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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Competition and Conflict

Competition/ combat sports vs "reality based" self defence is always a popular and hot topic on the forums. The extreme view on each side is either that nothing comes close to MMA for replicating a fight or that "dirty moves" can easily finish off any MMA fighter. Ironically such extreme views seems to generally held by what you might charitably call the "fan-boy". You know, the guy who has all the UFC DVDs, rash guard, tee shirts and beanie hat (but never trains). Or the guy who goes shopping with three folder knives and field rations stashed in his commando pants (but never trains). In other words the typical person who gets involved in protracted this vs that forum arguments!

I've yet to meet a decent exponent of either method who is so set in their views or who fails to recognise the strengths, weaknesses, compromises, purpose and goals in any training method.

In our latest DVD release on Close Quarter Combat I talk about some of the pitfalls of the sports approach in terms of "self defence". These are largely tactical / situational - in other words taking into account the surroundings, multiple attackers, possible use of weapons, etc. On the positive side sports arts provide a safe outlet to test skills trained in the gym.  Likewise the purely self defence approach can fall into the trap of never pressure testing training methods and relying purely on second or third hand experience.

I read a post lately that said Systema needed to "prove itself" in competition to become recognised as a viable art. Of course that statement fails to recognise the background of the art  - in fact even disregard it totally when pointed out.  A follow up point was  put forward that Special Forces training is in no way comparable to training for competition. It's an..... interesting..... view and one that, for me, points to the current cultural prevalance of MMA as the premier form of martial art entertainment. I don't doubt that a few years back the same thing would have been claimed for kung-fu, karate, ninjutsu, or whatever else was currently in vogue.

I also mention on the new DVD that we can become conditioned to expect a fight to look a certain way. In my day, if you asked someone to fight you could almost guarantee they would put their hands up in a boxing guard - even if they had never had a boxing lesson in their life. That was how men had a fight (and even some women!).  Today I'm guessing it may be different.  I've long said that martial arts are an expression of the culture they were formed in and that cultural influence may not be appropriate for another place or time. That applies to modern day as much as "traditional" styles. It's probably best to have no expectations about how a fight will go - you tend to get less surprises that way.

So this can be a downside to applying competition work outside of the ring - it may not be appropriate for the situation. And whatever anyone says, if you have trained intensively in something, it is likely to come out under pressure. We tend to go for something we feel confident with - so if my choke has worked well for me in training or competition that's probably what I'll go for in a fight. That is good if it is appropriate - and well trained sports guys will no doubt have strong technique. Some people say that a person would "obviously" understand the difference in situations, but that has not always been the case in my experience - I've seen a few examples of people struggling to shoe-horn in a technique oblivious to what  is going on around them, this clip shows one such example

I think it is more productive to frame this argument in terms of studying competition vs studying conflict. The former is the study of that moment of contact and what happens when one person tries to dominate or subude another through a prescribed series of movements or techniques. That is precisely what sports combat arts have been developed for and is both their strength and  weakness. Strength because training methods and techniques can be tested, refined, improved.  The weakness comes when good methods that don't "fit the box" are rejected.  For example one of our guys is currently in Thailand, he's had a few succesful matches. When he first started training at the camp he was using figure 8 strikes and was told "good power, but don't use!". We come back to that cultural influence again, or perhaps the fact that the crowd only want to see certain types of things in certain types of competition - and let's not forget that the fight game is about bums on seats as much as any other form of entertainment.

Study of conflict encompasses that moment of physical contact, but it is also much broader in scope. We deal with conflict every day, thankfully mostly at a small scale level. But it is conflict nonetheless, and for a balanced life we have to learn to negotiate, compromise, know when to be assertive and when to back down, understand body language, be mindful of different cultural values  and all the other things involved in human interaction. I recently saw a great quote in Alex Kozma's book Warrior Guards the Mountain from one of his teachers  "It is easier to be a monk...try and be married that is much more difficult!"

Understanding the dynamics of social and personal interaction is an important aspect of any true self defence training and is for me the defining factor in categorising an art as "sport" or "street". Competition ends only with a winner and a loser. Conflict ends with anything from death to both people shaking hands and making a deal. Conflict also encompasses co-operation, which is how we help and develop each other as part of a group.  This is important to bear in mind when training. People can blur the line between doing their  best and wanting to win all the time. The latter is not constructive in training. It's easy to win if you go outside the boundaries of a drill. We also have to bear in mind that co-operation doesn't mean letting what your partner does work all the time, but providing the right level of challenge for them. That may call for compliance to help a partner learn something particular or total non-compliance in order to help them gain understanding. There is no competition as such involved in either case, but a willingness to take part in a training process in which both parties can and should learn.

With the right mindset  competition can develop humility alongside skill. I guess the "dark side" of competition is that it can build ego and pride - both of which can be a liability in self defence situations.  If you think you are the best, it's important to remember that pride comes before a fall - and the bigger the pride, the greater the fall. I know a young man virtually destroyed after taking such a fall, I can only hope he learns from the experience, chooses the people around him with a little more care and can rebuild himself.

As I previously mentioned, the flipside of the coin is the person who occasionally trains a chin jab or eye gouge on their Bob dummy and lives a life of constant,  low-level paranoia. It may be the case that windpipe crushes and similar "deadly moves" are physically quite easy to do (after all, you can crush a beer can, right?). However in "real time" they are not so easy and, perhaps more tellingly, psychologically they are not easy at all for the average, well-balanced person.

In extreme cases the results of an overly "combative" outlook  can be as equally damaging as an unhealthy emphasis on  winning at any cost. Training has to be balanced with lifestlye, it needs to be fit for purpose. Training for a specific event is different from general training. No boxer trains the same way after a big fight as before it. The requirements of a soldier or similar professional are different to a civilian. It's not to say  that we can't dip into those training methods, we can, but at the same time recognising who and where we are and what we are training for.

The other aspect of competition rife on  forums is "X vs Y". This can be anything from "Wing Chun vs Karate" to "open hand vs closed fist" to anything you can think of.  These questions are generally so context-sensitive as to be nonsensical, but it is interesting to see  how some  people think in these black and white absolutist terms. I find it  a particularly adolescent mindset -  highlighting an overly competitive approach as opposed to a co-operative one  -  a mindset that I think is encouraged within certain parts of the martial arts industry. After all, it is much easier to sell a "winner" to the public than something more subtle and long term. Of course you need a supply of new "winners", which is why people and products (people as products?) are re-cycled and re-invented on a regular basis. Most of the good work in martial arts - or any other endeavour - takes place in small, quiet steps over weeks, months, years, with the occasional breakthrough. Competition can be a part of that process, if approached in a healthy way, particularly if people have little or no experience of fights.
So for me "competition" is just one aspect of  "conflict", which makes the whole this vs that a bit redundant. Anyone who thinks a well-trained MMA athlete would be an easy proposition is naive. Anyone who thinks a gang of hostile 15 year olds would be an easy proposition is naive. There are no easy answers and the only answers come through good training, learning from your own and other's experience, applying lessons learned, good old-fashioned common sense and knowing when to compete and when to co-operate.

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