I often read about people who say that if you don't test your skill in freeplay then you're not a swordsman, or words to that effect, and I'd like to explore that a bit.
What do they mean when they say that? Well, mostly what they mean is they want to see if this stuff really works, then they want to see if they're any good at it. And it only seems logical that there's no other way to test that other than freeplay, right?
Well, here's the problem with that kind of thinking: Newtonian physics seems a lot more "logical" than relativistic physics; in fact, the latter is so counter-intuitive sometimes it's hard to wrap your mind around it. None the less, when we measure the effects it turns out Newton was wrong; close (for the wrong reasons and only in mild conditions), but wrong.
So it is here; the “logical” answer of an ignorant mind is wrong because it doesn’t posses all of the facts. First, how will you test that the techniques work? Freeplay isn't a fight, it's not even much like a fight. In a fight with swords you know you can easily die—for real. Not lose a bout, not get teased by your friends, *die*. That means you never, ever ignore an attack because if you do, you'll get killed. In freeplay, however, people often take risks they never would if a sharp sword was swinging towards them—they make a calculated gamble on the basis that they might pull their trick off, but in real life they wouldn't be that stupid.
And they think that this factor isn't a big deal—another failure of “logic.” Many techniques in the KdF only work because of the “threat factor” inherent in some techniques. One of the big reasons we never see any actions from the bind in freeplay videos is that people leave the bind because they think they're fast enough or lucky enough to get away with doing so, even though they should know it's bad technique. And usually their opponent isn't very good, and maybe they *are* fast and lucky, and so they get away with it sometimes. In real life, however, once you're in that bind your opponent's point is aimed at you, and if he does his job right and you leave the bind you're going to die on his point. So KdF techniques are geared around your opponent doing things the way he would if a *real* sword was aimed at him. Modern foil fencing actually tries to take this kind of thing into account with its rules about right of way, but that doesn't work all that well—rules intended to make a sport like combat never do.
So, clearly, you can't test these techniques to see if they work because you're not using them for what they're designed for. But that's moot: The techniques work, they really do. German people weren't stupid. Liechtenauer's art wouldn't have been the most famous and widely-written-about and copied art in all of Germany for more than 150 years if it didn't work. So people who doubt this need to get over themselves and stop pretending they're qualified to have a contrary opinion on this subject.
All right then, so what about testing yourself to see if you can really *do* the techniques? Sorry, but you can't do that, either, at least not in freeplay (but see below). The safety rules, safety gear and artificial structure of a sports bout make for a kind of fighting that's too different from a real fight for their test to have any meaning.
Let me make an analogy here: I usually compare kendo and kenjutsu, but something I wrote yesterday reminded me that most people have no idea how huge the gap between those two is, so let's compare judo and jujutsu (real jujutsu, not that silly, unrealistic, sportified version the punk rockers in Brazil play with). In essence, Kano-sensei developed judo as a means of discipline and spiritual development, not as a true combat system. Oh, he saw value in self defense applications, and a good judo dojo will work on those quite a bit, but that wasn’t his primary goal. He developed a system of freeplay called randori which could be practiced safely as a means of helping the student practice the *principles* of judo, but, in fact, when you look at the self defense aspects of judo you find that the majority of the techniques they teach there are not permitted in randori. Kind of telling, eh? Why aren’t they permitted? Because they’re *dangerous*!
Judo was developed from jujutsu, but in jujutsu there’s no randori. Do you know why? Because the techniques can’t be done safely in a competitive environment. After all, they’re like the self-defense techniques that Kano-sensei forbade in judo randori! In randori you try to break someone’s balance so you can throw him, and there are rules to ensure that you throw him in a way that won’t cause serious damage. If you can’t break his balance you switch to another technique and just keep going until the time in the bout expires. That art isn’t all there is to this is proven by the fact that there are weight categories in sport judo; this is because it often takes a lot of strength to make some of the techniquess work.
In jujutsu, however, you don’t just try to break someone’s balance, and you don’t use much strength to do it, you normally use a strike—called atemi-waza—to render him unable to resist. I’ve met lots of people I can’t unbalance well enough to do a hip throw just using movement on the mat and a push-pull motion of my hands, but I’ve never yet met anyone I couldn’t throw easily after first stuffing my fingers into his eyes!
So, in actuality, randori “tests” neither the techniques of the system to see if they work nor the practitioner’s ability to use those techniques because the safety rules and artificiality of the bouting rules change the nature of combat so radically. As I said before, it was only intended to be a way of practicing the root principles of the system; the need for strength and power comes in only when you pervert it into a sport.
Early in the 20th century the Tokyo Police Department held a contest between well-known judo and jujutsu experts to determine which would become their official martial art. In a closely-fought contest with numerous safety rules the judoka won, but it was a near thing. The reason they won isn’t that judo is a better system of combat—it’s manifestly not, nor was it intended to be—but because they got competitors who were just *better* at the sport. Real giants (not literally; one was remarkably small) of the art who were very good at what they did. Actually, all of the winning team were jujutsuka first, anyway. When you get competitors who are very good at their sport and pit them against each other it doesn’t prove that one approach is better than the other, it merely proves which side had the better competitors. In this case the difference is even more profound because there was no jujutsu in the competition. That’s right, none. Do you know why? Because the safety rules meant that most of the techniques that make jujutsu different from judo weren’t allowed. And what was left? Judo. So jujutsu wasn’t tested at all in the competition, and no one in it tested his ability to perform in combat. All they did was see which side was better at a sport.
This analogy is perfectly suited to the KdF. Consider Ringen: In Codex Wallerstein Master Ott (or whomever wrote it) tells us that: “Although a weak fighter in a serious fight can be equal to a strong opponent, if he has previously learned agility, reach, combat techniques [by which he means joint breaks, etc.—HTK], and death blows, in a friendly fight strength always has the advantage...” (Wallerstein ff. 15r-15v; Zabinsky pp. 66-69) In other words, a weak fighter can win in a lethal fight if he uses reach and agility *and* joint breaks *and* strikes to vital targets, but in a sporting environment the stronger wrestler will usually win… just exactly like the difference between judo and jujutsu. So we can’t practice combat Ringen in a competitive environment any more than we can practice longsword in a competitive environment. That’s why we practice Ringen just like they practice jujutsu in traditional Japanese dojo: in a carefully-controlled drill environment, not in freeplay.
And this analogy holds true for the longsword too: The addition of safety rules, the ability to ignore risk, the safety gear you need to wear that prevents you from executing many of the techniques, the gamesmanship or playing of the rules, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam… All conspire to prove that when you do freeplay you are *not* testing your ability to fight, merely your ability to play a sport.
So the “real” swordsman isn’t the one doing freeplay, he’s just playing a game. It might be fun, and if he’s willing to lie to himself it might let him pretend he’s a mighty warrior doing his art “for real.” But in reality what he’s doing has no more combat relevance than handball, and what’s more, he’s ruining the efforts of those who are trying to resurrect a lost art because by changing how it’s done, they take away from the historical art in favor of a new version designed for 21st-century notions of sport.
“But,” I can hear you shouting in anger, “if all that’s true, how can we learn to do our techniques under pressure against a resisting opponent? Don’t you see how important that is?” Of course I do, but that’s a different question, and one that has nothing to do with freeplay. I’ve written before about how you use a series of progressive drills, starting with controlled and carefully-scripted ones and progressing to more and more free-form drills against a resisting opponent. By the end you’re engaging in very short bouts of what could almost be considered freeplay, but there are important differences: By absolutely controlling what both partners can do you can eliminate safety concerns without softening the rules and you can prevent people from gaming the rules because if someone tries you merely stop, explain the error, and continue on. I’ve written about these drills elsewhere (look at older blog entries) so I won’t go into great detail about them here, but done correctly, these kinds of drills come closer to real combat than any freeplay system ever has. That’s swordsmanship. That’s art. That’s real.
Is this approach perfect? No, of course not, to be perfect we’d have to fight real bouts with sharps with death on the line, and none of us will ever do that. So no, none of us will ever perfectly master our art, it’s true; but then, you know what? we don’t need to, because none of us will ever be in a life-or-death swordfight. But we’ll come a lot closer than someone doing freeplay, and we’ll do it without ruining the art all of us are working so hard to resurrect as those who practice freeplay do.