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A trip up North

I have just come back from teaching seminar in Oulu, a charming little town in the North of Finland. Friday afternoon was spent doing game development with our game designer for the new card game, which is coming on very nicely. I was asked to run a conditioning class before the intermediate class that evening, and it seemed to me most useful to skip the usual jumppa* nonsense, and actually teach the people present something useful. We ran through the beginning of the basic warmup, and then spent 25 minutes working on the basic push-up. We separated the push-up position from the motion, and took them separately. We used a spear or long stick to establish a straight line between heels, hip and head. The stick should touch the back of the head (chin tucked), the middle of the thoracic spine, the tailbone, and the heels. Having found the position, the trick is to keep it as you go down. For most people during the push up the relationship between body and stick changes. It should not. We did this in pairs, one person spotting the other.

Then it was time to look at the stabilisation of the scapulae. We established the correct relationship of the scapulae to the spine, for the purpose of generating force forwards, and then found that everybody was breaking that connection when going down in the push-up. We practiced the motion standing up, and established that everybody could do it properly when there was no stress on the system. So then we did it against a wall, again spotting each other. We then tried to do the push-up correctly, keeping the scapulae stable, up from start to finish. As expected, nobody could do it. But they all understood why they should train towards it.

Then it was time for squats. Mechanically, the squat is a lesson in the correct relationship of spine, hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Leaning forward has no place in a good squat. So we did them facing the wall. Knees should not go forwards over the toes. So we did them in pairs spotting each other. Chins should not come up, so we did them with plastic drinking glasses held between jaw and chest. To help with this we also did Pythagoras stepping. By the end of the 45 minute class, everyone had a new understanding of the mechanical depth of our basic warmup, and seemed to be very keen to develop perfect push-ups and perfect squats.

This was followed by an intermediate-level class. I think it came as something as a shock to most of those involved, throwing them in the deep end as it were. But while many of them may have had trouble keeping up, none drowned. We started with the cutting drill as usual, and then worked some of the approach variations using the pell. This broke them out of the set-drill mentality, and set them up to work on the first couple of steps of first drill.  Entering into measure to strike, without leaving an opening of your opponent to exploit, is tricky. We train this by allowing the defender to enter with a thrust to the face if you leave the opening. Ideally, the attacker will either leave no opening and force the parry, or deliberately invite the defender’s entry onto his prepared defence. We gradually increased the level of complexity to eventually allow the defender to enter, parry and strike, or counter-attack as he saw fit, and the attacker to either invite the entry, feint to generate the parry or the counter-attack, and in each case ideally to strike.  Of course they swiftly stopped paying attention to blade relationship.  So we threw that in there.

We used this escalating complexity to find areas of weakness in the group as a whole and in the individual swordsmen, and allowed time for the students to correct their own personal weaknesses, using their knowledge of the syllabus.  We also emphasised having one student up deliberately coach another, so it was absolutely clear who was training what, with what specific, measurable goal.

To calibrate the machine, or zero the scales, we returned to the basic form of first drill exactly as we would find it in a basic class. Of course, if first drill is done correctly, the set response to each step is the only correct one.  Which means that the attack must leave no opening, the blade relationship on the parry must lead naturally to the second play of the second master of the zogho largo, the pommel strike must be the only reasonable continuation, and structured such that the defender’s own pommel strike is the only reasonable solution to it.  Not impossible, just very difficult.  This prepared them nicely for the rest of the weekend, in which we covered much of the basic syllabus, returned to intermediate level training on Sunday morning, and ran through quite a bit of the basic sword and buckler syllabus on Sunday afternoon. I may write up my notes on this, but have last month’s seminar in Kuopio to do first.

All in all, I was very impressed by the level of training that the Oulu branch was able to absorb, with even the beginners doing a pretty good job of keeping up, while I beat the hell out of the seniors who seemed to relish the challenge. This was an exhausting pleasure, from start to finish.

*jumppa is a very useful Finnish word for general calisthenics, or jumping about for health and fitness. Something I do as little as possible, preferring skills that happen to make you sweat, like swordsmanship training, to mindless exercise.

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