Pushing the Envelope

by Stephen R. Balzac

from The Kiai Echo – Summer 1997

A few months ago, while attending a martial arts seminar, I had the opportunity to spar with an Escrima (Philippine stick fighting) black belt. Since we’d been provided with masks and padded weapons, we were able to go pretty much full speed and full power. Although I fenced throughout high school and college, I haven’t practiced seriously in over six years. Despite this, we were surprisingly even, each landing strikes about as often as did the other.

While it would be comforting to believe that this experience tells me that I’m a better fencer than I thought, a foray into a tournament a year and a half ago, just to see how much I remembered, demonstrated pretty quickly that my fencing skill was about what you’d expect of someone who hadn’t been practicing for several years. One could, perhaps, make the argument that fencing is inherently superior to Escrima, but frankly, I doubt it. Both fencing and Escrima have very similar techniques. It’s hard to believe that one is inherently better than is the other. So, what’s happening here?

Over the past couple of hundred years (an approximate time span, different in Europe and Japan) there has been a major change in the external pressures on martial arts and martial artists. By external pressure, I mean the outside forces that force a martial art to refine and perfect its techniques, and force its practitioners to train and develop their own skills. Approximately two hundred years ago, if you were a fencer, you trained because you expected to fight. Whether in duels or in war, swords were still used as weapons in Europe. You didn’t train for fun; you trained because your life depended on it. Similarly, in Japan, martial arts were not a form of recreation; they were the tools of the warrior class. Because your life depended on your skills, you had a great deal of incentive to become very, very good. Systems that did not train their proponents well enough died out, as did the martial artists of that system, or they adapted and learned new techniques. Two major such sea-changes occurred in Europe: with the decline in armor due to the use of guns and increased metallurgical technology permitting the forging of lighter, stronger swords, the use of the point as a weapon drastically changed fencing, which until then had been almost entirely hack and slash. Later, in approximately the 1400s, the “modern” school of fencing, characterized by the sideways stance, small motions, and basically linear footwork virtually wiped out the older styles of swordplay, which relied on gymnastics and fancy footwork.

Eventually, as the result of a variety of factors such as the fall of the Samurai class in Japan and the increased development and availability of more modern weapons, the traditional martial systems — fencing, boxing, jujitsu, and kenjitsu — ceased to be seen as battlefield arts. You no longer needed to be a soldier or a noble to train; you just needed to have money to pay a teacher. Fighting, however, continued for some time — whether dueling with swords or fights between dojos — well into this century. It has, however, continued to decline steadily. It’s certainly true that as recently as the turn of the century, the vast majority of fencers never dueled and the vast majority of martial artists didn’t fight. So, how to maintain a high level of skill amongst the practitioners of your martial art?

Those who studied medieval history, or read King Arthur, will remember all those stories of knights competing in tournaments. Even wonder why medieval kings had tournaments? It was so that their elite troops, that is, the knights, could keep their skills sharp. Similarly, because fencing became an Olympic sport, the external pressure on fencing as a martial skill, and on fencers, never let up: it changed, but it didn’t go away. There was still an external measure of how well you were doing and how successful your training was: how far did you get in a tournament? Ultimately, you can talk all you want about how smooth your technique is, or how relaxed you are, and so forth, but if you didn’t win, you didn’t win. Competition provided an external measure of your skill, in an environment that was not the calm, relaxed atmosphere of the gym. If you wanted to become the best fencer in the world, you had to train with the knowledge that the current best fencer wasn’t going to just step aside for you; you would have to win your title through a combination of physical and mental skill and endurance. You couldn’t settle for “good enough;” you needed to push the envelope, to strive to be the best.

With many of the Asian martial arts, jujitsu amongst them, competition has come to be seen as something bad, unpleasant, or at least unnecessary. As a result, many systems engage in little or no competition. Since, for many practitioners, fighting has become extremely rare, the external pressure on many martial artists has largely disappeared. There is no objective measure of how skilled you are. Further, you rarely get the opportunity to practice in an environment where there is tremendous pressure on you to perform well. In the AJJF, the closest we come are black belt exams, and even they are basically subjective.

So, does this mean that everyone should run out and start competing? No, the fact is competition is not for everyone. It does, however, mean that if you are studying jujitsu as a means of self-defense you need to be extremely honest with yourself when you train. If a lower ranked student dumps you in randori or beats you grappling, don’t just say, Well, if this were real, I could do X. Remember, if it were real, he could do X too, and he might just believe in the adage, Do unto others before they do unto you.

Training with the idea that you have infinite time and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get a technique right is a dangerous path. It’s very easy to become complacent about your progress. This doesn’t mean that you should become frantic if you don’t get a technique the first night, or even the first several nights. But it does mean that you shouldn’t use Well, there’s no rush, as an excuse for not training seriously: many people train for a fight they don’t really believe will ever happen. Imagine for a moment that you found out that sometime in the next year, someone was going to try to kill you. This person is a martial artist of some style, and one day he’s going to walk up to you, issue you a challenge, and attack. Your only chance of surviving, with the possible exception of being elected president and being surrounded by Secret Service agents all the time, is your skill in jujitsu. How would that change your training? Now, I’m not saying that you should walk around jumping at shadows, but you should consider this: If you ever have to use your jujitsu skills on the street, to save your life, in all likelihood it will come at a time and place not of your choosing. So making the best use of your class time is vital.

Your time on the mat is, or should be, only part of your training time. If you aren’t in good enough physical condition to get through an entire class, you’re wasting valuable training time. If you can’t get through a workout in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the dojo, what do you think will happen under stress? Or if you’re fighting multiple opponents? If you lack endurance, you may be forced to attempt to end a fight quickly, potentially at increased risk to either you or your opponent, or you may be beaten by a less skilled attacker who can simply outlast you. If you don’t study people, and imagine situations, you may have to figure out on the fly solutions to problems that you could have solved ahead of time. Remember, a couple hours a day 2-3 times a week isn’t very much time; if you don’t find ways to supplement it, you limit how rapidly you learn.

There are a couple of other interesting side-effects to the lack of external pressure on the martial art. So far, I’ve focused on the effects on the student. But the instructor is also affected. The knowledge that your students are, basically, in no real danger, and not having your reputation rest on their performance in tournaments, means that you can take your time teaching techniques. A student can always make a technique a little more perfect; why progress until he has? It becomes very easy to say, Well, let’s just wait until he’s a little better. Sure, your students aren’t likely to get killed off in a duel, but people go off to college, or get married, or have kids, or move away for dozens of reasons. If nothing else, they get older. A skill learned at age 20 and practiced for 20 years, is generally going to reach a higher level than the same skill learned at age 50 and practiced for 20 years, assuming the same amount of time is spent practicing. Remember, better can be the enemy of best.

The lack of external pressure also means that it’s easy to forget reality. It’s easy to start theorizing about how a fight should go with little or no understanding of what really happens or how rapidly. The action in a fencing bout is fast; you don’t have time to say to yourself, well, if he does this, I’ll do that. You’ll get hit every time. Freestyle jujitsu competitions give a taste of how a fast a real fight might go; since uke is not resisting, and is explicitly trying to not hurt you, freestyle shouldn’t be taken for reality, but it’s still a worthwhile experience. If nothing else, it can help you develop calmness under pressure and improve your sense of timing.

The argument might be made that — as it is written in the Esoteric Principles — jujitsu, or judo, is all about the perfection of character, and that everything so far said here is discussing only the physical aspects of the martial arts. Like physical skill, character is shaped by external pressures. Bravery is not lack of fear; it’s what you do when you’re afraid. Lack of fear is foolhardiness; it’s easy to be brave when there’s no danger. Confidence, strength of character, comes from overcoming real obstacles. If getting up there and doing a freestyle tournament triggers panic and cold sweat, perhaps that’s something you need to work on, not walk away from. Learning to deal with panic is a valuable skill. Some people will say, Well, I just don’t like to compete, or I just don’t like to be judged. That’s fine, but make very sure you’re being honest with yourself, because you’re basically gambling that, in a real situation, you won’t feel panic or you’ll be able to deal with it. That’s a pretty high stakes bet. Furthermore, what value is there in learning to be gracious in victory and cheerful in defeat if you never give yourself the opportunity to experience either victory or defeat? When there’s no pressure, it’s easy to “know” what you’ll do; but it’s what happens when the stakes are real that counts.

So, going back to my original question, what did fencing have that Escrima did not? I’d say, not the techniques, but the training. Because there is a constant, objective, external pressure on fencing and fencers, fencing training is always raising the bar. Like many other Olympic sports, the fencers of today are more skilled than their counterparts of 50 years ago at corresponding stages of their careers. For example, Johnny Weismuller, better known as Tarzan, was a five time Olympic gold medalist in swimming before he became a movie star; but if he could be transported to the present at the peak of his career, today he wouldn’t even qualify.

Fencers and coaches have an objective, external measure of their progress. That lack, in jujitsu, means that you as a student, and you as a sensei, need to be very honest with yourself all the time. We work hard to help people develop self-confidence, but make sure that that confidence is real. Don’t use the lack of external pressure, or the belief that competitions are wrong, or that it’s immoral to judge people (as in a kata or freestyle competition) as an excuse to not train seriously and with intent. You can’t always choose not to let your skill be tested. DZR has the potential of being a very effective martial art; how effective depends entirely on what you do with it. Remember, jujitsu, as a martial art, did not defeat “KO” Morris in 1922; Professor Okazaki defeated Morris. Jujitsu was merely the tool he used, just as Morris used a different tool, boxing, to defeat a number of other highly skilled jujitsu practitioners. Ultimately, a martial art is only as effective as the martial artist, and the effectiveness of the martial artist is largely determined by how they approach their training.