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New article by Matt Galas, "On the value of tournaments"
« skrivet: 2010-08-26, 09:57:51 »
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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.









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    <li>Questions about the legitimacy of tournaments
    </li>
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    <li>Doubts about the usefulness and functions of tournament</li>
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    <li>A perception that the fighting in tournaments is not high quality</li>
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    <li>Discomfort with the ego-related issues inherent in tournaments</li>
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    <li>Concern that tournaments will encourage a sports mentality, rather than a proper martial attitude</li>
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    <li>Concern that contestants will be more concerned with gaming the rules and winning than in showing proper technique</li>
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    <li>Concern that tournament formats/rules will either warp or discourage proper technique</li>
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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 c



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.

<u>Tournaments Provide the Best Form of Pressure-Testing Available</u>

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.  

<u>Tournament Fighting is an Excellent Reality Check</u>

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.

<u>On the Perception that Tournament Fighting is of Poor Quality</u>

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.

<u>On Ego-Related Issues</u>

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.

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

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.")

<u>On the Concern that Tournament Formats or Rules will Warp or Discourage Proper Technique</u>

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.

<u>Reputation Issues Associated with Tournaments</u>

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.

<u>Conclusion</u>

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.

Regards,

- Matt
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Matt Galas
Mons, Belgium"