Principle-Driven Arts…from Concept to Practice

I have been fortunate to gain teaching ranks in a wide variety of martial arts, but I have passed on that material, and my own, in a way that few of my teachers would have recognised.  Having cross-trained – though I didn’t then know it by that term – from an early age, I realised only a few years into my teaching career that I had to find a way to process and teach everything I knew in a radically different way to the (mostly) single-style sensei and sifu I had acquired the majority of my technical arsenal from.  Largely because it was the way that I was able to understand otherwise apparently contradictory strategies, tactics and technical solutions, I focussed on teaching in a principle or concept-based manner.

So, what exactly does that mean?  Aren’t all martial arts concept or principle-based?  Well, ‘yes’ to both those characterisations, but regarding the older arts in particular, they wouldn’t generally have been presented or taught in that way; at least, not by the time of the student generation I was a part of.   Let’s make a brief examination of what’s involved…

Drivers of change and the roots of tradition

Once an art is broadly designed and created and has been taught for a few generations, it is generally true that change is incremental and each alteration small, a process of accretion and attrition in techniques.   And the big founding ideas behind the genesis of that system or style are no longer routinely taught to the students, other than say, describing Wado-Ryu karate as being fast and evasive, in contrast to Shotokan being powerful and stable, largely because they are deemed to be self-evident.

Also while many practitioners believe they are custodians of an unchanging tradition, I am not sure if this is entirely possible.  New skills and technology are acquired and older practices, skills, attributes, knowledge are lost through irrelevance (correctly judged or not), and simple lack of maintenance.  Equally, some very archaic practices are maintained – whether out of respect for tradition, or because they can be adapted to other purposes.  Within a ‘traditional’ school, where relatively new “traditions” are brought into being, a junior student would know no different, due to the nature of recording or lack of it in
martial arts and the convention of the relationship of blind trust in one’s teacher.

Plainly all discrete – that is, distinctive – styles and arts must begin with concepts and principles, though not always consciously in the minds of their creators.  All conceptual arts – if we must give them that label to distinguish them from others – are born out of self-conscious self-examination.  The reasons for this might be speculative (the pondering
of ‘what if?’ type questions, or other tactical musings), or they might be responsive, forced by failure or defeat.

Nonetheless, a senior practitioner, or one of sufficient talent, working within an art that
does not entirely suit his or her needs, might well generate many small technical alterations, which cumulatively significantly alter the practice and expression of an art to a degree that could represent a radical departure from the style they began with.  And all of
this, without necessarily fitting the model of a conceptual art.  So, given that all arts are based upon concepts and principles, what defines those we describe in modern times as being concept or principle-based?

Well, firstly I would argue that the new art should have been constructed as a consciously
significant departure from the base art(s) and from ‘whole cloth’, that is to say that it should be internally consistent in its approach and the expression of its differences from its forerunner(s).   In practice, what this means is that there would have to be a coherent
and strategic imagining integral to the process.

Working as a consultant to large corporations, I often find I encounter individuals and
whole departments who can’t – or won’t – answer my questions about their business processes; so, I ‘hallucinate’ them.  Knowing their basic remit, I draw upon my martial arts as well as my business background, and I imagine what their processes must be in order to fulfil that role, applying logic, common-sense and previous experience.  I then feed the process flow I have mapped out back to them, and ask them to edit the result.

Likewise, creative, imaginative martial artists have produced significantly individual
and idiosyncratic arts out of such flights of the imagination; Prof. Wally Jay being just one of them.  When Prof. Wally began developing Small Circle it was in application to his Judo, and in response to his team being consistently beaten on the West Coast circuit as he
established himself in San Francisco after moving from Hawaii.  He had been given one of the key components to what later became Small Circle Ju-jitsu by his Judo teacher, Kenneth Kawachi some years before back on Hawaii, the key to what he would later refer to as ‘Two-way Action’.  This was what made Kawachi Sensei’s grip so effective, a core part
of his almost magical throwing skills, and it later became the corner-stone of Prof. Wally’s revamping of the entire mechanics of Prof. Okazaki’s Kodenkan system, producing Small Circle Ju-jitsu.

Here is a fundamental example of the role of the imagination in two ways: to posit a
possible weakness/problem (in this case, the problem was apparent, his Judo team were being consistently beaten); or to generate responses and extrapolations of likelihood of success i.e. what could he do differently, and how might that turn out?  Having imagined how he might comprehensively apply the principle of ‘two-way action’, Prof. Jay created the base of a thorough re-working of the body mechanics behind ju-jitsu with well-documented results.


Now let’s illustrate the process of development with a hypothetical example.  We’ll start with the Concept/Strategic Idea/Urgent Need that will drive the construction –‘I need to develop the ability to grapple against an armed opponent’.  Regardless of your level of confidence in what you already know – ‘I am competent with my primary weapon’ – remember the radical change may not be driven by a failure or defeat, just an awareness that such a defeat is conceivable, ‘I know that I may be disarmed, as I have been trained to disarm others’.  The underlying assumption of this strategic question is therefore that you are a weapon-user, which may be the same or a different weapon you anticipate facing, or that your experience is biased towards unarmed combat facing other unarmed fighters.


Having conceived the need, and the possible solution to that need, you have to have a method, both to explore the limitations of the strategy chosen to answer the tactical dilemma and the physical expressions of the technical changes/innovations posited.  Here is a suggested methodology: practise controlled sparring against armed opponent, after drilling in single, then combination attack/defence sequences.


The first tactic and the technique(s) underpinning it that you imagine may be
enough to meet the need, but an experienced martial artist is likely to want to
test out multiple approaches, so you would expect there to be alternative methods envisaged.  Here one might be to first learn how to grapple with or otherwise contain an opponent with and without first holstering/sheathing own weapon.  The advantage of this approach is that it a) builds awareness of possible contact with/use of the opponent’s weapon in application, and that knowledge of threat allows for the design of effective counter-technique(s).


This is where you will begin to see the overall practical result of the alteration of tactic and technique. Where either you are a weapons stylist accustomed to a quite different weapon you wish to train to counter, or you have little or no experience of weapons use, you will need to be able to envisage how the strategic approach you have decided upon, and the methodology of training for it, will express itself as a technical change:

In the scenario above, we might reasonably assume/hope that the resulting structural
change – the shape of the resulting skill-set in action – might consist of:

Greater Fluidity – fluid (or more fluid) technical handling of weapons; no staccato/linear motion, constantly changing and interlocking arcs, circles and spirals, because –

  • it is easier to change direction/speed once already in motion
  • Pacing’ – it’s easier to first ‘blend’ with opponent, before
  • Leading’ – neither Aikido nor Small Circle move until opponent does; first they adopt a neutral/shared position as opponent; what my old Aiki sensei used to refer to as ‘Getting on the train’, before taking control of the attacker’s movement.


  • A more naturalistic, less formalised style when grappling, with more rounded shapes to the techniques and smooth transitional flow, because practising against a weapon quickly teaches that sudden, more linear decelerations generally increase one’s danger of injury from the weapon.

Now we have a working description of how and why an art might qualify as conceptual, what drove its creation, and how it might have been imagined, expressed, tested and structured, at least in very broad brush strokes – we can go on to develop more specific examples, or examine development case-studies in greater detail.  But all that’s for another time…

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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