The Jab is Not Just a Jab: Human Learning and the Problem with Teaching Techniques in Isolation

Boxers Know It…Do You?

If you learn a great jab, but just throw it without movement, or without ever interacting with a partner, it is nearly useless. You need movement in order to track with a moving, resisting opponent — and that resisting opponent gives you vital insight into recognizing when and when not to throw a jab.

Boxers will say, “Of course, you idiot. Why would you throw a jab and not step? And why wouldn’t you ever spar with a jab?”

And that’s exactly right. Anyone who trains boxing knows innately that a particular technique, such as a jab, entails more than just the proper jab movement. The bare punching mechanics. They know it (usually) entails a backward or forward movement; they also know that it entails knowing and recognizing when to throw such a movement, which can only be built through sparring or similar drills. Wrestlers think the same way, as do students of most functional, sparring-heavy martial arts systems.

The jab by itself, in isolation, is not effective. Yet when we think of a jab, we think not just of the bare mechanics, but of all that it entails — namely, movement and live application.

Why the Jab was a Mystery to Me

When I first learned the jab, I actually already knew the jab. I knew the movement, in isolation, but I didn’t know how to apply it. I knew, on a propositional level, that the jab was supposed to set up a straight right. I also knew, on a propositional level, it was supposed to help me gauge the distance for power punches and create openings.

But come sparring time, I couldn’t successfully use the jab on any one, even fresh beginners. I’d throw jabs and the guy wouldn’t be there. Or I’d throw a jab and the guy is already out of range. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why jabbing didn’t work the way the instructor said it would.

What in the world was going on? Why didn’t the jab work for me when it seemed to work for others? (Indeed, it was the most fundamental punch in boxing!)

It wasn’t until I added a step with my jab that I had a breakthrough. Suddenly, my sparring partners didn’t so easily move out of range. And as I was able to land jabs, I realized that I needed to throw more jabs.

I had been thinking of the jab in isolation. When I thought of a good jab, I thought of the movement of the arm, the shoulder, maybe a slight turn in the hip and knee. But I was not thinking of stepping — advancing or retreating — nor about how opponent-produced stimuli ought to affect my jab use.

The Problem with Traditional Views of Learning a Technique

A Disconnect Between the Way Functional and Traditional Martial Artists Think About Techiques

In Traditional Martial Arts, we endlessly and meticulously categorize, parse, and partition every movement or strategy into neat, academic silos. We nod at the thought that these categories have relationship to each other…but, we reason, one silo must be mastered before we can look inside the other. Connecting the silos is a long and somewhat mystical process. (You might never be able to bridge the gap between kicking in the air and kicking an uncooperative opponent!)

I find it as odd as it is telling that what boxers take for granted, traditional martial artists don’t even seem to understand (as a group, that is). A boxer knows a good jab entails more than the jab movement, but traditional martial artists are more likely to separate footwork and opponent reading skills from the punching skill proper. We start by perfecting the movement by itself. Then we might try to perfect footwork by itself. If we’re lucky, we’ll try to combine the two within a reasonable time span. But we rarely think of them as (at least, immediately) integral to each other.

To traditional martial artists, learning a technique only requires you to know it, by itself, regardless of any usage context. For the functional martial artist, learning a technique is not just the technique itself, but also the skills that make it possible to use it during a sparring match or a fight.

The Traditional View of Learning Techniques is Not True Learning

In education research, the word learning has a meaning that is more precise than we use it colloquially. Learning is not merely the consumption or memorization of information. Rather, learning is achieved when a person understands a concept — when a person is able to apply, to use, to do that concept.

Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that you have learned the jab when you only know the mere movement pattern of a jab. Instead, it would be correct to say you have learned the jab when you can apply it in an exchange with an unscripted, uncooperative opponent. In other words: you cannot think of a jab and its application to a live context in isolation from one another.

Clearly stated, the problem with a traditional notion of learning a technique is that it views a technique as isolated from all the variables that will make it successful in actual combat. While these variables are usually introduced later on, they are not (usually) considered integral to the learning of the technique.

Martial Arts is Not Dancing

In many forms of dancing, it can be said that if you can perform a movement by itself, without a partner, that you have still learned that move. While dancing does often include partners, it is by and large not an unscripted, uncooperative exercise.

You might draw similarities between poomsae (or kata) and dance. They can both be done solo or in a group, they’re both cooperative and scripted, and they both are done to some sort of rhythm or cadence. But poomsae is just a solo exercise in martial arts; it is neither the definition of martial arts nor its ideal mode of expression.

To insist that the isolated knowledge of a technique is true learning of it, is to move martial arts out of the opponent category and into the same category as dancing. Martial arts is not dancing. Rather, martial arts is an unscripted, uncooperative exchange of violence between two or more individuals. Ergo, martial arts is not poomsae — not in a definitional sense. Martial arts is fighting, and the ideal mode of expression of martial arts are sparring matches or fights.

To put this more simply:

There are two main view of what martial arts, at base, is:

(1) A round kick.

or

(2) A round kick to the appropriate target on an uncooperative opponent.

Definition #2 encompasses definition #1, but #1 cannot cover #2. How will you define martial arts? What is it fundamentally, all personal opinions removed? I submit to you that martial arts is ultimately definition #2. Moreover, I assert that martial arts cannot be thought of in isolation of a live opponent.

My (Developing) Philosophy of Training: Concluding Thoughts

What I’ve written here will be foundational to understanding my future articles. My thesis is this: traditional and functional martial artists think differently about what it means to learn techniques. Traditional martial artists look at a technique as an isolated part to be mastered apart from other skills, such as footwork or opponent-reading. Functional martial artists view a technique holistically: they cannot fully separate the movement proper from all the skills that make it successful in a live context.

My suggestion is that we cannot think of a technique in isolation from successful application in a live context. Therefore, I believe the functional martial artist’s view of learning a technique is the correct view. And further, I will posit that martial arts as a whole cannot be thought of without respect to a resisting opponent.

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