Engineering the Martial Arts / Martial Arts

Engineering the Martial Arts: Problem Solving

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Welcome to a new monthly feature here on the STL Counterpoint blog. My day job is structural engineering, and the principles of engineering apply well to the martial arts. It’s natural for me to transfer the concepts from one discipline to the other. The first installment is the process of problem solving. If you enjoy it, please, leave a comment below. Let’s get to it!

Problem Solving

Ever mess up a technique? Still have that one drill giving you troubles? Wonder why your favorite move isn’t working in sparring? Often, the answer is to practice more. But what if you’re not practicing in the correct manner? If a problem exists, practicing a thousand times often means repeating the mistake a thousand times. This is why the instructor is so important because our teacher can detect the problems as they arise. But during solo practice and personal exploration not everything goes exactly perfectly. You can apply engineering problem solving skills to improve. Engineers have a robust method to solve problems, and the first step towards fixing a problem is make sure you’re working on the cause, not just a symptom. This means figuring out what really went wrong. Engineers have a process to do this, and it’s called root cause analysis.

Root Cause

Have you ever heard the saying about treating the symptoms? If you don’t treat the disease, you’ll never heal. This saying describes the idea of root cause perfectly. Root cause is the actual problem, and if it’s fixed, the symptoms will go away. To use another analogy, we know that squealing brakes on a car are a problem and that the noise is a symptom. We could put ear plugs in or just play our music louder to solve the problem, right? Well, no, it’s masking the problem; the squealing brakes still exist. The cause of the noise isn’t readily apparent. The brake pads could be worn down, misaligned, wet, locked, etc. The point is that we don’t know.

Graphic courtesy of

When we find a problem in the martial arts, we tend to fix the first things we see. I find that in training techniques, this can work, but in drilling and sparring, it doesn’t always. The issues that arise during more complicated movements tend to have more complex root causes. Let’s look at an example of how to apply the process to a simple problem. In Counterpoint Tactical System and other Filipino martial arts, sometimes injuries will happen. We teach proper body mechanics, use safety equipment, and train in a safe manner. One injury that I’ve run across is a sore wrist. This is a rare injury, but it does happen. So, let’s apply root cause analysis to this injury.

The Five Whys

Anyone with toddlers will recognize the five whys. Why is the sky blue? Why? Why? Without being conscious of it, toddlers are simply drilling down to the root cause. Sadly, the young ones continue questioning and lose the thread of their original question. But we can borrow from their inquisitiveness. Without knowing it, the kids are drilling into whatever catches their curiosity. The idea of the five whys is to take a vague issue and make it more specific by asking questions. We can do the same by asking why five times. Start with your symptom and ask why. For example, our brakes squeal. Why do the brakes squeal? Because they’re worn down. Why are they worn down? Because they need to be replaced. Each why focuses on the answer of the question before it.

Graphic courtesy of

For our example, let’s apply the process to a sore wrist. I get a sore wrist when I tap sticks with another student. Why? Our sticks don’t react like others when tapping sticks. Why? My stick moves more than the other student upon contact. Why? Because the other student is hitting with more power. Why? The tip of my stick is in front of my grip. Why? My grip is loose.


Real world problems are not as easily solved as my example. Often there are multiple answers to the why question. If this is the case, create a separate branch; then, continue on with the questions. Keep asking the question until you dig into the root cause for that branch of questioning. Next, go back to the other branch (or branches) and repeat the process until you find a root cause for each branch. Now, you have multiple possible root causes. So, which is the answer? For that, we turn to Vilfredo Pareto.

Graphic courtesy of the Lean Leadership blog.

Pareto Principle

This is commonly known as the 80/20 law. To generalize it, the idea is that a few factors contribute more to the problem than all others. After our five whys, we have a number of contributors and no indication which is driving the problem. The Pareto principle allows us to determine which possible cause is the one that needs work. Of the list that you create, a few will be the primary cause of the problem, and those few are what we need to work on. With a small number of causes, you can isolate each one to determine which is the major contributor. For the example above, we can isolate a few variables: loose grip, white knuckle grip, wrist tilted forward, opponent hitting too hard, or not making contact correctly. We can rate which of the root causes result in the most pain. In this case, it was tilting the wrist forward and having too loose of a grip. Now that we’ve isolated the major causes, we can define what our problem really is.

Pareto Example

Define the Problem


Now that the process has been followed, we’ve dug down to the root of the problem. It’s easy now to define what the actual cause is instead of treating symptoms. In our example, the problem is that the stick is tilted forward and that the grip is too loose. With a clearly defined problem, we can set up exercises and drills to correct the problem. For our example, I’d recommend swinging the stick in front of a mirror while being mindful of how the hand is positioned all the way through the swing. Understand that the example is overly simple on purpose. All of the steps above may not be needed for a problem, maybe not even most problems. However, not all of your challenges will be as easy to understand as the example. The process works even better for very complicated problems. Again, drilling and sparring issues will most likely benefit from this process. If you’re working on your jab in sparring, are you have trouble with it because a.) your timing is off, b.) the technique needs polish, c.) your set ups don’t work, or d.) your opponent is just much better than you? Those are all easy answers; by applying the root cause analysis, you might find out that it’s really your footwork that needs improving. David Mullins of Mentality of Combat Sports said, “There’s easy answers but then there’s honest answers. You have to go past the easy answers to get to the honest answers.” This quote is brilliant because it speaks an essential truth about problems. The world is set up to give us easy answers. Root cause analysis helps us get past those easy answers to a place of honest progress.

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Do you have a problem solving process? If so, what is it? Let me know in the comments.


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