02 August 2011

Finally, the Differences Between Strategy and Tactics Explained

Strategy and Tactics
Too many people use the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ incorrectly or even talk about a particular ‘thing’ or topic as being both a good strategy and tactic. Usually, this is actually referring to a tactic but the person likes to throw in the word strategy because it sounds cool, they don’t know better or believe it somehow implies a deeper thought process and means more...

Not any more. No more excuses.

There are unquestionable and very fundamental differences between strategy and tactics and these will be clearly detailed in this article. Not only are these words used poorly and often interchangeably, but a poor understanding of the meaning of the words can inhibit or mislead a persons overall training outcomes and objectives. It can muddy a persons goals and lead people down the wrong path. Sometimes, years can be spent training a certain way or in a certain system that is not really in line with their long term overall goals, purely because the meaning of ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ is not clearly understood.

These matters and more will now be discussed in detail.

What are Tactics?

Traditional definition:
...the art of disposing armed forces in order of battle and of organising operations, especially during contact with an enemy.
Simply, it is the art of disposing armed forces, especially during contact.

Tactics are those short term decisions and actions that give a combatant an advantage during combat or that time immediately prior.

Tactics include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • Counter fighting
  • Drawing an opponent to use a desired attack in order to present an opening to attack
  • Feinting to determine likely responses
  • Stop hitting
  • Using set up questions
  • Using non aggressive stances and posture to mentally disarm an aggressor
  • Telling an angry male that you thought you knew their girlfriend from school, that is why you were staring
  • Appearing crazier than the aggressor in order to prevent a possible encounter going physical
  • Repeating the same technique in order to prompt the defender to expect it again and then do something else
  • Go low then high, high then low, left then right, right then left etc.
  • Deciding not to argue with the drunk male who said you were a pathetic moron and told your girlfriend she could do better
  • Identifying that guy across the room who is pissed at you for some reason so you decide to leave that room or establishment prior to violence kicking off
  • Crossing the road or turning around when you see a dodgy person lingering near a driveway up ahead at night
  • Deciding not to use that ATM because there are some people hanging around that do not appear quite right
  • Buying that drunk guy a drink after his got spilt by you
This list is not exhaustive. Tactics are where the action is. Tactics are those actions and decisions taken with a short term focus. Tactics are right in the thick of an encounter or just prior to it happening or potentially happening. For many people, tactics are where the juice is. It is what they love. It is often quite enjoyable to watch a sport fighter fight who is a very good tactician. There is a lot going on. You can see them setting up their opponent. They are often referred to as smart fighters. They think. They utilise tactics and do it well.

Tactics and a 'game'

Of note, many sport fighters are certainly not good tacticians. Instead, they use their exceptional power or techniques. They have very good tools and they know how to use them. This could be in the form of combinations that work for them, superior quickness or an unstoppable takedown followed by submission or ground and pound.

These combinations of moves that work well for them are a basic form of rigid tactics. As an example, they will punch high for a while and when the opportunity presents itself, they know they will go for the takedown. This rigid form of tactics is what is referred to as a fighters ‘game’. They have a game plan they are going to follow. It is like a strict system of tactics that are tied together. Once a talented fighter with great tools has a good ‘game’ that works for them, watch out. They can be very hard to beat, even for a fighter who utilises a more fluid implementation of tactics.

Tactics are what most people focus on. It is what many people are good at. It probably makes up around 99% of a persons training time. It is what we do when we 'do' training. We drill, we spar, we roll, we compete etc. Most people have a pretty good appreciation of what tactics are and how to train in order to develop and enhance them. The mistake is, many people call some tactics, strategy. This is incorrect.

What is a Strategy?

Ok, we understand what tactics are now, so what is a strategy?

Traditional definition:
...a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
Strategy happens away from the action. If you are involved in a violent encounter, you are not using strategy, you are using tactics. Hopefully good ones and hopefully to a good standard.

Strategy is big picture stuff. Strategy happens when you think about something deeply over a period of time and make a deliberate decision. This could be a goal or plan or whatever. These could be medium term but are generally long term. Even very long term. These deliberate decisions or goals are what drives everything else. Implementing a strategy often takes work and effort. It can require a detailed plan as to how you are going to reach your strategic goal.

It is often hard work to make something achievable. That is one of the reasons few people engage in strategic thought and implement a strategic action plan to get things done in accordance with strategic aims. Its all too easy to place it in the too hard basket for a while and then go back to doing whatever you feel like on spur of the moment decisions or just follow what everyone else is doing. Following this pattern, it is very unlikely you will by accident end up where you want to be.

And then you are 80 years old and realise you havn’t done what you truly wanted to do...

In a martial arts or self defence context, deciding you want to learn how to defend yourself is very much a strategic decision. And an important one at that! However, too many people leave the strategic thought there and simply begin doing whatever classes are close to them or what their friends do. The basic strategic intent is there, however the implementation of that desired end state is done poorly. The decision of what to learn can impact on a person for years to come. A person may begin going to a certain class for 4 to 10 years or even longer. We are talking about a long time. But is that class really well suited to the students desired end state? Their strategic aim?

Thinking Strategy

The issue largely stems from a beginner not really understanding violence and violent crime, so any decision they make at this early stage is likely going to be ill informed. As time goes on and the new student learns more about that violence they have made a decision to prepare themselves for, better decisions can then be made. Improvements to previous decisions can be made. The implementation of that strategic aim can improve over time.

A persons overall goals can change, so their strategic direction will change accordingly. They may change from wanting to be able to defend against a real attack to wanting to understand a certain culture and art they have since fallen in love with. As strategic goals change, their plan as to how they want to achieve those goals needs to change as well.

Another persons overall goals may harden. They may be more interested in the area of human to human violence and may want to learn more and more and pursue the worlds best practises and concepts in that field. This persons overall strategic goals don’t change, but their plans about how they are going to pursue them, will. It will become refined over time and more targeted and informed. The implementation of the strategic plan will improve as knowledge of the subject improves.

Strategic decisions drive activity through plans and routine. After identifying an overall strategic goal (and this may take some time to consider), a strategic plan is developed as to how that strategic goal is going to be realised. That plan is then implemented into ones life and is followed. This becomes a persons training routine. In that routine, classes and seminars are gone to, books are read and thought is undertaken.

Lessons are learnt. Done properly, these lessons directly contribute to moving towards achieving those strategic goals.

One of those areas that are developed whilst actioning our strategic plan is tactics. We learn tactics at our classes and whilst studying. With a properly implemented strategic plan, these learnt tactics will be very relevant to our desired strategic goals.

Strategic Decisions Drive our Learning of Tactics.

This ensures what we learn is what we want to be learning. If we did not make well considered strategic decisions we will likely not come across those lessons that we desire which includes our understanding of tactics. What point is being the worlds best at performing a Wushu demonstration when what we really wanted to do was become a proficient boxer? This is just a simple example of how not making those important strategic decisions and sticking with the intent can lead one easily down some other path that seemed interesting enough at the time but became all consuming as friends were going there and the people were nice and friendly.

Along the path, knowledge can increase strategic understanding and provide direction as to how our routine will best facilitate learning.

Here are some strategic issues and areas where knowledge can drive understanding and appropriate training which will likely lead to relevant tactics being learnt:
The above is not an exhaustive list. These are just some big picture considerations that could be seen to be useful in driving some training methodologies that would be most relevant to a person for THEM and not a one size fits all. Once knowledge is gained and strategic direction is followed, look out. Such a person would be well on their way along the path.

The importance of strategy does not only need to apply in the martial arts or self defence context. It can apply anywhere. Think of a long term goal and work towards what is truly important to you. That is strategic thinking and strategic action. Along the way, you will learn tactics that work for that particular strategic field.

This article has demonstrated some of the clear differences between strategy and tactics. The differences are obvious. When you hear people use the terms incorrectly now, it will be loud and obvious. Harnessing the power of strategy is the most important thing. Tactics follow strategy. Strategy drives a good understanding of tactics.

Strategic subjects are generally those which are written about on this site. Most articles here are about bigger picture areas of what we call Low Tech Combat. To us, this is the most appropriate use of the written word on the internet. Tactics are best learnt in person from another person. However, too many people are engaging in training that does not really follow their overall intent. And that is a shame.

Strategy must come first in order to facilitate informed decisions and appropriate training.

Images via Okinawa Soba and Davide Restivo

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  1. Very nicely done! I appreciate the worthwhile effort you clearly put into the research and analysis you did for this piece. As a result it is full of useful wisdom. Thanks very much.

  2. Glad you like it Todd! Means a lot coming from yourself.

  3. Way to distinguish the two, I only understood subtle differences between Tactic and Strategy.

  4. Well done! I really enjoyed the article. It is well written, clear and concise.I do enjoy you blog.

  5. Great post, thank you.

    I think your post applies in life as well as in self defense. There are too many "strategy-less tacticians" running around crazy today.

    They spend time and money doing things, without ever stopping to think about why. What is their real overall end they are trying to accomplish?

    Plenty of people go to the gym to workout, they try to build a business, they go to college, and more, all without ever stopping to consider the whys in the first place.

    I like your list of bullet points at the end of the list. I am actively preparing myself for a variety of urban survival situations, and these are some great points for me to consider before blindly diving in to the arena of self defense.

    Thanks again for posting.

  6. Great post. One of the issues I see in today's martial arts world is a blind adherence to tactic based training without a realistic strategy. You've hit on great points about understanding the most likely type or attack and attacker and then developing tactics to deal with them.

    I also wanted to commend you on a fantastic post on the 21 foot rule regarding knife defense. You hit on a bunch of very important points and presented a great overview, including what the author originally said,wrote, and meant. Well done.

  7. Thanks for your feedback everyone! Much appreciated. It seems many people found the topic to be of interest. Thats great.

    Its good to hear that many people agree on the differences and that strategy is such a fundamentally important matter to come to terms with prior to developing and actioning a plan. Regardless of whether it is about martial arts or self defence training or something else in ones life, strategy and long term thinking is vital.

    Otherwise we spend our whole lives wasting it, just reacting to various things.

  8. Awesome article. The part of anyones tactics and stategies, training, etc., should also include when to stop. Self Defense and fighting are two different subjects. SD is about incapacitating the threat, fighting is more about defending ones ego. Once you cross that thin line you're committing assault, eg ground and pound. Exaggerated training could be a quick transport to prison and there you're going to be the one getting mounted. Peace

  9. well done! Im passing this along to other like minded individuals!

  10. @ Joshua, very true. Very good points.

    @ Anon, thanks for the kind words and thanks for sharing :)

  11. This was indeed a great article. Thank you. I hope I'm not reading this article a bit too late.

  12. It's never too late Sunny! Glad you found it and enjoyed. This sort of information does not expire in importance.

  13. Interesting stuff. Thank you for writing. I am working with board games and everything you said holds true in that context. It will help me design a technological intervention better, thank you.

  14. Very well. I thank you for sharing your wisdom with humanity.


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