Concretes and Abstracts – Rory Miller


Technique-based training is concrete. “He throws a straight punch and you outside block, side step and throw an inside knife-hand strike. Go do a thousand reps.” It’s easy to teach. He does X, you do Y. Reps. But I can think of zero actual fighters who find this valuable (except as a business model). To deal with chaos you need to train with chaos. And train is the wrong word. You need to play.
Partially because play is the way animals naturally learn, partially because, in a complex system working rote drills hampers more than helps.

Principles-based training involves understanding the principles and applying them in chaos. It’s much harder to teach, because knowledge isn’t enough, the instructor must have understanding. It’s less measurable, less “objective” but infinitely more useful under stress.

Technique repetition may lead to knowledge. Actual experience leads to understanding. Play, if the games are done well, can give you a start on understanding, maybe some insight.

As understanding deepens, you are able to “batch” more and more things. To integrate techniques that seem disparate into single thoughts. As you do so, you process things faster, you become more efficient and decisive.

A technique-based practitioner may go into a fight with a rolodex of forty hand strikes and twenty kicks in his head. He’ll try to use this unwieldy mental rolodex and probably get his ass kicked. Memory is simply too slow. Taught in a principles-based way, one level of abstraction up is to understand that striking is just power generation, targeting, and conformation. If you understand it, your rolodex of sixty has become a rolodex of three, with a vast reduction in reaction, action and decision time but an increase in flexibility and adaptability. That’s if you understand it. The problem is that if you only know it, you’re going into the fight with three mental rolodexes that have to be cross-indexed under pressure. That’s bad.

As your understanding deepens, your integrating concepts become simpler and more efficient. In Meditations on Violence I wrote about meta-strategies. Many of the extraordinary fighters I know have complete battle systems that can be expressed in a single sentence. “Destroy the base.” “Defang the snake.” “Take the center.”

Simpler and more efficient, but also, expressed in words, they will seem more abstract. Memorizing techniques is easy. Nice and concrete. Teaching power generation, targeting and conformation is a good size to chunk the information. It gives beginners efficient tools and increases flexibility in hours instead of months. But every so often I want to go really deep, experiment with teaching a workshop on “Structure and Void”. I think it would be a really powerful integrating concept, a good framework to teach. But I fear it’s too abstract for most people. It would probably only be useful to people with a good depth of understanding already. There are far fewer of those.

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