Monday, September 21, 2009

Teaching combative sports through tactics: the tactical games approach can enhance the teaching of some martial arts by emphasizing their similarities

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Martial arts have become popular in the United States, and some suggest that they would make a potentially exciting addition to school physical education curricula (Winkle & Ozmun, 2003). Some of the popularity of "combative sports" has been media-driven, through action films and professional wrestling. However, given the long Olympic history of wrestling and the introduction of judo to the 1964 games, combative activities are not new sports in the United States. In recent years, martial arts and other fighting sports have transitioned from being spectator sports to avenues for active participation by people of all ages. For many families, self-defense or combative sport activities have replaced traditional recreational sports, making martial arts a viable recreational pastime. Whether a person is involved in a competitive tournament or a practice sparring session at a local club, activities such as judo, wrestling, jujitsu, and sambo are more enjoyable if participants learn the tactical aspects of these sports.

The purpose of this article is to highlight tactical similarities in selected combative sport activities (table 1) and to provide martial arts and wrestling instructors with an alternative teaching approach. The article begins with a brief description of the tactical games approach, also known as the teaching games for understanding approach, embodied in the work of Griffith, Mitchell, and Oslin (1997) and gives some background information on martial arts. This is followed by a section that introduces the tactical problems inherent in many combative activities. The final section provides tips for using this approach to teach combative sport activities.

The Teaching Games for Understanding Approach

The teaching games for understanding approach is based on a "tactic-to-skill" focus that places an early emphasis on why the skill is important, rather than on learning the correct form (Hopper, 2002). How to play the game is considered critical to a large percentage of students who do not experience success in traditional physical education games and sports (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982). These students may be unsuccessful because they lack knowledge of appropriate game tactics, and because transfer of skills from practice to performance may not occur when skills are practiced in isolation (Hopper). For example, practicing a proper kick at a target does not necessarily help students understand that, in a soccer game, kicking poorly at the right time and in the right direction is more likely to lead to success than kicking properly in a direction where an opponent can score a goal. The separate target practice may improve accuracy, but it does little to help the student understand tactics and other skill-related information that is necessary for successful kicking during a game. An early focus on tactics serves to bring meaning to the content and skill practice (Hopper).

Griffith et al. (1997) focus on tactics, but also highlight the need for skill instruction to enhance strategic play or even to serve as prerequisite learning for some activities. In many cases, skills are still believed to be relevant, but only in the sense that adequate attempts at play depend on some minimal level of competence. For example, catching with a glove is taught to support game instruction in softball if the practice task, such as "hot box," requires catching for success (Griffith et al.). This is also the case in games that stress safety, such as floor hockey, where students must be taught to keep sticks down to avoid injuries when shooting.

Good teaching that uses the tactical approach involves key elements that are found in all successful learning situations. This includes thoughtful questions that coincide with appropriate learning tasks and games that lead students to find the "right answers" (Griffith et al., 1997). This is one aspect of teaching games for understanding that has appeal for all types of games and sports and that also applies to the teaching other nontraditional forms of play where winning is the desired outcome. In the teaching games for understanding approach, the teacher does not provide the answers, but provides the experiences that will stimulate students to come up with tactical solutions (Griffith et al.). Authors such as Grehaigne and Godbout (1995) argue that this allows students to engage, to take an active role in their outcomes, to become experts, and to become more successful in using prior learning to solve future problems. In the end, not only does this teach content, but also the "how to learn," which is an important outcome aimed at facilitating critical-thinking skills in students.

Game frameworks are based on similar objectives related to scoring and the prevention of scoring. Restarting play is another facet of sports such as soccer, basketball, and tennis. Griffith et al. (1997) provide a broad range of flexible suggestions for helping educators and coaches identify tactical problems that are inherent in four categories of activities: invasion, net and wall, target, and fielding games. However, tactical-approach theorists have not applied the same level of conceptualization to other internationally popular sports such as judo, wrestling, and other combative activities. This article applies the teaching games for understanding approach to combative-type activities and includes tactical problems (table 2), levels of complexity (table 3), a sample lesson plan (figure 1), and a sample game performance inventory (figure 2).

Combative Activities

Judo, wrestling, and countless other forms of combative activities have their roots in self defense and ideas related to the perfection of the human spirit, the development of character, and recreation. American secondary and junior high schools typically include the sport of wrestling as both an extracurricular activity and a part of the physical education curriculum. It is interesting to note that judo was developed by a famous Japanese educational leader, Jigoro Kano, who strove to create a martial art that would lead to the "perfection of the human character" (Watson, 2000). The foundational intent of this popular activity did not lie in winning or even protecting, but in overall human development, a goal consistent with educational philosophies all around the world. Therefore, these types of activities are plausible means of reaching the national physical education standards (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2004), as well as state or district standards.

Judo and many other martial arts are curricular staples in countries outside the United States. For example, in countries such as Turkey and Japan, it is as common to learn how to wrestle or play judo as it is to learn basketball in the United States. Although the techniques found in many martial arts are both lethal and impractical to teach to very young children, many disciplines have modified rules and techniques that are suitable for younger students. Tournaments and other venues for competing in sports like judo are as common as wrestling tournaments in many locales, even including the United States. Furthermore, these activities have common strategies and techniques for scoring points (table 1).

The United States has governing bodies for wrestling and judo, and each supports tournaments for both children (as young as age five) and adults (into their senior years). Although many combative activities are taught for self-defense purposes, many are also taught as sports or games with scoring and rules aimed at facilitating fairness and safety in competition. For this reason, martial arts, like wrestling, are believed to be an important physical activity option that can benefit from tactical thinking and the principles discussed in Griffith et al. (1997). Most importantly, martial arts and other combative activities can be played tactically, which helps maximize participation when individuals know the inherent strategies in these sports.

Coaches can make wise use of practice time, particularly with younger students, by teaching strategies along with skills. Doing so will also help facilitate problem solving and encourage the exploration of tactical problems. This may add to the appeal of training when the repetition of basic takedowns or throws can become monotonous. Combative activities are prone to the same pitfalls and loss of participants as other sports due to ineffective play and boring practice routines. Teaching in a tactical manner may help turn practice time into play or fun when games are set up around solving problems, rather than mere perfection of skills.

Tactical Problems and Skills in Combative Activities

What do wrestling, judo, jujitsu, and a host of other activities have in common aside from the obvious "fighting" aspects? The answer is tactical knowledge in setting up an attack for scoring (table 1). Scoring, preventing scoring, and gripping are a few tactical problems that are inherent in these activities. Table 2 outlines sample tactical problems, movements, and skills for judo. However, this outline is a sample framework based on tactical problems that are inherent in many similar activities--it is not just a framework for judo.

The combative activities found in table 1 are similar in that the objectives for scoring are similar. Specifically, combative sports referees award points that differ in value for successful takedowns or for holding an opponent's back to the mat. From a tactical standpoint, these combative activities also have common problems such as gaining a useful or positive hold on one's opponent (table 2). In wrestling, the gripping is done in relation to body parts whereas in judo and other martial arts, a loose fitting uniform is available to grab. From a tactical standpoint, solving the problems of gaining a superior grip and of breaking grips both result in an increased likelihood of success.

As in many other games and sports, success in combative activities directly results from scoring the most points. The use of deception to change the direction of attack, as well as the physics related to balance, are both used to score. The rules for scoring may differ, but the tactical problems related to holding an opponent down and maintaining position are similar in these combative activities. Lessons using the tactical games approach can focus on such strategies as using deception or quickly changing the direction of an attack in a countering move (a sample lesson plan appears in figure 1). Preventing scoring is also inherent in combative activities, as it is in other game forms. In combative activities, defending is necessary to win. Maintaining posture, using position on the mat, and other grappling techniques are movements that are on par with clearing the ball, tackling, and other invasion game strategies outlined in Griffith et al. (1997).

Assessment of play from a teaching standpoint becomes easier when the concepts from Griffith et al. (1997) are used to create suitable game performance inventories (figure 2). Overall assessment of play is possible for students who are participating in an activity such as randori (free sparring in judo). This activity has set rules and objectives similar to an actual match, allowing students to apply tactical solutions to their play. This is just one example of critical, tactical decision-making that can be assessed. Other more specific aspects of combative activities, such as controlling space during the transition from standing to grappling, can also be assessed depending on the level of complexity desired in the training session.

Consistent with the guidelines for use of the teaching games for understanding approach (e.g., Griffith et al., 1997), table 3 outlines levels of complexity for judo. These levels match tactical problems to the developmental and experiential levels of students. It is hard to focus on the tactical problem of breaking grips until students understand what is considered a normal or neutral grip affording each opponent a chance to score. Furthermore, changing directions is not a sound strategy unless students understand how to create openings so that a strong initial attack occurs. The tactical problems listed in table 3 are also found in wrestling. Gripping or grabbing an opponent is vital for successful wrestling, trying to score without an opening is a poor strategy, and to prevent a takedown it is important to maintain posture and balance.

Tips for Using this Approach

Activities such as judo and wrestling require extensive lesson planning due to the differences in student abilities and experience, especially outside of a physical education setting. It is common in a judo class for the age of participants and their years of training to span ten years. This requires consideration of the following suggestions and of the levels of complexity found in table 3.

* Reinforce the safety and welfare of training partners when setting up learning tasks and games. Injuries are common in combative activities, but they can be minimized by setting guidelines for safe play and following through with consequences. Students will not learn strategies or skills unless their fear of injury is minimized.

* Start small with learning tasks and games. Many individuals have an expectation that skills and techniques are the emphasis. It is often not until some initial failure that a student will appreciate a lesson focusing on changing directions, for example, which is at the root of success in standing attacks.

* Mismatches in size and strength between playing partners pose a major safety concern and undermine strategies. For example, breaking posture for a throw in judo is more difficult when an opponent is significantly bigger, stronger, and more mature. This is magnified if the larger player is more experienced. Again, it may be up to the larger and more experienced person to minimize the use of strength and allow the smaller, weaker, and less experienced player to participate. It may be wise to completely avoid these mismatches when larger, more experienced players lack the maturity to play safely with others.

* A certain level of skill is necessary for safe play. This includes teaching proper falling techniques and how to safely throw or execute a takedown (Didier & Pouilart, 2000).

* As individuals become fatigued, learning becomes more difficult. In martial arts and wrestling, conditioning drills are important for contest success. It is important to teach more advanced strategies early in the practice session and leave conditioning aspects for the end of practice.

* Levels of complexity exist. Students need more than certain skills, because their physical development and experience play a role as they progress from the simplest level to the more complex levels found in table 3.


The benefits for using teaching games for understanding principles for combative activities are similar to those highlighted for other more traditional games and sports (Griffith et al., 1997). First, wrestling coaches and martial arts instructors alike understand that knowledge about how to "play the game" is critical to success in combative activities, particularly in competitive arenas. Even younger children with little experience have the potential to score points in judo or wrestling with some basic knowledge of strategy. Failure to think strategically in a wrestling or judo match can be a recipe for disaster. The goal of this article is not to produce the best performers, but to help students understand the cognitive and tactical aspects of these common activities. This can result in the best progress by an athlete, which is more important than winning or losing on an individual basis. Furthermore, fun and excitement are enhanced for students as they learn skills and improve strategic thinking, which stimulates both the bodily systems and the mind.

Table 1. Selected Combative Sports and Objectives for Scoring

Name Objectives for Scoring

Judo Throwing, pinning, penalties, or gaining a
Freestyle Wrestling Throwing, reversals, and pinning
American High School Takedowns, reversals, and pinning
and Collegiate Wrestling
Jujitsu Throwing,** gaining dominant positions, or
gaining a submission
Sambo Takedowns, pins, or gaining a submission

Note. *Judo has age requirements that limit the use of choking or
locking techniques to older participants. **Some jujitsu tournaments
start with opponents kneeling or disregard points for throws.

Table 2. Tactical Problems, Movements, and Skills in Judo

Tactical Problems Standing Movements Grappling Movements

Positive Gripping * Gaining leverage * Occupying limbs
* Securing a grip * Flattening down your
* Breaking a grip opponent
* Breaking down posture * Maintaining superior
Scoring * Changing directions * Gaining a superior
* Breaking balance/posture position
* Getting close to opponent * Transitioning from
* Creating an opening standing position
* Indirect attacks
* Controlling space
Preventing Scoring * Maintaining posture * Maintaining posture
* Positioning on mat * Staying balled up
* Creating space

Table 3. Levels of Complexity for Judo

Tactical Problems Levels of Tactical Complexity

Gripping * Normal Grip * Right- versus * Dominant
left-hand grips gripping
* Breaking grips * Positive
* Occupying
Scoring * Creating an * Changing * Breaking
opening directions balance and
* Getting close to posture
an opponent * Taking space
* Indirect attacks away
* Transitioning
Preventing Scoring * Maintaining * Creating space * Using position
Posture on the mat

Figure 1. Sample Lesson Plan for Teaching Judo

Tactical Problem: Scoring
Lesson Focus: Changing directions
Objective: Select the correct direction for an attack
Game: Transitional throwing
Goal: Have a group of five players lined side by side. A judoka (judo
student) will grip each person in the line and try to throw in the
proper direction based on resistance by the playing partner. For
example, if the opponent is bent forward trying to avoid a backward
fall, then a forward throw is warranted.
Condition: The thrower will turn her back to the group. Each playing
partner will indicate to the teacher by putting up one or two fingers
whether or not they will resist a forward attack or a backward attack.
The thrower will turn around and begin to work down the line by
initiating a pulling/pushing motion and then executing a throw of her
choice in one of two directions (forward or backward). If the opponent
softens at the waist and trails the attacker, a forward throw is the
correct response. If an opponent resists by straightening and lowering
center, a backward attack is the correct response. A point will be
awarded for each correct response.

Q: Why is it important to move your opponent before you throw?
A: Without this prior movement it would be difficult to decide on which
direction to throw.
Q: Where should you look when you grip and pull your opponent?
A: Look at the center/waist since it is easy to fake with the head or
Practice Task: Push and pull as the teacher calls out this cue and try
to "take" your partner's balance.
Goal: Put your partner off balance.
Cues: As you push and pull, keep your posture and do not allow yourself
to be bent over.

Q: When is the best time to pull on your opponent?
A: When you wish to have your opponent go backward?
Q: When is the best time to push on your opponent?
A: When you wish to have your opponent come forward?

Note: This format for a lesson plan is consistent with that used in
Griffith et al. (1997).

Figure 2. Sample Game Performance Assessment Inventory

Date:______ Class (ages):______ Activity: Randori
Strong Attack -- recognizable technique from one of the throws of judo
Weak Attack -- no recognizable technique or a false attack (attack that
has no chance of scoring due to distance or poor execution)
Change of direction (yes) -- recognizable first attack followed by a
strong movement in the opposite direction
Change of direction (no) -- single attack not followed with any movement
in the opposite direction
Score -- (1) opponent falls to the ground, (2) lands on back with force,
and (3) control exists after the application of a recognizable judo
technique (all three elements present = 1, two elements present = 1/2,
one element present = 1/8)

Attack Change of Direction Score
Name Strong Weak Yes No NA 1/8 1/2 1

Total %

Note: NA refers to when an initial attack results in a full point score.


Bunker, D., & Thorpe, R. (1982). A model for the teaching of games in secondary schools. Bulletin of Physical Education, 18(1), 5-8.

Didier, J., & Pouilart, G. (2000). Judo: Techniques & tactics. New York: Sterling.

Greghaigne, J., & Godbout, P. (1995). Tactical knowledge in team sports from a constructivist and cognitivist perspective. Quest, 47, 490-505.

Griffith, L. L., Mitchell, S. A., & Oslin, J. L. (1997). Teaching sport concepts and skills: A tactical games approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hopper, T. (2002). Teaching games for understanding: The importance of student emphasis over content emphasis. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 73(7), 44-48.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (2004). Moving into the future: National standards for physical education (2nd ed.). Reston, VA: Author.

Watson, B. N. (2000). The father of judo: A biography of Jigoro Kano. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Winkle, J. M., & Ozmun, J. C. (2003). Martial arts: An exciting addition to the physical education curriculum. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 74(4), 29-35.

Francis M. Kozub ( is an assistant professor, and Mary L. Kozub is an assistant instructor, at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405.

Source Citation:Kozub, Francis M., and Mary L. Kozub. "Teaching combative sports through tactics: the tactical games approach can enhance the teaching of some martial arts by emphasizing their similarities to one another and to wrestling." JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 75.8 (Oct 2004): 16(6). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 21 Sept. 2009

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