Guided Chaos: Adapt or Die

Written by Lt Col Al Ridenhour USMC and Guided Chaos master

It's one of the strange ironies of martial arts: you train and train to defend yourself against an unexpected attack, yet the methods used only work if you know ahead of time exactly what the attacker is going to do. In other words you train for an expected attack. Unless you're clairvoyant or delusional this is something that only happens in movies.


What is sorely lacking is a primary emphasis on ADAPTABILITY. Attacks can and will come at any time, in any form and at any angle. If this is the reality, then training any form of pre-planned choreographed techniques is as inappropriate as a carpenter bringing his standard tools to a plumbing job.

When Bruce Lee said:

" formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you put it into the bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a tea cup it becomes the tea cup. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."

He was trying to shatter the rigidly held paradigm that every fight was going to look exactly the way you planned it to be. A symptom of this belief is a fervent reliance on a regimented sequence of movements, or, in other words, "self-defense-techniques."

The problem is that when you train your nervous system to respond in a practiced way it will attempt to replicate this pattern even if the attack encountered has no resemblance to your training.

Even training a thousand techniques will not circumvent this problem because training your nervous system to spit out correct defenses is not like taking a math exam. If you train specific responses to specific attacks your brain will always process information in this highly artificial, linear way and it will suffer a core meltdown under extreme duress.

Why is this so? Because when the spit hits the fan, all fights devolve into utter chaos and resemble nothing you've ever planned for. Any other representation of violence is sheer delusion and fantasy. Even something as simple as the success of a standard mid-block requires an absolutely perfectly predicted delivery of a centerline punch by the attacker, something you can guarantee will never happen unless he cooperates with you. This only happens in the dojo. And if you can predict every move and change by your attacker then you really would be better off living in Vegas or playing the ponies.

Let's take a closer look at the inadequacies of technique training.

A technique for every attack?

Like some gigantic chess-playing computer, you could hypothetically create the perfect defense for every attack. How many would you need? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? What happens if the attack deviates 5% from the one you've trained? Now multiply this factor exponentially for every millisecond of a violent encounter. You could learn multiple martial art styles to increase the probability of finding an appropriate defense. However even if you learned a million techniques from a thousand styles you still could not match every variation of angle, delivery or mid-course correction possible in a random assault. Which leads to the next problem:

How many techniques can one person learn?

To accomplish the above (even if it were possible) would require many lifetimes of dedicated practice. And even then, what if you forgot one when it counted? This problem, of treating self defense like an infinite number of padlocks with an infinite number of matching keys, is by its very nature unworkable. Which leads to the next problem:

Will it work in the field?

Reality is not like a pristine laboratory with perfectly controlled variables. Reality is filled with sheer unadulterated terror, heart-busting adrenaline and unpredictable chaos, which can blow the circuits of any perfectly tuned martial arts computer. Think you could do your taxes while fending off blows to the head? Learning self-defense techniques by rote is not too dissimilar.

The Trap of Pattern Fixation

When a martial artist trains choreographed specific defenses for specific attacks his reactions become locked against any other attacks. Even if he trains, say, boxing, his movements will be trained and engrained to follow a boxing paradigm no matter what kind of chaotic assault he is subjected to in reality. This can create a fatal delay, freeze-up or even a grossly inappropriate reaction, like grappling a knifer, locking to his body while he freely slices you to ribbons.

A limited example of pattern fixation is the first few UFCs where strikers had to deal for the first time with combination striker/grapplers and had a hard time of it because they were presented with patterns they had never trained before.

The Trap of Relying on the "Perfect Technique"

One approach used in "street" self-defense systems is to effectively "pre-empt" any attack with a singular devastating technique that, through endless repetition, is expected to work "against anything." However, things rarely work out the way you want them to. Attacks can be feinted or change in midstream or come from an unexpected angle. In short, you can almost guarantee that the environmental and sensory stimuli you are presented with in any given attack will be different from those with which you trained, most especially because you are hardwiring in a fixed set of automatic responses. You actually sabotage the possibility of mounting an effective response with this method of training.

Another approach is to bombard the enemy with a storm of preset attacks hoping some will hit their mark, but the problems outlined above are only multiplied by the number of set techniques applied. In essence, you as the defender are not responding directly to what is actually being thrown at you moment to moment, but are gambling that your responses will follow a certain "movie script" in your memory.

Talk about the opposite of a Zen Mushin mindset!

Granted, if you are stronger and faster than your attacker you can make almost anything work, but how do you know this will be the case? Not to mention, criminals don't go out of their way looking for victims that will give them a hard time. The solution to everything above would be to develop adaptability rather than fixed responses. But is that even possible?

Achieving Adaptability

There are many newer styles that recognize all this and attempt to increase adaptability by teaching many different systems to give you a full, rounded approach to self-defense.

You may be taught as few as three or as many as ten different martial art styles and be expected to blend them and make their respective techniques available to your nervous system whenever called upon in a chaotic attack. Again, this mental logjam can quickly lead to disaster as too many brain cells are forced under extreme stress to access too many techniques. After a lifetime of training, a master may eventually dissolve the techniques and get them to come out appropriately and automatically when necessary, but think about it: isn't this approach to training adaptability upside down?

This is the paradox that former forensic homicide investigator John Perkins has taken on with his creation of Guided Chaos in 1978.

At the core of all Guided Chaos principles is this over-arching theme: why not teach methods of adaptability and improvisation from the very beginning and eliminate patterned training altogether?

John Perkins' experiences as a former forensic homicide investigator provided plenty of material to support his concepts. Working with Dr. Peter Pizzola (now the Director of the NYPD Crime Lab), Perkins analyzed blood spatter patterns at scenes of horrific violence, determining how people fought and died. Prior to this, Perkins worked the Yonkers NY "backup squad" responding to violent felonies in progress, often involving drug-crazed psychopaths.

Guided Chaos does away with endlessly repetitious technique and rules-based sport fighting and instead focuses on the development of combat attributes applicable to any situation without locking the mind onto fixed patterns. It does this by developing 4 principles of motion and their related attributes via unique, uncooperative, solo and partner drills:

  1. Looseness training makes you unavailable to the attacker's strikes as well as unavoidable as you learn to slip around his defenses. It also develops even more power because it eliminates the antagonistic muscle tension created through over reliance on sheer muscular strength. Looseness means survival--which is why police reports often show it is the drunk in the car wreck rather than the sober individual who survives-because he was inebriated and loose!
  2. Balance training enables you to hit from anywhere to anywhere with power and accuracy and to avoid being hit through extreme looseness and still maintain combat readiness.
  3. Body Unity trains you to deliver any strike with any weapon of the body with full body momentum and plyometric power no matter how chaotic the violence.
  4. Sensitivity training is the absolute key to combat adaptability because it takes you out of your logical brain and puts you "in the moment" as you learn to feel and flow with your attacker's movements, sensing his intentions and openings and sealing yours. "Feeling" is critical because eye-hand coordination is just too slow for the high-speed mayhem of nose-to-nose fighting. At close range, strikes are flying outside your field of vision and beyond your ability to counter. Similarly, openings are created that you will never see-or defend. The best grapplers rely on "feel" to assess moment-by-moment their opponent's total body positioning, attacks and defenses. Tai chi masters use tactile sensitivity to discover strike entries and to seal their own. However, both train these attributes from the beginning in either a regimented or sportive context. The problem is that real violence is chaos.

The best analogy to explain all this relates to Jazz Music. No great Jazz soloist ever learned how to improvise by endlessly practicing repeated fixed patterns, scales, and other robotic exercises. They learn to improvise by IMPROVISING, trying at every musical opportunity to flow and sense the emotion and rhythm of the music so they can, when called upon, "pull something out of thin air"--and keep right on going. "OK", you say. "But don't great jazz musicians have to know how to play first?" Yes, but there are many ways to achieve basic competency (like playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb") but robotic practice will never take them beyond that.

The correlation to self-defense is that although Guided Chaos uses the simplest deadly strikes from World War II CQC, they are not taught dogmatically. They flow free-form and are improvised in every response continuously. Understand that pretty much every serious style on earth teaches disabling strikes. The two critical questions are how do you get these strikes in against a fully resisting and changing defense and how do you adapt your defense to a continuously changing attack?

The answers are what make the approach of Guided Chaos fundamentally different.

But How Do You Perform Free-form, Adaptive, Non-specific Movements Under Extreme Stress?

Simple: "the way you train is the way you fight"--the often-repeated pearl of wisdom that is almost always ignored or interpreted incorrectly. Train from the very start to be adaptive so that it fills every fiber of your being--and you will become adaptive. Whether you train like a robot in one specific response or like a supercomputer in thousands of specific responses--the end result will be the same: a disastrous core-meltdown. Human beings are neither computers nor robots. We are creative, adaptive, living organisms and we want to develop those human attributes to the max if we want to survive in an often chaotic and dangerous world.

Guided Chaos master Lt Col Al Ridenhour USMC is a decorated Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran. Free Newsletter, seminar, book and DVD info can be found at