Comparisons Based vs Rules Based learning methods (and how to combine them).


I read an interesting article several years ago on an experiment computer scientists did to test an artificial intelligence program. The scientists decided to teach the computer in the same way that human children learned new things, through comparisons. So, they took a few hundred pictures of men’s and women’s faces, labeled each accurately either “male” or “female” and showed them in a random mix to the computer. The scientists didn’t program the computer with the rules of human facial structure (males have deeper set eyes, heavier brow ridges, more facial hair, etc), they just showed the computer the photos with the labels and let the machine draw its own conclusions. The more advanced the computer and program, the fewer pictures it needed to correctly guess if the picture showed a man or a woman.

This learning through comparisons you can call the “Bottom Up” method. As we get older and go to school, more and more of our learning becomes rules based through formulas and theories. You can call this the “Top Down” method.

Pekiti-Tirsia was traditionally taught beginning with the Bottom Up method. First learning basic strikes with an “Abcedario” or “alphabet” that was very much like learning your letters in grammar school. You first learn “how” to do a strike, but not “when” or “why” to use it until later, (much like learning how to write your letters in first grade, the rules of spelling in second grade and the rules of grammar in third grade: the material getting more complex as you matured).

Pekiti-Tirsia training began with basic attacks such as strikes and thrusts. Then progressed to drills that focused on countering categories of attacks: such as Break In – Break Out (a drill against strikes), while Pangising (tapping on 5,8 & 9) was a drill against thrusts. While learning these drills you very quickly noticed both commonalities and differences. For example, a strike is strongest at the shaft of the weapon, while a thrust is strongest at the point; but power in both is generated from the core of the body. It was through these comparisons that you first learned how to apply the rules of fighting.

When I first started training with Tuhon Gaje, he would often give me a simple technique and tell me to do it “1,000 times” (and let the high number of repetitions polish off the rough spots in my movements). You didn’t ask him “Why is this strike done this way and not this other way?"; mainly because you didn’t have enough of a foundation to even form such a question in the first place. Later, in the advanced classes with experienced adults, Tuhon Gaje was much more likely to explain to us why we were doing a technique a certain way in a much more rules based or “Top Down” format of teaching.

Law Enforcement Officer defensive tactics training vs Martial Arts training:

I became a NY State court officer in 1986 and started teaching defensive tactics for the state court academy in 1987 and in “in-service” classes since then. I learned some very important teaching principles during my time teaching for NY State and at other L.E.O. classes.

Most departments don’t have the luxury of spending the number of hours training their people that the beginning martial artist will spend practicing the most basic of techniques. Many times a defensive tactics instructor will be told they have only 2, 4 or (if they are lucky) 6 hours to teach something as important as defenses against edged weapon attacks and that class these officers receive may be the one and only time they will get this training.

When teaching LEOs who may be called upon to defend themselves soon after they leave you, the training program used for most beginner martial arts classes must get turned on its head. You don’t have time for high reps to get a technique perfect before moving on to the next one. In fact, you don’t have much time to teach techniques at all. Here you have to teach principles and you had better explain to these guys exactly why you are doing things the way you are doing them if you want them to pay you any attention in the first place. For adults who might get in harm’s way as part of their job, teaching “Top Down” really helps them understand what their goals are and the steps they need to get there. So we taught in this sequence; Principle – Rule – Real World Example.

For example: “Remember guys, what you do in training is what will come out in a fight.” (A Principle).
“Therefore, keep your firearm and mags in the same spot on your belt both on duty and off and practice from those consistent positions” (A Rule).
“After a gun fight an officer was found dead with his car keys jammed in the cylinder of his revolver, despite having speed loaders on his rig. Why? Because when he practiced off duty he emptied the box of ammo into his front pocket where he normally carries his car keys when on duty. This got him killed.” (Real world example of why you should follow the rule.)

In one of the “teach the teachers” classes that my job sent me to, one of the instructors had a phrase that has stuck with me for many years. He said that in each segment of a class we should:
“Step 1. Tell them what you are going to teach them. Step 2. Teach them. Step 3.Tell them what you have taught them.” This preview-teach-review format really helps adults learn and retain new information.


For the last couple of years, I’ve tried to incorporate these two styles of learning into my teaching; trying to combine both “comparison” (bottom up) and “rules” (top down) based learning in the same class.

He are some examples.

1. The Caterpillar: (Adding one variable). For several years now I have tried to get students away from working with the same training partner throughout the whole class. I first tried breaking this habit by a drill we called the “caterpillar.” After the students have gotten familiar with the movements of a drill with their regular training partner, they then form into two lines, with Line 1 the “defender” and Line 2 the “attacker.” During the caterpillar drill a signal is given and the people in Line 1 will move to their right by one person, while Line 2 stays stationary. They then spend some time working the drill against this new person until the signal to move is given again. As a person in Line 1 moves past the end of their line (with an empty spot in front of them) they will run back to the start of Line 1. Drilling this way allows the students to compare how to use the same technique against different people (taller, shorter, faster, slower, experienced, beginners, etc.) The caterpillar is a fun drill, but it is still limited in what the students can do in it. While you get to practice a specific technique against different opponents, you are still limited in your footwork options (basically just moving in one direction).

2. Three Man Teams: (Reducing Tunnel Vision and making a Decision Tree). I’ve been working drills set up this way for the last few years to help prevent the “tunnel vision” that is so dangerous during a real fight.

We recently used the Three Man Team drill in Europe during the classes in the Abcedario de Mano. Instead of having the students learn all 12 sets of 12 strikes (144 techniques), I gave them just the first set (12 strikes of forward slap). Once they could do these 12 strikes well, I then gave them the principles of how to choose which strike to use in a given situation.

Here’s how I set the drill up. The students divide into groups of three, with one “good guy” against two “bad guys.” I tell the bad guys that they are the coaches during the drill. Their job is to make sure the good guy is moving correctly. They should move only as fast as the good guy can do the technique correctly. If it is not perfect, then slow down until it is (2). We start with each bad guy doing the same attack, so the good guy can work the same technique against different opponents from different positions.

Let’s look at a left jab as the attack. Against a single attacker the “safer” angle to move is to your right, slipping outside his guard. But wait. What if bad guy number 2 is to your right? Then moving to your left is the better option. Consciously choosing which way to move because of a second attacker is how you use this drill to avoid developing tunnel vision during a real fight.

Add into this factors such as: Is the bad guy taller or shorter than you? Is he so much stronger that attacks to soft targets like the eyes or groin are the only effective choices? Where is the closest escape route or good cover? Are there any improvised weapons you can pick up? Adding all these factors into the equation and the drill becomes training to think on your feet while under stress; what I call “making a decision tree.”

3. Three Times Three Drill. (3 people, 3 different weapons).
Lately I’ve been teaching a class on the use of the Bowie Knife, the Kukri and the Tactical Tomahawk as tools for self defense. When I first started teaching these tools, I was teaching each in a separate class, but over the past year or so I’ve come to realize how much it helps the students when we train these tools in the same class and compare the strengths and weaknesses of each. (The photo that heads this article shows three models of Cold Steel Santoprene rubber trainers).

Here’s the specs of some popular models of these three tools.
CRKT Kangee Hawk: Weight – 24.4 oz. Overall length – 13.75 inches
Ontario Kukri: Weight – 20 oz. Overall length- 17 Inches
Cold Steel Trailmaster Bowie: Weight – 16.7 oz. Overall length 14 1/2 inches 

The Bowie Knife is the lightest of the three, therefore it’s the most maneuverable but the least hard hitting. It has the best point for thrusting through clothing and into soft targets. That point is on a straight blade lined up with the hand and so offers the widest variety of angles available for thrusting. The Bowie knife was first designed as a dedicated weapon, though it can be called upon as a woods tool if needed as such.

The Tactical Tomahawk is the heaviest of the three and will therefore hit the hardest. Its balance is very weight forward, which helps it hit hard, but this also makes it more difficult to maneuver and change direction on the fly. The Tactical hawk is designed primarily as the multi-tool version of a hatchet, but it can be called upon as a weapon if needed as such.

The Kukri falls in-between these two blades. It hits almost as hard as the hawk and can be maneuvered almost as nimbly as the bowie. It can thrust better than the hawk into soft targets, but since its point is dropped below the center of the hand, it can not thrust from as wide a variety of angles as the bowie.

3X3 Drill

Now let’s add these three tools into our three man drill and the dynamics will get real interesting. Let’s say the “Good guy” is armed with a Kukri and understands its strengths and weaknesses. Bad guy 1 is armed with a Bowie knife and Bad guy 2 with a Tactical Hawk (all trainers of course). The good guy now has to fight each opponent based not only on their relative positions, strengths and weaknesses, but also factoring in the strengths and weaknesses of their weapons.

If training with a single partner is a game of checkers and the three man drill is a game of chess, then adding three different weapons into the mix is playing that tri-dimensional game of chess that Captain Kirk used to play with Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek.

It is very important when working this drill to begin extremely slowly. As I said earlier, I tell the students to feed the attack only as fast as their partner can do the counter perfectly. If he is not perfect, then your job is to slow down until he is. This drill is more a mental exercise than a physical one. You are learning how to apply strategy, using techniques that you already know. You are not learning how to use a hammer or a screw driver. You are learning how to recognize when a problem is a nail and when it is a screw.

The shorthand I use for teaching these principles to advanced Pekiti-Tirsia students who already know the Seguidas, Contradas and Recontras sets are the following guidelines. 

Equal: When your opponent, or his weapon is equal to you or your weapon, use Seguidas theory (move first, blitzing him with fast, efficient combinations; expecting that some will get past his defense).

Stronger :When he or his weapon is bigger or stronger than you, use Contradas theory (use many quick counter attacks; but still leave yourself an escape route if you mess up).

Faster: When he or his weapon is faster than you, use Recontras theory (use strong, decisive and committed attacks, but on angles he does not expect).

It’s like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors; but in this version there is a way for each item to defeat the other items if used properly.

In this 3 x 3 combined drill, you are learning both through comparisons (practicing against different opponents and weapons) and through rules based principles (“Use Seguidas theory when you fight circumstance A. Use Contradas theory when you fight circumstance B. Use Recontras theory when you fight circumstance C.”).

I think it’s a pretty cool way to train.

Train Hard & Train Smart,
Tuhon Bill McGrath


Learning Through Comparisons Part 2. Drawing the Weapon.


Copyright 2018 William R. McGrath. All rights reserved.