Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Sparring

I have two general rules for sparring: 1. Never spar anyone you don’t know, and 2. Never spar anyone with a lack of control.

In either case, it can be inferred that I do not spar anyone I do not trust. Additionally, these rules have double-weight for me when weapon simulators are involved due to the increased potential for injury. These are rules that I have both learned as-is from those greater than I, and from personal experience in my martial career.

These are rules that -for various reasons- I have often broken in the past.

The primary reason for this is the “sparring culture” of the current revival of the Renaissance martial arts, which I will presently discuss.

In my experience, in regard to sparring, there are three types of martial arts, or perhaps more accurately, three types of martial arts schools. In no particular order, there are those that train to spar; those that spar to train; and finally, those that do not spar.

In the RMA there exist all three, but by and large most of them seem to be those that train to spar. This is that “sparring culture” that seems so prominent which I previously mentioned. By “train to spar,” I mean groups or schools whose focal point for the art is the act of sparring itself. It composes a major part of their curricula and class time. They often enough train in rote techniques and other aspects, but it is generally for the purpose of improving their performance during said act. And just the same, they spar to further improve their sparring ability. However martial such groups or schools may be, it is an easy argument to be made that they sportify the Art simply for the reason that the epitome and focus of their niche culture and methodology is the act of friendly sparring itself. It is the ultimate test within their groups, all else being relatively unimportant by comparison. Such is not only the case with many an RMA school/group, but also with tournament oriented Asian fighting arts. Such are the limits of sparring compared to combat. In addition, as all sports, if they are not held in strict check they invite concepts truly applicable only to sparring.

Myself having been a long-time member of such an organization is what inescapably led me to do most of the breaking of my personal rules on the matter, outlined above.

Secondly however, we have those that spar to train. By “spar to train,” I mean those that include sparring as an aspect of their curriculum, but do not regard it as the end-all be-all of their purpose or of the Art itself. This is the case with most modern self-defense schools. Sparring is regarded as one of many tools at the school’s disposal that are used on occasion to facilitate a higher purpose in the practitioner; i.e. self-defense skills. Sparring in such schools does not generally encompass a major part of the daily regimen, and when it is used, it is used as a tool rather than in a recreant fashion; it is used for a specific, designated purpose; to work on a given problem, technique, drill or aspect of the Art. The majority of the curricula of such schools involves training in exercises, drills, and rote, repetitive practice. Sparring is a facet of a practitioner’s abilities, but one of many. I believe this is also the historical perspective of most schools of the Art in Europe, as it is so borne out in modern self-defense practices because of its very efficacy in contrast to the former type of school and the environment in which it was used, but this belief is arguable.

Since I personally no longer have any obligation toward said sparring culture, I am once again bringing things into such an alignment within my own school by shifting the focus off of sparring, yet retaining it as an important tool (one of many), but a tool none-the-less, and by applying it for specific purpose.

However, it could be said that sparring is in fact the epitome of the art in this day and age for the simple fact that so many parts of it no longer apply to real life. Obviously, you will not fight with a sword against someone with a sword, so sparring is the apex of one’s training as it is the closest one will get to such a combat.

I say this is not so. It is a shift of focus away from what the Art really is. If you have followed my writings on the art for any length of time, you will know that the art is a genuine and applicable Art of Defense, here and now, despite the fact that it is a traditional art. Even if one will not fight with a sword in this age, one should train as if one would. Such a statement makes an attempt to separate the art both physically and philosophically, and one should not train in the same art with a duality of focus. Whether armed or unarmed, the Art is one in the same, and one cannot train with a mind to violent reality with his natural weapons, and then with a mind to sport or exercise when he finds a weapon of artifice in his hands. The Art should not be diametrically opposed to itself.

Finally, to continue; last and least are those schools and groups that do not spar. Are they worth mentioning? Such groups generally do not spar for one of two reasons: because they are not martial, or because they are philosophically opposed to the practice. Those in the RMA who fit into this category do so because of some particular philosophical opposition (i.e. I’m morbidly obese and can’t, so I’m going to pretend it never happened historically; I’m insecure about my skills, etc.). Those outside the RMA that are often classified as “martial arts” yet are not martial are arts such as Tai Chi, for example. The tool of sparring serves no purpose to such a practice.


Copyright Dec. 2009, Casper Bradak

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