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Sparring>Fundamentals>Evolution of sparring>Counting Coop

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Counting Coop

Martial art competition point sparring may be compared to the “counting coup” of Native Americans. Sparring is when two martial artists spar, or play fight, against each other. In point sparring, points are awarded when an allowed attack comes close to a permitted target area and the attack is delivered with power, proper form, and precise focus. Focus is where all power is concentrated at a precise point that may be inside the target (to injure), on the surface of the target (to cause pain), or just short of the target (to warn). Some point sparring competitions may allow the attack to “lightly touch” the target. This is what point sparring is, but what is “counting coup,” and how does it relate to point sparring?

Coup stick

Before the arrival of Europeans in North America, warfare among the plains Indians, particularly the Lakota, was considered a rough "game" in which killing an enemy was not as important as "counting coup." Counting coup meant rushing up to an enemy, usually on horseback, and simply touching him with the hand or with a decorated wooden “coup stick.” In essence, the warrior was stating, "I could have killed you, but I did not, and there was nothing you could have done to stop me!" A coup showed disdain for the enemy as not being worthy of killing. To a warrior, to die in battle was the ultimate honor, so it was a huge disgrace to be merely touched by the enemy in a battle.

War bonnet

Since the eagle was considered the spirit closest to the creator, eagle feathers were sacred to American Indians. Any warrior could possess an eagle feather, but he could only wear an eagle feather after he had earned a verified coup during battle. Thus, wearing an eagle feather was a great honor and commanded respect amongst other warriors. The more coups a warrior earned; the more eagle feathers the warrior could wear. Thus, when a warrior earned many coups, his fellow warriors would donate eagle feathers to create a headdress of eagle feathers that signified the warrior’s coups, and they would give the headdress (war bonnet) to the warrior to signify their honoring of his greatness.

Point-sparring is like counting coop

In point sparring, the fighters do not seek to injure the opponent with attacks. The fighters only seek to touch the opponent and earn a score. In effect, they are stating to the opponent, “I could have hurt you, but I did not, and there was nothing you could have done to stop me!”

The purpose of outscoring the opponent in point sparring falls short of trying to disgrace or dishonor the opponent in war, but it does reflect the need to feel superior to the opponent. Martial artists show respect to a fighter who collects the most points (coups) and reward the fighter with a trophy or medal. The more awards the fighter collects the greater the fighter’s respect in the fighting community.

Point sparring of modern martial art fighters is similar to the “counting coup” of great Native American warriors; however, one should consider what happened to the Lakota who put more importance on “counting coup” in battle than on killing the enemy. The Lakota were defeated by the Europeans whose only purpose in battle was to kill the enemy. 

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