The Rules of Martial Arts
There are rules in martial arts. The rules in modern martial arts are many and varied. These arts are often oriented towards sporting applications or may be practiced for fitness or spiritual development rather than as fighting techniques with an application in the real world. Their rules are oriented towards safety and limiting liability. These are not the rules that I am writing about today. I am writing to discuss rules that are derived primarily from historic sources and involve the basic principles of fighting in earnest combat. In my experience the ‘rules’ listed below are as applicable to modern arts as they are to ancient ones. Some of these occurred to me in the course of my own study and then I found that they were well known in one form or another to the medieval and renaissance masters. Others were told to me and personal experience has shown them to be valid. In the work of recreating the techniques shown in Fiore’s texts these rules have provided a valuable yardstick to judge our interpretations and sometimes to understand what we are seeing in the text. We have generally found that keeping these rules in mind when attempting to reproduce a technique has led to more elegant and effective interpretations that we feel are likely to be accurate than some of our earlier attempts.
Effective training and ‘Martial Intent’
To practice any art as a serious set of fighting techniques it is necessary to practice as if mistakes have real consequences; as if getting hit doesn’t mean losing a point – it means being maimed or killed. These arts have to be practiced with what students of Historic European Martial Arts have come to call Martial Intent.
Some hold that this means that they should be hyper-aggressive and should apply full speed and force in executing techniques at all times – even in practice or for the purposes of demonstration. Some feel that even in practice or demonstration that if a technique isn’t working they should immediately depart from the script and do something that does work. This can result in injuries and even into a practice bout devolving into an actual fight. People exercising this philosophy can and have injured students, random volunteers from the audience and even had the tables turned on them with serious injury as a result.
In practice the goal is to learn. In practice you if a technique isn’t working you need to figure out why rather than simply changing your technique so that you can ‘win.’ Sometimes a disparity in physical size, physical limitations, weight and/or strength means that a given technique won’t work between partners. You need to find that out by reason and observation; if you simply do whatever it takes to ‘win’ you may bypass a valid technique through simple lack of understanding. In a real fight that can be like giving up a weapon that might save your life and we’re talking about the study real fighting arts. There are certain rules or principles inherent in ancient martial arts based on the fact that the results of failure are catastrophic. Learning the Rules of the Fight and applying them in your practice combined with an attitude that the results of failure are catastrophic and you be will working with appropriate Martial Intent without excessive aggression or force. This can produce a markedly lesser chance of injuring other students or forcing them to injure you and a greater chance of learning the techniques correctly.
‘Practice Slow – in the fight anger will give speed to your techniques’ – This is actually a paraphrase of a quote from Fiore. In modern terms we would substitute ‘stress’ or ‘adrenaline’ for the word ‘Anger’ but the principle remains valid. Practice slowly and strive for precision. Learning to do the technique correctly in practice is more important than doing it with speed and force. In an actual fight you will fight as you have trained so there is no point in executing a technique in practice faster that you can do it correctly. Otherwise you risk training yourself into bad habits. If you do this enough you train your muscle memory to respond automatically and do it right. When it comes down to a match (or a fight) adrenaline will speed you up naturally. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t free-spar but that is a topic for another article.
As an example when I used to shoot in combat pistol competition I never practiced a fast- draw. I always drew slowly and consistently with a focus on precision and gaining a correct sight picture each time. After thousands of repetitions of this I could aim the pistol as fast as I could draw and point it at the target. In a match I would be ‘psyched up’ and adrenalized- ‘hyper-stressed’ is the term used in studying match stress and comparing it to the actual stress of combat. Even though I never practiced a ‘quick draw’ at a Match I was usually able to draw and put the first shot on the target faster than a person pointing a gun at me would have been able to pull the trigger.
When it comes down to it you will fight as you train. If you train with bad habits in a fight or bouting you will display those bad habits. In a famous police shoot-out in the 70’s a dead police officer was found with empty shells in his pocket and is believed to have been shot as he bent over to pick up more casings that he had just ejected from his revolver when he reloaded. Why would he do such a bizarre thing in the middle of a gun-fight? Because when he was on the shooting range he always picked up the empty casings so that the shells could be reloaded later. That officer trained himself into a bad habit and when the chips were down he reverted to his training and was killed as a result. Train slowly, train correctly and train with precision and realism and your odds of winning a bout or surviving a confrontation are all the better for it.
The Rules of the Fight
In no particular order:
The best defense is not to be there when the attack arrives. Ideally I would prefer to be in a different city but of course that’s not what we are talking about here. In the fight this is accomplished by moving offline and inside or outside of the range of the attack.
Stack your defenses- don’t depend on any one thing to save your life. Don’t just change the line- move inside or outside of an attacks range and offer an active defense also. If you fail in any one aspect of a stacked defense you have two other elements working to prevent the attack from striking home. Change the Line- Change the Distance – Offer an Active Defense.
Never commit to an attack unless you control or have negated your opponent’s weapon – if you control the opponent’s weapon whether it is the hand, knee, dagger or sword the weapon can’t hurt you. Negating a weapon means that by your action you have placed your self where the weapon cannot reach you at all or have placed the weapon in a position where it cannot reach you before you establish control or retreat beyond it’s range.
Once you have established control of an opponent’s weapon never yield that control until your opponent is incapable of continuing the fight- If you have established control of a weapon you are by definition within the reach of that weapon. It’s very hard to get out of range safely – don’t try or it could cost you your life.
Yield to strength and follow after weakness – if your opponent is attacking with great energy or exerting great pressure don’t meet force with force – redirect his energy in a way that is beneficial to you. Similarly if an opponent is yielding before your strength press in to gain control or advantage- while being mindful not to allow yourself to be deflected.
Never pursue a failed technique – if what you are doing in a fight isn’t working don’t try to force it to work- move on to something else or disengage. If what you are doing in practice doesn’t work don’t try to force it. Change to a different technique; work with your partner and instructor to determine why it isn’t working.
Apply these rules to your practice and interpretations of techniques, practice as slowly as you need to in order to execute the technique properly and maintain a correct training atmosphere and your studies will benefit.