Riddle of Power

The Riddle of Power

(some fighting philosophy by al-Naqib Rustam ibn Abdallah, al-Faris SCA)

This article brings together some ideas I posted out to Facebook a while back when the Summits was being introspective about its gauging of sword blows.

I herein am addressing the idea characterized by the statement, “I don’t feel obligated to take clean shots that were light due to being executed with poor technique.” This notion is not new or unique. It has come to us from our roots in the West and has a valid reason for existence…though I would argue that it also has some serious pitfalls.

If I remember right, Jade once told me that there are 4 categories of basic fighting skills, and that most fighters specialize more in one area or another in their fighting. I recall him categorizing them as Range, Timing, Power, and Accuracy. At the time I remember thinking that Jade was interesting because, on a scale of 1 to 10, he was really only an 8…but he was an 8 in all 4 categories…which rendered him not an overwhelming fight…but a consistently victorious one.

An Tir is a child of the West and the West is where the SCA first arose. In that fatherland, fighting evolved from friends flailing at each other with whatever sticks were at hand to, a complex and skilled martial art. Great schools of fighting developed, founded by hard-working innovators. Their skills got passed along through generations of fighters. All these schools of fighting worked at all 4 of the categories that Jade posited, though surely many specialized more in one area or another.

Each school of fighting has its own thoughts about what comprises “good technique”. And those techniques best support the aspects of the fight that are considered most important to that school.

It is clear how Range, Timing, and Accuracy each play a significant part in getting a stick into contact with ones opponent. Each is an essential skill, and can be made better through training. Their success is easily measured in successfully evading one’s opponent’s defense and getting your stick on them. This can be nearly as easy to measure from outside of the armor as it is from within. “Was the person struck?” This can be slightly refined by, “were they struck cleanly?” Striking cleanly, without being struck, shows ultimate success in the areas of Range, Timing, and Accuracy.

You have probably noticed that I left aside the fighting aspect of Power. Just like the other aspects of the fight, striking with power takes technique and work. Hitting with power is more difficult than hitting lightly. Hitting with power comes at a cost, in making your shots more obvious (though good technique can compensate for this).

Just like the other aspects of fighting, a fighter can specialize in the aspect of Power. Their shots may blow right through half-hearted defenses and will certainly demand more attention when they arrive on target.

Good technique, in regards to power, is measured by how hard your blow strikes, how little effort was required to produce that result, and how well it can be applied to moments of opportunity.

Hitting with power is “good martial arts” and has “authenticity”. Clearly, with a real sword, it is important to not just strike but also to impart damage. Hitting with power does your opponent honor by giving them the most “real” fight possible.

(An interesting aside is how the aspect of Accuracy can, like power, relate to the reasonable expectation of delivering damage. A light, but very Accurate hit to the eye would be quite damaging).

Where the aspect of Power is unique is in that it is very difficult to judge from outside of the armor being struck (though the person striking has some sense of it too). It is in this area, more than any other, that we find ourselves heavily reliant on the honor and sound-judgment of our fellow fighters.

Our fighting sport, and its rules, are a living result of the pressures of many varied interests. Every school of fighting wants to see the value of their emphasized fighting Aspects be acknowledged and rewarded by our rules and customs of combat. Range fighters would rather see a game with absolutely no shoving and crowding, a game where their mastery of the edge of range could rule. Speed fighters might want to see a game where people stood their ground and “gun fight”…not so much running about. Accuracy fighters might want to see big shields where their ability to hit a tiny available target would prove the most important skill. Power fighters would most want to see a game where only the hardest of hits are acknowledged, thereby rendering their fighting most successful. In the end, we end up with rules and customs that form some sort of compromise…and those boundaries move around some from time to time, from Kingdom to Kingdom, and with the strength of the personalities that are key proponents of the various aspects.

So, back to our original statement; “I don’t feel obligated to take clean shots that were light due to being executed with poor technique.” Taken in the context of our fighting art we can see how a statement like this arises from a natural desire to promote the aspect of Power in SCA fighting. If everyone would simply abide by this rule, then those that emphasized power in their techniques would be most successful. It is natural for people of this school to desire this. And it is natural for the other Aspects to apply their own pressures to keep the compromise.

All this is as it should be. But…remember what made the aspect of Power unique? It can only fully be judged by the person being struck, while the success of the other aspects can be pretty well judged by spectators. When determining who wins a fight, this aspect makes Power uniquely problematic.

Before going deeper into these problems, let us examine the “…due to being executed with poor technique” part of our statement. If we are honest, even if there is a specific level of power that should be expected from a blow, it shouldn’t matter what kind of technique resulted in that power. If it hit hard enough, it hit hard enough. Admittedly, some techniques are more likely to produce a hard blow, but the ultimate measure is how much power actually arrived.

So why this mention of “…executed with poor technique”? The real answer is that we can see the kind of technique generally being used by the opponent and form an opinion as to whether that would be likely to result in a powerful hit. Why do we try to form that opinion? Because, on some level, we know that accurately judging just how hard a blow struck us is difficult at best.

The appeal to technique is a cheat that attempts to supplement the difficulty with actually gauging the strength of a blow. In the worst cases, a fighter might not take a blow, no matter how hard it hit, due to a preconceived notion of its likely power based on their observation of their opponent’s technique (which might well just be different, rather than ineffective).

There are a lot of reasons why we might not be able to accurately judge the fine-points of power regarding a blow that is striking us:

  • I have already observed that my opponent does not throw very hard, so I don’t expect the shot to be very hard.
  • I believe that I did something to defend myself (sometimes this belief, even in the case of a completely failed defense can influence the experience of the incoming blow).
  • Blows feel different on different parts of the body.
  • Blows feel different on those parts of the body depending on what that part of the body is doing at the time (tense vs. relaxed, breathing in vs. breathing out).
  • Blows feel different on different kinds of armor.
  • Blows feel different depending on how that armor is hanging and if it dents on impact.
  • Different kinds of blows feel different… a light-weight sword moving very fast …a heavy sword moving a bit slower…a snapping blow vs. a cleaving blow…all can hit with equal destructive power but feel very different.
  • We have a lot of other stuff on our minds (like trying to hit and trying to not be hit).
  • Physiologically our bodies become increasingly less sensitive to pain as our stress level increases (even to nearly super-human degrees in the case of severe injuries).
  • How our experience is modified by our desires and expectations.
  • How experience immediately becomes memory, and how memory changes permanently over time, modified by our other experiences, desires, and expectations.
  • I was busy thinking about the next blow I was going to throw…
  • It was one blow among a flurry of other blows…
  • It all happened so quick…
  • And many more.

When we fight we can, with reasonable assurance tell when we have been struck, and with at least some assurance tell how completely that strike did, or did not, evade our defense. Even spectators can tell this much with a moderate degree of accuracy. What is truly difficult, perhaps impossible, is for a fighter to be truly certain about exactly how hard that incoming blow struck.

This is a difficult evaluation to make in the present instant of a fight and there is little anyone can do to help you with it.

I believe we all want to be fair to our opponents. I understand why reputable schools of SCA fighting have a vested interest in promoting Power as one of the key determiners of a fight’s outcome, and I think that Power is an important aspect of SCA fighting that informs its greatness as a martial art and martial sport. All that said I hope people will, in consideration of all the above arguments consider revising their method of deciding whether they have been defeated or not.

Consider the following decision-making process:

Was I struck?

No…then I must not be defeated.

-I was struck…did it, at least in part hit my defenses?

No…then in all likely hood I have been defeated…I certainly failed in my martial objective regardless of how hard the blow seemed to hit.

-I was struck but got some defense in against it…

Did I defend myself enough?….Here is the only place where we really need to think seriously about gauging at all. Considering all of the things that can make a blow feel less powerful than it actually was, I think we should be seriously weighted towards giving our opponents the benefit of the doubt. It is OK to have a discussion about it if necessary, but remember that your opponent is going to be very hesitant to just come right out and say “dude, I really smacked you.” If you take a light shot, you give your opponent the chance to be heroic and call off the shot.

I understand where the statement, “I don’t feel obligated to take clean shots that were light due to being executed with poor technique” comes from. At its best it is a defense of one of the important aspects of swordsmanship, Power. At its worst, this line of thought becomes a “convenient” crutch that leads the adherent to blithely ignore shots while never realizing that they are cheating their opponents (and themselves). I’ve even seen it lead to skilled fighters no longer even trying to block shots, since they think they “know” those shots will be “light”.

I hope fighters will consider these many things and not put too much faith in their ability to “gauge” accurately. Please do hit hard. It is important. I believe that hitting your opponents hard will engender in them a natural desire to hit you hard in return (even if you are willing to concede defeat to a lesser blow). This is to be encouraged. Communicate with your fellow fighters in practice fights to help them know whether their efforts to strike with power are successful. Let social pressure and leading by example take care of the nurturing the aspect of Power in our fighting game, rather than making it a very problematic central condition of victory. I will take a light blow… but don’t think that I won’t mock you for it.

I encourage my fellow fighters to make “gauging” a smaller part of their “was that shot good?” evaluative process when competing. Aim at being a great fighter. Winning only because you think your opponent may not have been striking quite hard enough is hardly a victory at all.

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