CTS / Martial Arts

Engineering the Martial Arts

Engineering is the application of science to the real world. Physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology are wonderful fields of study, but they excel at providing concepts and theories. Engineering translates their discoveries into tangible, real world applications. I have spent half of my life studying engineering specifically because it combines mathematics and physics with a tangible product. The principles that engineers use are the same that make Counterpoint Tactical Systems so interesting. CTS is a process oriented art governed by Pareto’s principle that uses margins of safety for maximum caution. Below are the lessons that I’ve pulled from CTS that are applicable to the study of any martial art.

GoalsGoals are important for any project. They provide a target to aim for, but they also can be used to plan out a journey. All of my engineering projects have had goals, and knowing where I was starting and where I was heading meant that I could plan how to get from one to the other. I’ve talked about setting goals before, and I still recommend that approach. You can set big goals or small goals. Your choice.  With big and small targets, engineering teaches that having a set goal will keep you on track, even though that track may twist and turn, the end point is still what you are working for. You may pass through milestones more than once, you may go off on detours, and, sometimes, you may actually regress. That’s okay as long as you don’t give up. Failure only occurs when you quit. Setbacks are not failure; they are part of the journey. Whether you’re designing an airplane or learning a martial art, having a goal should be your first step.

Joel Daugherty and Josh Ryer Playing Espada Y Daga

Joel Daugherty is playing Espada Y Daga for his second degree black belt test. He is assisted by Josh Ryer.

Process is everywhere. Most people – well, normal people – don’t think about it much, though. Why? Because most processes are so ingrained that we don’t even think of them as such. In engineering terms, process is a series of operations that lead to a predicted outcome. Tying your shoes is an example of a process that most people wouldn’t consider one. But when a child learns to tie their shoes, they’re taught a series of operations. Eventually, that series is so ingrained, the child doesn’t consciously think of it but still goes through all the operations. Driving is the same; after years of practicing the skills, drivers don’t think about pushing the gas pedal and switching to the brakes. They do it. CTS’s goal is the same. If a knife comes out, the CTS student taps it without thinking because tapping is a built in operation. As we learn advanced skills, such as knife versus knife, the tapping has been practiced so much that it comes out without prompting. In examining your own martial art, look for skills that become automatic, like punching. How do these skills and processes fit into your overall goal?


While setting your goal, you should examine your processes with that goal in mind. In engineering, this is called aligning your practices with your requirements. For example, if I am designing a hammer and my goal is a lightweight but strong product, my processes need to include weight reduction while maintaining high strength. If my operations can only deal with ceramics and not metals, then I will achieve one of my goals – a lightweight hammer that will have a very short product life. In martial arts terms, if I set a goal to be a point fighting champion and what I’m doing is learning CTS, then my training isn’t helping me towards my goal. CTS is a self defense art that emphasizes techniques and tactics that are illegal in point fighting. So, my goal and reality wouldn’t align. If I set a goal to be a Brazillian Jiu Jitsu black belt but I really want to learn Filipino martial arts, then my goal and my interests are out of sync. In my martial arts journey, I’ve been out of sync with my goal and what I was doing. I had a goal that didn’t line up with the particular curriculum block that I was working. (Kenpo Counterpoint 2, for those interested.) It took a few conversations with Master Zach Whitson before I understood where my problems were, and only after those conversations was I able to make the changes necessary to progress. The above triangle is important. To achieve your goal, all three bubbles must be in alignment. A good question to ask yourself is will your practice get you to where you want to go?

CTS is a very organized martial art. There is an overall progression from white belt to black belt. It can be broken down into sub-processes for each belt level and even further for each curriculum block at a belt level. For example, pangamot introduces the beginning students to the CTS training model. Pangamot is a drill of empty hand versus stick. Looking at the drill, I see three major processes in it. The first is learning the concept of empty hand versus stick self defense. This is what most people get out of the drill and is the most important part of this curriculum block. The second is the CTS training process that a drill works best when both partners are learning. More on this in a later post. The final process is learning to react to dynamic situations. Self defense is a  continually changing situation, and set patterns are dangerous. When a student regularly practices dynamic drills, she is more reactive to unpredictable circumstances. What are the learning processes in your art and how do they build towards the full expression of your art?
When evaluating processes, engineer’s rely on the Pareto’s principle. This is more commonly known as the 80/20 law. There are many ways of using this principle. A Six Sigma engineer will use this to find issues. When mapping out ways to make a process more efficient, it’s usually found that by 80 percent of the issues are caused by 20% of the problems. At my previous employer, I worked on a project to reduce noise output from a drive shaft. One of the research methods was to look through customer complaints and warranty notices. It turned out that roughly eight out of every ten complaints were about two issues. Logic dictates that we focus on the two issues, and, not surprisingly, we were able to dramatically lower the noise by looking for root causes associated with those same two issues. The study of the martial arts is the same, and in CTS, Master Whitson has gone through this process for us.  Putting this into practice is much harder than it sounds. It requires a lot of thought and understanding. Again, this is aligning your goals with your practice. I constantly ask myself what techniques work for my body and what techniques come out in play. While I like flying knees, I don’t train them often because my goal is using self defense to escape an attack. A flying knee fails that goal because I’m leaving the ground and therefore unable to run away. So when I train knees, my time is spent on knees to the legs, body, or, when the opponents head is bent over because those build towards my goal, and if you look, 80% of the knees that I use in sparring are to the legs. This is an iterative processes because you have to constantly examine what works for you. Looking at your skill set, what comes out most in sparring? In your list of drills, which ones are the most efficient and which are large efforts for small returns?

Fighters by necessity follow this rule. They are looking for maximum result from minimum effort. For example, the main staple of Muay Thai’s kicks are the teep (jab kick) and the round kick. Younger fighters are taught these first. When you watch padwork, these kicks are practiced ad nauseam.  Some of the greats who have mastered these kicks will possess a larger arsenal. They’ve mastered the 80% kicks and are free to focus on the 20% kicks. BTW, check out other breakdowns by Lawrence Kenshin. Like Jack Slack, he’s another genius at breaking down fights in a way that anyone can learn from.

wpid-sunday-double-knife-24.jpg.jpegEngineers are by nature a cautious group. Dealing with multi-million dollar projects exacerbates a cautious nature. I’m a structural engineer, which means that I make sure the bones of the product won’t break. So, I’m even more cautious that most. My job is to think of the worst possible thing that can happen and make sure the structure can withstand it. We do this by what’s called a margin of safety. If you have a margin of safety greater than zero, you’re structure will hold. Counterpoint Tactical Systems also teaches margins of safety. In the photo above, Master Whitson is tapping Josh Ryer’s knife with the back of his forearm. You can see Zach’s hand under Josh’s arm. By having that extra distance from wrist to tip of fist, Master Whitson has protected himself from subtle changes that Josh could make to get around the tap. The picture above is well lit, but if it were dark and visibility low, that extra amount of space could mean the difference between getting the tap and getting stabbed. The drills we learn have these margins of safety built in. Advanced techniques may have slimmer margins of safety but they are still there. It’s important to look for them. When I’m practicing CTS, I look for techniques and drills where not being perfect doesn’t get me killed. I examine why and see if I can apply what I learned elsewhere. What techniques and drills require you to be perfect to work? What drills can your hand or body positioning be a little off and still work?

Structural engineers must be professionally pessimistic. They have to think the worst outcome will happen frequently while the best possible case will happen rarely. When training weapons, I assume that any time the opponent’s weapon touches me is fatal or a knockout. At the same time, I assume that my strikes will be shrugged off. You can find footage on YouTube of people being stabbed multiple times with only one or two being fatal. But you can’t count on that either. The assumption that your opponent has one punch knockout power while you need thirty or forty punches to achieve the same outcome is the worst case scenario. If you train with that in mind, then any other situation besides that works in your favor. That is what a martial arts margin of safety looks like.


All tools are only effective when used properly. A circular saw is not good for polishing glass. A drill bit is a terrible patch for electrical wires. Engineers have to know their tools to use them effectively. Microsoft Excel is great for calculating but terrible for presentations. For greatest effect, use the correct tool for the correct job. In the martial arts, knowing your tools is essential. What tool applies to what? For example, trying to elbow your opponent in the head when they can just barely touch you with a fully extended front kick is probably using the wrong tool at the wrong time. Knowing which tool is appropriate translates into a study of fighting ranges. Know the range of your tools including weapons. Yes, gun, too; guns extend the distance but not to infinity. By understanding range, you are building a margin of safety. If you are out of range of the tool, it can’t hurt you. Staying out of range comes down to rule number one of self defense: RUN AWAY IF YOU CAN. You can’t get stabbed if your attacker can’t catch you. If you can’t run away, understanding ranges means you know where to be in order to deliver the 20% of your tools that produce 80% of the benefit.

Engineering isn’t a flashy science. Most of the time, it’s downright boring. But its principles can make training more efficient. Counterpoint Tactical System speaks to the engineer in me because it is designed with these principles in mind. What about your martial art speaks to you? And do you apply any of these engineering principles to your own study?


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