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Modelling Martial Arts

By Billy Haggerty

This article is an example of Billy Haggerty’s work in the field of the Martial Arts.

Having spent more than 25 years studying Martial Arts, in particular Karate, I’ve noticed that more and more students and writers, (myself included), have been tracing the sources to try to unravel and understand the origin and development of the skills.

Now having, for some time also, trained in NLP and behavioural modelling, I have started to recognise the importance of “Basic Principles”, i.e. ‘Why’ did the originators choose certain techniques and not others, ‘How’ did they decide the actions that would work, the principles, (certain movements, practices and training methods), and ‘What’ should they pay attention to in order to practise them. Reviewing these basic principles in this way, (using the Epistemology Grid, McWhirter 1992) has allowed me to make comparisons across the Martial Arts and indeed appreciate them all the more.

Those who developed NLP sought out the most effective individuals in their field, tracking their behaviour and mapping out the patterns and processes that these individuals used effectively. Early Martial Artists had a similarly high degree of success as did NLP. However as the years roll by and the originators and developers die or fade into the background, the emphasis changes from ‘Why’ we do these techniques and skills to ‘How’ is it we do these skills and finally ‘What’ skills is it that we do. This often results in Martial Artists thinking that only the techniques and skills that they were taught should be taught or practised.

I have increasingly noticed that even within the same category of art differences arise. Attention is often drawn to these differences, i.e. we punch this way that makes us better than everyone else, (without necessarily checking with anyone else). Some people stubbornly take stances as to the rights and wrongs of a skill. They base this upon ‘What they were taught’ rather than ‘Why and How it works and What specifically works’ and indeed ‘When would it work and when would it not work?’ This was aptly demonstrated in the film ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, sword skills rarely match a gun.

I often hear questions being raised like, ‘Is this Martial Art better than another?’ which sometimes evokes emotional doctrine rather than analysis. I find a more worthwhile outcome is to map out the many useful skills within each art using behavioural modelling patterns to determine what skills are useful within which circumstances. Whilst realising that in setting my outcome this can predict or influence how that outcome will develop, I believe that attempting to understand rather than criticise is more valuable. I started to ask myself why some arts use throws and trips while others go more for strikes or blocks. I also paid attention to how these skills were used, bearing in mind that body limbs can only move in certain ways.

To check out the possible reasons for these points I considered ‘What might the developers have been asking themselves?’.

The emphasis and outcomes of these arts appear on the surface at least to be different. However if we bear in mind that ‘Martial Arts’ means war or fighting skills, we can assume that if open to the full range of conflict possibility, it would be easy to engage in a runaway pattern starting with a slap, followed by a punch then a stick, a knife or a gun until we end up with bombs and nuclear weapons. Even though some of these options were not available to the founders or developers of the different arts, the extent of conflict possibility forced them to set boundaries ‘Scoping’ the area they would study.

Having set the ‘Scope’ of their art, (with or without weapons, against unarmed aggressors or against weapons, at close distance or long distance, with or without referees and even with or without shoes), this determines what specific ‘Details’ they pay attention to and this in turn would make the ‘Connections’ for the way the art would develop, (Detail, Scope and Connections model, McWhirter 1990).

For our purposes it is also useful to determine what would be considered by the originators as an aggressive act towards them. Also under what circumstances, as well as what limits, they might go to in order to achieve supremacy. Indeed this debate continues today especially regarding nuclear warfare.

Researching the many writings and the philosophies of the art’s founders, (e.g. making a better person through training), has indicated that the ‘Scope’ would have been self defence rather than world defence or open war. As a consequence this might imply what the founders would have looked at in terms of defending themselves in the times they lived and the threats that might have been commonly around, and then to connect these to what skills would be worth practising to combat them.

The Model
To assist my attempt to map out some of the possible answers to the above questions, while bearing in mind that any assumptions will have an influence on the feedback that is selected, I have chosen the following behavioural model: Assumption – Presupposition – Proposition – Implication, (John McWhirter 1993).

The way I’ve used this model is to make an assumption based on the meaning of the name of the art or a generally accepted understanding of the art.

From the above I considered what this might presuppose, therefore what skills are proposed in which to be competent and from that, to relate these (what was implied) into useful practice methods in order to achieve their outcomes. I asked myself questions that a developer might ask, based on my own experience and then I put forward my ideas of what skills would be worth practising and how to achieve mastery of such skills. Having done this I checked against the art in question and was pleasantly surprised at the answers.

I set the model against the following major categories of the Martial Arts: Karate, Aikido, Kendo, Boxing and Judo, and based on my assumptions stated under the heading, I have briefly outlined what I believe the art stood for.


  • Assumption: Karate – translated means the art of empty hand fighting, so I’ve assumed no use of weapons but the possibility of fighting against weapons, especially swords. The art was developed in Okinawa during a time when the island was under occupancy and a weapon ban was in force.
  • Presupposition: What skills are useful against someone who may or may not have a weapon.
  • Proposition: Controlling the distance between attacker and aggressor by maintaining a large distance. Also the use of powerful strikes and kicks when opportunities are available.
  • Implication: Practise striking bags or pads and using long steps for getting in and out of danger quickly.


  • Assumption: Aikido – I believe the meaning to suggest the art of using natural force against an opponent. Again I’ve assumed the possibility of weapons being involved as the art gives the uses of different weapons in its teaching practice.
  • Presupposition: What skills would allow a defender to connect with an aggressor’s body in order to make use of their energy.
  • Proposition: Avoiding skills would be useful to allow opportunities to connect and redirect the aggressive action away from threatening your own body.
  • Implication: The practice of avoiding and using centrifugal actions allows opportunities to connect and throw; throwing can be a natural result of redirecting such aggressive actions.


  • Assumption: Kendo – means the art of the sword so I have assumed that it would be the exclusive use of the sword bearing in mind that the art was developed in Japan and the Samurai (warrior class) treated his sword as his spirit. For years Japan had closed its doors to the outside world and did not allow guns or gun powder for many years after their invention, a likely contributing factor to the development of Kendo.
  • Presupposition: What skills are necessary to handle and defeat an armed enemy.
  • Proposition: Recognising the most vulnerable areas of the body and protecting them, as well as becoming so familiar with the sword that it becomes like an extra limb.
  • Implication: Develop and wear protective armour; practise ‘cut and parry’ extensively until the sword is an extension of your own body and the use of the sword is all the more unconscious, as you pay attention to the opponent.


  • Assumption: Boxing – I believe this was originally referred to as ‘the noble art of fighting’ among gentlemen and so I have assumed that there would be agreed rules of conduct with a referee in charge of the bout.
  • Presupposition: It is only permissible to use the fists in the area above the waist.
  • Proposition: Shielding body and face; the ability to move nimbly and have good strong punching skills.
  • Implication: Practise protecting face and body; nimble footwork and effective punching to head and body.


  • Assumption: Judo – means the art of the flexible way and although the name does not confirm it, I believe the art was conceived to defend at close quarters after contact was made. This is based on the fact that the judo men allow each other to grab their jackets prior to practice and therefore I have assumed it to be weaponless in the main.
  • Presupposition: What skills are efficient and useful after contact has been made.
  • Proposition: At close distance holding, pushing and pulling is likely.
  • Implication: The practice of trips, throws, balancing and locks would be useful.

So by using the above model and generating some assumptions as to ‘Why’ the originator came up with a name and technique of fighting, it is possible to presuppose what is proposed in their outcomes to make sense of their different arts. This also helps to track ‘How’ they developed different techniques which, in turn implies what they paid attention to and tested.Although how the originators went about developing their particular Martial Art and the technique appears to be quite different, many of the core skills are the same, e.g. skills like being able to move freely and quickly, the timing of when to engage in the encounter and even some of the physical movements are similar.The main difference between each fighting art, for example between Karate practitioners and boxers, is their orientation, i.e. what is going on in their minds and to what they are attending.The Martial Artist can benefit from recognising and appreciating the similarity of some of the skills as well as understanding the underlying principles behind the skills of the different fighting arts. Through chunking up to this higher category they can make more use of their skills. For example, instead of being stuck in a technique response or procedure, they can process the immediate danger and respond appropriately thereby becoming more effective in defending themselves against any would-be aggressor.NLP has many similar parallels where techniques were developed to help individuals resolve particular problems in the application area of therapy, and although the techniques often were successful they did not help everyone and in some cases were harmful.

Many NLP Trainers, like the Martial Arts instructors, only teach the techniques, which are the products of NLP. When applied inappropriately they often result in short term change or spasmodic success at best.

Equally some Martial Artists have been taught to use a particular technique against a set, standard attack and this can result in them experiencing difficulty in transferring the skills from the practice hall into the world of self defence. It can be useful to develop particular skills in a chosen scenario to improve the overall rate of success. However this can also encourage many practitioners to be drawn into a closed system, i.e. only successful with those practitioners who obey the agreed rules, but not necessarily able to cope with anyone who behaves outside of those same rules.

It is therefore more useful to discover the underlying principles behind the techniques and procedures in NLP and the Martial Arts in order to understand ‘Why’ and ‘How’ they work, allowing far more flexibility in the range of use and adaptability for individual needs.

Richard Bandler and John Grinder (co-founders of NLP) sought to be behavioural modellers by paying attention to what and when things worked, as this allowed them to model how to go about interacting with people in a constructive way.

Fortunately there is a great deal of development being carried out within the field of the epistemology of NLP, (Why), the methodology, (How), and the technology of NLP, (What) works by John McWhirter of Sensory Systems Training.

Perhaps each of us who have been fortunate enough to have been trained by John and to continue developing our work under his watchful eyes and guidance, can become behavioural modellers in our own special field bringing more high quality learning and practical skills into our own and others lives.