Thursday, October 7, 2010

Insidious Effects of Training Methods and Combat Effectiveness Pt 3

This is the last blog in my series dealing with training methods and combat effectiveness.

The blogs associated with the 'insidious effects' of training methods has tended to focus on sparring as a method of preparing a person for combat. This focus should not be taken to suggest I favour kata over sparring as a superior method of preparing a person for combat. Not at all. The reason for this particular focus, and the resultant apparent unbalanced view, is that the potential weaknesses of kata and the strengths of sparring are well known and well documented. What would appear to be relatively less well known and definitely not well reported are the potential weaknesses of sparring.

Peter Falk submitted a comment to my last blog which articulately represented the strengths of sparring as a training method for preparing a person for combat. Peter is a thoughtful and intelligent martial artist from Sweden and I do not disagree with anything he had to say in this regard. The reason for my musings in these blogs was to explore the potential weaknesses of this training method which are often overlooked, if appreciated at all.

Protective Equipment

Recall in the last blog the prohibition on groin attacks in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitions and how some critics suggested it diminished the 'realism' of the fights. The tournament organisers then lifted the ban, to which the competitors responded by wearing groin guards. This resulted, as Greg Downey explained, in the tactic of attacking the groin not being decisive. Why would you attempt to kick someone in the groin if you knew they were wearing a groin guard? You wouldn't. Not only would it be ineffective but you could also injure your foot in the process. So, the tactics are modified by natural selection to not include groin attacks, meaning the competitors don't train to use groin attacks nor do they train to defend against them. Tactics to use groin attacks or defend against them are also not developed. After all, why learn to defend against attacks which are not going to be used.

Some authors have looked to the methods used to train swordsmen of ancient Japan when considering methods used to prepare a person for combat. Obviously sparring with a live blade has certain inherent risks and limitations. Donn Draeger, in Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, explains that 'kenjutsu [(sword art)] may, and frequently does, require practice with a naked blade, though usually in training a hardwood weapon of dangerous capabilities is used in its place. Thus the nature of the weapon means that training methods must be confined to kata.' Draeger is quite disparaging of the weapon used in place of the naked blade or hardwood weapon of dangerous capabilities: 'Kendo has built-in safeguards such as the "weapon," which is a flexible bamboo object called a shinai.' Because of the protective equipment adopted in this form of sparring training, as well as the limitation placed on the target areas, Draeger suggests it resulted in 'combat nonsensicals, which have all but flushed the fighting value down the drain.'

Hunter B. Armstrong, in 'The koryu bujutsu experience' in Diane Skoss' Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, had this to say on the subject:
In weapons/fighting systems designed for mortal combat … the inherent dangers in training with lethal weapons aimed at potentially fatal targets precludes the use of a free-sparring type action. In some cases this danger has been avoided through the development of protective armour. However, training armour itself is a limiting factor and imposes changes upon the patterns of movements (angles and targeting), and more importantly, the psychological components of combat – the feeling of safety while training cannot prepare the individual for the psychological stress from the danger/threat inherent in mortal combat. Preparation to withstand such stress can only be readily approached in training through the use of actual weapons (or potentially dangerous simulated or rebated weapons), utilising prearranged patterns of movement in which the potential for danger arises from any errors made in timing or movement.

Again I reiterate, this and the previous blogs are only exploring the potential weaknesses of sparring as a training method. The potential weaknesses which are often overlooked, if they are understood at all. It is not my intention within these blogs to advocate one training method over another.

Armstrong makes one statement which echoes my 'insidious effects' warning: 'training armour itself is a limiting factor and imposes changes in patterns of movements.' Protective equipment and prohibition on target areas are limiting factors and impose changes in the tactics and techniques of martial arts utilising this training method.

This is not an issue relegated to historical interest only. The use of protective equipment is increasingly being used to train in as 'realistic' a manner as possible due to technological advances in body armour. The question is, 'is this training armour imposing changes on the tactics and techniques being developed and trained?'

Developing Tactics and Techniques

Say you're using sparring as a training method as you consider it more realistically approximates the real combat experience. You're sparring against an opponent with the aim of defeating them. You develop new tactics and techniques in order to defeat the opponent. In turn, your opponent develops new tactics and techniques in order to defeat you. You both develop tactics and techniques to counter the tactics and techniques developed and employed by each other. Who are the tactics and techniques that are being developed and trained aimed at defeating? Someone who uses those same tactics and techniques. Someone who is trained in your fighting methods. Tactics and techniques are used by judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners to spar and defeat judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners respectively. Karateka and taekwondo practitioners train and develop tactics and techniques to defeat their fellow practitioners when sparring is used as a training method.

Techniques that are effective against a particular attack are disregarded because they become relatively ineffective in sparring as counters have been developed for them. After all, why learn and train techniques which are not effective when training for combat?

Resisting Opponent in Sparring

I've often heard the phrase 'resisting opponent' or variations on this theme when the benefits of sparring as a training method for preparing a person for combat are espoused. If the opponent is resisting, they are not attacking. So, you are training to fight an opponent who resists your tactics and techniques and not an opponent who is attacking you. Surely the way you don't lose when encountering a resisting opponent is not to attack!

The idea of a resistance to frustrate the attempts of an opponent in sparring is a common feature, and criticism, of sparring and competition. A criticism of modern judo competitors is their initial stances which are not aimed at positioning them for a throw but rather to resist the efforts of an opponent in throwing them. The same issue is seen in the UFC where Downey explains that the rules were changed to work against the tactic of resisting an opponent to go the distance of the round.

Using Your Training Partner's Tactics and Techniques Against Them

In the Jan de Jong jujutsu (aka Tsutsumi Hozan ryu jujutsu)grading system, there are three sparring gradings in the dan grades. Shodan (1st dan) involves unarmed against a knife and unarmed against a stick, and the positions are reversed. Nidan (2nd dan) involves knife vs knife, and sandan (3rd dan) is knife vs stick with the positions being reversed. I learnt to 'play the game' by nidan. I knew everything my opponents knew. I knew their tactics and techniques. So, I used this knowledge; I used my opponent's tactics and techniques against them. I also 'cheated' in training in that I didn't reveal this strategy which I intended to employ in the grading in training. A strategy based on using the tactics and techniques they'd learnt and which they teach against them.

There were half a dozen of us grading the nidan grading. All were obviously the same grade but most had been training for a longer period of time than I had. At the end of the grading De Jong confided in me that I'd done the best out of all the candidates participating in the grading. I was very good at sparring against a knife wielding opponent ... who was trained in a particular way with which I was intimately familiar with. I 'played the game' better than they did. I didn't know what to take away from this grading or the compliment afforded me by De Jong.


While the strenghts of sparring are often focused on, we should be just as aware of the limitations of sparring as a training method for preparing a person for combat. The limitations should be understood and considered or the insidious effects may materialise. There have been different ways of addressing these limitations. Kano included the techniques too dangerous for his randori in his kata. Gracie and Gracie (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) recommend their students 'adapt' if these techniques are used against them in combat. It would appear they have adopted the approach that the tactics and techniques which are used in their sparring gives their students the best chance of success in combat and accept the risks imposed by not using nor training against prohibited techniques. These are two different approaches and I offer no comment as to the effectiveness of either, however, I do have an issue with tactics and techniques being developed without consideration as to the potential risks associated with their use in combat. One such technique(s) is any strangulation technique applied to an opponent from the front when the opponent's arms are not restricted in some manner, as discussed in part 1 of these blogs associated with the insidious effects of training methods.

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