The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Ways to train and understanding that they have in built flaws

Continuing my examination of how to approach the study of Historical Martial arts. Once we have made decisions about our reasons for training we should consider the ways to achieve that goal. I am going to look briefly at how we can go about training and developing our skills.

It is not my goal to dismiss any form of training. Rather my aim is to take a look at various approaches to training and understand why thy are flawed.

From the standpoint of the Guild as a whole and from a personal preference I will look at training with the goal of recreating/understanding the combative systems of the past.

While doing this one strives to respect the past, that we should be safe, improve our understanding and continue to enjoy the process.

If we are training combative skills we should remember that the main goal is to neutralise the opponent as efficiently as possible while preserving ourselves. As such we are developing skills that are designed to injure, cripple or kill other people. Unfortunately there is no way to accurately replicate cutting, stabbing or breaking people without actually doing so. Therefore the training will have to be modified in some way if we do not want to keep finding new training partners because we hospitalise them and we don’t ourselves want to spend large amounts of time out of training while we have to recover from injuries.

It should be noted that while martial artists of the past were arguably not so concerned with safety issues, minimising the risk of injury through training was important. No training program for warriors could tolerate a continued high rate of injury from training. An injured warrior that can not train or fight is not fulfilling their role

However any modification to the effectiveness of the technique is training a flaw, in effect training the technique to fail.

This paradox has challenged martial artists in all eras and cultures. The need to address it is the search to find, to quote modern combatives instructor Tony Blauer, "the best fake stuff out there".

Unless we recognise these flaws and understand how to compensate for them, we are training ourselves to fail under pressure when things become real. Even if our goal is research, the modifications and the flaws can lead us to draw false conclusions from what we do. We have to be careful that the flaw does not become the "right" way of doing it, if it does the conclusions and solution it will be more and more false.

The important elements that make a technique effective are,

The Target attacked

The Timing/Speed

The Power

The Distance

Therefore at least one of these core elements will have to be modified or changed for the sake of safety in training.

Training can be divided into the following broad categories;

Solo Drills
Repetitive co-operative drills
Scripted co-operative drills
Competitive drills

Solo drilling
Solo drills are as the name implies those that are carried out with out interacting with a partner. Solo guard drills, progressions, moving or cutting from one position to another, carrying out solo forms or striking against a pel or punch bag, or test cutting all fall under this type of training.

Here there is no partner to be kept safe, so there is no need for modification of the technique and as such allows the actions to be carried out with proper Power, Speed and Intention. Also by removing the opponent, it allows the scholar to focus only on the technique they are carrying out.

Training this way can also allow for live weapons to be used, which would be too dangerous to use when working with a partner

When correctly trained Solo exercises are very good way to pick up the fundamentals of movements of combat. Because you can attack with proper Power Speed and Intention these drills, unlike others, should do not inherently create bad habits, provided the instructor knows what they are teaching.

The flaws come from what is missing, It is hard to learn proper targeting when attacking thin air. Also hitting something feels very different to hitting nothing. While striking a pel, punch bag or test cutting gives an approximation of hitting an opponent, it is not the same as hitting an active body. The dynamics encouraged when hitting a static test cutting target are different than a dynamic and active human opponent, who is trying to hit you at the same time. To quote Bruce Lee "boards don’t hit back"

It is also hard, especially for less experienced students, to understand what the moves would actually be doing in reality, this is especially true if the student is not balancing the solo training with other partner drills.

A well-executed sequence of solo movements will almost never work the same way against a live opponent. Hitting and being hit by someone, even if you interfere with their strike feels completely different, and things that feel completely different lead to freezing.

Cooperative drills

These drills involve 2 or more scholars, training within a predetermined structure of movement, attack or defence etc. The goal is training through the exercise, it is not about winning in any way you can.

I would further divided this type of training in to the following;

Drilling and Sequences/Plays.

Drilling is the repetition of specific techniques or simple attack and defence or flow type drills.

Sequences/Plays are scripted patterns of actions, dealing with specific tactical type situations.

The advantages are that you have an opponent/s so you are dealing with a real moving target and real attacks coming at you. However as you are working with another person there will need to be some modification for the sake of safety and so an in-built flaw is being trained

Other flaws that can develop with a set drill, is that "knowing" the drill can lead to the scholars pre-empting and anticipating the next move and not committing to the action they are doing now. Or the scholar wants to win and so cheats because they "know" what the other person is going to do.

Often techniques start or are carried out at too great a distance to simulate a real sudden assault. This is often the case when dealing with grappling or dagger techniques. This is often done to substitute Distance for Time, by starting further away the defender has more time to make the reaction work. This is often why many of the techniques seen in the manuals don’t work in free-play. Free play is more like duelling, where as what we generally see in the manuals is dealing with a sudden unexpected assault. Different contexts call for different techniques.

Another problem one often sees in cooperative drills is people getting fixated or carried away on all the things that they can do after they intercept the attack. They block the dagger arms, and then get carried away with the locks, disarming and the other cool stuff they can do then. What has been forgotten or ignored is that the attacker allowed the block to work, by modifying one of the core elements, usually Distance and/or Power.

A common flaw that one sees is in Timing, the attacker makes the attack badly to allow the reactor to succeed. The attacker does not properly keep their weapon between them and the target, and thereby makes it easy to pull off the reaction. This not normally done consciously, rather it happens because the goal has become to make the defenders technique "work". It also happens when scholars make the attack against a teacher or more senior scholar. The more junior does not want to make the teacher fail, so they subconsciously make their own attack badly! Worse still is when the teacher subtly encourages this attitude in the scholar. The problem is that this becomes the way the technique should be done, in this case the technique will fail against someone who does not play by these unwritten rules.

Probably the best way to make Cooperative drills safe while minimizing the flaws is to do them with slow speed, not unnaturally slow, but so that the scholars can maintain proper power generation and delivery while maintaining enough control to keep the action safe. The actual speed used can vary and can increase as the skill level of the practitioners’ increases. In this way the same attention to detail can be applied while keeping it safe. However one has to be careful when the scholar starts to cheat and exploits the fact that their training partner is going slowly by speeding up or doing things that would not work against a full speed attack, like deflecting a staff strike with their forearm

Competitive drills

These include sparring and free play. They have a random or free element in that those involved may choose what techniques they use. This can vary from having two or three choices up to a full no hold bared (with certain restrictions) free play assault.

The danger here is that free-play and sparing are dynamic and we know that combat is dynamic and as such, sparring or free play becomes a reality test of what we have learnt. However it MUST be remembered that free play or sparring is nothing like a real fight for your life.

Also free-play is active, dynamic and fun and therefore habits that are developed in free-play will go deeper and last longer than skills from other less engaging forms of training. Also free-play looks more like what most people expect a "real" fight to look like, most of which expectations are based on fantasy and entertainment, not reality and so will reinforce those untruths and misconceptions

To quote Combative Instructor, practitioner and author Rory Miller "Almost twenty-five years ago, I asked my Karate sensei why we practiced kihon (basics) and kata when the techniques we used in sparring looked nothing like kata. He didn't have a good answer, just some vague nonsense about discipline and muscle development. Twenty years ago, after my first ugly brawl in the casino, I remember sucking wind, shaking, and thinking, "Shit, that wasn't anything like sparring.""

Most of us will not get in to "an ugly brawl" and there is even less likelihood of us using the weapons based elements of our training. So for most people Free-play WILL be as real as it gets. Also free-play is fun. However it must not be forgotten that free-play, sparring, or competition is nothing like real combat.

Free play can become a very sophisticated strategic game, which is a flaw in and of itself. For example people do not attack with a knife the way they spar with one. The reality is fast, close, staccato and overwhelming. The sparring is often a chess match of distance timing and rhythm. The skills are not the same and they don’t transfer.

Wear Protection or modify the weapon?

As Targeting, Timing/Speed, Power, Distance are integral to real combat, one or more of these will have to be messed with to make the training safe. To reduce the need to modify the core elements one can wear armour to allow the better use of power and targeting. Another option is to modify the weapon to make it safer, often a combination of both is done.

Wearing protective armour to allow the replication of un-armoured combat allows people to hit each other in a better approximation of "reality". This can be OK when practising specific techniques or situations However in free play the protection that people wear invariably makes them braver than they would be if they were not wearing the armour and then takes the situation further away from reality again.

If the armour is being worn to replicate armoured combat then the weapons and techniques would change to defeat the protection worn. After all armour is worn to protect the wearer, so defeat it would require more aggressive and therefore more dangers techniques to defeat it. Because of this increased danger it will mean modification in targeting, speed, power or distance or the types of technique used.

For example almost all-combative grappling techniques are by their very nature extremely dangerous and therefore can not be done properly in free-play or competition, so they are either banned or have to be modified to make them safer

If the weapon is made safer then it can reduce the need for armour and allow different level of freedom. However one now has the problem that the less threat/danger the weapon poses the braver the scholars become, and can start to do things that they would not if it were real. Also being hit by a "safe" weapon will produce a very difference result than being hit by a real weapon. Again this is less of a problem in set training than it is in free-play. Also modifying the weapons generally stops it from handling like the real thing and this will also change the way the technique works and lead to false assumptions and conclusions.


So what is the answer? What is the right way to train? Well there isn’t one. As said at the beginning there is no way to replicate real violence without injuring and damaging people. However you train it will be fake in some way. One has to recognise what the deliberate flaws are in the training that you are doing. Minimise those flaws as much as possible to make sure that the skills you are developing are not based upon false assumptions or untruths. If you can, counter act the flaw by adding another type of training to your program where that flaw is not present, just remember that the new drill or exercise will also have a flaw in it!

Jonathan Waller

Guild Secretary


  1. Very interesting. I've seen examples of all these training flaws in all the various martial arts i've encountered over the years.
    As sports technology advances the possibility of "safe" weapons and effective protection will further increase - thus allowing for more realistic interpretations of technique. Of course you are right about scholars being braver with no risk of injury associated with failure.
    Perhaps one answer lies in the grey area... Enough protection to avoid "injury" but little enough so there's still pain. As my brother (aikido shodan) says:
    "I said it wouldn't injure you, I never said it wouldn't hurt. Pain is a good teacher."

  2. That's kihon, not kimono in the quote above... otherwise, glad you're getting a lot out of the book.

  3. @Rory thanks for spotting that, it must of gotten caught by my spell check!

    Yes your book has been been one of the most intersting and honest books dealing with martial arts that I have read in years. Looking forward to your new one.