The realization that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever

A long time ago, I had a paradigm shift that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever. To explain this correctly, I need to give you a little bit of background information:

Many years ago, I started reading the Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett. Though these books take place in a fantasy world, the stories they tell are deeply rooted in our own. If you haven’t read them, go ahead and give them a try. They’re tons of fun. Here’s the reason why I bring this up:

Mr. Pratchett wrote a series of accompanying books called “Science of the Discworld“. These alternate a story set in the Discworld universe with chapters explaining how science works. In one of these books, he mentions “emergent dynamic systems” and “complex systems“. These concepts are hard to explain quickly, but I’ll post some resources at the end if you want more in-depth information.

For a layman’s explanation, you can view it like this:

Complex systems examine how the multiple components of a system interact with each other and cause the system to behave a certain way, but also how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment.

The “emergent” part means that complex systems and patterns are formed out of relatively simple interactions.

When you combine these two, it means you can look at a system and create laws and theories of what you see happening and these may be true. However, you cannot recreate an outcome from these laws and theories alone. The specific elements involved and their interactions can give rise to radically new dynamics and behavior, completely unpredictable from previous occurrences. Or put differently, new patterns (and therefor laws and rules) become apparent as the system keeps going, instead of sticking to the previously established rules.

My paradigm shift was viewing fighting and violence as an emergent dynamic system.

Picture a MMA or boxing match: you know the rules and allowed techniques upfront, you know the strengths and weaknesses of both fighters, along with their past performances. You can even do a statistical analysis of all these factors. Despite all that, you can never predict with 100% accuracy who the winner will be, because differences in seemingly insignificant elements or unexpected developments can alter the outcome completely:

  • Tony Fryklund never expected Anderson Silva to drop him with a lead rising back elbow. It had never been done in the cage before and Anderson saw it in Ong Bak. What’s more, he told his coaches he wanted to use this technique but they forbade it and refused to let him practice. So he trained with his wife at home, with her holding a pillow for him…
  • Anderson Silva never imagined he would break his own leg kicking Chris Weidman’s knee.
  • After submitting all her opponents by armbar, nobody expected Ronda Rousey to drop Sara McMann with a knee to the body.

These were uncommon, unexpected and unorthodox results, yet the rules hadn’t changed from previous fights.

The same applies to self-defense: yes, there are rules, models and patterns you can use. But these do not guarantee a specific outcome. At best, they offer guidance and some sort of structure to make sense of the chaos that is a violent encounter. As you experience more encounters, you discover different elements and models that change the way you view violence and all of that will be true. Here’s the thing:

The same goes for everybody else.

Their experiences are just as valid, their models just as true.

But these could be completely different from yours due to those individual changes in dynamics that lead to wildly different results. The underlying principles and laws may be the same, but the way they are expressed and altered in the details give rise to totally different situations and results.

Both the forest and each individual tree (and branch, and twig, and leaf, and…) are important.


Seeing violence as an emergent dynamic system is why I often write that there is more than one right answer, or that several people can be right at the same time about violence, even if their views seem to be opposites. This realization also made me more humble and open-minded. It meant I didn’t have to “prove” I was right and consider somebody else wrong because of it: we can both be right in our own model. It all depends on the specifics and the details of our models and personal experiences or observations.

There is a flip side to that coin though: it means “my” model will never encompass the totality of what violence is. I will always be limited to knowing only a small piece of everything there is to know. This doesn’t make that piece invalid, it means I have to avoid looking at my own model as the whole thing.

The second point is that studying other models, learning from others can make your own model bigger and better. That is why I still train with my teachers, friends and other instructors. I also still read many books, blogs and articles while also watching instructional videos.

The learning never stops.

The model never stops changing.

This paradigm shift was both liberating and exhilarating for me. It lead me to new areas of study and made me not only a better martial artist and self-defense instructor, it also made me a better person. I hope me sharing this theory with you can improve your life as much as it did mine.


Here are some links if you want to read more about all this.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

The Discworld Series

Science of the Discworld

Complex systems



P.S.: For the benefit of the professionals among you: I’m obviously not making any scientific claims. I’m only explaining how I view things.

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