How Boxers Decide to Punch a Target: Emergent Behavior in Nonlinear Dynamical Movement Systems

Hitting a moving target is one of the most inherently athletic skills that I can think of, and it’s an absolutely vital element in a martial artists’ tool box.  I’m a strong advocate of the “hands off” approach of giving a student the conditions in which to explore range and which weapons to apply at different- and changing- ranges. Light moving targets, stationary targets, heavy moving targets and sparring all play an important role.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I’ve had with earnest karate/TMA people wherein they insist that distancing, timing, impact force management and the selection of the appropriate weapon (strike/technique) are best learned with minimal- or no- bag and target work. While some “traditional” martial artists insist that learning how to effectively hit something takes years to develop and master, it’s painfully obvious that a novice student can develop considerable skill in far less time if he or she is allowed to experience feedback instead of endless, abstract technical instruction. Several findings of the study provide insight into why this is so:

By allowing novice boxers
during the basic training sessions, when the
heavy bag practice is mostly used, to explore the
whole spectrum of constraints enabled by each
combination of parameters, they would learn
how to adjust emergent motor solutions to the
hitting task which are specific to their individual
organismic constraints. Once these efficient
coordination patterns have been established with
the heavy bag, learners could move to the task of
hitting moving opponents during light sparring…

…Novice boxers are able to discover and exploit
the scaled performer – target distance region that
affords maximization of the unpredictability (H),
diversity (S) and the efficiency ratio (E) of their
punching actions…

…Spontaneous emergence of boxer – boxer
coordinative states and strategic positioning as a
consequence of boxers’ perception of essential
interacting constraints points to the possibility
that practice should be less loaded with verbal
instructions from the coach to impose decisions.
Rather, practice could be directed towards
creating a variety of learning situations (by
manipulating the dynamics’ constraints) in
which trainees would themselves explore,
discover and thus adapt to the information …