Know Your Why: The 4 Components of Context in Martial Arts Training

“Martial arts and martial artists often try to do it all. They teach self-defense and sparring and streetfighting and fitness and personal development, as if they were the same thing. They aren’t even related… Despite the wide variety of skills and complete incompatibility of the mindsets or strategy, martial artists are often convinced they are training for all of these things simultaneously.”

Rory Miller, Meditations on Violence

If you don’t know what you are training for, how do you know if your training is effective?

Context is a frame that surrounds an experience. It describes the circumstances that form the setting for an event, idea, concept, or statement and provides a resource for a deeper understanding of the experience.

Our lives do not take place in a vacuum. We rely on context to quickly understand a given situation. Without context we are rarely informed enough to make good decisions.

Martial artists (and instructors) need to be aware of the context of their training at all times. What is effective in one context may be ineffective, illegal, or a deadly mistake in another. What is outside of the rules in one context may save your life in another.

For martial artists, context can be understood to have four components:

  1. Setting: Where and when is this experience happening? Is this engagement taking  place in the dojo? In a ring or cage in an arena? On a battlefield? Outside of a bar? In the parking garage at work? Are there other people around? What is the lighting? What is the ground like? Are there obstacles? Is it wet and slippery? Are there boundaries like fences or natural drops?
  2. Role: Who are we in relation to one another? Are we strangers? Is one of us in a professional capacity (bouncer, guard, police officer)? Are we training partners? Are we opponents? Are we at war? Roles help us to separate situational relationships from our sense of identity and ego. Target, threat, attacker, opponent, training partner, coworker, neighbor, and random creeper at the bar are all examples of roles. Be cautious of your own projected bias. Just because we apply a label to someone does not make it objective reality. 
  3. Rules: Set boundaries that define the extent and shape of an engagement as well as the potential consequences. Rule sets can vary dramatically within a category. For instance an amateur kickboxing match or an amateur Muay Thai bout will involve a ring, two participants, and a referee, but in the Muay Thai bout clinching and catching strikes will be allowed. This changes the strategy dramatically. You must know the rules of engagement to choose tactics that will help you to realize your objective. If you are ambushed by a criminal, they will not be following rules, nor obeying the law. If you get into an altercation with a neighbor that escalates into a physical fight, there will not be rules within that fight, but there are laws within your country or community that will dictate the consequences of your actions.
  4.  Objective: What is your desired outcome? Winning? Survival? Escape? Growth? Proving yourself? Supporting a training partner? Passing time until your inevitable death in a world bereft of meaning?

Let’s look at some wildly hypothetical scenarios through the frame of context:

  • A mixed-martial arts student (role) is jumped outside of a bar (environment) by a stranger (role), knocked down and being struck, he pulls guard and holds down the attacker (tactic). Unaware, he is kicked in the face by a second attacker (rules), knocking him out. In this scenario, a tactic that is extremely effective in one context (sport) is ineffective in another (self-defense) during an ambush or criminal encounter. In this context, there were no rules to limit the contest to two individuals, and the objective was to escape safely, not subdue the attacker.
  • Students (role) are training together in the dojo (environment). They are sparring at 50% with a specific set of techniques (rules) to train for an upcoming promotional exam (objective). One student continually uses too much power and does not follow the directives of the instructor. In this context, the student is not understanding the stated objective of the training (they are focused on “winning” at all costs and not improving), not following the rules, and needs to either be pulled from training or adjust their behavior accordingly.
  • A longtime karate student (role) who trains for personal growth, fitness, and community (objective) beats himself up for not being able to keep up with his younger training partners (role) who train for full-contact competition (objective). Sparring with them (rules) he injures his knee badly and can’t train for three months. In this scenario, if the original student was confident in his objective he could’ve adjusted his training to match his needs and not shamed himself into training that wasn’t serving him. Or, he could’ve found a different dojo (environment) that was in his alignment with his objectives.

What are some examples you can explore from your own training experiences? Or from life outside of the dojo? Remember, perspective is subjective! We all see the world differently, with different values, and different needs and concerns.

The four components of context are a tool to help us check in with our training and make sure we’re able to realize our objectives. The beauty of the martial arts is diversity. There are a multitude of arts, styles, methods, and approaches. And all realize an objective. It is when we are ignorant of context or confuse the objectives of the art that we risk misleading (or worse) harming ourselves or our students.

Know your why. Know the objective of your art and which contexts it is designed to work in. And don’t be ashamed to honor the limitations of your art or seek additional training from different arts and instructors to meet all of your needs as a martial artist.

For an informed and engaging deep dive on context I highly recommend Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller.

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