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The "Kote Dilemma" Revisited
An Ecological Approach to Decision Points in Longsword
Almost a year ago, I wrote an article on a phenomenon that I have since been referring to as the "kote dilemma". This article was an observation that single choice cooperative drills sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect, my brief opinion on why that is, and a suggested alternative. The titular example of this was a drill to practice the kote (right forearm) strike, in which the defending "coach" side provides the stimulus of applying lateral pressure to the "student" side's shinai, to which the student side must respond by executing a strike to the kote. At the time I wrote this article, I was just beginning to explore the idea of the Ecological Approach to skill acquisition, which I did not yet have a name for. At this point, having learned more about the Ecological Approach, I feel I can delve a bit more into why the "kote dilemma" phenomenon occurs, and its implications in other activities related to skill acquisition.
First, let's define the Information Processing Approach (IPA), a name given to the "traditional" approach which is widespread in sports and martial arts coaching, and the foundation upon which the exercise that results in the kote dilemma is based. The IPA theory assumes that we perceive clues from our environment which we can call "physical cues" (not to be confused with "cue" as in a piece of advice the coach gives before doing a rep), the brain processes the physical cue, decides which action is best to take, and executes the action. The brain is basically seen as the central processing unit of a computer; information comes in, is processed, and a pre-programmed action is returned. In the case of the kote exercise, the fencer in the "coach" role gives a little bit of pressure to the student's shinai, and that is the cue for them to execute the technique.
The counterpoint to the IPA is the Ecological Approach (EA), which is the approach that I have been trying to use ever since re-starting my club in 2021 via mostly game-based teaching, and has a fair amount of research building in its favor. The gist of the EA is that all of the information you need to act already exists in the environment, and we are constantly perceiving and acting based upon changing environmental conditions. The idea of a physical cue does not align with this approach, because a cue is an attempt to distill the full ever-changing environmental situation into one discrete stimulus. If we are constantly perceiving and acting based upon our environment, then a cue will simply be either not enough information or incorrect information, and it will not carry over to an actual situation.
If we bring that back to our kote drill situation, you may be able to see why this wouldn't work according to the Ecological Approach. Not only does it not give enough information to know when to execute the attack in a free fencing situation, but it provides a tool for the defender. The physical cue of pushing on the shinai now provides an ability to give false information to an opponent that has practiced responding to it. Pressing your opponent's shinai to the side may now make them ignore other more relevant environmental information and throw the kote strike when you are ready to counter it.
Additionally, given this new framing, we can extend this idea beyond just single choice drills. It also applies to multiple choice drills in which the student is supposed to decide the correct action to use based upon a variable stimulus. Instead of picking on kendo more, I will use a common longsword drill that I have seen many times, and have used extensively myself: both fencers cut into a bind in some way, the "coach" role then gives a soft or hard cue, and the "student" role either stabs straight in or cuts to the other side depending upon the stimulus given. We can immediately identify that this has the same problem as above: we are trying to decide an action from a discrete cue, based on the assumption that the brain must process the information from the environment before spitting out an action.
From this, we can derive the idea of a "decision point", which we can consider to be the moment that we decide to take one action instead of another. In the exercise above, the decision point is the moment that the swords make contact and the "coach" role provides a stimulus. We are asked to ignore everything before that point, and decide upon an action based solely on that stimulus. This is very difficult, and makes it so it's almost impossible to act immediately in the bind. This in turn complicates the idea of "feeling" and "indes" as given in the RDL glosses, as we are told to act immediately in the bind upon feeling soft or hard.
Additionally, the Information Processing Approach-based interpretation of a decision point compounds an existing problem with the IPA - repetition until an action is automatic. In the IPA, because our brain must process a physical cue before signaling the body to act, the action itself can be seen as a program that the body is executing. The brain becomes a CPU, taking in information, calculating, then running a program. When the program is run it happens automatically, therefore actions must be isolated and repeated in as close to ideal form as possible in order to make them automatic, so the body can perform them as quickly as possible when the decision is made.
So here we get to the compounding problem of decision points: in order for the correct decision to be executed, the action must be automatic, so all possible decisions must already be automatic, giving you 2 actions in the longsword drill above (:stab straight in", and "cut around"). Additionally, the goal of this drill is to practice perceiving the stimulus, which is another skill that you are trying to repeat until it becomes automatic. So this one simple decision drill now requires at least 3 discrete actions that must be repeated until automatic. How many such decision points and resulting actions exist in fencing? Can you really expect to repeat every one of them until they become automatic?
Let's now move on to how the Ecological Approach deals with the decision point problem. According to the Ecological Approach, your actions are coupled to your perception of the environment, so you are constantly acting and modifying your actions based upon the changing environment with no intermediate processing phase from the brain. In a live fencing bout, you will at some point need to act in one way instead of another, and there is a point at which that action will happen. There has to be, otherwise nothing would ever happen.
Continuing with the bind example, you may meet in a bind and choose to either stab straight in or cut around. The difference is, that decision is not fully made at the moment of the bind, it is something that has been constantly happening throughout the engagement. By the time the bind has happened, you have already perceived and acted based upon a ton of information, such as what the opponent has done before, how they are swinging, how the bind has been established (did you both engage in longpoint, are you parrying, are they parrying, is it a double cut), and a ton of other intangible information that we might not even consciously know about.
So when the bind happens, yes you will feel soft or hard, but that is only one piece of information out of a ton that you have been perceiving and acting upon throughout the process. To me, this makes it much more possible to follow RDL's advice to act immediately in a bind, the decision has almost fully been made by the time you get there, the softness or hardness of the bind is just the last phase. Because of this, I may prefer to start referring to this final moment not as a "decision point", but as an "action point", since that is when you execute one action over another, but not the point in which the full decision is made.
To bring this all back together, I think when I wrote the article about the kote dilemma a year ago, I was on the right track, but not fully there. From an EA perspective, single choice cooperative drills are insidious in a different way than I first imagined. I also thought that adding multiple choices to the same kind of co-op drill may make it better, but now I think it may be the opposite (though the jury is still out on that one, because at least multi-choice drills have you doing a variety of different actions instead of repeating one action over and over, so they may accidentally be good in that way). Basically, context matters, and physical cues don't provide enough or the right kind of information.
I'll also address the final note that I gave in my last article, that single-choice co-op drills are okay to do in the middle of games if someone is having trouble executing an action. My revised opinion on that is yes kind of, but mostly no. In a case like this, I think it's okay for the coach to take that athlete aside and help lead them to a more successful movement pattern, but not in the form of a single-choice co-op drill with physical cues. Instead, be careful to use external language when giving movement advice, and make sure the situation is always slightly different when they do a rep (usually I do this by constantly adjusting the distance). The idea is to lead them to a successful movement solution by giving them specific goals, while allowing them to have repetition without repetition.
© Stephen Cheney, 2022. Posted with permission of the author.