I thought I would start this post off with a link to a funny video or two of people failing at chi/ki/energy flow martial arts, but I got pretty depressed looking through the available samples. I’m going to skip that. No one needs to start their week off with that sort of thing.
The point I was going to make was that with the best of intentions, and sometimes even with the best kind of training, we can still wind up training in what Ameri-do-te would describe as “Bullshit.” Sparring is usually seen as the real test of a martial art, but even schools that invest heavily in sparring can wind up doing nonsense. There was a video not to long ago of a black belt exam in a large martial art school that featured some of the worst body mechanics ever seen, and some truly atrocious sparring…mostly flailing. A former member of the school posted on an online forum and discussed the video.
He said they sparred all the time. But they had found certain techniques to be more effective in sparring, and with the encouragement of the head of the school, they started to focus on the “best” techniques. Sparring, in this school, became a mutual support society built around a small body of useless technique. With the best intentions, they hamstrung themselves as a martial art within a few years…even with hundreds of members.
Sparring is not the truth. It’s a form of communication between two human beings, and as such will always be flawed. Ask any writer, singer, actor, speaker or masters or PhD candidate…learning to clearly communicate is one of the hardest things to learn. We like to think a length of steel and a touch is as clear and simple a truth as there is. You get touched, you have failed. You touch, and you have succeeded. Those simple binaries might be accurate, but they are not only built on a bed of lies, they can serve to teach lies to our opponents and ourselves.
Reviewing videos of our assessments, we noticed some trends. The old hands, the better fighters, the ones who had started sword arts before Valkyrie, were obviously good fighters. They were fast, strong, tricky and very capable. When they fought a new fighter, they would almost always land a touch. But…they were receiving touches at the same time. Sure, they were landing kill shots to the head while taking a minor thrust to the thigh or off hand, or being struck in the torso a beat after landing a beautiful shot to the face. But…
This isn’t unique to our school. It’s common to have a new student, or otherwise poorly trained student, have a run of success against better fencers. I’ve seen a number of tournaments were obviously weaker (even non-athletic) fighters somehow stumble their way past top-notch competition to get to the finals. It’s usually marked up to luck, mindset or quirk of approach. Sometimes this is the reason. But mostly, it’s due to a flaw on the part of the experienced fighter. It’s the constant problem of not knowing how to work with a new fighter. It’s a result of bad training.
Here’s how the teacher screws everyone up: When pairing up for drills, there is always a tendency for comfort. There is always a slight preference for the familiar, which means that fighters want to drill with a friend or fellow of their own experience level or higher. Better fighters are slightly preferred, newer fighters are slightly disfavoured. That’s just human nature. The instructor knows this, and knows it’s bad for everyone’s development, so an effort is made to match up new and experienced students. The experienced students balk at this.
“I don’t want to work with the new people. Newbs are boring.” The instructor, eager to work on a fancy new technique with the advanced students, will trot out the usual advice to the grumpy hotshot. It’s not boring, they will say. Especially if it’s sparring time, they will say that it’s a chance to work on your more challenging techniques. Instead of just pezzing the newb over and over, challenge yourself to do the most difficult thing. Make the session interesting for you, and you will both gain.
It’s a good theory, but it does have a flaw. Basic technique is good technique. Close line, lunge. Done. Advanced technique involves duplicity. False lines or invitations, disengages, feints of measure and tempo. A basic technique will never work on an advanced student, but an advanced technique will work on everybody if you work at it hard enough. That’s what we think. So against the newb, we bring out our most outlandish skills, the ones that push us to our peak of ability. We leave openings in our guard so they have a chance to strike us, challenging ourselves to be faster, stronger, and more adaptable to their counters.
The new fighter gets some shots in and feels like they are learning. We advanced fighters feel like we are working our butts off and are doing something fun, so we feel good. Win-win, right?
One of the best lessons I ever learned about martial arts was that if it feels easy or fun…you aren’t learning. That’s a bit of a stupid saying, and can promote some very bad ideas about training and teaching, but it is an excellent self-check to trot out once in a while. Are you really challenging yourself enough? Are you really challenging the newb the right way?
When I play out an advanced technical series on a newer fighter, I am not teaching the lesson I think I am teaching. I’m not teaching the value of understanding and manipulating line and tempo. I’m teaching that speed, trickery…athleticism and cleverness…win out over technical ability. The newb sees the speed, and feels helpless. They throw a jab at the first target they see, scoring what they can in desperation…telling themselves that someday they will be fast and strong too. When their simple basic technique is show to be useless, they will yearn to learn advanced technique, and long for the day they can abandon the training wheels.
And here is where we must ask a simple question of the hotshot fighter. Why do your basic techniques not work against advanced fighters? Is the flaw in the technique, or in your execution of it? Maybe the simple truth is that you were a newb once, and abandoned the simple inside engagement in fourth and lunge, because the hotshots just blew around it. Maybe your drilling was not as sincere as it could be.
Certainly, if the advanced fighter tries a simple inside engagement and lunge against their fellows, it’s probably not going to work. Looking over video, at slow motion, I can tell you that it doesn’t work because you lack the proper ability with the technique. You know the form of it, but you have no polish. You lack the fine understanding of time and tempo that such basic techniques demand. Because you have never worked it correctly, you are also vulnerable to it. New fighters kill you because you anticipate something else, and ignore the truth in front of you. A blade in good form, on a good line, will kill you if you do not respect it first and foremost. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “simple” attack, beneath your skill level. If you don’t respect the skill of your opponent, at least respect the steel in their hand.
When you spar with a new fighter, you should try to beat them at their own game. Work your basics with a vengeance. Close every line, and lunge cleanly. Strip your game of everything but the core techniques of your school. This is your chance to polish your foundation, to make basic techniques a fearsome weapon that the most advanced students will be forced to respect and deal with. Have the humility to understand that well applied technique, even in the hands of a newb, can kill you…and when they do it doesn’t mean you should abandon unworkable basics, but work those basics until you are unkillable by new fighters.
It’s a surefire way to make new fighters become solid, and grow from a better foundation. The new fighter gets to see how a technique should be properly applied. They expect to lose, you shouldn’t feel bad for them. By killing them with a technique they understand, they are able to use their own keen minds to analyze and improve. It presents them with opportunity, and gives them means to follow up on ambition.
Polish your basics on new fighters. Test those basics against advanced fighters, and then go back to the new fighters to apply what you learned. Do it right, and the advanced stuff becomes what it should be, an afterthought applied in necessity, smoothly applied from rigorous drilling and executed with a clear and sure hand and eye. No risk. Just talent earned from hard work. Do it right and your whole school grows, not just in skill but as a fellowship.