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The Scientist-Practitioner Model in Martial Arts

The Scientist-Practitioner Model in Martial Arts

Stuart Sadler has been involved with the Martial Arts since 1994, but more seriously since 1999. He has trained for prolonged periods in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Taiji and currently holds a Dan grade in his base style, Shotokan Karate as well as a Kyu grade in Judo.

His main interests are in the application of science to the martial arts, relating to teaching and evaluation methods, in both of which he has acted as a consultant. He also has a special interest in human physiology and biomechanics. His background in Clinical Psychology has provided grounding in understanding learning styles and goal motivation as they relate to daily living, and his academic background has provided him with comprehensive training in applied research methodology.

Stuart currently lives in the North East of England and prefers one-to-one training rather than the large dojo environment. He currently trains with several prominent martial artists on the seminar circuit and has a supply of training partners with varying special interests. He is also an advocate of karate as a traditional fighting system.

This is a very well written thought provoking article on how to approach, validate, confirm and advance our understanding of the martial arts. I'm very grateful to Stuart for sharing this article with us all.

Best Wishes,


The Scientist-Practitioner Model in Martial Arts

by Stuart Sadler

One of the earliest lessons we are taught is to form our own opinions of what we see. We are encouraged to test and evaluate what we learn in our martial arts based on how effective it would be in real settings. The scientist-practitioner model of practise is derived from Clinical Psychology and posits that evidence-based methods and procedures should be employed as routine but also researched further to increase efficiency. Applied to martial arts, this corresponds to using methods and techniques that are evidence-based and have some level of demonstrated effectiveness, whilst also continuing to find ways of further increasing efficiency. Clearly, such an approach to the martial arts would separate “what would really work” from “what wouldn't really work”, or to use modern martial terms, separate the “reality-based” from the “bullshido”.

In the healthcare environment from which this model is derived, a distinction is made between “scientist-practitioner” and “applied scientist” approaches. Whereas the latter is concerned only with applying existing evidence, the former investigates existing evidence further by testing alternatives. In other words, whereas applied scientists are concerned mainly with application of current knowledge, scientist-practitioners are on a dual track of researching the best methods as well as applying them in practise. Both approaches are therefore concerned with performance, but the scientist-practitioner model strives to improve performance further by identifying and testing other ways. As a result, a knowledge base develops which is founded in scientific evidence, and is the basis used to inform current or newer methods.

How does one employ the scientist-practitioner approach in the martial arts? Primarily, it requires the practitioner to hold a sceptical and enquiring mind. It assumes comfort in being able to look at the current methods being employed (including one's own) and acknowledge the fact that they are flawed in some way. Due to the necessity of actively critiquing one's own technique, a certain level of maturity is required to acknowledge one's existing (or their teacher's existing) method might not be the most effective. Furthermore, the approach also requires the individual to accept that any new method may also be able to be improved in some way. These attributes are not always easy to find, but they are prerequisites for adopting the scientist-practitioner approach in the martial arts.

Assuming the individual meets the previous character requirements, the scientist-practitioner then forms hypotheses and then test them. This might be either with the aim of solving a current difficulty (for example, being unable to get adequate hip rotation when punching with heel down), or alternatively comparing the effectiveness of two suggested methods (for example, whether heel up or heel down leads to a more powerful reverse punch). Hypotheses (in this context) are usually framed as questions that often test for differences, for example: “Does lifting my heel during a reverse punch lead to a more powerful punch than when keeping my heel down?” or “Does chambering my leg lead to a faster front kick than not chambering?” Following the formation of a hypothesis, it is then tested with the aim of answering the question. Testing a hypothesis may be done with varying degrees of complexity ranging from the simplest (eg. having another person rate both methods after feeling them several times through a pad) to the most complex (using specific technology and follow-up statistical analyses) depending on the resources available. Irrespective of the method of testing, the aim is the same: to obtain sufficient data that contributes an answer to the hypothesis.

Of course, hypothesis testing is useless if the practitioner holds extreme bias. There is no point if the practitioner is prepared to dismiss findings purely because they do not fit existing opinions. The aim of the scientist-practitioner approach is to update practise with better ways rather than stick to one's own established habits in light of no evidence. It is no good wondering if (for example) lifting the heel allows for a more powerful punch unless the researcher is prepared to accept findings that contradict what they were hoping for. Similarly, it may turn out there is no real difference between the methods tested. The scientist-practitioner must be willing to accept and appreciate results that either contradict their own method, or lead to null findings (ie. no measured difference) as much as they would accept positive findings.

A simple application of this process could be demonstrated using the wrist lock Nikyo as an example. The hypothesis might be that Nikyo works better if it is placed closer to the centre line of the uke (receiver) than the tori (person doing the technique). After testing and finding that nikyo works better when the lock is closer to the tori, the original hypothesis that it works better when closer to the uke can be rejected. The scientist-practitioner may then choose to test a modified version of the initial hypothesis (eg. Nikyo might work better if the lock is placed nearer the tori's shoulder than the tori's centre) or a brand new hypothesis that is completely unrelated to the intial one (eg. Nikyo might work better if the tori drops their body weight after applying it) if they wish. The scientist-practitioner approach also requires the individual to put their findings into practice, so the individual is using a method informed by evidence, and therefore demonstrated as effective. Clearly, testing one hypothesis however may lead to other questions for further testing.

In conclusion, the scientist-practitioner does not just “do” a technique; they are simultaneously questioning and researching ways that aim to improve what they are doing. This western model of practise contributes a way that hundred year-old techniques may be improved through modern scientific means. It is important that martial artists are able to recognise effective methods so that they are able to prevent assimilation of ineffective methods into their practise. In today's world where martial arts is a business it is especially important to question what we do and what we are shown, so that we can make informed decisions rather than taking someone else's word for it. This is especially important for experienced martial artists who may be fixed in their ways. The humbleness and humility of acknowledging a better way is one of the ideals that the martial arts tradition aims to instil in everyone who practises however, and as such, the adoption of the scientist-practitioner approach encourages growth in both character, and technical ability alike.

Stuart Sadler © Copyright 2007

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