Forms or Fighting? Part 1: the question.

Recently on an internet forum I posed this question:

Why is it that some folks assume that leitei or sanda (match or tournament fighting) constitute better preparation than forms practice for self-defence? (Don't feel that you are expected to completely watch the following vids. The first minute or so will get the general idea across!)

In doing so I must confess to a degree of trollishness. I anticipated a particular response and was not disappointed. On such forums there is typically a contingent who strongly maintain the uselessness of forms and the advantages of competitive fist-training (or throwing) for self-defence preparation. There were the usual comments such as, ‘Daft to think forms prepare you for martial art…’ sometimes accompanied by reflections upon my probable lack of skills.

But a number of other respondents made some very measured and thoughtful contributions. Some of these were from people who had practical experience in non-competitive contexts such as military service. Others were from competitors who also felt the benefits of forms practice.

A sample:

Probably because lei tai / sanda guys are dealing with live resisting opponents who are throwing punches, kicks, and throws. Forms are good for internal alignments to execute those punches, kicks, throws, etc.’ (Interesting, the assumption that sparring or fighting enthusiasts are male.)

Because it “takes two to tango”. Combat is a non-cooperative and interactive process. One needs to react and adapt to the “partner”. If there is no partner there, you’re just “playing with yourself”. (Which is still important and pleasureable.)’ (SH: No comment! ;-) )

Pressure testing. Performing skill under pressure.’

These contributions essentially focus on the same issue: the value of an opponent to provide a degree of pressure or a facsimile of realism. One surprise was that certain specific technical issues I would have considered crucial - such as range, angle, ‘bridging’ and so forth – went unaddressed. These actually require the participation of another party to help with skills acquisition. But one other factor that was mentioned was the need to confront fear.

Some did observe that forms practice does allow the perfection of skills, such as alignment, and several conceded that probably the best of all routes was to combine forms practice with unrehearsed two-person contests. Another point that was missed was the value of being hit. We often hear of people who are struck and freeze. Being hit in a fight should not come as a total shock! What else should one expect?

The ground from which I approach this issue is indicated by the following incidents:

1. One of my students, an elderly German lady, was assaulted in her apartment building by a fellow who tried to smash her into a concrete wall - a potentially lethal event. Instead of flinching, she sank into wujibu. When he got up off the floor she had her dukes up and was ready to fight as hard as she could! He took a look at her... and left. 2. A friend – an elite Tai Chi forms artist who engages in no bare-hand sparring or sanda - was followed onto a tour bus by a young fellow with a handgun. He put it to the back of her head, pulled the trigger and she heard the hammer fall on a dud round. Then she was fighting for her life, trying to gain control of the gun (her attacker put a round through the door of the bus), smashing back and forth from one seat to another, rolling in the centre aisle, until help came attracted by the gunshot.

3. A third instance concerns an elderly lady, a student of a friend of mine, who was assaulted by two purse-snatchers when on a senior citizens' tour in Italy. When seized from the rear she whirled in alarm, automatically assuming the ‘White Crane’ shape, and knocked her assailant down with a well-placed elbow. She then turned on his partner who, sizing the situation up, took to his heels.

Please note that while the second of these instances involved an advanced practitioner who was reasonably young, the skills level of the two elderly ladies was considerably more basic…basic but functional! And neither of them had training in sanda or leitei. These women had no competitive fighting experience. They practised forms, had a focused mind-set, conditioned reflexes, flexibility and internal power. They'd both had good teachers and were serious practitioners. They also were in their 70’s! I've a number of accounts of this kind. The point I'm making is that I feel the connection between sparring, tournaments or match-fighting to self-defence is no closer than forms practice. I willingly concede that match fighting and free sparring are valuable in imparting certain very important skills, but I feel that their adherents sometimes fail to appreciate the gap between them and a real fight – a contest in which you are fighting for your own life or for the life of another (such as a child). I also think that such practitioners often misjudge the skill level required for effective self-defence. A very basic level of skill may be adequate. Whether such basic skills are addressed by the average instructor – whether of forms or combatives - is another thing altogether. I'm tired of people asking whether Tai Chi can be 'used to fight', because fighting is about fighting, not about martial arts or tournaments. In real fighting you are using the weapons you are not allowed to use on the mat or in the ring and you are going after the targets that also are off limits. That stuff constitutes the content of forms.

Forms provide a library of techniques that are never seen in sparring, tournaments of match-fighting because they are intended to kill or maim.

In comparison, in most tournaments the participants are trained to go after the targets they would ignore in a real life or death situation: kicks to be kept above the waist (or knee), no strikes to throat or eye-gouging! No knee or elbow breaks! So, in other words, you practise hitting the things you wouldn't want to hit in a real self-defence situation! Match fighting provides the invaluable experience of being hit, possibly a degree of pain and limited discomfort, etc. But fighting for real is different.

One of my senior associate-instructors speaks of certain martial arts as being ‘romantic’. By this he means that they embody a stylized conception of defensive combat. A prime example would be the current revival of the Victorian mixed martial art of Bartitsu, the ‘martial art of Sherlock Holmes’:

In other words, they are ‘mannered’. They make certain assumptions about modes of attack and response.

'Mannered', adjective, defined as

1. behaving in a specified way.


2. (of a writer, artist, or artistic style) marked by idiosyncratic mannerisms; artificial, stilted, and overelaborate in delivery.

- from the On-line Dictionary.

In the context of this discussion it is therefore interesting that one example offered of practical self defence training in China was this:

This Chinese training depicted is typical of that offered by most martial arts in 'the west'. There is very little to separate this from Bartitsu set-piece training:

As a kid I learned Irish boxing and elements of street Jujitsu from my father. He had studied intensively from books at an unsettled time of his life. He was not a hobbyist or martial artist. For him it was just a matter of getting home alive and in one piece. This gave to his studies a desperate focus I can only surmise. He worked at integrating Jujitsu with the Irish boxing methods that had been transmitted through our family as well as with other material he picked up on the streets.

After the hiatus of my university years and the commencement of a professional career, I recommenced my Jujitsu practice in an organized club. What I found was that the combative methods of the club were more organized, more technically diverse, and more boring. The club was geared toward tournament rather than real fighting, emphasized stylized methods of engagement, and made little effort to integrate the different elements of the curriculum. It was thin gruel compared to what I'd had from my father! I enjoyed the sparring and tournaments, but realized that this was not real fighting. It wasn't even the recreational violence or the assertion of status fighting that I had enjoyed in my younger years! But it had lots of conditioning exercises, lots of floor and mat work, lots of joint-locking drills, and lots of stylized forms which, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with reality. In other words, it was typical of the martial arts practice that goes on in most combative clubs today.

Close to five hundred years ago General Chi Ji-kuang, who first codified the essentials of what would become Tai Chi Boxing, wrote that empty-hand pugilism was the essential foundation of the martial arts. It teaches hardiness, agility, dexterity of the feet, courage and resolution. These are the essential points raised by proponents of tournament and match fighting. The potential problems of this approach against which one must guard are

- the limitation on the range of methods employed,

- the misdirection of techniques to non-injurious targets,

- the cultivation of a non-serious intent,

- the tendency to conform to certain terms of engagement,

- the strategy of maintaining a defensive zone,

- the tendency to sacrifice correct balance, alignment and coordination for speed,

- and the sacrifice of flow for an episodic series of combative exchanges or negotiations.

In strictly physical terms these are the issues which should be addressed by form.

My exploration of this subject will will be continued in a second article.

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