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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In Which I Speculate Wildly About Ideas That Have No Basis In Research

In case it isn't clear from the title, I want to make something abundantly clear about this post.

This is me thinking aloud. I have done zero research to determine if these ideas have any historical validity or not. I may at some point. I may not. But the idea struck me, and I figured I'd throw it out there.


I use my car as a mobile university (to borrow a phrase from Tony Blauer); while I occasionally listen to the radio, the vast majority of the time, I'm listening to something educational. More often than not, I'm listening to something from The Teaching Company, mostly because my father tends to get stuff from them, and I steal things when I visit him. I recently finished a course on Medieval History by Professor Dorsey Armstrong, a portion of which was devoted to the subject of Medieval culinary practices. A subject that I don't usually find very interesting (apologies to those friends who do), but in this case, something she said sparked my interested.

Apparently, one of the challenges of studying Medieval culinary practices is that, because of a combination of low literacy levels and the high cost and effort required to write anything down, most of the surviving recipes we have are not representative of a typical meal. Even in the wealthier households, the recipes that were recorded were not those that were used on a daily basis, but were instead the ones that were used rarely enough that someone might actually have to read them. For daily use...well, it was daily use. You just knew how to do something because you did it every day.

Because my brain works in weird ways, I drew a connection to some martial arts practices.

For those who don't know: one of the great on-going arguments of the martial arts/self-defense revolves around the value of sparring or dynamic drilling. Practitioners of combat sports (boxing, Muay Thai, Judo, etc.) often argue that sparring is the crucible in which your skills are tested. That without sparring, you have no idea if what you're doing will actually work.

On the other side, you have those systems (often, to my eternal annoyances, labeled as "traditional") which eschew any sort of sparring or dynamic drilling. They contend that fighting in self-defense or on the battlefield bears little, if any, resemblance to sparring and further contend that the techniques they teach for self-defense are so dangerous and harmful as to be unusable in "friendly" competition.

My purpose here is not to rehash what is a very tired argument, but to offer a hypothesis.

What if the reason these arts lack sparring is because the sparring was being done somewhere else, but was so common, no one bothered to record it?

Stay with me for a minute here.

Almost every culture on the planet has developed some kind of combat sport. Wrestling sports are particularly common, probably because before the advent of protective gear, wrestling is one of the safest ways to engage in mock combat with someone. Yes, you can break things or get things twisted, but by and large, it seems safer than trying to concuss each other for fun. In many cultures, wrestling (in some form) is what just about all males do. It's just a game everyone plays.

So let's imagine a hypothetical culture where this is the case. You have a bunch of males (sorry ladies, but you usually get the short end of the combative stick, historically), who wrestle on a regular basis from the time they are children until about the time they get married. Maybe longer.

At some point, these kids, who have been wrestling their whole lives, reach an age where they need to be able to defend the village. So the older men of the village get together and show them the nasty stuff; here's how you break a man's arm. Here's how you gouge out his eye. And so on. Of course, this is all taught with the caveat that you should not, under any circumstances, do this at the next friendly village tournament. Use this stuff on the enemy, not on each other.

So you have a bunch of kids with a solid body of experience moving bodies in a dynamic fashion who are now just applying some nasty tweaks to their game.

Then an outsider comes along. Not an enemy outsider, but someone from so far away that he's barely on the tribal radar. But he's heard these guys are monsters on the battlefield, and wants to learn their lethal techniques. So they show him how to break arms, and gouge eyes, and all that other fun stuff. And, they say, don't ever, ever, every spar with this stuff. That's crazy. You can't do that.

So the guy leaves, and goes and starts teaching back in his homeland far away, and diligently explains to his students that, no, we never spar. This art is too dangerous for sparring. But he's never wrestled. None of his students have ever wrestled. And so, one day, one of them tries to apply the skills in a fight...and has no experience with a dynamic environment. They can't make it work.

And thus the great "sparring sucks, sparring is all" debates ensue.

What if all these non-sparring systems were built on an assuming of prior skill? Skill that came from other activities, other fights, that, because they were considered something separate, weren't even thought of as being part of the training. Hell, the people teaching the systems might not have even realized or considered the connection. If everyone does something, it doesn't seem remarkable. You might just assume the outsider does it, even though he doesn't...

Like I said, no historical research. This is pure woolgathering. The only salient example I can think of is some of the WWII combatives programs, which were assumed to be taught in concert with boxing and wrestling. Even that question I haven't delved to deeply into. Maybe I should...


Neil Bednar said...

Interesting line of thought. I was always under the assumption from books and other sources that Okinawans and karate (for example) didn't begin "sparring" or free kumite as we know it today until relatively recently. However, I would bet good money that the Okinawans of old probably ran into more fight for your life situations than your average office worker does today in America. I wonder if there WAS some unspoken "skill" they had, as you said, but not necessarily sparring.....

Jake said...

I've got one source that's suggested the Okinawans specifically had a strong wrestling tradition. Need to do more follow up...