Monday, 28 February 2011

A thesis I intend to nail to the door of the Royal Armouries.

While wasting my time on the internet today, I came across the text of an interesting interview with John Danaher, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach who some of you may know that I have a slight man-crush on. After all, this is the Kiwi who came out with 'I still think that the greatest thing a man can study is philosophy and mathematics, greater even than jiu-jitsu' in an interview.
He may have a tonsure, but he's no Friar Tuck...
In any case, the text is probably worth copying over in full. I'd recommend reading it in full, too. The discourse going on in it echoes debates and disagreements within the HEMA community so closely it leaves me with a sense of deja-vu...
Most traditional martial artists dismiss the very idea of a combat sport. Their claim is typically that in a real fight all means must be used to attack the enemy. Sporting competition develops poor habits for combat since it is bound by a set of rules. Traditional martial arts thus emphasize a large number of techniques that could never be made part of a safe sporting match - techniques such as eye-gouging, biting, groin attacks etc. etc. The emphasis on such hazardous technique makes live sparring and sport competition impossible. 
The only alternative is to practice this kind of technique in a thoroughly artificial manner - by the use of repetitive forms, kata, imagination, no-contact "sparring," etc. The obvious problem with this approach is that students never get the opportunity to perform their techniques in the same manner in which they will do so in actual combat. The result is that they are no more experienced in the actual application of these techniques under the stress of combat conditions than anybody else. 
How then, can they be expected to do well in the chaos and stress of a real fight? Imagine if a football coach attempted to train a team along analogous principles. He insisted that all training sessions involve no contact. Players were not allowed to run at full speed, nor could they engage in open play, but had to stop at the completion of each move. Essentially they would be training in a kind of slow motion, stop start, touch football. How could such a team hope to make the jump to a full power competitive game against a rival who trained in the normal manner? Yet this is very nearly what the traditional martial arts prescribes as its training methods to thousands of willing adherents. 
All too often the unfortunate result is a student who has a grossly inflated sense of his or her combat readiness. When the shock and confusion of real combat is sprung upon them the result is almost always failure. Contrast this with the case of combat sports. By combat sports I mean those fighting styles whose nature is most closely associated with open sporting competition and which have an obvious combative heritage in so far as they involve the battle for physical domination over an opponent. This is made possible by the removal of hazardous technique that would make the sport unacceptably risky. So for example, Olympic wrestling is a classic combat sport. It has a set of restrictions on which techniques are legal and which are not. 
One's initial reaction to the notion of a combat sport is that they are merely watered down martial arts. They are martial arts minus the really deadly techniques. As such they would appear almost by definition to be less effective in combat than a "true" martial art. This is in fact, a very naïve assumption. The removal of dangerous technique makes possible the use of full-power, live training (sparring) with the techniques that remain. This has an immensely beneficial result. It allows students to train in almost the same way they fight. 
The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. An axiom of the martial arts is this. The way you train is the way you fight. This simple point is very important. The successful application of a combat technique under combat conditions requires much more than a theoretical knowledge of that technique. In addition to knowledge of the technique itself, the student must possess a set of attributes that allow him or her to successfully apply the technique. Without the possession of these attributes the technique is very unlikely to succeed. 
Attributes such as adequate strength and physical conditioning, speed, timing, presence of mind, body sensitivity, balance etc. etc. are necessary prerequisites to the application of a combat technique. The development of these attributes comes only from live training and sparring. This explains how a student of traditional martial arts whose training is limited to kata and cooperative training partners can never gain anything more than a superficial knowledge of a given technique. They know what the technique is supposed to look like, but they lack the necessary attributes to apply it under combat conditions. 
Their understanding of the technique never progresses beyond the look of the technique and never passes into the feel of it. In this way can we explain the irony of the fact that combat sports that prohibit so much technique can be far more combat effective than "deadly" traditional martial arts that emphasize apparently dangerous techniques but never give the students the chance to practice them live. 
The essential difference between the combat sports and traditional martial arts is that the latter emphasize technique alone, while the former emphasize the attributes required to apply the techniques they retain. Combat sports can do this successfully because they prohibit the techniques that make live training in the form of sparring and sporting competition impossible. This realization that success in combat requires far more than the memorization of the appearance of various techniques, but also involves the development of bodily and mental attributes that allow a student to apply these techniques in a real fight, is the key to understanding the success of combat sports. Consider the most well known combat sports - Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, sambo, shooto, San Shou , Western boxing and Muay Thai. 
So then, in answer to our question as to which styles are those most effective we can reply that it is those that are combat sports. These allow students to train at something close to full power with the same techniques and strategy that they will use in real combat. As such they develop not just the superficial knowledge of the appearance of a given technique, but also the essential attributes and skills that enable a student to apply that technique in actual combat
-John Danaher, found a

This. This applies to Historical European Martial Arts too, damn it.

Are you comparing the UFC with this, really? Yes. Yes I am.
We try and learn how we, why we and when we perform techniques to physically incapacitate another person. Conceptually, we do these according to frameworks and systems that analyse the physical actions of two people trying to break each-other. This to my mind is a martial art.

The difference between HEMA and many other martial arts is that we do this for combat that might have taken place five or six centuries ago. Normally, the systems that we use date from the period, and the techniques we learn are interpreted from documents of the time. I for one respect the point of view of someone who actually lived, fought and risked their well-being at the time and then recorded how they did so. For this we need to research their words, or the material evidence that has survived and left traces in the modern day. To my mind, this makes it a historical art.

European then? To some people it's an ethnic thing, 'my ancestors did this!'. To be honest, I think that that is a dead end, but in a way is an understandable attempt to form an identity. Others emphasize what they consider to be the world-view of the time, 'it is a chivalrous art!'. I think that these people have a poor grasp of the context of what they are talking about, and would hazard that again these are people attempting for form an identity for themselves. This is where past snide comments about confusing HEMA and live action role-playing stem from; - I believe that at best these two points of view spring from a poor grasp of how things really were in the past. At worst they imply an ethnocentrism I find to be wrong. Personally, I study European martial arts because I find that Europe is the most easy area to find research about, as I live there. If, on the other hand, I lived in the Middle East, I might find myself researching Arabic horsemanship from the period of  al-Ġazawāt. The European aspect of what we study is, I sincerely hope, due to convenience.

The Victorian mindset is a source of humour, not of sound advice.
From this it seems reasonable that in order to learn this art we need access to the historical evidence to do research, communication of ideas and debate to test our interpretations and above all martially sound coaching to learn all this.

And for the last part, we need to get out there and hit one another with glorified sticks. Srsly. Without pressure-testing ourselves as fighters, or our interpretations as researchers, we cannot begin to understand what we are studying.

To paraphrase a second-hand point of view, we train to be the very best fighters for a rather unlikely set of circumstances. Sure, we may never get into harnischfechten on the high street, but our study still faces the same challenges and pit-falls as any other martial art.


  1. So, no-one I know denies the utility of going beyond “the use of repetitive forms, kata, imagination, no-contact "sparring," etc.” in practicing HEMA. Hugh Knight, who gets derided a lot for deriding sparring full stop, still calls for non-cooperative, resisted and (I may be being charitable to him here) alive drilling, albeit in a less than fully integrated way.

    I may be straw manning you here, but I fear some groups overemphasise “sparring” as a mode of learning and as a way to measure “achievement” or “proficiency” in HEMA.

    Bluntly, I think much of HEMA will inherently struggle to avoid going into what Danaher refers to as “hazardous technique [that] makes live sparring and sport competition impossible”. It's about swords, basically. Too much of the syllabus of, say, Lichtenauer's blossfechten (perhaps the most practiced system of HEMA) requires a sword in your hand and runs into massive simulative problems when you replace the sword with, say, a piece of plastic and wear hockey armour, and hit each other with the amount of force that you think is needed to hurt each other unarmoured based on cutting plastic bottles/tatami/pig carcasses.

    MMA or other unarmed combat sports have the advantage that humans are pretty crap at this whole fighting thing. It's pretty hard to punch someone who's alert and cause serious damage, and even for unarmed combat, most combat sports do drift away from simulation, at least in training, by using bigger gloves, headguards etc. Because having your fighter pulped regularly in training and having to take a few months off to heal is a lousy way to train. The amount of protection and simulation (i.e. banned techniques) needed, however, in making armed combat “safe” is significantly greater, and with that this, and the rules of a sport, is greater distortion of technique. Olympic boxing or fencing, compared to, say, MMA or recorded smallsword duels, have obvious differences in technique. The SCA, compared to historical records of broadsword (and longsword, halberd, etc ad nauseam) has massive differences in technique.

    I'm willing to concede that fighting with foam LARP weapons, full contact (or at least as full as would be needed for unarmoured sharp stabbity horribleness, which is nothing like the full power the human body can generate) would probably produce, at least in the short term, students who would whip people who'd been drilling non-cooperatively but still minimal contact with steel and unarmoured. He'd have the attributes, if not the techniques. Equally, I'm willing to say that I don't train solely to be the best fighter with a sword I can be. It's also important, to me, to train in a historic art. That means accepting having to train without full aliveness to master specific techniques.

    Equally reflecting Danaher's argument, I feel, might be suggesting how a football team would react if they'd never actually held footballs before. Sounds stupid, but it's what happens if you'd never used an actual sword to train for that sword fighting thing. Understanding the weight of it, it's balance, it's feel and most bloody importantly how it cuts things is pretty important, and I don't want that to be neglected by overemphasising the “sport side” of HEMA. We'd be doing ourselves a disservice as we work to become anachronistic killing machines if we were to do so.

  2. continued...

    There are also attributes that are important but hard to develop at "combat sport" alivenes or similation levels. Fuhlen comes to mind. Doing too much sparring too early can leave people with warped, dare I say "sporty" priorities and attributes, relying overmuch on some attributes and hampering the development of their technique.

    For example, you find people unwilling to work all ranges of the fight - they seek to stay in the perfect place, on the edge of zufechten. I know we both know people who's sparring style tends towards taking a shot and retreating if engaged. Or who try to knock the opponent's blade hard, always, because they are lack confidence in the sprechfenster, and the lack of confidence is warranted when their shinai gives lots of bounce but little bind.

    I guess the answer is to triangulate, and get time in with both full contact, alive sparring and fuhlen developing steel work. I'm sure you're about to lament the lack of steel in your club now.