Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Value of Sparring?

What is the real value of sparring in traditional weapon arts? After all, those such as the Art of the Longsword were once legitimately extinct. They died out because they were of no practical value; surpassed by more effective weaponry and different societal context.

Opinions exist throughout the spectrum of thought on this topic. There are those such as the pet enemy of my colleague, who say that not only is there no value in sparring, but that it in fact detracts from the art. Then there are those, including the largest RMA organization in the world, that primarily focus on sparring, with all else as a means to that end. The reasons for these extremes can be expounded upon but are not within the context of this article.

To keep the Art of the Longsword as my example, this art no longer has a realistic combative role (zombie apocalypse not withstanding). So why then should it not be practiced entirely as many an obsolete East Asian sword art? Why shouldn’t it simply be practiced as a collection of rote technique and forms practice now that it has no combative role? Well, I certainly believe there is nothing keeping that from happening if it is a certain individual or schools cup of tea. After all, there is no longer the crucible of natural selection in the ancient weapon arts to point out or to correct any oddities, anomalies or mistakes in the way the art is so performed. The way the art is performed, and the inclusion of sparring in our present day depends largely on the goals and background of the individual and/or school as well, and thusly, without any requirement for actual self-defense in the art, there is really no wrong way to go about it.

While we know that sparring was an important part of the curricula in most, if not all schools of such martial arts in their prime (and every fighting art since), and have ample evidence for it, why should it be the same now? Why should we test ourselves antagonistically without the applicability to the crucible of self defense or war? We could just practice the techniques and leave it at that.

Firstly, regardless of to what degree you use this ancient training exercise, we must ask ourselves exactly why our ancestors sparred.

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s fun. It can be an enjoyable part of the class. Though it should be conducted in a safe and effective manner for learning, and always with a third person perspective, it often gives students a chance to cut loose and relax.

It hones the art. It refines realistic movement by forcing it to be responsive via adversarial circumstances. When one performs the rote repetition of techniques, and then attempts to perform those same techniques when sparring or in sparring drills, both exercises incrementally build each other up to a level of effectiveness not possible with one alone, or with too heavy a focus on a single aspect. This ties it in to how sparring helps eliminate poor interpretation/execution of techniques. One can easily notice how our source material depicts dynamic movement, extension of the weapon, etc. Then, we can see how modern practitioners look in comparison. Some are closer than others. What do they do differently?
While drills and techniques can help introduce and partially gain the senses of leverage, pressure, timing and range, they certainly cannot do so to their fullest extent without sparring. Again, the antagonistic circumstances and differing attitudes of the opponent force them to become reactive, responsive and adaptive. Martial arts are arts of deception, but in rote training, there is no room for deception. The most “apparent” forms of deception; feinting, changing, and combination attacks, are things either not found at all in rote training, or if found, are only performed to a limited and primitive, non-antagonistic degree in drills. They are, however, some of the most fundamental and essential elements to the art, and their use and the ability to defend against them can only be honed through sparring.

It gives and keeps perspective. Just as practice cutting gives perspective to modern students who have misunderstandings about what a weapon will and will not do, sparring gives perspective to practitioners on their techniques, skills, abilities and repertoire. Not only in how well they can apply them, but in how well others can apply them in a much more antagonistic context. Not only this, but sparring gives input on the interpretation of techniques. I.e. if a technique never seems to function under adversarial circumstances, it is a strong hint that that interpretation needs revision.

It is one of the most valuable aids in class for honing the requisite athleticism required for performing the Art at its peak and requisite athleticism under antagonistic circumstances; the circumstances for which it was developed, and thusly the way in which it was intended to be performed. Fitness, athleticism and strength have always been some of the most touted benefits of the martial arts. I believe that Master George Silver put it better than any man before or since. Presently we have things such as the athletic but martially useless “Tae-bo,” and the un-athletic and martially useless Tai-chi and all their kin claiming to promote athleticism and self defense skills simultaneously. Honestly, who are they kidding? A true martial art, traditional or otherwise, performed vigorously, with real speed and energy, pushed by the antagonistic circumstances of sparring, particularly with a two pound lever in the hand, surpasses them all in this regard.

It holds our Art apart and helps to keep its meaning and cultural context. Given the benefits of sparring and the part it played for our ancestors, removing it from the equation not only deprives our art of a unique and important traditional aspect, but it makes it overall less effective (allowing it to be sloppier and less representative of what it truly was) and less distinct, putting it in the midst of formation with other traditional Asian arts out there, most of which perform nothing but rote training for which they have lost most, if not all of the application thereof.

In summary, sparring can be performed in many ways. It can be focused into drills to hone certain skills, or it can be performed in a very free fashion. Some use it as one of many training tools, and some use it as nearly their only training tool, if not their end and focus. Differing ways of going about sparring have as many good points and detriments. It is not a perfect tool, which is why it is part of the practitioner’s arsenal of tools. It does not perfectly simulate combat, and no knowledgeable practitioner in history has ever posited that it was a close approximation. But it is a part of the whole of a good training methodology, and by itself, it is the closest approximation of antagonistic circumstance that can be used in the school. Without other means of training and a properly balanced curricula and focus, it can indeed be a detriment, but done well, it is an ancient and essential aspect of the traditional Western fighting arts.


Copyright July 2009, “Casper” Bradak

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