From Combat to Sport: Origins and Development of the Martial Arts by Tim Cartmell

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Here is another article written by my teacher, Tim Cartmell.  It’s an excellent article that discusses the similarities and differences of combat vs sport, and how they are really two sides of the same coin.  In the Ground Dragon Martial Arts curriculum, we focus on both aspects because it affords us to train to be effective in applying our arts, while allowing safety to be instituted among our training partners.

This article looks at the origins of the martial arts in general and traces their evolution from methods geared toward all out combat to those which include sportive competition. Collectively, all of these arts are considered to be “martial” as they deal with methods of attack and defense in a hand to hand fighting situation. But the training methodologies and technique base of strictly combat arts and those of arts which also include a competitive dimension are often quite different. To begin with, it will be helpful to define the parameters of each. Combat arts are concerned with protecting one’s life at all costs. Fights are viewed as life or death struggles without rules or restrictions on technique. The primary motivation in combat is survival. Sportive arts include non-cooperative sparring practices and competitive matches between individuals.  The primary motivation in such contests is to defeat the opponent within a prescribed set of restrictive rules (these rules are normally designed to protect the participants from serious injury). Techniques considered to be too dangerous are forbidden and other protective measures (mats, gloves, padding…) are often employed.

Sportive martial arts training is designed to improve the fighter’s abilities by approximating a real fight situation, although in a restricted format. Competition allows the fighter to test his skills against another, while at the same time providing an outlet for Man’s inherently competitive nature. Combat martial arts training is designed to provide the combatant with the tools necessary for survival in unrestricted, life or death fights. Proponents of both camps maintain their respective training methods are superior for acquiring real fighting ability. Because of this dichotomy in training methods, a central debate often surfaces in which purely combat oriented stylists argue against incorporating non-cooperative sparring drills and sportive competitions while those stylists which include sparring and a sportive aspect maintain non-cooperative sparring and competition are essential if the practitioner is to acquire real fighting ability. Let’s look at the origins of both combat and sport martial art in turn.

Although ritualized forms of combat (most associated with religious functions) appear early on in recorded history, it generally holds true that all martial arts were originally created for the purposes of group and personal combat only. In addition, early “sportive” martial arts competitions differed very little from battlefield combat, often the only difference being the presence of an audience in the former. Famous examples of early martial sport competition which were basically all out fighting affairs (combats) are the pankration in ancient Greece (first appearing as an Olympic event in 648 BC) and the gladiatorial competitions of ancient Rome. In ancient China, sportive wrestling matches allowed striking, kicking and locking as well as throwing. It was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1276 AD) that wrestlers were forbidden to strike and kick their opponent during competition. Similar examples of organized martial competitions with few if any rules can be found in many of the other ancient cultures. In ancient times, the definition of martial “sport” competition could be defined as “combat before an audience.”

If we go back far enough into the history of modern martial arts which contain a sportive aspect, we invariably come to their non-sportive, combat roots. This holds true for the martial arts of both East and West. Popular, modern sport martial arts, including Greco-Roman wrestling, Sumo, modern Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling), sport karate, judo, and even modern forms of weapons competition (kendo, fencing) all trace their roots to purely combat arts. Western styles of wrestling originate in methods of close combat from the dawn of mankind. Sumo techniques are derived from ancient methods of combat wrestling while in armor (kumiuchi). Modern, sportive Chinese wrestling is a combination of Mongolian and Han Chinese methods, and originally contained striking, kicking and joint locking techniques. Modern forms of competitive Karate can trace their roots to older combat styles of Okinawa and Southern China. Judo is a compilation of earlier combat ju-jitsu styles (and, in fact, remains a complete combat art today, which includes striking and kicking as well as grappling techniques; the majority of practitioners, however, focus only on its sportive aspect in training). So, if all martial arts (including older, sport oriented martial arts) were originally combat methods, where did the schism between pure combat training and the types of training used in modern sport styles occur, and why? Sportive competition evolved from what can be termed the “controlled sparring practices” of the combat martial arts. Most of the ancient combat styles originally contained little if any non- cooperative sparring or competition. Techniques were trained cooperatively in a form or “Kata” format. At various points in the development of some of these arts, different types of sparring drills were developed in order to allow the combat martial artist a relatively safe method of honing his skills against a non-cooperative opponent. Early forms of sparring were aimed at improving combative skill, and although they were non-cooperative, they were not necessarily “competitive.” The goal of this type of training was to increase the chances of surviving an actual life or death encounter, and not to “win” the match per se. But the natural competitive tendencies inherent in human nature eventually demand an outlet, and combat sparring drills became martial sports competition. For warriors and soldiers, the ultimate test of martial skill is in the kill or be killed “competition” of battlefield combat. After months and years of training, warriors long to test their skill. When there are no wars to fight or enemies to kill, the combat trained fighter begins to modify technique in order to compete with others in a non-lethal format. Sport competitions becomes both a test of skill (although in a limited sense) and a safe outlet for aggressive competitive urges. Martial sports competition is born. The kinds of sport martial arts that evolved were limited by their parent combat arts (technical base) and the cultural milieu in which they were created. For example, a combat art based on grappling techniques will naturally evolve into a wrestling based sport. The type of costume popular at the time of the arts inception will also have a great influence on the rules of the sport (hence the use of the gi in judo, the mawashi belt in sumo, the jacket in shuai jiao…). Concerns for safety also require further modifications and the addition of protective gear (padding, gloves, mats…). Martial arts which seem to contain techniques irrelevant to actual combat situations in the modern world can be understood by analyzing them in the context of the time and culture in which they were created.

In modern times, what are the major differences in training between purely combat oriented styles and styles which include sportive competition? There are, of course, many similarities, but the major difference in training is the emphasis placed on forms or “kata” training (including solo and paired practice) and absence of competitive sparring in the combat oriented styles.  Obviously, if a technique is designed to be lethal it cannot be practiced “for real” on a workout partner. In the absence of sparring or non-cooperative drills, there are basically only two ways to develop martial skills, namely, through forms practice and cooperative training with a partner.

Forms are designed to allow the practitioner to develop the physical skill and coordination necessary for the application of techniques on another by going through the relevant motions in the air. Training with a partner in a cooperative manner allows the practitioner to actually go through the motions of a potentially lethal technique on another without causing injury. Such paired practice must always be cooperative to a great extent for safety reasons and blows must be “pulled”. Practitioners of the martial arts which train for sportive competition also drill techniques in the air (akin to form practice), but the heart of their training involves free sparring with a non-cooperative partner. Some of the modern derivatives of more ancient, purely combat styles which now include sportive competition will have aspects of both types of training, which are practiced separately. Judo, for example includes sportive, freestyle, non-cooperative sparring with techniques considered to be non-lethal, while reserving the practice of more dangerous techniques to paired, cooperative forms training. The modern form of Chinese “San Shou” (which is a combination of Western boxing, northern Chinese kicking techniques and the throws of Chinese wrestling), Tae Kwon Do, Russian Sambo and several styles of Japanese karate also have separate training methods for combat and sport. Finally, some older methods of combat martial art were modified into competitive sports so that they might survive into the modern world in some form. Modern Western fencing is one notable example. As no one in the modern world duels to the death with swords, older combat sword methods, although greatly limited in scope and application, have evolved into their modern sportive counterparts as their only means of surviving the transition into modern times.

What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of purely combat as opposed to competitive sport martial arts training? The most obvious strength of combat martial arts training is that its technique base contains techniques designed to save the fighter’s life in mortal combat.  Techniques are not concerned with scoring points but with incapacitating an opponent as quickly as possible. Another advantage of combat training is that the technique base is generally (but not always) more well-rounded than that of sportive martial arts. This is because sports have rules, so sport martial artists train to fight within certain boundaries. In actual combat, there are no rules, so the more developed combat arts normally include techniques for dealing with the range of situations likely to occur in a real fight. The techniques of combat martial arts will not be limited to certain areas of the body nor will they rely on using the opponent’s costume. Combat martial arts techniques are often designed to take advantage of the “element of surprise” which is absent from sports competition.  The disadvantages of training in purely combat oriented techniques is that these techniques can never be practiced as they would “for real” (an important exception is throwing and grappling techniques, most of which can be performed as they would in an actual fight, provided the falling partner knows how to breakfall and lands on a soft surface). Potentially lethal striking techniques must always be controlled for reasons of safety. Consequently, techniques of this type must be practiced on cooperative partners. Ultimately, the practitioners of purely combat oriented arts (especially if they have limited real fighting experience) may be at a loss when confronted by a determined opponent who fights back. Absence of experience against non-cooperative opponents often leads to a lack of spontaneity when techniques miss or are met with resistance. Finally, practitioners of arts which do not include sparring are are often unfamiliar with the experience of being struck or taken down unexpectedly, or of dealing with a tremendous aggressive force.

Originally, the controlled sparring practices of combat based martial arts were designed to address the very weaknesses in training listed above. The sport martial artist spends a great deal of time learning to apply his or her techniques against a non-cooperative opponent (who is also a trained martial artist). Sparring becomes a “laboratory” in which practitioners test their abilities.  Those who spar, through trial and error, discover which techniques work for them and the best ways to set up and execute their techniques against an opponent who is fighting back. These fighters become used to physical contact, real aggression and learn to deal with the rapidly changing circumstances which occur in a fight. To the practitioners of sportive martial arts, sparring and competition are viewed as a relatively safe means of developing the attributes useful in a real fight.

The major weakness of sport oriented martial training is that by necessity, the technique base must be limited. Certain target area and techniques must be excluded for safety reasons. Even in those arts with a sportive aspect which include separate training methods for potentially lethal combat techniques, very often the practitioners tend to over focus on the sportive competition (as it seems more relevant to the training, there are frequent chances to participate in sports competition while street fights rarely, if ever occur) and neglect the formal combat training aspects of their art. Sportive arts which allow striking, although allowing the fighters to exchange full power blows, are limited in target area, and may train the competitors to base their combinations on unrealistic reactions. And the necessary addition of gloves and/or protective padding may result in unrealistic reactions to being struck. In addition, practitioner may begin to focus on “scoring points” at the expense of realistic technique (techniques which score points in competition may be inadequate to incapacitate or control an opponent in a life or death fight).  Finally, if the sparring practice requires a special environment (mats, a ring…), clothing or equipment (a gi, padding, gloves…), the fighter may be at a loss when fighting in an unfamiliar (street) environment in street clothes.

The essential point is not to criticize particular methods of training nor make value judgments based on isolated strengths and weaknesses, but rather to look at the various martial arts and their training methodologies from a broader perspective. It is important to understand the origins of the various arts and the logic behind their respective methods of training and techniques. From here, the martial artist can make an informed decision as to which methods of training will help them achieve their individual goals. The more well-rounded and experienced fighter will always have a decided advantage over the less well rounded and less experienced fighter. Once you

understand why and how you train, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various techniques and training methods available, you will be able to design the most relevant and efficient training program for your individual needs as a martial artist.


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