Combat as an Interpersonal Synergy: An Ecological Dynamics Approach to Combat Sports

Kai Krabben*, Dominic Orth, John van der Kamp

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


In combat sports, athletes continuously co-adapt their behavior to that of the opponent. We consider this interactive aspect of combat to be at the heart of skilled performance, yet combat sports research often neglects or limits interaction between combatants. To promote a more interactive approach, the aim of this paper is to understand combat sports from the combined perspective of ecological psychology and dynamic systems. Accordingly, combat athletes are driven by perception of affordances to attack and defend. Two combatants in a fight self-organize into one interpersonal synergy, where the perceptions and actions of both athletes are coupled. To be successful in combat, performers need to manipulate and take advantage of the (in)stability of the system. Skilled performance in combat sports therefore requires brinkmanship: combatants need to be aware of their action boundaries and purposefully act in meta-stable regions on the limits of their capabilities. We review the experimental literature to provide initial support for a synergetic approach to combat sports. Expert combatants seem able to accurately perceive action boundaries for themselves and their opponent. Local-level behavior of individual combatants has been found to lead to spatiotemporal synchronization at the global level of a fight. Yet, a formal understanding of combat as a dynamic system starting with the identification of order and control parameters is still lacking. We conclude that the ecological dynamics perspective offers a promising approach to further our understanding of skilled performance in combat sports, as well as to assist coaches and athletes to promote optimal training and learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1825-1836
Number of pages12
JournalSports Medicine
Issue number12
Early online date9 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


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