Saturday, April 03, 2010

Complexity vs Simplicity

When I started learning jiu-jitsu and judo, I immediately appreciated the broad, intricate and varied syllabus.  If I was unable to make a particular technique work, be it a throw, groundwork technique, or restraint & control application I was nevertheless making progress in other areas, which was good for my morale.  I would struggle for a few minutes with the problematic technique, try some things, get some tips, and often get a bit frustrated, but then my sensei would move us onto something else.  Over time, the progress on other fronts would help me get unstuck on my problem technique (really techniques), since the underlying principles all intersect and what I learned elsewhere I would eventually be able to apply.  From time to time techniques would cease to work, or fail on a particular partner, even in cooperative practice, but nothing was permanently stuck.

By contrast, when I took some ken-jitsu (japanese sword class, performed initially with a wooden bokken) we started by doing an entire class of a single cut (maybe there were a couple of variations), with YELLING.  The next day I had a raspy voice, sore arms, and blistered hands.  But I was fascinated by the sustained demand for focus, the feeling of surging energy, and the occasional blasting through a pain barrier that such narrow training demanded.  Truly a complementary experience to what I was used to in jiu-jitsu.  And yet, "jiu-jitsu comes from the sword".

As I progress with my martial arts, I have begun to ask myself what hidden possibilities lie behind simple-seeming movements, while complex techniques reveal themselves to consist of common components and principles.

Is it better to start with the simple and build to the complex, or to start with the composite and discover simplicity?  For me, the latter approach proved a better starting point, but eventually the two perspectives must intertwine.


Anonymous said...

I’d say start with the simple things (they’re difficult enough) and then move on to the more complex stuff as the student progress in rank and ability. For self-defense complex moves and techniques are not the way to go (unless you’re really good and had years of training under a skilled sensei) since they boggle the mind and slow response-time, on top of that there’s always Murphy’s law which states that what can go wrong will go wrong. The more components a technique has the higher the chance something will go wrong and muck up your defense, obviously in class this isn’t a problem (generally only pride gets hurt) but on the street it’s another story entirely. For the street I’d stick with the KISS-strategy: keep it simple & stupid, you wouldn’t be the first experienced martial artist to get his ass kicked by a common thug or untrained ruffian because you tried something complicated and lo and behold it failed miserably (never underestimate the havoc fear and adrenaline can wreak on your fine motor skills). Of course a properly trained individual will or at least should be able to adapt but in the thick of it it’s not easy to keep a clear head, especially if you got hit already (happens to the best of us). For self-defense it doesn’t need to look pretty, it needs to work and it needs to work now… It’s your safety and well-being on the line so put him down immediately: first hit him so hard he doesn’t know east from west and then maybe restraint him with a fancy lock if you want to be the hero or display your skills.

For training, tradition and the art’s sake complex techniques are fine and it’s fun and challenging to train them, if you only train self-defense you’ll quit soon enough since doing the same strikes over and over again can be quite boring and the mind needs to be entertained so to speak. Even then a good methodology would be to break down a defensive sequence into its constitutive parts and train them separately before you bring it all together: a beginner first needs to learn proper stance, then proper movement, then striking and all the rest. If you make them do entire sequences their mind will get clogged and they’ll lose all perspective. As the teacher it’s also easier to spot faults if you make them do it by the numbers. First break it down, then put it back together that would be my advice.

Dan Prager said...

Great response, and yes, I was talking in a somewhat general way, so open to your critique.

By complexity, in part I meant volume of techniques. Where in kenjitsu we would practice one technique for an entire class, in jiu-jitsu we could work on a dozen (or more, once we were familiar). Later we would start to piece them together like lego, in different combinations.

A set in chinese boxing (kung fu), for example is truly complex from the outset, but is matched with simpler drills, so again you work from both ends.

Even some individual techniques have a high degree of intricacy to them, and while many of these can be deferred while constituent principles are developed in simpler techniques, there is merit in having some intricate techniques from the outset, because it helps to develop the student's tolerance for complexity and helps prepare them for mor detail later. An example of this is kube nage (neck throw), which we do in a fairly intricate way and personally took me two years to come to grips with -- i.e. it was a real struggle. I can now teach it much faster than that (because I had to battle it from so many different angles), and it's one of my favorite and deeply ingrained techniques.

In terms of self-defence, I concur with your comments. For practical self-defence you can only use what you've truly internalized, and the simpler, more drilled stuff will be internalized much sooner than the more complex and elaborate. Practical sophistication can only emerge slowly, because if you have to think about it, you can't apply it.

The adrenaline point is an interesting one, sometimes raised as a point against precision techniques. I can suggest some counter-points: practice under stress (randori, shiai, etc.); practice for technical perfection (knowing your technique will degrade under stress); always have a plan B, plan C, etc.; often an improvised response is best, and having a broader arsenal can help. Again, the last point relies on having trained lots of techniques to the degree that they are truly second nature, and that takes time and dedication.