At least once a week our group engages in dōjō jiai (道場試合), which can be viewed as a form of competitive training. While this has the nuance of being a competition among practitioners in-house, this really isn’t the case for us, as this is more of an umbrella term for a collection of active training methods designed as a means to drive our skills, and see how our martial systems work. As a whole, competitive training assists in flourishing our skill, as well as show which areas need improvements. All these points lead to one critical principle that’s necessary to being a exemplary martial artist: the ability to adapt.
For those that train in sports-oriented systems such as boxing, mixed martial arts, kendō, and the like, and either fight competitively or just focus on the possibility of self defense, competitive training is a useful tool. In kobudō, there are schools that also utilize competitive training. Generally, it is not the main focus of transmission of a martial system, for instead focus is put on kata geiko (形稽古, practice of preset forms) as the main tool for teaching. In kata geiko, we learn to develop structure, and understand key principles of our specific style, or techniques and how they would work under specified conditions. The more we can execute these forms with the correct energy and movements, the better we can present the core essence of our martial system. This is a fine example of “art”.
On the other hand, at some point students need to be tested in some fashion to not only see their level of proficiency, but for themselves to actually use what they are learning in a “live” environment. Many forms of competitive training assist with this, such as sparring, randori, kumite, kumitachi, and so on. While there are different degrees of control that can be placed on this type of training (ranging from rules restricted areas of attack, limitation of specific techniques that can be used, to being completely free form), they all serve the purpose of conditioning us to adapt, which makes it possible to deal with stress and develop insight on how to stay in control in order to win or survive.
Perfectly executed techniques are a testament to one’s ability, but considering an actively resisting opponent won’t just allow it, we must also understand there are moments where we need to adjust our techniques, or reinforce them with other skills, in order for them to work. Just because a technique is done in a particular way during kata geiko doesn’t mean it is valid in all situations. Preset forms can be viewed as “snapshots”, and give validity to the usefulness of the technique itself. However, forms can also be viewed as “not alive”, since in an actual conflict people do not move or respond in only one preset manner. Conflict of all types represent the notion of “war”, and we generally cannot approached them in a scripted manner.
To teach students the concept of adaptation is not only done in competitive training, but more preferably during regular kata geiko itself. Let’s look at a component normally tied with this, which is technique. Fundamentally, we first learn how to do techniques in a set manner to understand its mechanics under set conditions. When those conditions differ due to an attack being at a different height, range, or even scenario, can these techniques still be applied? Realistically yes, for we have to naturally adjust the techniques where they can be applied, enabling them to adapt and be effective according to the vision of one’s martial system. This is only true if techniques themselves retain their core principles. Before this can be achieved during competitive training, bunkai (分解, breaking down the components for analyzing) needs to be incorporated into kata geiko at some point, especially when students show a level of understanding and have grasped the basic movements.
Another aspect of adaptive training is giving students the chance of failure, which is necessary for them to understand this feeling, and how to proceed forward. The idea of “losing” to another can be tough, especially when we hold onto thoughts about being a great & unstoppable martial artist. Yet this is fine, as this can be a demon of sorts that needs to be overcome. Once this is achieved, a person’s perception regarding conflict will change from being a personal endeavor to one that is in tune with everyone and everything around us. Failure can make or break a student, which becomes their own personal challenge when growing as a martial artist, as they’ll need discover that capacity to adapt, and mover forward in order to look at the big picture. Another good point about failure is that it can help to crush ego, which is a big obstacle just about all of us encounter, and need to deal with at some point.
A Japanese saying I learned many years ago that has a strong connection to the idea of adaptation is “banpen fugyō” (万変不驚). Literally, this reads as “10,000 changes, no surprise”. In martial arts, this can be interpreted as how chaotic things can become during a fight, for one’s opponent(s) may attack freely with whatever knowledge or tools they have at hand. Yet, with proper conditioning and a solid foundation, one can stay calm and handle things accordingly through adaptation, no matter what comes at you.