Simple Skills versus Complex skills. Is there a winner? – Kevin O’Hagan

In this article I am going to play devil’s advocate on a particular topic in the world of Martial arts that is regularly mentioned. I hope it will be thought provoking and spark interest and thoughts on the matter.

In the myriad of ‘reality based’ systems these days we hear many instructors preaching that in a real situation we should only use gross motor skills to defend ourselves as anything more complex will fail under pressure. Rising heart rate is blamed for this happening and when it reaches anywhere between 120 to 145 beats per minute fine motor skills begin to deteriorate and anything above that complex skills start to go. So the word is keep it simple and you will have more chance of success. Sound advice?Maybe?

But who is that advice for? Is this gospel? Does all the evidence available point to this fact?

Many studies have been done on this topic, particularly in military circles. In 1950 S.L.A Marshall’s, ‘the soldier load and mobility of a nation’, were the first to document performance deterioration under stress. Later Bruce.K.Siddle’s landmark research at PPCT took this further.

But now there is much evidence out there to argue the research. So is it true or not?

I want to give my humble opinion on this subject from my own findings. It is not set in stone but I can only speak from my own experiences and many of my colleagues and Martial arts brothers and sisters.

Well I have certainly preached the gross motor skills theory on more than one occasion and there is a lot of truth in this statement. I will tell you later to whom and why I preached it. But if this statement is totally true where that does put the Martial artist that trains day in day, month in month out, year in year?

This person has been working relentlessly on collecting and training a vast repertoire of techniques. They have worked their way up the belt ranks. They are instructor certified. Each day they train religiously working on a particular topic or technique. But if we took the previous statement about gross motor skills as read then what are they training so hard for?

If their ‘reality based’ cousins tell them that only simple, basis, gross motor skills will work in combat why are they bothering doing all the other stuff ? Maybe we should knock it on the head and just practise hammer fist and knee strikes. Job done!

Surely what we train in we believe we can make work in a real situation? All those years of learning kicks, strikes, locks, throws, groundwork and most of it won’t stand up in a ‘fight’.

Shit what a waste of time and effort. All that money invested. All that blood, sweat and tears.  You should have been practicing half a dozen basic moves, because that is about all that is going to work in reality. Fuck I have been cheated and all these so called Masters have played me like a fiddle! I am gutted….But wait….

I know firsthand of individuals who have knocked people out in ‘real fights’ with a spinning back kick or smashed them into the dirt with a shoulder throw. I know dozens of people who have taken others out with triangle headlocks, arm bars, wristlocks and chokes. But how could they? These are not gross motor skills. Surely these are fine motor skills, maybe even complex motor skills. So what is going on? Who is right?

Well let’s examine what I believe to be a Martial Artist. Anything that has art in its title must suggest that it is reaching for the highest levels of excellence. It is striving to be an art form.

Let’s take another view of this. An individual informs you they paint for a living do you presume they paint houses or portraits? Yes they are both forms of painting but one carries a greater degree of skill than the other. Could Rembrandt paint a door? Probably. But he also had the fine skills to paint a masterpiece on canvas. He didn’t limit himself to just painting a bowl of fruit. His belief system told him he could achieve much more. Surely as Martial Artist we should be working on the same thought process.

If fighting skills didn’t progress beyond just gross motor all our martial arts systems would be still  based on hitting somebody else over the head with a big ‘fuck off’ rock. Surely we have come forward more than that?

If I believed that the only things that will work in a ‘live’ unarmed combat situation was a kick in the balls or a punch on the jaw, how often would I have to train those skills. Every day? Five years? Ten years? More?  I don’t think so.

But if I wanted to apply wristlocks and arm locks to a real live resisting opponent or take them down with a hip throw, sweep or double leg, then that would require more time and more practise but it can be done. This is what makes champions. This is what they do.

To state only gross motor skills work under extreme pressure and the adrenal rush is doing all the Martial artists a big injustice as many can prove otherwise.

But you can counter argue many Martial artists have been beaten in the ‘street’ by an average street fighter. This is true and really warrants another article of its own. But suffice to say, it was probably more to do with playing in somebody’s backyard and not realising or understanding their rules than just the techniques not working.

But if the gross motor skill statement was solely true then how can a musician come out on stage in front of 1000’s of people and play a faultless piano or violin concerto. There is a shit load of pressure and adrenalin there.

What about the chef creating a masterpiece meal in front of the television cameras or a master tennis player coming out on centre court 2 sets down in the final and being able to come back and win the next 3.Isn’t this all pressure? What about the formula one racing driver zooming around the track at 200 mph? Or the skydiver?

If only gross motor skills worked under pressure how would our fire fighters or our military operate effectively?

Maybe the answer lies in time?

I think a more accurate summary would be if an individual had limited time to learn how to defend themselves, then simple gross motor skills are the way to go, no doubt.

If you were teaching a 6, 8 or 12 week self defence course then gross motor skills would be on the top of the agenda. This is when I have used this principle the most.

Systems such as for example Krav Maga were originally designed for soldiers with limited time to learn C,Q.B skills before going into war. They didn’t have the luxury of years of training so they had to learn something relatively simple that could be picked up in a short space of time. Gross motor skills will always be the easiest to learn.

The same can be said for our Police force. They get limited time to practise complex unarmed combat skills, so under pressure they are more likely to go for their baton or C.S gas than a wristlock or armbar.

But if you were going to open a club to teach week in week out based only on this theory how long would it be before people got bored with just practicing that knee to the balls or poke in the eye? Pretty soon you will start adding the intricacies of combination strikes, grappling or weapon work.

Do all these instructors that promote gross motor skills not train in any other aspects of the combat arts?

If you didn’t most people would eventually give up training or want to learn some more advanced skills.

So maybe we are padding out the skills and syllabus for money not fighting techniques? Oh dear what a thought.

If you are a Martial artist and prepared to devote a massive part of your life to training then you will be able to apply more advanced techniques and fine motor skills. As long as you have pressure tested them correctly and you have the right mental attitude then you can make anything work. Also you will require the patience and passion to stick around long enough to get to train them.

Back in the early days of the UFC you wouldn’t have thought you would have seen jumping spinning back kicks and backfists or flying armbars used with any success but these days we do. Why? Because somebody has decided to practise them and pressure test them to death to make them work. They have the vision and belief. They did not set limitations on themselves.

What does it take to achieve these things?  Time,effort,skill and belief. It depends on what sort of person you are. Do you want to read the book or wait for the film?

If we want to accelerate our martial arts training for example but can’t devote day in day out training how can we make the most of it and feel we are progressing towards our goals?

Experts reckon it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill or subject.

There are 8,760 hours available to us in a year. Take all the things we need to do outside of our training and we roughly have 3,500 hours left.

So how can we achieve?

Firstly 10,000hours is working to perfection. Don’t mistake this with excellent, very good; good, decent, not bad or OK…They are not the same thing by any means.

View 10,000 hours as a goal to work towards, an incentive. A journey begins with the first step or 10,000hours begins with the first minute. Time to start now.

If you don’t want to devote the time to be a Martial artist but would like to learn the rudiments of effective physical self defence techniques, gross motor skills are the way to go. If you want to stick around for the bigger picture you can certainly add more to your fighting skills.

Whatever skills you wish to learn the keys are to drill,drill,drill. Then pressure test in the type of environment you want them to work in (street, cage, contest mat, on the doors, etc etc).Understand and feel adrenalin and learn to work with it. Time is the key.

Proper training, time and effort can achieve great things. History proves that. Yes maybe not everybody will achieve these high levels of skill but I believe that’s what every Martial artist is trying to do when they step out on the mats every day, year after year. That is the goal and that’s what keeps them coming back for more, learning new stuff and pushing for higher levels of skill just like the musician, the painter, the sculpture, the poet, the writer etc.

To achieve a high level of competence in anything you have got to be prepared to work your ass off and sacrifice all. Most won’t. It is a big ask to be truly a champion, a winner and a success.

There are different levels of skill and depending on how much work you want to put in to your chosen field will determine what you will get out of it.

When I have a beginner come to my class I will teach to them simple, gross motor skills to start with but as time progresses and they improve I will gradually give them more technique to work on the same as you would do in any hobby, job or past time. Isn’t this were a syllabus comes into play?

Learning to knockout somebody doesn’t take a lot of physical training. Most people would be able to develop the power and technique to do so within an hour. Having the mental capacity and knowing when and how to deliver with proper timing will take much longer. That having said it wouldn’t take years. If this was your sole aim then there are martial arts systems certainly out there better equipped than others to do this and in a shorter space of time.

It will depend really on whether you just want fighting techniques to blast somebody off the planet if they get in your face or whether you wish to become a student and eventually master of a martial art.

Yes there are some Martial artists out there living in ‘cloud cuckoo land’ and practising the biggest load of bollocks on the planet but there are also many out there that are truly great and can make the most complex of techniques work for them under pressure. I have been fortunate to train with a great many.

This is why I am proud to call myself a Martial artist and continue after 40 years to keep honing my skills. I can also call myself a fighter because I have been there and done a bit.

I have immense respect for all the arts and for the people that have spent a life time in them. I may not agree with everything they say or do but I still respect them.

Much over the last 20 years has been written about how to train Martial arts technique more effectively and the explosion of MMA and its like has dispelled many myths that were carried around in those circles.

Simplistic skills are always going to be the easiest to learn and use but I believe with dedicated practise more complex skills can work and can start beginning that person’s simple skills. This is the foundation of all the Martial arts and their syllabus. For example a judoka’s Osoto gari to a layman is a complex skill but to the judoka it is a ‘bread and butter’ move. Can they make it work? Sure they can. They have done it dozens of time in contest. Could they make it work on the street? You bet. I have seen it.

In conclusion I sum up once again by saying that yes there are other important elements to add to the mix but essentially the length of time training a technique is one of the major keys to making it work under pressure regardless what that technique is.




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