By Tim Hall
“Every wrestling must consist of three things. The first one is skill, the second one is speed, and the third one is the proper application of strength.” – Ott Jud, medieval wrestling master
Joint locks. Strikes. Gouges. Slams. These and many other debilitating techniques are found throughout the medieval sources detailing unarmed combat. The brutal yet efficient nature is what draws many people to practice the medieval and Renaissance art of Ringen (the German term for “wrestling”). Historically, many of the techniques were used to maim or kill in both self-defense as well as combat on the battlefield. On the other hand, our martial ancestors also trained techniques that could be used safely against a resisting partner at full speed, often for recreation. Today, practice of these safer “sport” techniques is sometimes criticized by modern practitioners for not reflecting “real life” fighting. This is an unfair criticism, as the combat techniques (i.e. the more destructive actions) require that a partner be cooperative in order to perform safely. This means that a student who focuses purely on the combat technique cannot practice against a fully resisting partner, which leads to an incomplete understanding of the art in terms of speed, timing, Fühlen and required force. Students of Ringen, much like the medieval practitioners, need to practice both combat and sport techniques together in order to develop fully functional fighting ability.
Our ancestors practiced wrestling for fun (in competition or recreation) as well as for deadly encounters. Masters such as Fabian von Auerswald talk about friendly wrestling, and even show the game Ringen im Grublein which Auerswald admits is funny to watch (please see the end of this article for more information). Ringen masters did not specifically single out which techniques were for sport. They did, however, single out “forbidden wrestling” (such as seen in Sigmund Ringeck’s treatise or Codex Wallerstein), actions that are too dangerous to use in friendly competition, such as knee stomps and finger breaking. This shows that historically the masters trained for friendly wrestling as well as earnest combat in unison. In a way, it is largely unfair of us in the modern world to call some techniques “sport”, since the historical masters did not (and indeed, many of the techniques that modern people label as sport could be used in a real fight). Nevertheless, the distinction is often made in the modern world, and because of this, a distinction will also be made for this article for the purposes of showing why both forms need to be practiced in conjunction. This article will use the word “combat” to refer to the more destructive actions, and “sport” will refer to the techniques that can be performed against a resisting partner with a low chance of injury.
The more brutal techniques appeal to the inner HEMA-warrior. Many modern practitioners focus entirely on the combat material, as it feels like “the real deal”. The more dangerous techniques, however, require that partners modify posture, distance, applied force and timing for the sake of safety. This can lead to errors in interpretation and judgement. For example, students cannot properly learn how to sense pressure or angle to know the right moment to perform a technique, or how to develop a flow from one action to the next. Wrestling relies on these skills and practicing with speed and resistance helps to develop them. The techniques are dependent on whether an opponent is pushing or pulling, or whether an opponent puts one leg forward or the other, and the practitioner not only needs to be able to sense these elements in the moment, but also learn how to provoke these sorts of responses from the opponent while under pressure. To be able to make proper decisions under fire is the very heart of combat, and the ability to learn this can’t always come from a cooperative training partner. After learning how to sense pressure and timing against a resisting opponent, these skills can easily be brought back into the combative training by modifying certain elements of the techniques. One only needs to understand where the sport techniques and combat techniques can be interchangeable. A few of these interchangeable techniques can be seen in the video below:
When trained together properly, the sportive medieval wrestling material can provide necessary insight to make combative training more effective. Training and drilling sport techniques allows a person to develop decision making skills based on distance, timing, and feeling the changes of pressure that an actively resisting opponent makes. These are the same concepts as Fühlen and Indes at the sword. Ultimately, the actual application of skills through free wrestling becomes an important end goal of training; if you cannot utilize a skill in the context it was designed for then you don’t fully understand it. Free wrestling, in addition to drilling, is an important tool to help develop sensitivity to an opponent’s intentions as well as identify weaknesses in understanding of the art.
The similarities between an arm drag and an arm bar provide an easily understandable example of how training a sport technique allows a martial artist to practice and explore the application of a combat technique without injuring a partner. An arm drag is a safe action where a fighter pulls the opponent’s arm across the body to acquire a more dominant position or to set up a follow on attack. Alternately, there is the arm bar, which is similar but aims to damage the elbow by pulling an opponent’s arm straight and applying pressure behind the joint. A student who only learns the destructive arm bar must always work with a partner who cooperates, and therefore does not learn to feel if the technique is right for the situation. If a student, however, is proficient with the use of arm drags and able to utilize the skill in free wrestling against a resisting opponent, then that student could easily be taught to modify the mechanics in order to attack the elbow joint. Training and experience utilizing the safe arm drag in free wrestling would help the student to develop a realistic sense of timing, distance, and application. The student can still easily change the technique to the more destructive arm bar, but with a better sensitivity to when it actually applies to the fight. Similar combative skills could be trained with an understanding of how and when to use it based on sport techniques and drilling experience.
The following four step process provides a simple model for learning a new skill in a way that helps a practitioner develop an understanding of actual application. This can later be applied to the equivalent combat technique. In order, a practitioner should learn:
- Basic performance – At this step the focus should be on learning to perform the basic mechanics of a technique. The initial goal should be to perfect gross motor movement. As the technique starts to feel more natural, more attention should be paid to the finer details of mechanics. For now a practitioner should concentrate on repetition with no resistance from the partner.
- Timing and movement – Now that the practitioner understands how to perform a technique, focus should be directed towards learning how and when it can be used. At its most fundamental level this means understanding timing and manipulation of momentum through movement. Drilling should incorporate mobility and varying degrees of resistance as well as decision making drills to determine when or when not to use a technique. Attempts should be made to apply the technique in limited free wrestling against a fully resisting partner.
- Set up – Once basic application is understood, training should focus on setting up the ideal conditions for a technique with movement or in combination with other attacks. At this step a student should practice ways of manipulating the opponent with set up and follow on actions. The goal is to shift the opponent’s balance in such a way that will allow the technique to be applied naturally, such as getting the person to load body weight onto a particular leg, or tricking the opponent into pressing forward so that their momentum can be used against them. Practitioners should use experimentation in drills and free wrestling to discover different set ups and follow on actions.
- Combative variation – After a student develops the proper understanding of a sport technique, the previous stages can be applied to the corresponding combative variation. Steps 1-3 can be re-examined with consideration of changes necessary for the more dangerous version. At this point a practitioner has already developed an appreciation for how a technique might work under pressure and resistance without having to injure a partner to gain this knowledge. When training combat techniques, the safer variants can be substituted in as a means to practice against a resisting partner in free wrestling in order to examine a opponent’s response to a similar action.
The video below gives an example of how drilling for sport develops better reactions for combat techniques. It begins with a drill for an arm drag. This leads to a decision making drill where the opponent might or might not resist, and the techniques used are based on those reactions. After becoming proficient in how and why to apply certain techniques under pressure for sport, the combat application is added.
Sport training can be implemented to varying degrees. For example, a group could spend the majority of its time doing sport techniques, but follow up with targeted classes focusing on how to apply those to real-life situations with combative variations. It is also possible to have beginning students spend time doing only sport techniques and work up to safe free wrestling before they are allowed to practice the combat techniques. There are plenty of possibilities, but ultimately students should be able to identify the modifications being used when practicing a combat technique safely and have experience applying similar techniques against fully resisting opponents. More importantly, the sport and combat sides of Ringen should not be divorced from one another. Historically they were not separated, and the modern Historical European Martial Artist needs to practice the entire spectrum of techniques in order to truly understand Ringen.
Tim Hall is an instructor of the Virginia Academy of Fencing’s Historical Swordsmanship division where he heads the Ringen program. He has a background in competitive folkstyle wrestling, and has studied the German Liechtenauer tradition and its various weapons for many years at VAF. His true passion, however, is breathing life back into the historical art of Ringen from the 15th and 16th century treatises, particularly of the Renaissance master Fabian von Auerswald. Tim is a certified HEMA Alliance instructor for Ringen, and is also in charge of the Ringen tournaments at Longpoint and the Washington DC HEMA Open. He has been invited to teach Ringen all across the United States at major events.