EDITED: Please note that I no longer use the free-form style of drill discussed in this post. There's nothing wrong with this approach, except that newer people don't understand what goes together correctly well enough, and usually end up with unrealistic drills. Instead, I have developed a set of 12 structure drills which teach almost every kind of situation that a student should know and understand. Look for my upcoming training book for more.
I’ve received a lot of criticism from readers of this blog recently regarding my essay that argues that Bloßfechten (i.e., unarmored) free play not only has no place in what we do, it’s actually detrimental. While most of these criticisms have been of the uninformed sort and thus not worthy of rebuttal, some raise issues that are at least confusing to some readers and should therefore be fairly addressed.
Before I do so, however, I’d like to clear up one point: Most of my detractors simply say that I don’t believe in free play, which isn’t true. I don’t believe we should practice Bloßfechten free play because of the Kendo Syndrome I wrote about in my essay, but I am a great fan of Harnischfechten (i.e., armored combat—and that doesn’t mean unarmored techniques done in armor; I’m talking about spear, pollaxe and halfsword techniques designed for armored combat) free play in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, my detractors don’t seem to consider Harnischfechten a viable martial study so they just say I don’t believe in free play at all, which I consider unfortunate.
The majority of those who want to do free play argue that there’s no other way to really learn their art; that to merely practice “moves” is sterile and empty, and there is a degree of truth in this. If you’re not doing it for real you don’t know if you can do it, right? Let’s start to answer this first by considering what it is we are trying to do.
Why do we study historical martial arts? I can think of only three possible reasons: First, because it’s fun and interesting; second, because we want to be able to use medieval martial arts today; and third, because we want to resurrect a lost art as part of understanding a historical culture. For the purposes of this discussion we can actually eliminate the first reason because either of the other two approaches can be fun and interesting, so the only reasons for practicing historical martial arts is either to use it as a modern martial discipline or to resurrect a lost art (and of course, there is bound to be a great deal of overlap in most people!).
Now, looking at those two options, what do we see? Practicing for martial purposes alone is worthy, but the simple fact is that we won’t ever have a sword or pollaxe (etc.) fight on the streets today. Thus, any attempts to “improve” the historical arts in order to make them better for today are simply invalid; there’s no reason to do so. I’ll grant that the grappling arts have a lot of value for modern combatives applications, but the longsword et. al. don’t. Thus, there’s no justification for changing our art from its historical context and form. So practicing historical combat as a form of pure martial art is fine, but there’s no justification for changing it in any way.
Here we come to the crux of the problem: All attempts at practicing Bloßfechten free play (in any art) automatically change that art. Look at Kendo, as I did in my original essay: Kendo no longer bears any close relation to the combat swordsmanship of the art from which it came, Kenjutsu. They took an unarmored form (yes, Kenjutsu includes armored techniques, but we’re just talking about unarmored combat here) and found it too dangerous to practice safely, so they replaced the steel sword with a safe simulator; they still needed protection from the simulator so they added armor; and they needed to make the art easier to see and judge so they added rules about what you can do (e.g., you aren’t allowed to strike someone’s left wrist unless it’s raised up—seriously). But all of these changes changed the art completely. The armor limits your freedom of motion, the practice sword doesn’t behave like a real sword (e.g., the blade isn’t curved, yet several Kenjutsu techniques rely on that curve), and the rule changes drastically impact the art (e.g., there are no slicing techniques in Kendo, so why guard against someone doing them?).
Or go to any Karate tournament today. Watch them do kata; if you have a modicum of knowledge about fistic arts you should easily be able to distinguish between the Shotokan Karate-ka, the Taekwondo people and the Kung-fu people (just to pick random, disparate examples). Now watch those same people compete in the sparring competition and you'll see something horrifying: All of the uniqueness they displayed in kata is lost. They all fight from a modified side horse stance and their primary techniques are mid- and high-level side and roundhouse kicks with very few hand techniques. Why? Because in their game, those techniques work best. Don't tell me it's better that way, the game was made up with no concern for historical accuracy or combat effectiveness and the real arts have been lost.
This is true with European combat as well. It happened in period; the art was divided into Schulfechten (“school fighting”) and Ernstfechten (“fighting in earnest”). In Schulfechten thrusting was forbidden, as were many of the more dangerous techniques (joint locks, etc.). And it happens today: We need hand protection because we can’t afford to miss work with a broken hand, so we wear gauntlets that prevent us from doing unarmored techniques correctly. Just as one example, consider the Winden; I have never seen anyone who can perform this technique in a free play situation while wearing gauntlets because the gauntlets, no matter how good, make the hands too slow and clumsy.
Some might argue that all of this means we should be practicing Schulfechten instead of Ernstfechten, and there’s some truth in this (but that’s for another essay), but the simple fact is that even medieval Schulfechten is far too dangerous for today’s practitioners without serious protective gear; medieval surgeons made a lot of money sewing up scalps and setting broken bones after a Schulfechten event, so we’d need protective gear, rule changes, etc., and we’re back to the same problem.
So the bottom line is that any attempt to do Bloßfechten free play *inevitably* changes the art being practiced, and there’s no justification for changing the art. At the same time, however, my detractors are correct when they say that you can’t really learn the art perfectly without doing free play. How do we reconcile this?
One way is to accept it. The truth is we’re never going to have to defend our lives with a sword, so it makes sense to give up a little understanding in exchange for not ruining the art we’re trying so very hard to resurrect. After all, why go to all the trouble to understand the art if you’re only going to throw away that understanding so you can play at swordsmanship in free play? When you do free play you’re not learning our art, you’re making up a new one, so claims that you need to do free play to learn our art are wrong to begin with anyway.
There is, however, another way: You can learn to use a form of drills that lead you from just understanding the motions of a given technique to truly mastering it in a semi-free play environment. This process is actually better than free play (given our constraints; it’s not better than real life-or-death combats, but then, they were often so… final) because even at its highest level there is a rigid control of what you can do, so students are prevented from “gaming” the exercise or from making up new techniques not part of the curriculum.
The way this works is to do your material in set drills that start in a slow, controlled manner and progress to a more natural way of practicing. In our Schule we do this in five stages:
1.) The teacher announces what he’s going to do and tells the student exactly how to respond. This is continued until the student can do the technique perfectly, and speed and power gradually increase.
2.) The student attacks with a specific attack and the teacher counters with a specified counter, then the student counters the counter.
3.) The teacher attacks with an announced attack, the student counters with a specified counter, then the teacher responds with an *unannounced* counter, and the student must counter that.
4.) The teacher attacks with an unannounced attack and the student must counter that.
5.) The same as (4.) except the teacher will counter the counter and the student must counter that.
As the student works through each level the speed and intensity increase; by level 5 the drill is as close to free play as it’s possible to be, including full speed, full power hits. The advantage, however, is that it’s all rigidly controlled as to what the student may do; if the student tries to use a trick that’s not part of the system to “score a point” the teacher simply stops and corrects him and they start over.
But if all this is true, you say, how is it any different from free play? Don’t you still need gauntlets, etc.—all the things you said would change the art? No! not if you do it correctly. You can limit targets as necessary so they don’t get hit or wear such protection as won’t interfere with a certain kind of technique (e.g., a heavy fencing mask). For example, if the teacher knows he’s not going to respond with a Winden he can wear a gauntlet to encourage the student to attack his hand with a Krumphau, or you can make it a ground rule that if you use the Krumphau in a given practice you’ll aim at the blade ahead of the cross instead of the hands. This is a little bit complicated, but it really just comes down to how creative and inventive the teacher is. You can’t make these choices in free play because then it isn’t free play, right?
The biggest advantage of this approach is that you reward only what is accurate. If someone is doing free play and he takes advantage of a loophole in the rules to score a point he gets rewarded for denigrating his art. If someone using this drill approach uses gamesmanship the drill just makes no sense; you stop, correct him, and start over. Thus we get most of the benefit of all-out free play with none of the harm.