Dueling Mantras: Competing Tactical Tenets in Martial Arts

There are many rules of thumb that are used to convey useful generalizations to martial arts students. One that I’ve heard for years is:

“Use as big a movement as you have time for.”

The idea is that big movements are more powerful and, thus, more likely to be effective in damaging/dissuading the opponent–if they land. Big movements use major joints and muscle groups, and allow one to put one’s body-weight into the target. There is, of course, a trade-off that’s recognized in the latter part of the tenet, and that’s that big movements are slower movements and slower movements are less likely to succeed. (i.e. One needs to streamline one’s big movements.)

Like any generalization, this tenet can be valuable only as long as one recognizes where its truth falters. I think this rule of thumb is great as long as the student does sufficient sparring / randori (after they’ve learned the basics.) If one doesn’t (e.g. if one only practices forms,) one can easily develop a false impression of how much time one has against an opponent who doesn’t practice the same art–and how big a movement one can make work. In other words, one’s enemy may dance about pummeling one about the head and neck as one lunges with big (futile) movements.

The aforementioned tenet isn’t the only way of looking at the question of whether to favor big (long/slow) or small (short/fast) movements.

One might also suggest:

“Use as small a movement as will sufficiently damage the opponent.”

Again, there’s a trade-off. While small movements offer relatively high odds of success–they are hard to see and counter–they aren’t as likely to achieve a much sought-after coup de grace (meaning a fight-ender, not necessarily a killing blow.) The risk one faces if one follows this second tenet too blindly and without sparring is becoming extremely fast while unable to punch one’s way through a wet paper sack. This is kung fu movie style martial arts, very impressive to look at but not so so effective in a combative sense.

I would argue that one should take advantage of any opportunity to deliver substantial damage with small movements (quadrant IV of the first graph), but be aware that these opportunities don’t grow on trees. How does one defy the trade-off? As an example, I have found that moving an elbow into the line of attack of an incoming limb can destroy said limb’s effectiveness briefly, offering one an exploitable opportunity. This is extremely hard for the opponent to see and respond to once they are committed to an attack.


Size v Damage


So the ultimate question is whether one favors big/slow/low probability/high consequence movement over small/fast/high probability/low consequence movements. As per my second graph I would suggest one finds a way to employ tactics that are as close to quadrant II as possible, while realizing they’re a tall order in a combative situation.

Likelihood v Damage


Figuring out how to manage these trade-offs requires a journey to the intersection of accuracy and power.  It’s extremely difficult to be precise in a combative environment, everything is in motion and time isn’t aplenty. However, as one  fine-tunes one’s technique, one should consider what trade-offs are being made and how one can increase power without sacrificing accuracy and vice versa. Ultimately, it all boils down to practicing conscientiously, constantly, and with as much realism as is safe.


Now I know what you are thinking, “What kind of nerd puts three graphs in a martial arts blog post?”

This kind [Jutting both thumbs in my own direction simultaneously.]

5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

IMG_4014What is Muay Boran? It’s “ancient boxing,” and is considered an ancestor to the more well-known Muay Thai. Muay Boran isn’t a single unified system. Practicing Muay Boran is a bit like practicing “Karate,” which is to say there are a number of different and distinct systems that go by that generic name—some of which bear little resemblance to others. Muay Boran was originally a combat martial art, but came to be practiced as a sport as well. The latter practice included some rules, though relatively few in comparison to Muay Thai. Instead of padded gloves, they fought with their hands and wrists bound with hemp rope.

When I was in Thailand, I had an opportunity to participate in a couple rudimentary Muay Boran classes. I’d just read about this system in the June/July 2013 issue of Black Belt magazine, and was interested in seeing for myself how the discipline was distinct from Muay Thai. I’m fascinated by how martial arts that are more jissen (real combat) oriented differ from systems whose primary objective is something else (e.g. sport, wellness, etc.)  If one looks at a sport martial art such a Muay Thai, one can see how the nature of the rules and equipment subtly shape the nature of the movement. For example, if crotch attacks are illegal and one wears a cup to handle the occasional accidental crotch shot, one won’t worry about that vulnerability and–as one focuses on gaining advantages or minimizing disadvantages–one may end up with a vulnerability that would be disconcerting in jissen martial arts.

Before anyone gets huffy, I should point out that this isn’t a criticism. Sports must have rules so that they can be enjoyably practiced (and watched.)  Given the rules that are in place, one should optimize one’s performance to being as fast, powerful, and effective as possible. In other words, it would be silly to make one’s stance optimized to protecting one’s groin if the opponent can’t attack it (plus one has a little insurance policy against accidents) and if protecting that [non-existent] vulnerability made one any slower, less powerful, or otherwise less effective. I’m also not saying that combative sports are completely ineffective as self-protection. For sports like Muay Thai or MMA there is a huge space of overlap with the no rules combative situation, and—furthermore—the athleticism developed will allow one to adjust to the non-rule environment quickly.

That being said, I’m curious about how Muay Boran is different from Muay Thai and what that might mean in terms of jissen-optimized fighting versus sport-optimized fighting. Here are a few things that I noticed both in the classes that I had at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, in the aforementioned Black Belt article, and from a few videos and articles that I could find on the internet from what I believe to be reputable sources. [I should disclaim that I’m far from an authority here. Full Disclosure: I’ve had 3 hours of MB training and done some reading and research.]

1.)    The basic Muay Boran guard covers the centerline. In other words, one’s hands are one fist in front of the other with both fists aligned on one’s centerline. This is as opposed to the boxing or Thai boxing guard in which either hand is to the outside of one’s head. Practitioners of Wing Chun or the system I am most familiar with, Gyokko-ryū will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I have vague theories about why protecting the centerline might be more advantageous in combat than sport. For one thing, it might help one make contact with incoming limbs in a way that supports transition into grappling. For another, it allows one to protect against coup-de-grace attacks more efficiently.

2.)    The basic stance of Muay Boran is lower and wider than in Muay Thai. I suspect this has to do with ranging and protection of vulnerabilities (e.g. the groin is harder to hit.)

3.)    While Muay Thai is considered the style of “8 weapons”: (leg (X2), knee (X2), elbow (X2), and fist (X2), Muay Boran is based on 9 weapons (i.e. it includes the good ole head-butt.) This isn’t a surprise. Without a head-butt prohibiting rule, one would expect people to use this devastating close-range weapon.

4.)    Muay Boran utilizes attacks against the limbs. In sport Muay Thai, there is little to be gained from this, but in a combative art if one can deaden limbs one gains a big advantage.

5.)    One thing that perplexed me at first is the fact that Muay Boran supposedly uses flying knees and flying elbows prolifically. (I should note these are used in Muay Thai occasionally as well, but they’re relatively rare as they are hard to land and to use without having mid-air vulnerabilities exploited.) What I found strange about this is that jissen martial arts tend to be much less flashy and rely on much simpler techniques than do sports. The old motto of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is often spoken in jissen martial art dōjōs. However, I do have a theory about why the power generated by such tactics might have made them appealing. One mindset difference between sport and jissen martial art practitioners has to do with the role of time. In combat, time is not on your side, and pacing yourself can be a lethal strategy. You want to try to land strikes that have a high probability of putting the enemy out of commission, even if at a risk. That is, of course, just a neophyte’s theory.

I enjoyed learning a few Muay Boran techniques, and I can see how it was an effective combat system.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to StrategyA Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy by Miyamoto Musashi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the most famous swordsman in Japan’s history. Oddly enough,he’s not known for his experience in battle(he lived at the tail end of the Warring States period and was only in a couple of battles), but for his time spent in musha shugyo (warrior’s errantry), during which he engaged in over 60 duels. It is The Book of Five Rings that largely accounts for his continued fame. That being said, Musashi was quite the renaissance man, a painter and sculptor of note. He also left behind a school of swordsmanship, Niten Ichi-ryū.

The Book of Five Rings is divided into five parts: earth scroll, water scroll, fire scroll, wind scroll, and void scroll.

The earth scroll provides an overview of martial science and an introduction to Musashi’s school, which is noted for its simultaneous use of both the large and short sword. A section is devoted the rhythm of martial arts, a crucial topic. It also includes what might be considered Musashi’s 9-point budō kun (a list of warrior precepts.)It’s worth mentioning a couple of these.
#7 Become aware of what is not obvious.
#9 Do not do anything useless.

The Water scroll describes Musashi’s approach to swordsmanship. It covers a range of elements of a martial art including footwork, the focus of one’s eyes, physical posture, mental posture, techniques,kiai (spirit shout), and approaches to cutting and thrusting.

The Fire scroll deals with the strategic or interactive aspects of the battle. Among my favorite quotes from this scroll is, “If your own power of insight is strong, the state of affairs of everything will be clear to you.”

The Wind scroll teaches us about other martial arts. Musashi discusses martial arts that use an unusually long sword, an atypically short sword, that focus on powerful strikes, and those that focus on many rapid strikes. He contrasts other martial arts with his own on subjects such as their focus with the eyes and their footwork.

The void scroll deals with, well, emptiness.

Musashi had great insight into strategy from his career of dueling. His book is worth being read and reread.

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BOOK PLUG: The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security

The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security 

Edited by Adam N. Stulberg and Matthew Fuhrmann

2013, Available Now

Buy this book

This is not so much a book review as a shameless plug (I have a chapter in this book.)

Nuclear energy has had a checkered past. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, there was a massive build up of nuclear power reactors– granted among a fairly small number of nations. Recent decades have seen a drop off in the pursuit of nuclear power among all but a few diehards. This decline resulted from both accidents and unfavorable nuclear power economics (the former exacerbating but not entirely responsible for the latter.) With increasing desire to combat global climate change, there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as part of a strategy to slow carbon emissions without crippling energy output. However, to date this interest has not turned into large-scale development of nuclear power anywhere except China. After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, even some diehards (e.g. Japan) are reconsidering nuclear power.

This book considers whether there will be a resurgence of nuclear power, if there is what shape it will take, and what the security ramifications of future nuclear power development might be.

Among the many questions addressed in the book are:

1.) Will the future bring more nuclear energy states, or will any expansion take place only within existing nuclear power states?
2.) Why do states supply other countries with nuclear energy technologies, and what are the ramifications of such supply efforts?
3.) Can an International Fuel Bank be successful in reducing the threat posed by proliferation of dual-use fuel cycle technologies?
4.) Will climate change drive a renaissance of nuclear power?
5.) What effect will an expansion of nuclear energy have on non-state nuclear trafficking?
6.) Are states with nuclear power more, less, or equally likely to get into wars?

If you are interested in these questions, this book is for you. 

Book Review: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel follows the trials and tribulations of a group of rabbits who leave a warren upon a warning from a prescient little rabbit named Fiver. Their exodus is fraught with peril from nature, man, other animals, and even other rabbits. The challenges they face threaten their unity as well as their survival.

Adams builds an intriguing cast of characters. Hazel is thrust into a leadership role. Bigwig is the physically powerful security chief. Fiver is the intelligent runt gifted with ESP. General Woundwort is the cunning and terror-inspiring enemy they must defeat to live in peace.

The book contains life lessons interspersed:
– One learns that the quintessential lover may also be a fighter.

– It shows how building alliances outside one’s comfort zone (sometimes outside one’s species) may allow one to win out over those rigidly uncompromising

– One discovers that sometimes one can only win by risking everything.

I found it to be a unique concept and very readable.

You’ll have to learn a little rabbit vocabulary and mythology, but there’s a glossary.

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The Maai of Jokes

From my martial arts blog Jissen Budōka.


A duck walks into the dōjō for his first session. He’s awkward and seems to be getting everything wrong.

The Sensei calls out, “Duck!”

The duck snaps to attention and says, “Yes, Sensei” — boot to the head.

Maai often gets boiled down to “distancing.” Understanding distancing is simple, understanding maai is challenging. First, maai understood in three dimensions is maai misunderstood. The fourth dimension, time, is critical. Second, maai is always interactive. Rules of thumb will only get one so far because the peculiarities of the opponent matters. Third, the interval between recognition and response that occurs in the mind is as important as the physical distance.

It behooves the martial artist to see the maai  existing in exchanges outside the dōjō. Thinking of maai solely in terms of kenjutsu, for example, can encourage one to focus on the physical distance. The distance gap is what we can see, and that is what is most easily analyzed. However, another area in which maai is critical is joke telling, and in jokes one has to optimize for intangibles –timing and audience response to the joke.  Not that this should be an intellectual exercise (that slows everything down); I presume it’s intuitive for people with the skill. 

A joke has a two-part anatomy: 1.) a set up that is straight, plausible, and –perhaps even– factual; 2.) a punch line that must turn expectations on their head with punch. The interval between parts 1 and 2 separates masterful joke tellers from horrible ones. If one runs the punchline into the setup, one risks the joke falling flat. If the recipient doesn’t recognize the transition they may start thinking about what was said (ugh –analysis is the nemesis of humor.) However, if one pauses too long, one risks the recipient anticipating the ending. Some jokes are easier to tell than others. The one that opened this post is easily anticipated. Recognition of the dual-use of “duck” happens quickly.

For a more user-friendly joke consider the one that a scholarly survey suggested was the world’s funniest joke:

A woman gets onto a bus with an infant. The driver vomits in his mouth a little and says, “Lord, that is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.”

The woman is appalled and speechless. She scowls, pays the fare, and proceeds to the rear of the bus.

Sitting down, she says to the woman next to her, “I’m outraged; I can’t believe how insulting the bus driver was.”

The woman says, “Well go give him a piece of your mind. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your monkey.”

The elaborate set up makes it difficult to anticipate the ending, and the twist between kindness and cruelty is readily apparent. (“Monkey” is very visual.) The punchline is really a punchword, the very last word.

Other jokes have more balance between set up and punchline, and that increases anticipation risk.

I was in the bookstore the other day and I asked the clerk for the self-help section.

She said that if she told me it would defeat the purpose.

Here one starts getting clues much earlier.

Other joke concepts are so well-known they invite anticipation.

Blonds all want to be like Vanna White, they yearn to know the… alphabet.

As for rushing the punch line, consider the joke:

I’m thoroughly familiar with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know “Y.”

While in writing the joke is clear, this is the type of joke that can easily be missed and fall flat. It’s not just because it’s not exactly hilarious, but because the recipient may have to reconstruct the joke or, worse yet, have it explained to them –both of which are death.

The other thing that one must recognize is that there are always specific exceptions that work. “Interrupting cow” is the perfect example of a rushed punchword that works.