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The great combat art verses combat sport debate

The great combat art verses combat sport debate



What lessons can a student of non sports based styles learn from the development of combats sports and are there any draw backs to the study of competitive martial arts?


During my time studying martial arts I have seen arguments both for and against the use of competition in martial arts practice.  Having trained in different martial arts, some of which are competitive and others that consider themselves as being for life and death struggles only I would like to look at some of the arguments used by both sides of the debate and some of the issues that these two approaches can have on the development of students who are capable of defending themselves.


Non-sporting combat arts

Because Systema is a non-sporting martial art it is only appropriate that I look at the training methodologies used by non-competitive styles and Systema in particular.   Often martial arts that claim to teach battlefield or street combat methods discourage their students from any form of full contact sparring or competition. One of the under pinning beliefs of these systems is often that is simply too dangerous to fight in a sporting event using the methods of their style.  Techniques such as biting and eye gouging are often referred to in their argument that there style are far too deadly to spar.

Take Systema Kadochnikova as an example of this.  One of the key principles of structure breaking is to only attack dangerous and vulnerable points.  As example of this is to tilt an opponent’s head backwards it is easier to do it by sticking fingers in their eyes than pushing on their forehead.  The obvious danger of doing this at full speed is causing permanent damage to the eyes and destroying your training partners health.  Another example is how this principle effects the arts approach is target selection for striking.  Instead of hitting to solid structures such as the body or chin kadochnikov Systema actively targets the throat and ears.  Both of these are very vulnerable and dangerous to strike and in the case of the throat can cause death.  To get around this students of Systema Kadochnikova use slow speed training and have a focus on the person receiving pressure to vulnerable points escaping it by moving with it.  This allows the students to develop familiarity with this principle whilst preventing injuries from occurring.

However there is an obvious problem with this kind of approach!  Full speed application of technique and pressure testing is very dangerous to achieve without some thought given to how it could be done safely.  Some schools of Systema have got around the problem by using protective equipment to pressure test limited skill sets within what they teach.  IZVOR is one of these schools.  It makes use of head guards and gloves to enable students to use powerful strikes to the head during full speed work and use boxing gloves to spar when practicing fist fighting.

ROSS has got around the problems of not sparring full power in their interpretation of Kadochnikov’s work by adding a Sambo, Judo, boxing and bayonet fighting that all can be tested with full speed sparring and competition.  The study of these subjects has been greatly influenced by the material from Systema such as breathing and the use of biomechanics to improve the efficiency of movement when executing techniques.

Some of the modern offshoots from Vladimir Vasiliev’s school have also gone down a similar route.  Kevin Secour’s school, Combat Systema has added the use of grappling and boxing within their syllabus.  One of the advantages of doing this is that the students also learn how to attack properly using these methods of attack.  Also they have an element of situational pressure testing where students work full contact with very cleary defined rolls and goals to the exercises.  This allows them to feed realistic attacks to their training partners when drilling the more traditional Systema material and feel what it is like to work when the opponent resists your efforts to subdue him.

Alex Kostic of Sistema Homoludens Integrated Martial Arts has given his students a number of options for experiencing full speed work.  The first is the addition of a number of full speed drills including multiple opponent fist fighting to his Systema syllabus.  The second is to have a parallel training programme based around MMA.  Students can then choose to train in either both or one of these options depending on their goals and interests.


Judo as an example of competitive martial arts

Though there is a vast variety of approaches and rule sets used by competitive martial arts I would like to examine Judo as a case study to show how the use of competition can effect the development of a martial art from the original traditional style (in this case Ko Ryu Juijitsu) to a modern sport and the effects this can have on the technical development of a style.

In general terms sports fighters have a number of advantages over a non-competitive martial artist as well as some disadvantages that can occur because of the way they train.  Judo has made a transition from martial art that has competitive practice to one that predominantly focuses on sporting excellence since it was first created to popularise the then struggling traditional Japanese combat systems.

In 1882 Judo was created by Jigoro Kano. It took traditional Juijitsu techniques and combined them with randori (a form of full contact sparring with a clearly defined rule set).  Techniques that were too dangerous to be practiced in this manner were either removed altogether or kept aside for paired practice in a number of kata. These form a series of techniques called the Kodokan Goshinjutsu, where students learn self defence techniques both with and without weapons.

In 1964 Judo randori was included for the first time in the Olympics.  This exposed the world to Judo and has probably been one of the biggest influences on its development.  Since the early days of the Olympic movement the study and training of competitors has dramatically changed.  The application of training methods based on science and not culture have altered the way all sports are taught.  Conditioning is one of these areas that have made massive differences in the effectiveness of top level athletes.  Judo is no exception to this.   Modern Judo champions are some of the fittest athletes in the Olympic movement.  They make use of the latest research in nutrition, weight training and other conditioning methods to ensure that they can perform at a level that previous masters and non-competitive martial artists would not dream was possible.  

It can be seen that a modern Judo player is likely to be far more effective in competition that previous masters, but has this come at a cost?  Most modern Judo clubs invest little or no time in the study of Kodokan Goshinjutsu and some of the other kata that are within the original teachings of Kano.  Some of these were designed to teach yielding through soft work and also to introduce students to more traditional forms of Juijitsu, but their practice has all but died out in modern Judo clubs.

Injuries in Judo practice are also common.  With emphasis on competitive success students put their bodies through incredibly rigorous training regimes and the wear and tear of this can cause older students to suffer from a number of injury related conditions once they are beyond their competitive career.  I base this observation from my own contact with Judo fighters including my uncle who has a debilitating neck injury from a competition accident that prevented him continuing in a sport he loved.

It is also worth looking at how rule changes in competition have affected the development of Judo. 

A number of changes to the rules of Judo have led to very different approaches to competition. From 1900 to 1938 when Kano died the rules were regularly clarified and changed according to the contest problems of the time. In particular the prohibited acts repeatedly received quite a lot of attention over this period and it took many years before they were completely observed. Judo it seems was quite a rough activity for the first fifty years of its existence. Apart from the technical prohibitions rules were gradually introduced, which regulated the conduct of judo competitions generally and made them safer for participants.

In early competitions Jiu jitsu schools such as the Fusenryu, Takeuchi-ryu, Yoshin-ryu and others gave the Kodokan masters some very hard times especially with their groundwork and leg locks.  In the early 1900’s Jiu jitsu competitions banned striking, leg / finger and wrist locks and students then no longer had the need for learning how to counter these attacks. Further rule changes to the rule set adopted by Kodokan Judo then placed a greater emphasis on winning a competition by throwing the opponent and a restriction of taking the fight straight to the floor by either kneeling or pulling guard.  Rules that allow fighters to win by restraining an opponent on their back prevent the more combat effective methods of restraining a person in a face down position from being practiced and reduce some of combat effectiveness of modern judo in self defence situations.  This was despite the reason for Kano concentrating on throws in his Judo because he believed they enabled students to fight multiple opponents.

An alternative Judo group to the Kodokan established itself under the Kosen Judo name.  They have a different rule set that favours ground fighters that later led to the establishment of Brazilian Jiu jitsu.  In this arts rule set fighters cannot be won by pins and throws though scored are not decisive. The only way to decisively win a Brazilian Jiu jitsu fight is by submission.  This probably has a lot to do with the arts early development in no holds barred fights with fighters from other combat disciplines. 

One more tactical addition that has been created through sports fighting is the idea of pulling guard.  This is where a fighter goes straight to the floor and attempts to control his opponent from there.  This strategy is used by physically weaker BJJ competitors to prevent themselves from being thrown.  From the guard position they then have the option to either sweep an opponent for points or attack with a variety of submissions.  This has led to some BJJ practitioners spending very little time on practicing stand up fighting and has obvious draw backs for dealing with real fights outside of the controlled arena of a competition.

Another modification of technique due to rule set has come about from Brazilian Jiu jitsu and recently some Judo players making the transition to submission grappling and MMA where fighters do not wear jackets or trousers.  Due to this techniques have been further modified to deal with the lack of clothing that there is to grip and the use of striking in MMA events.



As can be seen in the case study of Judo the addition and altering of rule sets dramatically change the techniques and training methods of martial arts.  This can if left unchecked loose the original purpose of the founders of combat systems that adopt a 100% focus on competition.  However it encourages fighters to make use of the latest sports science to get an edge over opponents and that is something that non-sports arts can definitely learn from. 

Another important point to note about sports styles that compete in full contact events is that their techniques work on opponents who resist and know exactly the types of tactics the opponent may employ.  Practitioners who fight in competition know what it is like to be put under stress and still get their techniques to work.  They also have experience of decision making at full speed, which is a skill that needs developing in both competitive and non-competitive martial artists.  

The negative aspect of competition in martial arts is that it is necessary to introduce rules that differentiate who wins the bouts and keeps both fighters safe from serious injuries.  These rules though necessary can all, but remove the practice of techniques that should be included for self defence reasons. 

So how can martial artists practicing a non-sporting martial art get some of the benefits that a competitor takes for granted.  First we must not ignore research into sports coaching and sports science.  By altering the way we structure lessons and including conditioning specific to the approaches of our fighting styles we can dramatically improve student’s effectiveness.  This means we have to find ways of sparring or adding an element of competition to what we do.  I do not necessarily mean getting in the ring (though I wouldn’t rule it out) and could simply be the full contact / full speed practice of certain skill sets using protective equipment in a manner similar to what  Sistema Homoludens and Izvor both advocate.  What is important though is that like the original concept of Judo competition is not the sole purpose or focus of training.  If this happens the original purpose for study is lost and another sport would be born.




The Kodokan Judo Institute

The international Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation 

Another Judo page

Development of Judo Competition Rules – Syd Hoare  

American Annex of ROSS



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