Fighting or Playing -
The Martial Art vs. Sport Debate
By Neil Ohlenkamp
Many people think of Judo and Taekwondo as sports because they are included
along with other major sports in Olympic competition. Boxing, wrestling,
Judo, taekwondo, and kickboxing are examples of martial sports.
I often hear martial artists use the term "sport" as if referring
to a game with no usefulness. The implication is that a sport is only
for "play" and cannot be effective for self-defense, fighting
or combat. Many martial artists think that the distinction between sport
and martial art is that martial artists train for real life.
Actually the distinction is more complex and rather surprising. In discussing
it I will make generalizations that may not apply to the way you train
in your sport or martial art. However, I hope to give you a new way to
look at the potential value of sports principles for martial arts training.
One of the primary differences between martial sports and arts is in
their training methods. Many arts alter their traing to avoid danger and
subsitute artifical or even counter training methods. They "Pull"
techniques (stopping them just before contact), limit targets and add
precaustionary movements. These can inhibit natural action and the change
the ultimate conclusion of a technique.
Typifying this approach is a student who equates the ability to break
boards with the ability to punch a person in the face. As another example,
I have never seen realistic training in throat strikes or eye gouges in
any martial arts class, even though these are often taught for self-defense.
The teaching generally done for these techniques helps students to understand
what to do, but does not provide effective results for fast, reflexive
and accurate application of these techniques against an unwilling opponent
in real life combat.
Sport, by removing the lethality, achieves the opposite. That is, sport
more typically produces natural, fast, reflexive movement with full power
application, achieving a result against a struggling opponent who is also
utilizing full power while engaging in strategic and tactical resistance
using all of his or her resources and training. Techniques that don't
work are soon abandoned, and successful skills are honed against different
attackers under a variety of conditions. Maintaining control in various
combat situations, both in attack and defense, is difficult when faced
with the unpredictable nature of an opponent's efforts, but facing these
situations in contest prepares you for similar situations. Each opponent
in competition is operating at the limit of physical and psychological
skill. By pushing that limit contestants are continually realizing and
expanding their potential.
"Ironically, martial sports may provide
the superior training in effective combat techniques because martial
arts can't be practiced in a real life way without injury."
Sometimes the "combat" arts substitute intellectual perception,
a highly subjective and deceptive frame of reference, for genuine training
of the body and mind. Some martial arts don't train effectively for self-defense
and combat because they can't train for combat without severe risk to
training partners. So many martial arts have instead adopted highly stylized,
ritualistic, and even dysfunctional training methods. Ironically, martial
sports may provide the superior training in effective combat techniques
because martial arts can't be practiced in a real life way without injury.
In martial sports, one purpose of competition is to take the place of
the older shinken shobu (life-and-death fights) in developing technique,
knowledge, and character. You never see yourself so clearly as when you
face your own death. Competition can provide a safe, controlled glimpse
at this kind of defeat. Fighting spirit can be developed only through
fighting. Surely it is not the same as the battlefield, but it serves
a similar purpose, and it is closer to a combat situation than any other
form of training.
Of course this can go wrong. Winning and losing can become too important
and start to pervert the training process. The ultimate goal is not the
winning of medals. Matches, along with free practice and sparring, are
simply different methods for training.
Just as non-competitive martial arts training may not provide the benefits
of competition, training for sport competition may not provide the full
scope of self defense training. Martial sports often include non-competitive
components. For example, competition is only a part of the Judo curriculum,
and Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, was very concerned about preserving
those self-defense techniques that could not be used with full force in
competition. However, Judo today remains a remarkably effective self-
defense training method, even after nearly 120 years of the development
of other "combat" methods, and even when practiced today largely
as a sport. Jigoro Kano applied modern sport training methodology to koryu
jujutsu and found that it produced a better combat art.
"As martial artists we should continually
seek opportunities to challenge ourselves by examining the weaknesses
in our training and keeping our minds open to other methods."
Although martial arts and sports both have loftier goals, it is a fact
that many people train in martial arts primarily for self-defense. For
those who have never used sport training methods, or those who have never
explored traditional bujutsu training, it is easy to discount the effectiveness
of the other. As martial artists we should continually seek opportunities
to challenge ourselves by examining the weaknesses in our training and
keeping our minds open to other methods. I encourage you to discover for
yourself how "playing" with a partner in sparring or free practice,
or competing against an opponent in contest, can be an effective method
of training for self-defense.
About The Author:
Ohlenkamp is a martial arts writer and founder of www.judoinfo.com.
He is a certified United States Judo Association instructor, referee,
master rank examiner, and master coach (the highest level of certification),
and he was awarded United States Judo Coach of the Year for 1999. He
holds a sixth degree black belt in Judo and a sixth degree black belt
in jujitsu and has over 31 years of training and experience in various
martial arts as a competitor, instructor, team coach, and tournament