Ability-Ranked Sparring


Now that Valkyrie has been around for a while, we are starting to see a few things in our method that don’t scale as well as we might of thought. Mostly these are the result of making assumptions. When you start small and grow, you get used to the easy pace of new fighters coming in and getting assimilated into the gestalt of things. When you start to get lots of new people showing up, with different expectations, skill levels, and background things can get confusing.

Sparring is one of those areas where things can get weird, and not safe for people. We’ve had a hiccup or two around this recently, and it spurred some good conversation. It also got me thinking about some of my ideas for ranking systems.

Generally I’m not a fan of ranking. The problem I’ve found in most martial arts is that the skills learned at higher ranks aren’t necessarily more difficult than skills learned at lower ranks. Sometimes they are just different. An advanced skill in one system might be a fundamental in another system. Compare to gymnastics ranking, where the skills you learn at higher levels are physically impossible without mastering the lower level skills first. I’ve always felt that the same principle should apply to martial arts.

Of course, the translation between physical ability and tactical ability is not even close to one hundred percent, but they do absolutely relate. More importantly, the ability to handle decisions does scale the same way. In martial arts training, we frequently learn a huge body of skills, but just a frequently a martial artist is only able to “find” one or two of those skills when pressed, regardless of their ranking in their system.

Consider a simplified decision tree for a police officer when faced with a criminal. You’ve got a voice, a ticket book, a nightstick and a gun. You make a traffic stop, and a large man gets out of his car and starts yelling at you. The first two option are put to work, but he starts to advance. Nightstick or gun? Neither are appropriate just yet, and now the brain can start to swap between the two and effectively shut down. Oh hey, we forgot that we have pepper spray. And now the guy is shaking of the pepper spray and pulling a knife. Nightstick, gun, more spray? Do we have a taser? Are there other people around? Lots of decisions to make. Some people can do it no problem, some people can never handle all those decisions. Some people can be tested and trained to add more decisions as they progress in their field.

In our new sparring system, we are ranking the type of fight you can participate in by your demonstrated ability to handle decisions.

The most common level of fight will be akin to the type of fight you might see in the Society for Creative Anachronism, at least in terms of blow calling. Fighters here will take every single shot that lands on them, and clearly indicate to their opponent everything they felt or thought they might have felt. Attackers will call back everything that wasn’t a clean hit. Contact level is on the lower end, and we are demonstrating complete control at all times.

If a fighter wants to participate at fighting at the next higher level, which allows us to ignore shots that are less than lethal, they have to show us that they are capable of more when fighting. Before we allow them, they must demonstrate that they have an ability to defend themselves by having a guard that is safe and adaptable to the situation at hand, and most importantly, they must show that can correctly parry, and riposte when it is appropriate. I want to see that a student is aware of incoming attacks and is making a choice to negate the incoming attack instead of just trying to get their own hit in before I’m going to let them have more fun.

At the third level of fighting we add in blows and grapples, but only at the indication level. That is, I will indicate that I could have, and am, choosing to use an unarmed attack, but am halting it before completion. I might do a parry, redirection of blade, and then pop a short punch that ends a few inches away from my opponents mask. That would be a complete exchange.

To be able to participate at this level, a fighter has to show me much more ability than they did to attain the second level of fight. Firstly, I want to see no double kills initiated. The fight needs to be choosing attacks that limit the ability of the opponent to kill them back. On defense, they may opt to move beyond parry-riposte and use voids, but must clearly be using movement to safety before initiating their counter-attack in time. I want to see planned shots, clean and controlled attacks and defense, ability to incorporate multiple parameters at once (ie. steps, parries, redouble and remise) and precision aim to lethal targets. They should acknowledge less-lethal blows clearly in a manner that is recognizable by the opponent. They should also consistently be scaling intensity to match opponent.

At the fourth level of fight, fighters are permitted to land blows and apply locks or disarms as needed to indicate their free will over the opponent. Limited exchanges are allowed. If the exchange is becoming primarily striking or grappling, it is over and out of context for fencing. Quick and decisive victory is the only scoring method here. Further skill in striking or grappling is best developed by sparring under those rules in those training sessions.

To earn the ability to fight at this rank, I want to see clean shots landed with no chance of counter-attack, patience in attack and defence, and a calmness when pressed. Multiple preparatory actions should be used to pull a well defended opponent out of their prepared position so that clean attacks can be landed. Flaws in guard or measure should be correctly exploited with counter-movements for defense. Defensive actions should work towards creating an opening in the opponent’s approach.

Still got a few more things I want to clean up and add, but I believe this will get us on the right path in our sparring.

One Comment

  1. Hiya David R.,

    Sounds like an interesting approach. If I understand correctly, the intent is to engage in free sparring with consecutively more open rulesets based on the level of control that people exert over themselves and others? Trying to do this is to create a progression for the purpose of safety and to protect the morale of students as opposed to just throwing advanced folks in with beginners. and watching people crash and burn.

    Martial artists want to simulate reality and so we spar. I think its useful to ask what the goals are more specifically. What are you actually trying to learn from this experience is a good question. “To see if you can actually do what you think you can do” is often a goal. But I am not sure its a great goal since you can never know what you will do and how we will perform unless its actually a real fight. The best you can ever say is that under these conditions this is what happened.

    I like thinking of sparring as a way for investigating certain specific things that hopefully help with overall understanding.

    Your post here intrigued me because I also have some questions about the value of ranking systems. There are strengths and weaknesses to using ranks. In a nutshell, ranks do not really guarantee competence or moral character necessary for the appropriate control of power.

    In the Asian arts I have studied the sparring practices vary to provide different learning focuses. One type limits what techniques are thrown but the techniques are thrown with full intention to hit to learn what its like to face someone intending to hit you for real and to learn to actually hit. Another type limits how hard you hit but allows free flowing movement to learn about flow. Another type explores what happens when two people charge one another from a distance. Others introduce multiple attack combinations. Others focus on infighting. Then anything goes but with control. Finally anything goes but with lots less control, stopping when you see the potential for serious injury. Some martial arts move very quickly to the latter approach. It builds tough fighters quickly, but it can limit the type of students that you get. Sometimes the people who could benefit the most from practicing won’t engage in that initially. And then there is what happens in competition. Using all of these methods adds more information and fills in gaps in experience that leads over time to greater competency. I think you have to combine the experiences to do that and using this diverse approach protects people from getting chewed up over time.

    Your article though is about how to identify the people that can play more intensely. You are identifying a sequential list of self control requirements. Thats interesting.

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