Monday, 10 March 2014 00:00

DIEP - Learning Martial Arts Through Reflection

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Self-reflection has long been recognised as one of the critical components in self-development, critical thinking and goal setting in high achievers. From the samurai to boxing, BJJ and MMA champions, from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 CEOs, reflecting on one’s actions is the fastest and most effective way to maximise your training. Want to know how to do this effectively


In some traditional martial arts, the ability to reflect, study and learn is a crucial component in achieving high ranks. For example, some Jiujutsu schools require brown belts, as part of attaining their black belt, to write and explain their understanding of the system’s syllabus as well as how they would teach and explain it to others. The ancient samurai asserted that the greatest warriors are those who are well educated in the way of strategy. The link between Zen, martial arts and self-reflection has been established in important writings such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. 


Reflecting on one’s experiences and learning can be a daunting, often frustrating experience as we confront our ego and our shortcomings. But as most high-level masters will tell you, these are the two things that you need to work at most in order to progress. It is not uncommon for people to only practise

 techniques that they feel comfortable with, or only practise techniques on their dominant side (i.e. I can do that throw on the right, but not on the left). This allows us to stay in our comfort zone, but restricts our learning and improvement. 


Self-reflection is a key component in overcoming our weaknesses and will benefit you no matter what level you are at. 


An excellent framework for self-reflection, one that I have taught in university for close to a decade, is the DIEP format. DIEP stands for ‘Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, and Plan’. Let’s break this down:

Step 1 – Describe: Describe moments of interest within your activity. In other words, what happened? What did you do, or what did someone else do that affected you?

Step 2 – Interpretation: What were the effects of what happened? Were you successful in what you attempted to do?

Step 3 – Evaluation: Why were you successful/unsuccessful?

Step 4 – Plan: Future personal application. What would you do in similar circumstances in the future?


The trick with this exercise is to ask yourself probing questions and attempt to answer them with as relevant detail as possible but without prejudice or bias. It is important to remember that anyone can describe events, and everyone can interpret the effects of what happened (i.e. I was sparring and I lost). The most important steps are ‘Evaluate’ and ‘Plan’. 


Let’s look at a BAD example:

Step 1 – Describe: I was sparring with someone who is better than me. He landed shots at will, and I could not really create anything or find any openings.

Step 2 – Interpret: I lost the sparring match. 

Step 3 – Evaluate: I failed because I was off my game because I was tired from working late last night, and the person I was sparring with is more experienced. I panicked and kept retreating.

Step 4 – Plan: I will try and finish work early so I’m not as tired. I’ll try not to panic next time. 


This example is poor because it doesn’t demonstrate any real learning or analysis of why things didn’t work, and statements like ‘I’ll try not to panic’ are useless because you did not suggest a specific solution to the problem. What can you do, specifically and explicitly, to ensure that you will not panic as much next time or handle the panic better? Furthermore, it is an example of someone making an excuse for his or her performance. We all have our bad days at work and bad days at training. Persevering through them and still trying to learn from the experience instead of simply writing it off as ‘having a bad day’ will allow you to perform better the next time you have a bad day!


Now let’s look at a GOOD example:

Step 1– Describe: I was sparring with someone who is better than me. He landed shots at will, and I could not really create anything or find any openings.

Step 2 – Interpret: I lost the sparring match. 

Step 3 – Evaluate: I failed to win the sparring match, but that does not mean I can’t learn from the experience. I have identified the following things that needed closer observation:

A. The person I was sparring with was more experienced. This was expressed in his use of speed, timing and distance. Specifically, he initiated attacks and moved out of range before I could counter. 

B. I panicked because I was getting overwhelmed. This resulted in my failing to push forward and initiate attacks. I believe that this is a result of being scared to get hit and being scared of losing. It is also an indication that I failed to successfully manage the adrenal response of being swarmed. 

Step 4 – Plan: I have identified the following issues that need improvement and will focus on these elements during my training in upcoming weeks:

A. Speed – I will use shadow sparring with weights and speed bags to enhance my hand speed. 

B. Timing and distance – I will ask my instructor for sparring drills to enhance my timing and distance. I will also use footwork drills to allow me to enter and exit more efficiently. 

C. Fear of getting hit – I will do more conditioning, and will warm up with simple sparring drills (i.e. one-step sparring) to make sure that I can reduce panic when I get hit. 

D. I will research the effects of adrenal dump and use appropriate drills to expose myself to it and manage it more effectively. 

E. I will ask for feedback from my instructors and sparring partners after each session to gauge my improvement over the next three months and identify areas for improvement. I will record/write their comments after each session. 

F. I will ask a friend or instructor to video the next sparring session I have in order to see for myself what errors are repeated. 


In this example, the person is identifying specific issues that have arisen, uses actionable verbs and offers explicit and specific courses of action that can improve on the problems identified. The person understands that this is a long-term plan and that improvement will not be instantaneous but can take weeks or months to achieve. 


By following this format regularly, you will become more aware of yourself and the way you practise your art and will see that you improve much more quickly than before. Obviously, the more you repeat the process the quicker it becomes and the easier it will become to apply in other areas of your life. This is something that can be used in your work, in your relationships, in managing your finance or in your choice of pizza.  Furthermore, as an instructor it allows you to reflect on your classes and identify areas that need improvement, both in terms of student performance and your own. It truly is a genius tool!


If you need any help on starting your own DIEP journal, please contact me.


Stay tuned, stay safe!









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