all the way from New Mexico, Ameri-Do-Te 11th Dan Master Ken strode into the Dojo to teach us the error of our ways.

Clearly outranking the ‘pink’ belts of the event organisers, Master Ken was quick to take control.  

Matthias Golinski, Master Ken, Jesse Enkamp.

This was truly a unique ending to a great weekend seminar. Master Ken was as incredible in person as his youtube channel Enter the Dojo suggests. After a quarter century of training in karate, I was humbled by the power and charisma of a one man hurticane.

Learning the Thrust of Freedom.

Watching this man shook me to my core. My sides are still aching. There were moments when along with my companions I was helpless on the floor.

Master Ken demonstrating one of the unique moves of Ameri-Do-Te.

Reflecting on the weekend I can see that it has stoked the enthusiasm of all the attendees and proved the flash point of a number of ideas that will be taken to dojos across the world. The only sad thing is that we could only meet up for a weekend. I would jump at the opportunity to train with any of the instructors who were chosen to teach, and would recommend training with any of them if you have the opportunity to go to a seminar or visit their dojos. Most of the instructors are based in Europe, America or Asia but KNX organiser Jesse is visiting the UK later this year.

Thanks to Jesse, the team and everyone else at KNX15 for a great event. I am already looking forward to seeing what the next one will be.







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