As part of my current grading I have to compose written answers to a series of questions. Unsurprisingy I've written too much. I thought I'd share my answers here over the next few weeks. This first essay address the importance of competetive fighting to skills development.
The American novelist Norman Mailer often wrote about the sport of boxing, which he covered professionally for magazines such as Esquire and Playboy, and which he practised as an amateur at a gym near his home in New York. Mailer was a bad boxer, but a mean and determined fighter. He thought deeply about the sport and why ancient combat arts persisted in a civilised society. Of sparring he once wrote that stepping into a boxing ring evoked two of the greatest fears men could know. The very obvious fear of being hit and hurt, but also the much less obvious and unacknowledged fear of hitting and hurting others.
Most of us live for the most part in this very civilised world. Children are taught from a young age to ‘keep their hands to themselves’ and ‘not to hit others’. It is a truism almost never questioned that ‘violence never solves anything’. To argue otherwise with a normal, well meaning person is to risk being thought of as a brute.
But of course violence can and does frequently ‘solve’ a very particular type of problem; the threat of aggression and violence arising from the actions of others. Their aggression can come from any number of sources, but ultimately it presents a problem to be solved by the target and potential victim of any attack.
To train in any fighting art is to accept this unpleasant truth.
Of course not all combat arts double as fighting sports. Some like Krav Maga are purely focussed on practical self defence. Others, like certain schools of aikido are as much philosophical pursuits of balance and flow in all areas of life as they are physical disciplines. Jujitsu shares with arts such as karate and boxing, a dual nature. Tracing its origins to the battlefields of medieval Japan, jujitsu offeres simple, practical and undeniably brutal answers to enemies who are presumed to be better armed, armoured and attacking with lethal intent. This raises legal and ethical problems. It is not simply that these particular techniques have no place in a sporting context. They are not suitable for use in any encounter, anywhere, other than a genuinely life threatening assault. And yet, the modern history of mixed martial arts tournaments, which has grown from an experimental oddity on an obscure Pay TV service, to a massive multibillion global industry, is a story of sports jujitsu winning out over other, better known and more popular striking arts. The adaptation of those earlier battle-tested techniques into less dangerous, non lethal and non-crippling waza, provided MMA fighters with an arsenal of throws, holds, strangles, chokes and generalised grappling methods that the demands of competition forced them to learn and perfect.
Jujitsu proved itself a crucial skill in battle. It has evolved into a crucial skillset in competitive fighting.
What then does fighting for sport offer the jujitsu practitioner? It is possible after all to progress through the ranks and never to fight competitively. Nonetheless a requirement of grading to shodan is to demonstrate at a minimum some skill and capacity in sparring.
There are, naturally, benefits.
Some are immediately apparent as soon as the supervising instructor calls hajime during a bout.
For instance, in training a good uke is compliant, especially at the lower belt ranks. (This also marks them as a smart uke, because flowing with the energy of the technique means that the applied force does not suddenly increase to a point of critical failure, such as a broken wrist from kote gaeshi). An opponent in a street confrontation, however, is not going to be compliant. Not at first, anyway. They will resist. They will move. They will counterattack. They will alter the line, the nature and intensity of their attack and defence as the confrontation evolves.
To fight competitively is to experience a noncompliant adversary in one of the most extreme ways possible without actually walking into a bar and picking a fight. Organised tournaments provide this intensity at a very high level, but simple dojo sparring and ground fighting can be immensely valuable too.
To fight a resisting opponent, especially one with some skill, is to learn quickly that the elegant, machine tooled technique you polished to a high sheen in practice, fails more often than it succeeds in a live confrontation. No plan survives contact with the enemy, as the military aphorism goes.
But to fight a resisting opponent under competition rules is also to learn that plans evolve. As do contests between fighters. If one plan fails, if one or two or three moves do nothing, you haven’t ‘lost’. You’re still fighting.
Eventually all students of the art learn that even in the controlled chaos of a sparring round or a ground fight, there can be time and space enough to plan and strategise. There can even be opportunities to slow the pace of the contest long enough to recover your breath, your balance, your ability to think and deploy another technique or string of techniques that might have more chance of success.
When facing an opponent in an open competition, the traditional jujitsu fighter will also learn to draw on the uncommonly broad range of skills learned in his or her art as opposed to, say, a striking art such as Tae Kwan Do, or a school more determinedly focussed on coming to grips, such as Judo or even Brazilian jujitsu. Competition thus teaches the jujitsu student to hone and select those techniques best adapted to counter the strengths of a particular opponent. In the same way that we do not answer hard, linear attacks with even harder linear responses, we do not trade punches with the boxer, or kicks with the karateka.
While this psychological battle rages, the student also learns that they will not die or collapse from shock the first time somebody hits or even hurts them. One of the benefits of having an autonomic nervous system that triggers a flight-or-flight reflex in a confrontation, is that the human body has evolved physical and biochemical responses to assist survival under duress.
Flooded with hormones and neurotransmitters, the body experiences, among other symptoms, accelerated heart rate, the inhibition of digestion, which can be experienced as ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or even nausea, the paling or flushing of the skin, the constriction of blood vessels, the drying of the mouth, the dumping of metabolic energy sources for fast muscular action, the flooding of major muscle groups with blood and oxygen, loss of hearing, tunnel vision and more. These responses can be so acute as to incapacitate somebody who is unfamiliar with them—after all, we do live in a civilised society—or unprepared to deal with them. In mild forms, most people would recognise these symptoms as nervousness or anxiety. In severe instances they manifest as physical terror.
Sparring for the first time will occasion anxiety. Probably many times afterward too. But eventually the student adapts. Fighting competitively also elicits autonomic alarm. But again, in time the body habituates.
As much as there are practical benefits to honing and polishing particular skillsets in supervised fighting, there are these psychological and emotional advantages to be had as well. Returning to Mailer, one of the principle, unrecognised virtues might well be teaching the new student that under certain circumstances it is actually all right to hit someone.