Quantity and Quality in Martial Arts Training

“How many techniques do you know?”

For as long as martial arts have been popularly taught in the United States, capacity of technical knowledge has been used as a measuring stick of quality, both for teachers and students. The easiest way to judge such knowledge is by the sheer quantity of techniques that an instructor or pupil can demonstrate.

Part of this legacy could have been inherited from martial arts films, which were an early driver of martial arts school enrollment in the 1960s and 70s. People wanted to emulate the mastery they were witnessing on screen, which involved a great variety of techniques over the course of a feature length film. This makes sense: audiences would grow bored if an action movie contained redundant fight scenes.

The better explanation is our need to quantify the results of any item or service that is being paid for. This is no different from any company, government agency or charitably funded organization. Students and parents are investors. Martial arts training is expensive. They want to know they are getting their money’s worth, and short of championship trophies (most martial artists do not compete), the best way to show return on investment is through technique demonstration.

Parents don’t care that little Jill and Johnny have the best roundhouse kick in the school. They’re not paying you to teach them one kick. And from the perspective of the martial arts business owner (using karate as an example), you would be stupid not to create multiple levels of rank, each of which are more expensive to test for than the last and require a handful of new techniques at each step. CHA-CHING isn’t an advanced form out of Puma stance. That’s the sound it makes inside Sensei’s head when Jill and Johnny test for their first degree of Junior Black Belt.

Let’s not pick on Karate though – it was Judo that invented the modern belt system and development of curriculum. This was an important development in the history of martial arts. Curriculum matters. But people often use curriculum as a barometer of proficiency, when it should really be viewed as an organized tool shed.

To teach, you should have a minimum level of competency in the full range of techniques of a given art: in this case, Kodokan Judo. You want to be able to offer your students training in a variety of tools so that they can begin to figure out which ones work best within the context of their own style (and no two styles are identical, just like no two personalities are identical).

Effective Judo comes about not from having a single path to a mass quantity of techniques, but having numerous paths to a few core throws that can be seamlessly linked. No different from a welder who possesses great depth of knowledge pertaining to an assortment of tools, but works with only the ones he needs in a diverse and masterful fashion.

You could also liken this to a guitarist who uses the same notes and chords to produce albums of material that all sound different. This is the concept of using a limited palette to produce limitless results.

Sometimes there is a need to re-tool, at which point you examine your style or game, and return to the curriculum to see where you can make a proper substitution, then practice until the new tool is properly integrated.

I’ve made the argument for quality of technique, but quantity plays a big role in both Judo for sport, and Judo for combat.

In the case of international Judo competition, quantity is a factor in success. It’s not so much about the number of techniques, but the number of throw and grip attempts you are making.

Gripping and entries will always be more important than waza (technique), as a good gripper with poor waza is infinitely more useful than a poor gripper with excellent waza. Quite literally, if you cannot make effective grips or entries, you will not execute a throw no matter your level of technique. Advanced grips and entires can lead to sloppy but effective throws, or better depending on your level of waza. This is why Olympic Judoka spend so much time on their gripping.

If you are being passive, not attempting but merely responding to your opponent’s grips, you will remain a step behind in the match. If you are gripping but not attempting throws  with any kind of frequency once you’re on the inside, you will be less likely to score for ippon (or score at all). Active, aggressive players have success more often than not.

This is the same in MMA and boxing, where volume of strikes, submission attempts, and takedown attempts all weigh heavily in judging decisions, and increase the chances of scoring a finish, thus avoiding the judges altogether.

The value of quantity or volume even extends to sports such as professional hockey. Advanced metrics in that sport has led to the valuation of shot attempts for and against as major indicators of team success.

Moving away from organized sport examples (where rules dictate strategy) volume has a place in street combat as well. High output can overwhelm an opponent, particularly when it comes to strikes and takedown attempts. Once a fight hits the ground, positional advantage become paramount and volume output takes a backseat to efficiency of control. Quantity and quality now form a symbiotic relationship – they interact to each other’s benefit.

The Judo ethos of “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” might seem somewhat violated by the idea of “throw attempts” being prevalent in the sport version of Judo. It is true that, both in the street and other combat sports that can involve aspects of Judo (particularly BJJ), efficient, quality throw attempts become much more valuable due to the high risk of missing a throw. There is no referee to stand you back up after turtling for several seconds. But I look at quantity/output in Judo for combat through the perspective of gripping/clinching, off-balancing attempts and linked throw attempts.

The more you work for advantageous grips and standing positional advantages from which to attempt a quality throw (waistlocks, neck clinch, double-under, two-on-one, etc.), the better chance you have of attaining them and off-balancing an opponent en route to a successful attack.

What are some general rules of how to value quality and quantity in martial arts?

Here is my personal take:

Quantity is the repetition of techniques through practice, trial, and error to increase the chance of their mastery, and through combat or competition to increase the chance of their success.

Quality is the strategic curation of techniques, in practice to increase the speed at which you master and incorporate them into a system of attacking, and through combat or competition to minimize the risk of their failure.

For Judo, you grip and throw attempt with frequency to increase your odds of landing a throw. You throw attempt with accuracy to lessen the amount of attempts it takes on average to land successfully. And you practice a curated set of interconnected attacks with enough frequency that you master and land them with greater accuracy. Attacks that can be linked can be summarized as longer attacks, or an attack pattern. Longer patterns of attacks demand more activity from the defender, which also increases your chances of a successful attack.

The idea of the master practitioner who at all times can pull off an encyclopedia of techniques, but carefully bides their time until the right opportunity to strike presents itself, is antiquated, not a recipe for success in competition or the street, and can only work if said practitioner has mastered defense to an extremely high degree – because they will potentially face a flurry of attacks en route to their golden opportunity to counter.

Practice, curate, integrate. Trial and error through competition and sparring, analyze the results, adjust accordingly, and then continue to practice, curate, and integrate.

This is how quantity and quality are used to improve performance and aptitude, no matter the circumstances of combat.

When the inverse approach is taken – that is, practicing a greater number of techniques at a smaller number of repetitions per technique – a systemic approach becomes harder to implement, and mastery requires infinitely more time.

For those beginners and intermediates in any martial art who feel lost in a sea of techniques and strategies, try and apply these principles outlined above and see if it helps to focus your training a bit more. Talk to your coach or sensei about the major areas of improvement that they have identified in your game.

Assuming of course that you are putting in the time and training hard, this focused approach may help solidify your fundamentals while helping to identify a style of technique implementation that jives with your abilities.

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