Understanding Techniques, Principles, & Concepts

In this article I will discuss the difference between techniques, concepts, principles. I will also discuss the advantages of committing yourself to the understanding of principles and concepts over techniques.

What's the Difference?

First off, let's define our terms.

TECHNIQUE

Any movement or combination of movements applied, usually to another person, for a specific, intended effect.

PRINCIPLE

Any underlying physical mechanism which acts as a foundation upon which techniques are built.

CONCEPT

Any mental abstraction that aids in the understanding and application of something.

An simple way to think about it is that techniques are specific, principles are general, and concepts are abstract.

Technique-based Approach

A technique-based approach is a method that focuses heavily upon learning individual techniques as responses to different scenarios. These responses are highly situational. These are commonly found in many "self-defense"-type drills where there are specific counters to specific attacks. In karate, this same dynamic can be observed in the prearranged movements of ippon kumite drills. Either way, this method of training follows a common "if that - then this" formula: if the opponent does thatthen I do this. This type of training can be reliable outside of training only if the opponent presents with the exact attack which you have been trained to respond to. The problem with this kind of training, alone, is that there are countless variations of movements which you must have responses for. Not only that, but you must have trained each of those techniques to a high level of proficiency. You are limited by the number of attack/responses you have memorized and trained. This type of training is shallow.

I do not mean to say that this type of training is bad or useless. On the contrary, it is almost always necessary in the beginning stages of learning an art. After all, you have to start somewhere. The problem occurs when one does not move beyond this and relies solely upon memorized techniques without making an effort to understand the art at a deeper level. "Technique collector" is an accurate term, in my opinion, to describe this type of practitioner. In many cases it is completely natural, as a student progresses, for him to enter into the technique collector stage. However, martial arts are far more than just a collection of techniques.

Principle-based Approach

A principle-based approach is a method that focuses primarily upon fostering an understanding of the principles that are shared among many different techniques. In essence, it is the study of the technical aspects of the art at a deeper level. The goal is not only a basic understanding of the technique and how to apply it, but an understanding of why the technique works to begin with. Principles are the "building blocks" of all techniques. These are critical factors like force, leverage, pressure, center of gravity, etc.. 

One major advantage of a principle-based approach is that, by focusing one's training/study on those critical factors and their relationship to each other, one does not need to memorize a thousand different techniques and all of their permutations. One can use a deep understanding of principles to spontaneously produce techniques which are appropriate for any given situation. Another major and profound advantage of this approach is the eventual realization that principles have no boundaries. They are applied across kata, across styles, and across martial arts. With an understanding of principles one can appreciate the truth found in other styles and martial arts. This allows one to discard the "my style is the best" mentality, which is essentially just an ego trap and hinders collaboration between martial artists.

Appreciating Concepts

Concepts are not exclusive to any one approach. We as humans we all rely on concepts no matter what we are doing. They are the thoughts and ideas that we use to make sense of something. They can be names, rules, or guidelines. They can relate to physical things such as movement, posture, position, etc. They can also relate to purely abstract things like tactics and strategies. We use and share concepts all of the time. Any time you use a saying to convey an idea, such as, "position before submission" or "where the head goes the body follows", you are using a concept. Concepts exist between principles and techniques.

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Luke Pecor