Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Defensive martial arts as competitive sports?

Defensive or passive martial arts are defined as martial arts that train only on defensive moves. The most notable styles are aikido throws and tai chi free-style pushing hands. Although there are practitioners claiming to uphold, and therefore trained accordingly, the old roots of the arts as both offensive and defensive practices, they are the exception rather than the rule, and their training, if effective, certainly goes beyond what are now trained in the dojo or public park. (Indeed in Hong Kong there was this one sifu who once bought a short TV commercial and showed himself doing boards breaking technique, common demonstration among karate practitioners).

In competitive sports (like the one-to-one sport of boxing/Sumo wrestling/MMA or many-to-many sport of American football) there are tough physical contacts played under well defined rules (and with forbidden moves). Under these rules, both sides are encouraged to "attack" as this is the best way to score. If both sides choose to defend at the same time, the referee (and the audience!) will very likely to urge both side to "attack". For example, in Mongolian wrestling where there is no time limit for each game, in some rare cases, in particular in important title matches, both wrestlers might become too cautious, they therefore choose to “test out” each other without real engagement in grabbing the other’s gear, sometimes for over an hour! The current rule is that the referee can “make” both wrestlers to re-start their game from the position of each grabbing the gear of the other, to make them easier to launch an attack.

Because of the above inherent limitation of the defensive art, training in that art has to involve a compliant partner (in tai chi free-style push hands compliance is effected by the requirement of arms stay touching with maintaining a light and connecting force (不丟不顶) which effectively turns the game into one that cannot be played without one being compliant). With enough momentum self-generated by his compliant partner, a practitioner can execute spectacular throws. As far as physical training and mind-body healing practice is concerned, it is a perfectly fine way to practice. In particular, without competitive physical contacts, the sports will be much safer, and therefore much "healthier" (I am not making it up, master Wang Xiangzai held this same view and looked down upon competitive sports as being "unhealthy"). There is nothing inherently negative about aikido and tai chi. They are simply different practices. And they are highly effective in achieving their physical and mental conditioning objectives.

However, issues arise from using these practices as self-defense, without supplementing them with other offensive practices/training. Sometimes it is argued as follows:

We are peaceful people. We do not train ourselves to attack; rather we train ourselves to defend against attack. Therefore our art is perfectly good as a practice of self defense.

The main problem with this argument is that those who are not trained with a competitive (which is non-compliant-plus) partner fail to grasp the real-life situation, in particular the fact that your opponent will more likely to cheat than not, trying to win the game (as the old Chinese saying goes Cheating is a normal part of warfare 兵不厌诈). And he does! A competitive sportsman learns it in the hard way, like faking a move, or faking the power supposed to be used in a move. An almost instantaneous correct reaction to a fake move has to be learned in real life, in competitive situation. Even in lawn bowling without physical contacts, older folks are said to be fond of using psychological warfare to outwit the physically stronger young opponents - psychological warfare in addition to physical intimidation. An angry face may be faked, as much as faking tiredness or minor injury. These are all part of a competitive game and participants enjoy playing them! On the other hand just imagine what would happen next when in an aikido dojo or tai chi pushing hands class, a junior practitioner fakes a move (that is supposed to be compliant), throws his sensei or sifu and therefore makes him looks stupid!

In competitive sports, even veteran practitioners got tricked once in while by faked moves and lose their game. In the recent July Sumo Game (Basho) held in Nagoya, a more junior Egyptian sumo wrestler Osunaarashi (Maegashira #3 前頭三), who had not been doing particularly good in this game, surprised everyone by winning two yokozunas 横纲 (Kakuru and my favorite Harumafuji) in two consecutive days (there are a total of 15 days in a tournament with each wrestler fighting different opponent each day). How did he do it? By perfectly legal fake moves. And the two yokozunas accepted their loss with grace.

In conclusion, there is nothing negative with defensive martial art, just that it is incomplete if it is used for training towards confidence in competitive situations.

In a coming post, I shall discuss the excellent healing effect of the defensive martial arts.


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