Looking Out To Sea

Operant conditioning in martial arts training

This article, The Practical Problem of Teaching Self Defense by Rory Miller, was recently posted on the /r/martialarts subreddit.

Amongst the many interesting things it had to say was one key section that jumped right out at me:

Operant conditioning is using a stimulus-response-reward/punish pattern to bypass cognitive processing. In other words, if you want someone to do something fast, you have to condition it, not train it. It bypasses the cognitive processing and gets responses very close to reflex speed. It is also faster than training. It may have taken you a thousand reps before you can block a punch at speed, but it only took one rep to learn not to touch a hot stove.

I think this is the guiding principal behind the teaching at Cross Combat that I’ve been missing when trying to analyse it. And when trying to redirect the ideas towards ways of teaching capoeira. It immediately set my hair on fire, anyway!

This next section too seemed very relevant:

It is easy to mess up operant conditioning. Correcting the student, micromanaging, can turn conditioning into training. And training, despite what you may have been told, rarely comes out under stress. Conditioning does.

If there’s one thing that can be levelled accurately at Cross Combat’s training style it’s that there’s very little in the way of hands-on correction and micromanaging. There are broad broad brushstrokes and lots of “games”.

I’ve been reading and re-reading the concepts and procedures section of the Operant Conditioning wikipedia article. Thinking about training movements and how they fall into the reinforcement/punishment spectrum.

It seems the four basic points are:

  • positive reinforcement — reward for doing something good
  • negative reinforcement — remove discomforts for doing something good
  • positive punishment — penalty for doing something bad
  • negative punishment — remove comfort for doing something bad

but I doubt it’s possible to cover all four with one exercise. However as long as one exercise has essentially a “win” condition for each player and that the behaviours that lead to that condition are what is intended, the rest shouldn’t matter.


A partner that has been swept to the ground is the reward for the successful rasteira — and the timing and placement of the successful rasteira are reinforced by the feelings of achievement in sweeping the feet of the partner.

All the while the partner’s ginga is reinforced where they manage to control their weight distribution and balance against the rasteiras. The failures are punished accordingly by the sweeps, since even an unsuccessful sweep has an unsettling effect as the balance momentarily disappears…

I’m going to have to think about this a lot more.