I wasn’t good at sport as a child and I didn’t receive much encouragement or the support that would have pushed me harder to achieve a better standard. Daily sport in school was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. I had trouble enough trying to breathe with inadequately controlled asthma in cold and damp football and rugby in the autumn, winter and spring months, then pollen affecting athletics and cricket in the hot dry summers. Looking back on it now with the benefit of hindsight I can see why I always enjoyed and did so much better in the indoor physical education classes of gymnastics, indoor football and dodgeball.
Whether I was the last person to be picked for a team in rugby, or the first person to be picked for an indoor game of crab football, regardless of age or ability I played the game. It didn’t matter if my catching or passing in rugby was poor – I still played the game despite a low skill level. No-one insisted that I had to be able to catch a fixed percentage of passes or run a distance in a set amount of time before taking part.
Those who were in the school teams didn’t just play the game. They had practise sessions. In those sessions they would practice scrums, conversions, line outs, passing the ball down the line running up and down the pitch. They would isolate skill sets and work on them, or put together various combinations that might give them an advantage in the game. They would however still spend time just playing the game – using their skills in context and gaining a greater ability to adapt through experience of playing the game.
Regardless of how you wish to dress it up, all martial arts and the physical aspects of self protection training are forms of games. There will always be training compromises that differentiate what you do from ‘the real thing’ unless you are already participating in an activity that recognises itself as a ‘sport’, and even then in the contact sports there will be compromises to reduce injury in training and to maximise fitness for any competition event. These create target /no target, contact / no contact, full power / no power, full speed / low speed, stop / don’t stop allowed / not allowed rules that are enforced for safety. No matter how ‘real’ you want your training to be that will always be the case.
Recognising that what you do is a game should be a liberating and empowering experience. Just because it is a game, that doesn’t mean what you do isn’t or cannot be serious. Look at how much money is invested into Sport globally, consider how much time, emotion and money people put into ‘games’. Crucially pay heed to how much empirical research has been done globally in multiple fields to enable coaches to get the best out of participants at every level in every discipline.
If you look at the martial arts from this perspective you can quickly equate doing basics in lines, fixed throwing or ground drills and hitting pads to exercises such as running up and down a field throwing and catching a ball. Depending on your understanding of them and how you integrate them with your other training, forms can be viewed as physical manuals indicating potential interlinking tactics and fundamental training exercises. Fixed sparring combinations are akin to set corner or lineout drills, especially if the one being done is called out beforehand. Isolating and practising basics is important for teaching and refining core skills – but the heart and purpose of training is the game.
The game for us is sparring according to the compromises (rules) that we have put in place. Proficiency at this game comes through a combination of regular exposure with supporting instruction and coaching of isolated elements. I wasn’t stopped from playing football as a child at school because I was too young. The game was simply played at a different pace and with a lower skill level. While I’m sure many of my peers would have benefitted from more skill training isolation in sports while in school, they would not have been motivated to continue without the actual challenge and fun of playing the game.
In the martial arts, particularly in those arts that include striking, we are often so focused on making people ‘safe’ that we delay letting them play the game for far too long and that can negatively affect skill development, attribute development and motivation. If you are letting large groups of people do fixed attacks and defences at full speed with minimal supervision (because one instructor can only see so much) then why wouldn’t you let them choose their attacks and defences at variable speeds? If you feel that confidence or enthusiasm might get the better of some then working in threes with one participant acting as the dedicated ‘eyes on’ safety monitor can ensure both added safety and (through observation of others) additional learning. You can add in greater caveats in terms of restricting techniques (such as no head strikes, no holds, no ground fighting, list allowed throws etc.) according to the rules of your game and the skill level and maturity of the participants. There are many different ways that you can maximise the necessary challenges of free movement, decision making and ‘unpredictability’ while maintaining safety.
The game is the thing. To reach a high proficiency as a participant we need to keep working on the supplementary training, but we must not forget that we are there to play the game.