Applying Critical Thinking For Better Training Results

self defense

“The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.”
― Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Critic

A very important skill to have when it comes to studying self defence (rather than just doing it), and one which is rarely mentioned, is the skill of critical thinking.

If a particular method or skill is supposed to have practical and real world applications, as combatives is supposed too, then it must be tested and evaluated objectively to see whether or not it holds any validity in practical application.

In otherwards, the skills that you practice are supposed to work in the real world (a high percentage of the time anyway—remember, there’s no guarantees) and not just on the training floor. For this to be the case, you can’t base your training on theory alone. You must base your training on proven scientific principles and real world results.

In martial arts training, critical thinking becomes less important, since the art is deemed more important than the real world applications of said art (despite claims to the contrary by most practitioner’s). A martial artist does not have to prove anything, except that something works only within the confines of the particular style being practiced. A technique must only make sense within the context of the style being studied. It is irrelevant whether or not the same technique makes sense outside of that context, despite the fact that many martial artists try to make their style fit into a real world context, which only goes to show their lack of critical thinking in what they are doing. Delusional thinking is what it shows.

This article is not about shooting fish in a barrel however. Martial artists do what they do and that’s that. Combatives on the other hand, is based on the assumption that the techniques are supposed to work in real world situations, not just in a training context. Critical thinking therefore becomes extremely important in this case, because nothing can or should be left to chance.

Combatives should be based on what is known to work, not what is thought to work. There is a world of difference between the two perspectives.

If you want to base your training on what does work, rather than on what you think works, or worse, on what someone else tells you works, then you must learn to apply your critical thinking facilities to your training.


What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is defined by a number of characteristics, including:

Rationality: We are thinking critically when we rely on reason rather than emotion, when we require evidence to support our assumptions and when we refuse to ignore no known evidence. If we are thinking rationally, we should be more concerned with finding the right answers, not on being right for the sake of it. Quite often, the desire to appear right for egotistical reasons becomes more important than actually being right. People will do and say anything if it helps to make them seem right, even if they know they are not right at all.

Self-awareness: We are thinking critically when we weigh the influences of motives and bias, and recognize our own assumptions, prejudices, biases, or points of view. This kind of honesty can be difficult to achieve at times, given how attached we become to certain theories and points of view. It is essential to be aware of anything that may be clouding your judgement, like emotional attachments, selfish motives or any kind of self deception.

Open-mindedness: We are thinking critically when we consider a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives, remain open to alternative interpretations, accept a new explanation, model, or paradigm because it explains the evidence better, is simpler, or has fewer inconsistencies or covers more data. We must also accept new conclusions in response to a revaluation of the evidence or reassessment of our real interests.

Discipline: We are thinking critically when we are precise, meticulous, comprehensive, and exhaustive; when we resist manipulation and irrational appeals, and avoid snap judgments.

Judgment: We are thinking critically when we recognize the relevance and/or merit of alternative assumptions and perspectives, and recognize the extent and weight of alternative evidence.

According to the academic Robert H. Ennis, a critical thinker should have the following characteristics:

1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives

2. Desires to be, and is, well-informed

3. Judges well the credibility of sources

4. Identifies reasons, assumptions, and conclusions

5. Asks appropriate clarifying questions

6. Judges well the quality of an argument, including its reasons, assumptions, evidence, and their degree of support for the conclusion

7. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position regarding a belief or an action, doing justice to challenges

8. Formulates plausible hypotheses

9. Plans and conducts experiments well

10. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context

11. Draws conclusions when warranted – but with caution

12. Integrates all of the above aspects of critical thinking


Applying Critical Thinking To Training

It can be a challenge to get some people to think at all about their training, never mind think critically about it, but that’s another issue. For now, let’s look at how critical thinking can improve your training.

First and foremost, one of the major benefits of applying critical thinking to your training is that it forces you to engage with what you are doing. Too many people show up for training and run through a load of prescribed movements without even thinking about the validity of those movements. The techniques may be shit or they may not be. Either way, you won’t know until you properly evaluate them– unless you are happy to take the word of others as gospel, which I am not.

So the first thing you must do is look at your techniques from a sceptical standpoint. Don’t just accept that they work. Run each technique through your critical thinking faculties and force the techniques to prove their worth. Break everything down and ask lots of questions. Try to identify the component parts and identify also the principles on which they are based. Accept nothing as fact until you can prove it to be so.

Of course, even after you have judged a technique to be technically sound, that doesn’t mean it is going to work in the context of a real violent altercation, so you need to pressure test the technique as much as you can.

Some techniques can seem so practical and useful on the training floor, but when pressure tested or used against a live, resisting opponent, fall flat and turn out to be worthless. So always think of the context in which the technique is to be used. Stress and other factors can have a major effect on the execution of a technique, so always keep that in mind.


An Essential Tool

Critical thinking should be an essential tool that you use regularly in training. If you want to deepen your understanding of a subject, blind acceptance of someone else’s assumptions and conclusions is not the way to go. You must arrive at your own conclusions, by yourself, even if you end up arriving at the same conclusions. The journey you took to get there will be worth it in itself.

Thinking critically and objectively about your training should be an on-going endeavour. Never settle for any particular set of conclusions. Even when you think you have found answers, keep searching, because you can almost guarantee that there is other information out there that will effect the conclusions you currently hold.

It is also possible that you go so deep down the rabbit hole in your quest for answers that you end up getting lost, which is why it is important to always keep in mind the broader picture of what you are trying to achieve. See the macro as well as the micro.

Critical thinking and thinking for yourself in general can involve a great deal of mental gymnastics, and very often it can feel like your head is going to explode with the frustration of trying to find answers.

Keep going though. It’s worth it when you do find answers and deepen your understanding of things. It also puts you head and shoulders above the droves that don’t.

That in itself makes the hard work worth it to me.

Don’t forget to share this article if you found it useful.



  1. Zara says

    Good article as usual. I do think you generalise a bit too much about martial arts (there’s a great variety of styles and approaches under that umbrella-term and some are undoubtedly more practical than others) plus many martial artists have stood their ground and prevailed on the street, even from highly stylized arts like karate or aikido, so it’s a bit much to say they are basically rubbish when it comes to SD or at least imply it. I fully endorse critical thinking and experimentation but the fact is that there are definite limits to what you can test without taking unacceptable risks and putting yourself deliberatly in harm’s way. I’m quite sure certain techniques work: not because I’ve actually gauged someone’s eye out or broken someone’s kneecap but because I know about human anatomy (be it at a superficial level since I’m not a student of medicine). Training against weapons and the like is always hypothetical (even in a sparring situation) since it’d be madness to actually train with a sharp knife or swing a real bat at someone with the intention of actually breaking his skull. If I see techniques which are clearly rubbish because of technical flaws or absurdly complex variables I dismiss them but I recognise there is great value in the martial arts, if you are discerning, broaden your horizons and are willing to lean from anyone who’s got something real to offer. I’m a bit wary of the aura of superiority practioners of both RBSD-systems and sports martial arts tend to exhibit: the best system (if there is such a thing) is worthless if you didn’t train properly and/or don’t have the guts to face your fear, the worst system can be useful if you’ve trained well and are determined to win no matter what. Plus you can always be surprised (e.g getting hit in the head with a hammer while turning a corner) and then even a gun will not likely be of much use let alone a hand-to-hand fighting system which is always and inherently limited. There’s a reason man started to fight with weapons ever since the beginning of time and if you’re faced with three or more opponents you’ll likely lose no matter what you trained. On the contrary most situations regular people are likely to face can be solved by keeping cool (e.g handing your wallet to a mugger instead of trying to be a hero) or are of the variety (social violence) that don’t require much skill to solve so almost anything would do aslong as you don’t crumble under the pressure. Luckily I live in a society that isn’t very dangerous and doesn’t require me to be on my guard 24/7 or train as if my life depended on it. I think this goes for the great majority of martial arts practioners so does it really matter if they just go with the flow and find their joy in mindless exercise? In my opinion there are far more important things to be wary and critical of than SD and related subjects: global warming for one or the complete breakdown of the world-economy due to greed and gross mis-management. Not to mention war and the misery people put eachother through every single day…

    I could be wrong but it seems you dismiss martial arts outright based on limited experiences (from what I gathered you only trained in jujutsu, kenpo and karate): a critical attitude would imply to first examine other arts and then pronounce judgement. I personally tend to dislike karate because of their kata and very stylized kihon (which I believe ingrains bad habits) but I’ve met karateka who are real fighters that can stand against almost anyone, usually guys who had a pretty dangerous profession and if they opted to stay within their style surely it must have something real to offer in terms of fighting. Idem with a guy who trained in ninpo (very, very traditional): he’s not a guy to be triffled with (I’ve personally witnessed him beat up three guys with ease and I’m sure he could have done a lot worse) so it’s clear at the very least he found ways to make his style work. My sensei always says to pay your respects to all (be polite and humble in regard to your own abilities) and experiment but never accept anything at face-value. This goes for my approach to every style, including krav maga, combatives or whatever. All have certain things to offer (some more than others, at least with regard to practicality) but none is complete. I found the best arts (in my view) were developed by people who actually fought for real and/or incorporated the best elements from various other styles: kali-escrima has been influenced by a great many styles (Spanish sword and dagger, Chinese boxing…) and owing to the fact they needed to hold their own against numerically superior forces they devised methods to fight as efficiently as possible.

    In regard to our last discussion about kali-escrima: a while back I saw a video by Kelly Maccan and he says he trains in kali so obviously it must be worth it in his opinion.

    • says

      I can be guilty at times of generalising a bit too much, but usually I’m just trying to make a point. I of course know that martial arts training has a lot to offer. I’m pretty familiar with most systems. They all have good and bad elements. It’s just that the good is often buried under a stack of “training floor only” techniques. When it comes to self defence, that it isn’t what you want or need, you just want the good stuff that has a high chance of working under real conditions. Most of time is spent at the moment working on power generation and refining the techniques I already know. I take basic techniques (strikes and such) and break them down, examine the physics and body mechanics involved and work on making them better or doing them better.

      I agree that the air of superiority often exists in the combatives/sd scene. Sometimes it can lead to arrogance or disparagement for the sake of it by some. I still respect the arts, but like or not, most of them are based on fantasy, and this is mainly down to the fact that there is no aliveness in the training. The attacks are not realistic and most of the time the techniques are made to fit the fantasy attack. Add in a bit of resistance and they fall flat. Even Jujitsu, which you would think would be realistic…how many throws or locks could you do against an unwilling opponent…barely a handful of throws and fewer locks.

      All that’s besides the point however. I just like to do my own thing. I have no affiliations to any style or system. I concentrate on practical self defence training. That’s it. Within that I still do some alive training, sparring and such, but not the type of static training seen in TMA.

      When you train within a style you will,like it or not, be constrained by that style. The emphasis will always be on the style and not necessarily on what works. Having no style constraints means you can bring in stuff from anywhere with no fear that it will conflict in any way with what you are already doing. Practicality matters more than style.

      And yes, the man is more important than the style. In my experience though, when a martial artist is good at fighting (real fighting) it is not because of the style they practice, but simply because they are good at fighting and know how to handle things. I’ve seen loads of martial artists from different styles prevail in fights, but not because they were using techniques from their system, but because they were using basic strikes and lots of aggression to put the other guy down. I used to wonder what the point in all that training was if they were not going to use their style of fighting. Why train for twenty years if you are just going to use street fighting techniques when it comes to the crunch? I know guys who have trained in Jujitsu for many years and I never once seen them do a lock or throw in a fight. That’s because your natural instincts come out in a fight, you go for strikes, chokes, head butts etc.

      I heard someone say recently (a very, very experienced fighter) that you basically fight how you did as a kid. I think there is some truth in that.

  2. says

    The other thing is, if we apply Mick Coup’s model of time/space/effect to most martial arts techniques, they fall flat. For a technique to be effective in a real situation, you must be able to do it with no build up, within a split second, as usually, you are in a fight before you even realise it. You also must be able to apply it in limited space, and it also must have a good effect on your attacker, so it must deliver a lot of impact. It must also be of use in many different situations, not just one. And it must be probable, in that it will work most of the time. I don’t see too many MA techniques matching these criteria.


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