Expressin' aggression

April 10, 2003, midnight | By Anna Benfield | 17 years, 9 months ago

Combat sports lose the violence and gain popularity

Junior Daniel Jaeggi looks into his opponent's eyes as the two circle one another. Hands cocked next to his head, he waits for the slightest twitch to betray an incoming attack. Finally, he makes his move, landing a punch to his competitor's head.

"Stop!" comes the call from the judge. Jaeggi is declared the winner and bows to his sparring partner before stepping out of the ring at Hill's Hitters Karate School. The U.S. Martial Arts Federation Code of Ethics explains that bowing plays an essential role in developing the respectful attitude that martial arts embody.

The brutality and bloodshed that once characterized ancient and medieval combat sports are becoming less prevalent in modern competitions, including martial arts, fencing and paintballing. Every week, Blazers raise edgeless swords, padded fists and non-lethal guns in sports they say do not promote aggression but instead help them work against violent tendencies.

Safety valve

Many participants in martial arts say their experience has provided them with an outlet for aggression and a source of confidence, maturity and control.

Senior Jake Winfield first became involved with Tae Kwon Do in elementary school as a way to overcome his problems with excessive anger. He learned to funnel his aggression into training. "I'm glad that I did [martial arts] because I am scared of what I would be like without it," he says. "I wouldn't have any kind of self-control."

Junior Izal Saddler, who now kickboxes, admits he used to get into fights "just for the hell of it." Saddler laughs, saying that people "with a little too much testosterone" can use regulated fighting as a safe and constructive way to vent frustrations.

Ultimately, Winfield is grateful he learned to be more peaceful at home and in school. "When people make me mad now, I want to get into fights, but I don't," he says. "There's something really strong holding me back."

But competition in combat sports is not guaranteed to turn an aggressive person into a pacifist. "Martial arts will only teach you to be a better person if you are willing to learn," says Sadler.

En garde!

Fencing can also be a good teacher in non-violence and an emotional outlet, says Janusz Smolenski, a coach at D.C. Fencing Club. He believes fencing trains people to make smart decisions and react quickly to avoid dangerous situations. "Fencing is not only about being fast and having great endurance; it's about using your mind," he says.

Modern fencing bears little resemblance to the dueling of old, says sophomore Max Czapanskiy. Instead of fighting for blood or to the death, modern fencers now wear electronic padding that registers hits to help keep score. "[Fencing] is about as civilized as you can get while still have something resembling a sword in your hand," says Czapanskiy, citing the minimal force needed to strike for a point.

Czapanskiy credits the sword-play in his favorite movie, The Princess Bride, with inspiring him to become involved with the sport that has earned him an national ranking of 44th in the upper youth division. This summer, he plans to travel with his coach to Romania, the Czech Republic, Moscow and Italy to fence with their national teams.

Ballin' under fire

Like Czapanskiy, junior Doula Scheid has taken his game to the next level, paintballing in local tournaments. He says paintball-ing is "safer than bowling," especially after advances in safety equipment, and is outraged at the sport's negative attention.

Junior Robert Keach chimes in, calling paintballing the "most friendly sport ever," because most participants don't get defensive or vengeful after getting hit. "Half the fun of paintballing is talking about it afterwards," says Keach as he and junior Keenan Gallagher begin laughing and joking about past victories and foibles.

Paintballing is part of a new wave of increasingly popular "extreme sports" that are more strategic and mentally demanding than many people recognize, according to junior Mairead Hunter. Communication and teamwork are essential as the team advances into enemy territory. "There's so much noise, everyone's yelling, and you have to be looking around constantly," says Hunter.

She claims her fear of the hard airborne paintballs contributes to the fun of the adrenaline rush. While bruises and welts are common battle wounds for paintballers, Hunter considers these injuries insignificant compared to those suffered by athletes in full-contact sports.

Despite the violent implications of a sport that involves firing and diving away from flying bullets, Hunter defends the players' approach as motivated more by gaming strategy than "primal war instincts."

Phil Hill, Jaeggi's instructor, says that the principles of martial arts ring true for fencing and paintballing, as sports that positively develop the body and mind. He says, "It's not about beating people up; rather, it's a mechanism for doing better in life."

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

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