“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.
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