Författare Ämne: "On the value of tournaments" av Matt Galas  (läst 9436 gånger)

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"On the value of tournaments" av Matt Galas
« skrivet: 2010-08-25, 13:32:24 »
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It's no secret that a number of us in the WMA/HEMA community are  actively working on rule-sets for tournaments. In recent threads on this  subject (both on US and European sites), I've noticed that there is a  certain subset of our community that has a visceral reaction to the idea  of tournaments. The common objections tend to be the following:

  • Questions about the legitimacy of tournaments

  • Doubts about the usefulness and functions of tournaments

  • A perception that the fighting in tournaments is not high quality

  • Discomfort with the ego-related issues inherent in tournaments

  • Concern that tournaments will encourage a sports mentality, rather than a proper martial attitude

  • Concern that contestants will be more concerned with gaming the rules and winning than in showing proper technique

  • Concern that tournament formats/rules will either warp or discourage proper technique

The goal of this thread is to explore these concerns, as well as to  present the positive side of tournaments. While I am a strong believer  in the value of tournaments, I am also sympathetic to the concerns  listed above, and share some of them. Also, I have close friends on both  sides of the divide.

By way of disclosure, I do have a strong background in both sport  fencing (university teams in foil and sabre) and kendo (regular  participant in tournaments during college). Despite this, I do not  consider myself to be "sports-oriented".  On the contrary, I am an  advocate for tournaments because I am convinced that they add value to  the practice of the Historical European Martial Arts. My reasons for  this are outlined below.

Tournaments are an Integral Part of the European Martial Tradition

I sometimes hear doubts expressed about the legitimacy of tournaments as  an element of the Historical European Martial Arts. I find this  surprising, since the very word "tournament" is an outgrowth of a French  martial tradition which spread to every European country. Competitions  of various sorts were integral to the historical martial arts, from the  very beginning onward:  Wrestling, boxing, and pancration at the Olympic  games in Greece; the Roman gladiatorial games; knightly tournaments;  the pas d'armes of France and Burgundy; the knightly Kolbenturnier and bourgeois Fechtschule competitions  of Germany; the longsword and rapier tournaments of the Belgian fencing  guilds; prize-playing all across Europe; English singlestick matches;  Breton and Cornish wrestling contests...  The list goes on and on.

The ubiquitous nature of tournaments and similar competitions in the  Western martial tradition amounts, in part, to an implicit  acknowledgement of their martial value by the warrior classes of Europe.  Competitive fighting was used by the very fighters whose historical  example we are attempting to emulate. Tournaments have always had their  share of detractors, but they have also been a part of every European  martial tradition. Thus, their legitimacy as an element of the practice  of WMA/HEMA cannot be called into question.

Tournaments Provide the Best Form of Pressure-Testing Available

The primary goal of the WMA/HEMA community is to revive the traditional  fighting arts of Europe, based on surviving manuals of fence. As we have  seen over time, this results in a host of competing interpretations of  historical fencing technique.  Ultimately, the touchstone for any  interpretation must be the following:  Can you carry it out under  pressure against an unfamiliar, uncooperative opponent?  Anyone who is  truly dedicated to this pursuit must, at some point, apply this  touchstone to his interpretation.  (Credit for this "touchstone" goes to  Scott Brown; the idea is not my own.)  Tournaments provide the best  venue for doing this.

On a more personal level, it's also natural for a swordsman to want to  test his own skills under pressure. Sparring and free play are fine, but  only go so far: The opponent is often a regular training partner, with  familiar movement patterns and a level of trust resulting from previous  interactions. Sparring with unfamiliar opponents is better, but there is  still a choice of partner involved, giving the swordsman a degree of  control over the terms of the encounter.

The fact is, free play is simply not the same as fighting in a public  competition. The level of adrenaline, effort, and concentration goes way  up in a tournament. One reason is the presence of a large audience;  another is the fact that the fighter's performance is being measured by  unfamiliar judges according to pre-set criteria; yet another is the fact  that the opponents are generally strangers, typically chosen at random.  Finally, social pressures (potential loss of face or reputation) also  play a role in increasing the stress of tournament fighting.

Plenty of research has been done in recent years regarding the  physiological and psychological effects of combat stress. (For a great  discussion, read Dave Grossman's book, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.)   This research makes clear that combat stress has a big impact on our  ability to perform complex physical actions, such as the techniques that  we study in historical manuals of fence. In my view, exposure to the  pressure of tournaments is invaluable for learning how we react under  stress. In turn, that tells us how likely it is that we will be able to  carry out a particular technique in a real fight. While I don't pretend  that tournaments fully replicate the stress of real combat, or that they  accurately replicate a real fight, they do provide the closest  approximation that we are capable of within acceptable bounds of safety.  

This same body of research suggests that regular exposure to combat  stress teaches us how to deal with it effectively. A swordsman who is  accustomed to the stress of tournament fighting will thus become  "immunized" to some extent. He will be able to go about the business of  fighting more effectively, and will be less affected by the disturbing  effect of adrenaline on his body.  For those who truly desire to know if  their skills are functional, shunning tournaments amounts to a decision  to forego the best pressure-testing tool available.  

Tournament Fighting is an Excellent Reality Check

Tournament fighting represents a healthy dose of reality for most  people. A fighter's own perception of how he behaves while fencing is  often highly subjective. At worst, his opinion of himself may amount to  pure fantasy. The objective nature of tournament fighting (evaluated by  third parties, according to pre-set criteria) forces a reality check on  the fighter. This is particularly the case when bouts are videotaped, as  is commonly the case in today's tournament scene. There is real value  in this, since it disabuses the fighter of false notions about his  technique. It also gives him a much clearer idea of what is (and is not)  possible when fighting at full speed. This reality check is  particularly important for instructors, who bear the responsibility of  passing on martially-sound technique to their students.

Viewed in this light, tournaments can be a very humbling experience.  At  my first kendo tournament (age 17), I had my ass handed to me by a  14-year old who barely came up to my shoulder. At the same tournament,  one of my fellow club-members (with macho tendencies) was thoroughly  trounced by a smaller female opponent. We were both crushed by the  experience, but went back to train with much greater focus. Not only did  the tournament serve as a reality check for us, but the sharp blow to  our egos gave us the spur we needed to improve ourselves. This is not an  isolated experience; such tales are commonplace among tournament  fighters.

It has become common practice is to video all fights during a  tournament, then to post them online, such as on YouTube. This has a  positive effect, in that it allows other members of community to see  compare themselves to the fighters, serving as yet another form of  reality check. It also serves as a visual record of the overall trends  and quality of fencing in our community. This will allow the collective  progress of the community to be measured over time.

On the Perception that Tournament Fighting is of Poor Quality

As mentioned above, combat stress (real or simulated) generally has a  negative effect on physical performance. Thus, it should be no surprise  that the fighting we see in tournaments is often not as graceful or  smooth as the fighting we see when watching free play in a relaxed club  environment. As the level of tension increases, the fighters strike  harder, move faster, and are extremely focused on their opponent's  movements. This nervous tension is clearly reflected in the fighter's  movement patterns, and it is not uncommon to see actions that sometimes  look almost convulsive in nature. Pretty?  Not at all. More  representative of a real fight than free play in a fencing salle?   Absolutely.

For many spectators, especially those who hold a strong vision of what  they believe is "proper fencing" (a large percentage of our community),  tournament fighting strikes them as a crude, unworthy expression of  their art.  But let's face it: Brute force plays a role in any form of  fighting. Although we should not encourage it, we must also be cautious  about unduly penalizing it.  Good fencing technique is a way of  countering brute force, and making up for differences in size and  strength. If we create an artificial environment where those natural  attributes play no role, that will result in true "sportification" of  our art, and deprive it of martial value entirely.

The raw, ugly reality of much tournament fighting is apparent not only  to the spectators, but also to the fighters themselves. The stress of  combat (real or simulated) is inherently unpleasant. Many people have  severe negative reactions to combat stress (e.g. Post Traumatic Stress  Disorder). Likewise, many people have lesser, but still negative  reactions to the stress of tournament fighting, which is often much  faster, harder, and more intense than they are used to. This can make  the first exposure to tournament fighting a disappointing and unpleasant  experience. Some fencers who take part in tournaments are so  discouraged by their performance that they decide competition is not for  them, and never go back.

And yet, some tournament fighters are clearly able to carry out  martially-sound technique under pressure. Yes, many fights in a  tournament will inevitably involve a certain amount of ugly,  force-on-force violence. But every tournament will also include sublime  moments when fighters rise to the occasion, and make sophisticated use  of timing, distance, and technique to convincingly defeat their  opponents. In my view, those moments are becoming more and more  frequent. By instituting the right rule-sets (in particular, rules that  discourage or even penalize double-hits), I am convinced that we have  the ability to shape the behavior of fighters in the right direction,  towards good swordsmanship and away from unthinking, convulsive bashing.  

Moreover, the high level of competition involved in tournaments forces  fighters to think about their opponent's tactics, and how to counter  them. This is precisely how technique must have developed in the  historical context  -- through a feed-back loop of experience,  observation, analysis, and further experiment. I am convinced that as  the level of fencing at our tournaments increases, so too will the level  of thought and analysis required to defeat the best fighters. This will  lead competitors to look to the best source of technical solutions that  we have:  The historical fencing manuals which we all study.

On Ego-Related Issues

Some critics of tournaments are put off by ego-related issues. There is  no doubt that ego becomes involved in tournaments.  For the winner,  there is an ego boost, and the opportunity to brag; for the loser, there  is the potential shame and humiliation of defeat. This is unavoidable  in any endeavor that distinguishes between winners and losers. While  some are uncomfortable with this aspect of tournaments, there is value  to be found here as well.

Also, let's remember that not all tournament fighters are motivated by  ego; many take part with a humble spirit, and readily accept the  outcome, good or bad. In this regard, tournament fighting is a  character-building experience. It is also instructive for others, who  get to see the full range of human character -- both the ego-driven  fighter and his opposite.

The speed, violence, and physicality of tournament fighting can be  off-putting for some competitors. Yet for those who do go back, there is  the great benefit that comes from learning how to cope with the  heightened stress levels inherent in a competitive environment. Once  they learn how to function effectively in that stressful environment,  there is a great sense of pride that comes from being able to master  one's emotion and adrenaline and successfully carry out martial  technique under pressure. This is especially the case when a fighter can  manage to do this consistently enough to win the tournament.  

Is this ego-stroking?  To some extent, I suppose. But putting it in  those terms sounds a bit like sour grapes. Viewed from a different  perspective, what is wrong with pride in hard-won accomplishments?   Fighting is inherently a contest of egos. To deny this is to reject the  fundamental nature of combat. Generations of generals and warriors have  commented on the importance of fighting spirit in combat; a healthy ego  is an important part of this.

Our community is a "big tent" with room for different approaches. But it  definitely needs to have outlets for people's natural drives. These  include the drive to compete; the desire for attention; and the desire  for recognition of one's accompishments. Creating a controlled  environment where those drives can be expressed in a positive manner  will help our community to grow, and will make it more rounded and  complete.

Let's face it, many people are attracted to our community because they  want to learn how to "sword fight."  If we ignore or repress that  desire, those people will simply go elsewhere. On the contrary, we  should recognize this urge and channel it.  Creating a system where  winners are publicly recognized will encourage others to emulate their  performance. It also creates role models, whose skill and  accomplishments will serve as an inspiration for others.

Sports Mentality vs. Proper Martial Attitude, and the Concern that Fighters will "Game the Rules"

Maestro Sean Hayes recently posted a comment relevant to this topic.  Watching a sport-fencing tournament, he commented that a particular  technique would not have worked with sharp swords. His fellow spectator  responded along the lines of, "Who cares? This is just a game."  The  evolution of this kind of "sports mentality" is generally repulsive to  the WMA/HEMA community, and is something we clearly need to avoid. One  way of doing this is to ensure that those involved in developing  tournament rule-sets are clearly focused on their goals. Statement of  those goals thus becomes critical, since it affects the end-state we  strive for. High among those goals must be an explicit statement that we  seek to encourage the use of historical technique; to reward the use of  skill as opposed to brute force; and to reduce artificiality to the  extent compatible with safety and accurate judging.  

One major concern that I have heard voiced, and which I share, is that  contestants may become so interested in winning that they focus more on  gaming the rules than on fighting with good technique. I have helped  stage tournaments in the past where this was clearly evident. For  example, one tournament rule-set used weighted scoring for different  targets; the head was worth 3 points, the arm worth 1 point. (This rule  set is historical in nature, and is described in Manciolino's manual of  fence from 1531.) Fighters quickly began using their left arms to block  head-blows, a sensible thing to do under the rules in question. The  solution?  Creation of a new rule, to the effect that covering the  target with the arm made it of the same value as the head.

The key lesson here is that great attention must be paid to constructing  rule-sets that are well-thought out, and which contain safeguards  designed to minimize such gaming. Any rule-set will contain compromises,  whether for the sake of safety, for ease of administration, or for  other reasons. Thus, no rule-set will be perfect; but by clearly  focusing on the goals to be attained, and the evils to be avoided, the  ability of fencers to game the rules can be reduced to a minimum.

Another example of this are rules dealing with double-hits. Certain  rule-sets create the possibility of using double-hits to the fencer's  advantage, such as the rules for the epee in modern sport fencing. By  rejecting such rules, and adopting other models which discourage and  even penalize double hits, the behavior of fencers can be shaped,  pushing them in the direction of good swordsmanship. (For a thorough  discussion of this subject, see the recent thread, "The Problem of the  Double Hit.")

On the Concern that Tournament Formats or Rules will Warp or Discourage Proper Technique

A friend of mine once visited a kendo club in Los Angeles. During the  evening's practice, one of the senior students instructed him not to  parry a blow to his side, but instead to cover the target with his  elbow, since the arm was off-target under kendo rules.  This anecdote is  a classic example of how a sportive mentality can lead to "technique"  that makes sense under the rules, but which is antithetical to notions  of good swordsmanship. The familiar use of the "flick" in modern sport  fencing is another example of this.

Certainly, this is an area that needs to be watched, and careful  attention paid to the effect of weapon simulators, rule-sets, and even  attitudes.  A weapon simulator that is flexible and whippy (like a  fencer's foil) could lead to the intentional use of "flicks", and will  force much wider parries by the defender; neither of these would be  desirable with real swords. Rule-sets that create no penalty for double  hits will create a mind-set that these are acceptable and to be ignored  (an idea which should be repulsive to any swordsman). An attitude that  "this is just a game" as opposed to "this represents an encounter with  sharps" is also of major concern, and needs to be vigilantly guarded  against. This concern does not apply just to tournaments, but applies to  free-play as well.

However, this problem is not insurmountable. The most important thing is  to recognize that rule-sets have the effect of shaping the fighters'  behavior. By tailoring the rules, effects can be created or eliminated.  (Although there are often unintended side-effects that must be guarded  against.)  With this understanding, and a clear idea of what we want to  achieve, rule-sets that warp technique can be recognized and corrected.

For example, one item of concern is the excessive use of one-handed  blows with the longsword. This type of attack is historically documented  in many traditions (examples can be found in Fiore, Talhoffer, Wilhalm,  Di Grassi, and Silver). However, in a tournament environment, there is a  temptation to over-rely on this technique, because it works well, and  gives the fencer a great reach advantage. The danger is that this  technique could end up being over-represented in tournament play,  creating a type of fencing that is unrepresentative of traditional  longsword fencing (as currently understood). Yet with the proper  attention to rule-sets (in particular, the adoption of the "after-blow"  concept taken from the Franco-Belgian guild rules), this tendency is  slowing down, and the one-handed blow becomes a much less attractive  tactical option.

Bottom line: This is a legitimate concern, but with a clear eye on our  goals (e.g., to create a rule-set that reduces artificiality to the  extent compatible with safety and accurate judging, and to encourage the  use of historical technique), it is a danger which can be guarded  against.

Reputation Issues Associated with Tournaments

One sensitive issue connected with tournaments is the pressure it puts  on those in leadership positions. For instructors, it is an implicit  challenge to practice what they preach. It is easy for an instructor to  demonstrate technique in a controlled environment, with a cooperative  training partner. It is quite another thing to demonstrate those skills  under pressure, in public, against an unfamiliar opponent. This puts a  lot of stress on instructors, who may worry about issues such as  potential loss of face among their peers, damage to their reputation in  the community, and the possible undermining of their authority with  their students. These concerns are understandable, particularly for  professional instructors who make this their livelihood.

Yet, this is an area where I believe instructors have an obligation to  the community as a whole. If we are going to argue for interpretations  of historical technique, we owe it to the community to test our theories  under pressure. If we are going to pass on technique to our students,  and represent it as martially sound, we owe it to them to apply the  touchstone described above: Can you pull it off under pressure, against  an unfamiliar, uncooperative opponent?  

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to demonstrate our  personal skills in public. In the absence of instructor certifications  for WMA/HEMA (which are unlikely to be agreed upon anytime soon), this  is one of the few ways we have of confirming an instructor's skill as a  fighter. This includes confirmation that the instructor has a solid  grasp of key elements of fighting, such as timing, distance management,  body mechanics, and the like.


In closing, I believe that developing a sportive side to our art, with a  tournament format that favors skilled fighting and the use of  historical technique, is going to be critical to the growth of our  community in the near future. I don't believe this is too hard to  achieve; the only real issues are the best choice of weapon simulator,  defining the requisite protective gear, and drafting the right rule  sets.  I think real progress is being made in all those directions.


- Matt

Matt Galas
Mons, Belgium"
"When in doubt, escalate beyond all reasonable expectations."

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Re: "On the value of tournaments" av Matt Galas
« Svar #1 skrivet: 2010-08-26, 23:13:20 »
Mkt bra sagt. Det känns som att han upprepar sig ofta, men det är mer hans retorik jag kritiserar då och inte hans argument. Välstrukturerad och lättläst artikel som visar på båda sidor av debatten. Tävlingar är absolut här för att stanna och en viktig del av utvecklingen för HEMA.

Det känns väldigt bra att GHFS bidrar till den här kulturen på ett så positivt sätt. Då menar jag inte bara att föreningen har flera medlemmar som presterar bra i turneringar, utan framförallt att vi stödjer tävlingarna genom att delta och även genom att vara arrangörer. Känns bra.

Fy vad sugen jag är på att vara med på SFs turnering. Kommer få så mkt stryk bara.... :P

Tack Axel för att du postade artikeln här!
//Niklas Mårdby
"And know that all grace and skill comes from wrestling and all fencing comes basically from the wrestling" - 86R, Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a)