A while back I was involved in a debate over whether a martial arts instructor with “combat experience” (had been in fights) was superior to an instructor who had not. The debate raged between camps that argued that martial arts had already been “combat tested” through the centuries so it was the arts techniques that mattered, not the fighting experience of the instructor. Others stood on the premise that it was “the dog in the fight” that mattered. They said that the instructors experience gave him more insight in how to transmit the arts fighting skills. I argued that “Real world fighting experience” was a necessity when developing or advancing a new fighting system; as the focus of any system of combat should be “combat effectiveness”. But I added that it wasn’t “necessary” that the person teaching that system had to have used the techniques himself to be a valid instructor.
I made an analogy of the relationship between “combat experience” and martial arts instruction to a sport I used to participate in…rock climbing.
Climbing is a very technical sport. There are specific physical techniques for climbing different features and various ways to use your hands and feet to adhere to the rock. Beyond using your body, there are ropes and knots. There’s hardware with specific uses and precise applications; carabineers, descenders, cams+chocks, harnesses, chalk, webbing and on and on. Many climbers (me) start by top roping (rope goes from ground to top and back to climber, so you don’t fall more than a few feet) or gym climbing. This is a safe environment where you can practice technique, train with gear and even compete. Many climbers never leave this level and that’s OK, it’s as close to a real cliff as you can get without a real cliff. The skills built here can be applied to the “real thing”. Most walls are 50′-100′.
“Real” rock climbing is called lead climbing. A length of rope connects two climbers. One climbs up placing anchors and clipping the rope through them as he goes. The length of fall depends on how far back your last anchor is and if it holds. Once the rope runs out the leader sets up an anchor system called a belay and the second climber climbs up, removing the anchors and the system repeats. I’ve climbed faces as high as 800′-900′ and those are on the small side of average.
The first time I “lead” a climb, it was an eye-opener…. I had the technical skills; I knew the ropework, the knots, and the gear placement techniques. I could climb gym routes 2-3 grades higher than the cliff I was on BUT…. I could die here, I was getting way up, I was getting scared, my physical technique was degrading, I was clinging and scrambling more than I was climbing, I was slapping in anchors as quick as I could (OK was good enough, #@$% perfect). I learned that some techniques I could pull off in the gym I couldn’t do (yet) on the face so I tossed them. Many times I “just did things” without thought, sometimes there were moments of “wow I actually planned to do that and I did”. I did it though and made it to the top.
Did the gym training help? Couldn’t have done without it. Did it apply on the cliff? Yep. Did “real” climbing improve my technique? That is a qualified “yes”, yes in the sense that it gave me a better grasp on what I had to work on back in the gym. It gave me a different perspective on what my training produced and my “real” (current) ability to apply what I learned. Was the “real” climbing “necessary”? Obviously no. I did my first climb successfully with what I had. If I lived near real cliffs and could climb on them regularly I probably could have improved my technique with constant practice on them, if I survived. Did “real” climbing give me more clout in teaching a new climber? Not really, there are many climbers WAY better than me in the gym and on the cliff , BUT…I think I could give a new climber a better grasp on what the “real” thing is like and what he should know, at a minimum, to reach the top than a gym only climber. I would advise him to get better training on technique than I could provide though.
Now an analogy can’t be perfect in all its facets. I chose to climb, it wasn’t something I was forced into or would rather have avoided like a fight. But this is as close to an explanation of “experience counts” as I can make right now.