Decision Making Deconstructed- The South African Martial Artist and Coach, Rodney King

31 Jan

Rodney King is a pioneer in combat sports. Acting in response to the ultimately self-destructive “sink or swim” attitudes of most boxing and mixed martial arts gyms, where only the toughest and fittest survive, Rodney King reassessed the role of combat as sport in modern society. Rodney decided to look into our human past to rediscover the role martial arts and trained combat played in ancient societies. Perhaps counter intuitively for most, this took the coach into a mental first approach to fighting which had originally built the fighting arts, but had long since been forgotten.

As a decision making researcher and former boxer I was particularly interested in interviewing Rodney King. He had made the decision to do things differently in a sport which seeks to maximise the trappings of testosterone. This is what I wanted to find out- what were the reasoning strategies the coach employed? What did he notice which others ignore? What information does Rodney pay particular attention to and how does he use it? These questions underpin the structure behind any decision, so they would provide me with insight on Rodney and add another layer to my experience as a researcher. But beyond that, because a different innovative path had been chosen, there would be insight present in both decision making and innovation which anybody, operating in any domain, could benefit from. In this article I’ll be outlining the insights I got from speaking to the man himself and how his thinking has cross domain relevance.

Growing up Rodney lived in a tough part of South Africa where violence and fear of violence were a constant factor. As a fighter, despite a winning record and the all-important reputation, he lamented he still didn’t feel any more confident than he did back surviving a tough neighbourhood growing up. The anxiety of attending a tough gym and maintaining both his status and performance went way beyond what a sport should feel like. Rugby is a tough, tough sport for example but the training environment, despite the occasional flare up, doesn’t generate the same thought processes- faced with another man in a confined space, am I going to make a mistake and get knocked out, with everybody watching, and my reputation lost.

Rodney attacked this problem with a focus on fundamental human behaviours, what do people naturally do as oppose to what do we expect them to do and what lessons can history teach us on the subject. Following this thinking through, he built a new system of boxing by asking questions such as- how do humans naturally behave when they are being attacked? The answer to this was the foetal position, a form of instinctive covering up. If this instinct could be threaded into a structure of defence, then a means of staying safe and calm under fire would come naturally, and if you can find a way of staying safe and calm then it’s far easier to learn and enjoy yourself. This was a foundation of Rodney’s Crazy Monkey Defence style- an easy to pick up, but highly effective form of boxing built on natural responses and defence.

One of the most interesting aspects for me of Crazy Monkey has been Rodney’s re-examination of the martial artist, a counter cultural aspect of his training system which is the reverse of combat sport’s prime focus on winning. When we talked Rodney discussed the samurai culture at length and its impact on his system.

The samurai were not just a fighting force of highly skilled warriors; they used martial arts to hone all aspects of their life. The patience and structure of the tea ceremony were as integral to their identity as the katana. The tea ceremony teaches the practitioner patience, focus and a form of situational awareness essential in combat.

Rodney explained how he now seeks to bring back the notion of the martial artist, the antithesis of the current perception of a fighter. For Rodney the fighting arts should be able to improve every aspect of a person’s life, not leave a person sat at their desk terrified at the thought of the night’s training session- that kind of stress diminishes a person’s life. In the same way that the samurai culture through its associated practices (such as the tea ceremony) prepared a warrior for both life and battle, Rodney’s coaching now focuses on building better people through the concept of the martial artist or embodied warrior.

On this subject Rodney talked of how important a form of mindfulness was in sparring-staying in the present and not getting caught in negative and distracting events from the past or predictions from the future. This lesson, he observed, benefits his students as much in their professions as it does in their training. Focusing techniques, such as calligraphy and the tea ceremony had been the foundation of eastern martial arts centuries ago, a means of maintaining flow and staying in the present. These techniques would seamlessly flow into all aspects of a samurai’s life and this is now a cornerstone of the Crazy Monkey system- a continuum of mental and physical training designed to impact positively and instinctively on a life.

So, what decision making lessons can we pull from Rodney King?

Firstly, analogues are a highly effective problem solver and innovation generator. Rodney paid attention to the fact that despite success martially, there was a mental shortfall in the type of training he was using. To fix the problem Rodney looked around for examples of where this issue had been resolved before. An avid scholar, he had access to many analogues he could draw from to adapt a solution- a return to the roots and practices of martial arts where combat was designed to enhance all areas of life, not just martial skills. The take away here is that when you encounter a problem look for analogues from across other domains or eras and adapt it to your own domain\ time and problem. This is the key to true innovation- identifying cross links between domains.

Secondly, focus on what people do naturally. One of the drivers behind Rodney creating new techniques was to examine what humans naturally do when physically attacked and then aim to support them. Instead of imposing techniques, procedures and processes onto people, support their natural decision making by examining what works well naturally- what good practices are instinctive and tacit and how can these be supported, developed and shared?

Thirdly, situational awareness is crucial. Maintaining a mindful state which leads to flow (an instinctive carryout of a task to high level which is absorbing but requiring almost no thought) lies at the centre of Rodney’s teaching. Situational awareness, the ability to intuitively spot cues and patterns and apply them to actions and consequences is a cornerstone of decision making. Practice your decision making through scenarios derived from real life incidents (this is the equivalent of sparring) to improve your ability to spot the subtle cues and patterns. These are essential to gathering understanding from, and staying focused on, the present.

With thanks to Rodney King, a true pioneer and renaissance man

One Response to “Decision Making Deconstructed- The South African Martial Artist and Coach, Rodney King”

  1. rodney King January 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    Thanks so much Steven. It was a lot of fun talking about this and I love the topic of Natural Decision Making:)

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