The English Bulldog and the fighter
Ah, the English Bulldog, companion of Churchill, symbol of courage as a small island fought back against a continent overrun by genocidal Nazis.
I like to think that the title of this post will attract feisty patriots bursting with national pride.
Attract them and then go somewhere unexpected.
It’s not just the Britain firsters* I’d like to go somewhere else, it’s pretty much every martial artist, perhaps even anyone engaged in sports, or dance.
Let’s invite the bulldog to gnaw a bone (you choose what size and species) and take a little look inside of some brains with the peak shift principle.
Peak shift principle
This psychological phenomenon is typically known for its application in animal discrimination learning. In the peak shift effect, animals sometimes respond more strongly to exaggerated versions of the training stimuli. For instance, a rat is trained to discriminate a square from a rectangle by being rewarded for recognizing the rectangle. The rat will respond more frequently to the object for which it is being rewarded to the point that a rat will respond to a rectangle that is longer and more narrow with a higher frequency than the original with which it was trained. This is called a supernormal stimulus. The fact that the rat is responding more to a 'super' rectangle implies that it is learning a rule.
This effect can be applied to human pattern recognition and aesthetic preference. Some artists attempt to capture the very essence of something in order to evoke a direct emotional response. In other words, they try to make a 'super' rectangle to get the viewer to have an enhanced response. To capture the essence of something, an artist amplifies the differences of that object, or what makes it unique, to highlight the essential features and reduce redundant information. This process mimics what the visual areas of the brain have evolved to do and more powerfully activates the same neural mechanisms that were originally activated by the original object.
What does this have to do with Bulldogs? Well Bulldogs were originally bred for a purpose - bull baiting and various other kinds of animal fighting. In these fights a bull was tethered and dogs were released to attack it, with bets placed on which dog would bring the bull to the ground by grabbing its muzzle. This was not exactly risk free for the dogs, and many would be maimed or killed. Naturally the breed adapted to its purpose developing heavy bodies, thick necks big heads and powerful jaws and an extremely aggressive attitude.
Fortunately this kind of animal cruelty became outlawed, which meant that the bulldog was no longer bred towards its original purpose. Kennel club standards for the breed became the new goal. Dogs at shows won by displaying the most pronounced attributes of the breed.
These days English bulldogs need to be born by caesarian section, they typically do not live longer than six or seven years, they have breathing problems. They are victims of esthetic before function. You might argue that the life of a modern Bulldog involves more suffering than one that was gored by bulls. Fortunately the cruelty of modern breeding practises is being questioned, and health of the animals is being given more weight than before.
Let’s take a sideways step which parallels the bulldog’s story. Here are some 19th century Sumo wrestlers, and here are modern Sumo. Obviously there are high ranking Sumo wrestlers that still conform to the earlier shape.
(I still like Sumo - this is not an attack on the ritual/sport/tradition)
Beyond shape we can also see this in martial technique or sport. Sports distinguish themselves from each other by emphasising certain aspects of movement, by having different measures of success. In some cases this leads to developments that are impressive in their way, in others less so.
This is what happens to a martial art when it becomes Olympic taekwondo.
and here is a best of rio 2016
I remember watch an olympic match in which the competitors bounced around not quite throwing kicks until time and a winner was somehow called. I can’t find it now - so here is some bronze medal bouncing with a few kicks.
The athletes are supple and can kick - but the rules tend towards this kind of pseudo combat.
This is what happens in grappling when the emphasis is on the ground.
Cool stuff and there’s plenty more - even if it's not very adapted to situations where the ground is hard and stomping happens. These grapplers could probably still pull these moves off on a lot of people though.
And then you get stuff like this - tactically fine within the rules (and Paolo Miyao is a great grappler) but butt-scooting is a transitionary stage of human development and we have evolved bipedalism for a reason
You’ve probably been waiting for me to take this to Chinese martial arts. Because so few Chinese martial arts engage in serious no cooperative sparring they are at the greatest risk of being distorted or esthetic reasons.
Obviously this is true of modern sport Wushu forms where appearance is everything.
But what about the ‘traditional styles’. Can you honestly look at a a Taiji form whether done by a renowned master from the Chen village, or someone doing circle walking and palm changes and say that what they practise has not been influenced by the Peak shift principle?
Here’s an admission - and perhaps what will lead to the most useful link in this article. The idea to write this came from Steve Morris. So I’ll quote him directly. (I’ll refer you to this FB post which links to the article. It is a better read than than this one. If you are not familiar with Steve then I suggest that you follow the links and buy the DVDs. Once you go down his rabbit hole it’s hard to come out unchanged. I have no connection to Steve other than what I've read and watched, which has influenced me in a number of ways).
“And you could see that at some point in martial arts history, when the reality checks fell away because of peacetime or bans on duelling or whatever, the key points that had been taught as essential to the fight would have become exaggerated. They would have become an art form in themselves, about aesthetics and not about function. And into the ‘art form’ would have come the misinterpretations, the additional flourishes, the idiosyncracies of the teacher, and even the imagination of the individual. So very quickly you’ve lost track of what was important.”
“When I’m dealing with guys who have been ‘karate-imprinted’ one quick fix I use is I’ll show them how the natural pattern has become exaggerated in their system, and I’ll also show them the natural dynamics and tactics that could underlie it. I can show you how to redirect your emphasis so that you’re not actually removing the pattern, you’re just returning it to its natural source. A lot of movements underlying karate can be restored to their natural form; that’s why I used to call what I did Original Form Boxing (the name didn’t catch on, so I dumped it.) When I was in Goju-kai and people were trying to teach me these robotics, I was applying the same principle to what they taught me. In other words, I was automatically referencing the natural patterns in what I did. I did this through the full range of stances, everything. I was looking for something which wasn’t documented or contained in kata, but I knew it once must have been there in order for karate to ever have been effective. That’s why I started to research the reflex and behavioural patterns of the body.”
If you are training in a traditional style then as well as the overall idea of how peak shift affects or distorts arts the underlined sentences have are extremely valuable. If you have the capacity to do what Steve did. This is not given. The clues that you will need come from researching genuine violence and engaging in risky, high intensity fights of various kinds. You can also remember these ideas next time you see some martial arts discussion where someone says ‘Yes they won that fight/competition, but they did not use real Taiji (or name your art) principles’
The people who write this are often caught in their ideals of what they think the martial arts should be, based on generations of distortion. Those conversations may become increasingly tiresome to you. They are to me. Especially since these people never seem to be able to post video of these ‘principles’ being used outside of some kind of controlled and scripted context.
If you accept the premise of this article it leaves you with three choices with respect to 'traditional' martial arts.
The first is simply accept that you prefer the esthetics to applicability, that what you are doing has actually very little to do with combat.
The second is to research what underlies the esthetics, and wean yourself away from the exaggeration towards natural movement patterns - to try and reconstruct the original art. This is interesting, but fraught with difficulty. A kind of inverted variation is to start from a functional combat oriented base then research or 'mine' other martial arts for concepts and principles that have genuine use.
The final choice is to do what Steve suggest and cut yourself free from traditional styles, to make the most of his research and do your own.
Whatever you do is up to you, I just want more people to recognise when they are turning themselves into modern Bulldogs.
Bulldog by Paul Hudson
Sumo by Ian Kennedy
Lieselotte by Alexander Lemke
* Britain first is a racist xenophobic nationalist group
You might even consider buying them for yourself - or giving them as gifts!