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September 27, 2017



This is an article given to me by one of my WMA (Western Martial Arts) instructors


Before we begin drilling, a few notes are called for. Learning an effective technique has two parts. First you have to learn the Form. Second you have to learn the Application. “Form” means “How to.” “Application” means “When to.” The difference between Form and Application is very simple: to learn Form requires predictability. To learn Application requires unpredictability. Many people believe that if they perform endless predictable repetitions at high speed, then they are learning Application. This is not in fact the case. They are simply learning Form at speed. Speed gives you the illusion that you are learning Application. Not true. Don’t make this mistake.
To understand why unpredictability is necessary to develop real combat ability, we need to discuss first the mental and physical processes involved when you are attacked and when you defend. This is essentially a four-stage process:


In order for you to respond adequately to an attack your brain has to first become aware of the attack and then process the incoming data to recognize what it is. The period of time it takes for your brain to sense or become aware of an attack is called your “sensation” time or “awareness” time.


It is not enough to become aware that you are being attacked. You have to also recognize/comprehend HOW you are being attacked. The period of time it takes for your brain to process the incoming data to recognize what it is, is called your “perception” time or “recognition” time.


Both sensation and perception have to occur before your brain can respond. The first stage of a response is a mental response, called “Decision.” The Decision stage of this cycle is where you decide how you are going to respond to the incoming data that you have analyzed.


Once you have made a decision, your brain must now send instructions to your physical body to trigger a movement on your part (e.g. a defensive movement with your hands). This final part of the cycle is called “Action.”
During a fight, these four stages are constantly occurring, in a non-stop cycle, because once you take action you will trigger counter-action from your opponent, which will set the cycle running again. It is this four-stage cycle: Sensation/Perception/Decision/Action – that influential US Airforce military strategist Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997) named the “OODA Loop.”

Boyd’s terms for this four-stage cycle/loop are as follows:
Sensation/Awareness – Observe (O)
Perception – Orient (O)
Decision – Decision (D)
Action – Action (A)


The time it takes to move from Sensation through Perception and Decision to Action varies, depending on the level of surprise or expectation. In addition, of course, this time varies from person to person, and is also affected by training. The time estimates below are thus merely guidelines.


When faced with a surprise attack or unexpected attack that you did not know was going to occur, the entire four-stage process of the OODA Loop can take on average 1.5 seconds.
Thus, when the attack is launched, if there is less than one second before you are hit, it will be impossible for you to defend successfully, as you will not have time to process the attack. It is difficult in most training to train responses to surprise attack, because when you step up to spar you already know a fight is coming.


In a fight that you know is happening (e.g. where you take the field to fight), your opponent’s attack is never a surprise. You know it is coming, but you do not know when or how. We refer to this as an “expected but unpredictable” attack. When you know already that you are in a fight but do not yet know how your opponent is going to attack you, the speed at which the OODA Loop cycles is faster than in a surprise attack. This is because the first part of the Loop (Awareness) has already been achieved. You are already a heightened state of awareness, knowing you are in a fight. In this scenario, the entire four-stage process of the OODA Loop will take less time than when the attack is a surprise attack – perhaps on average 1 second. This is what we call “Application Drilling.”


When the attack is both expected and predictable, and where you have already decided in advance how to respond, you need very little Sensation time, Perception time or Decision time. In this kind of scenario, from the moment your opponent attacks, your OODA Loop can be completed in well under 1 second, because most of the cycle has been processed BEFORE the (predictable) attack began. This is what we call “Form Drilling.”


As discussed above, Application learning only begins once unpredictability is added to the drill progression. Once the drill becomes unpredictable, the OODA Loop begins in your brain (What is he doing…? what do I need to do…? etc.). Only when you are training the OODA Loop are you learning Application.
Tne of the great myths about training is that unless you are training fast, you are not learning. And the easiest way to train fast is to train predictable drills. However, no matter how fast you drill predictable drills, you are really only training the “A” part of the OODA Loop (Action), because all of your other three mental processes (OOD) are occurring before the opponent attacks you. You are therefore not learning Application. You are learning Form.
That is not to say that good form is not important to all combat arts. But you must always be aware that learning Form is not learning Application. And drilling Form at speed is still only learning Form.
Application drills can be performed slowly, but they are still effective. As long as your drills are unpredictable you are learning Application. An unpredictable drill with variables in attack and remedy triggers and trains the stages of the mental process (OODA) (remember, since you already know you are in a fight, the first O of OODA is already partially processed before the attack comes – you know you are going to be attacked, you just don’t know when).


Hope you enjoyed! Jon.

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