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What Being a Fighter Taught Me About Innovation

I’m not your typical fighter, but I’ve been a fighter most of my life. I started out in Judo when I was about 7, moved on to Karate, boxing, MMA and Kickboxing. I’ve competed at a few weights over the years from being a dinky 55kg, to a more robust 90kg. I’ve won more than I’ve lost, I’ve been injured more than I’d have liked, and I’ve never been knocked out. There are any number of real world lessons you can take from almost 30 years of training and competing but this piece is specific to the time you spend in the ring, on the mats or in the octagon. It is in this kind of high intensity space that I have learnt some of my most important lessons about the application and benefits of Creative, Critical and Innovative Thinking.

A Little Context

When you enter a ring, and stand face to face with your opponent, unless you’re fighting at a professional level and have a team behind you who has researched your competition, this might be the first time you have seen them. I am now extremely comfortable with uncertainty, I always consider my opponent a problem to solve and problem solving requires an engaged mind and body.

In those first few moments, I immediately start to critically engage with the situation. I’ve done my training, I know my capabilities, now I’m faced with a collection of mysteries. You can assume they are competent, to a similar level, same weight, these are your safer assumptions. Outside of that there are an incredible number of variables that can affect how the fight will go, some you can see, for example, height, I’ve fought guys my weight who were 6’5 and some who were 5’6, different heights usually suggest a particular approach to fighting.

Not All That Is There Can Be Seen

Knowing if your opponent is orthodox or southpaw, aggressive or a counter-striker, are they primarily kickers or punchers, how is their cardio, are they power or skill, or a collection of all?

It is virtually impossible to know any of this until the bell rings, this is when the real testing begins. You move, you observe their movement, how they react to you, how they try to force a reaction from you. You have very little time to ‘empathise’ with the situation. In these early stages, you are observing and identifying the scope of the potential problems: their range, their speed, their guard, their technique, their stances, transitions, weight distribution… I’ve always been an energetic fighter, I chase from the off so this period is always a little frustrating for me, but if done well, critically analyzing and defining the problem early on is incredibly valuable in informing and structuring how you will solve the problem

Eventually you must push on and engage, you throw some test strikes and combinations, your opponent does the same. You are defining the problem, looking for patterns in their behavior and movement. You are now getting a measure of what will be the defining problems and you come up with a working selection of testable solutions.

He can keep you at range with kicks but not punches, he’s awkward in close, all knees and elbows, he’s a good counter puncher. So, from this I know I need to build my attack from distance, get my strikes in and move. I let the problem determine my solution, I don’t try to square peg/round hole my personal solution onto a problem. I have a broad stroke strategy for solving the problem, but thinking it doesn’t make it happen and I’m prepared for the fact that the reality of an application can be very different to the theory. Again, I’m comfortable with this uncertainty. My greatest preparation has trained me to be adaptable and creative.

Fail As Often As It Takes To Succeed

At this stage I begin creatively and fluidly combining strikes, prototyping moves, seeing what works. Do they see you? Can they handle your range, speed, power? Can you unlock them? You cannot fear failure in this instance, you have to try and test your solutions against the problem of your opponent. It’s better to have a lot of small and measured failures early, than the ultimate big failure. Failing early and failing small in a fight, as in business can be the difference better winning and losing, or being knocked out of the game. You test your jab, he slips, or he drops under and counters with his own jab into your ribs. You adapt, the next time you throw your jab you might disguise it with a small sweep on the front foot to take his mind off the jab. You are being creative, adaptive and fluid. You build on the jab, you throw a light round house kick to the body, then jab, then maybe a cross. You are constantly iterating, reiterating, prototyping, testing and going back to ideate.

There’s collaboration, there’s noise from my coaches, they see the fight from a different point of view, they see when I press he crosses his legs but regroups quick and uses his elbows well. There’s always something to be gained from listening to another viewpoint.

When the fight heats up and you are into it, you have defined your problem to solve. You have to become creative with your selected arsenal. You know he’s quick but doesn’t like to engage, or he’s strong and wants to crowd you, every lock has a key, every problem a solution, or a multitude of solutions.

I’ve always considered myself a creative fighter, a problem solver, brute force has never solved a problem in the ring for me, but Critical and Creative Thinking has, and obviously the application of this leads to innovation. I once caught a 6’5 fighter with a stunning roundhouse kick in the head, even I ask myself how? I’m only 6 foot and was 5kg lighter.

I’ve watched the recording back, I'd watched him move, defined the problem, I learnt what would work, what wouldn’t work, I tested, failed, learnt, tested, failed and learnt more. I gathered enough information through defining, ideating, prototyping and testing to eventually land a decisive blow. I worked in from distance, made him move, made him feel his options led to only one possibility. I had to be innovative to solve the problem, I eventually did this without thinking, I embraced the opportunity that presented itself. I was aware, made the connections, and I took my opportunity. With the slightest of hops off my right foot, the problem was solved.

It wasn’t luck, I’d created the favourable situation through persistence.

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