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Mindful Practice

This week’s intermediate class yielded some interesting insights. I began by asking my students what they thought my job was. As far as I see it, at their level, my job is mainly to keep their practice mindful, and provide solutions to any problem that crops up that they cannot solve themselves. We started by having each student identify for themselves a specific problem they were having, and articulate it clearly to the class. These included difficulty in closing the line after the first action in a bout, difficulty in controlling measure in dynamic situations, and difficulty in maintaining flow under pressure.

We began with the cutting drill as usual, and then discussed how it could be used or adapted to address their specific needs. We concluded that for their purposes right now, it was of limited use in its basic form. So we went to the X-drill, with the pell in the middle of the salle, and the students divided into two groups. One individual from each group crossed the space in style and struck the pell couple of times, with one group’s aim being to arrive first, and the other group’s aim being to arrive at the same time. This brought in dynamic control of measure and timing.

The next exercise was first drill, with the variations the attacker may feint, and the defendant may counter-attack instead of parry. This highlighted specific difficulties, such as vulnerability to a counter-attack, or difficulty in distinguishing between a feint and a real attack. After a few minutes of this each student had a super-specific example of a specific weakness related to the more general problems they had highlighted at the beginning of class.

So, the next exercise was to articulate exactly the problem they were having to their partner who then coached them through that specific issue. For example if you found that you were vulnerable to a feint, your partner would coach you in getting that second parry in time. This required the coaching partner be able to control elements of the fight in real time so that their student was training at the optimum level of difficulty. After five minutes the roles were reversed and then, each student having had a lesson, we returned to the particular variation on first drill, with the same original partner, to see whether the corrections had taken.

Next up we have to establish whether the corrections, having worked (because each student reported an improvement), were general or specific. In other words, whether an improved ability to defend against a feint of mandritto fendente followed by a roverso fendente lead to an improved ability to deal with feints in general. So I had the students change the drill so that they could defend from any right side guard and the attack to be of any kind from any side, real or feint. As it turned out most of the improvement was quite specific, which meant that what we ought to have done next would have been developing that more general skill, but given the problems declared at the beginning of class, it was necessary to move on to address the issue of controlling measure. I pointed out that they could follow this thread in free training. By this stage they were all sweating hard and out of breath. This is one of the hallmarks of mindful practice. It is tiring.

We started our addressing the issue of measure with a drill that I invented back in 2001, where one student establishes a measure with their partner, then the students move around freely with the partner initiating change that measure, and when I clap at random intervals they were to check whether they were still in measure. There may have been push-ups involved. Then we used wooden bucklers like focus mitts , with one student coaching another. This prepared them for giving a specific lesson on measure,  for which, given that the students present were not trained coaches, I gave a specific example for them to copy. In this case simply a variation on first drill in which the coach is defending, and if he ends up close after his parry, the student should pommel strike, but if he ends up further away the student should cut on the other side. This allowed them, in a very simple set up, to take one specific aspect of the art and develop measurable improvement.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with gathering together with some swordy friends and having a bash. Neither is there anything wrong with playing around with some aspects of swordsmanship. I would actually go so far as to say that not all practice should be mindful, as you can become too goal oriented: it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. But for those activities, you don’t need a professional instructor. So when I am running the class, there is no point my being there unless I am making it possible for my students to really improve, and for that mindful practice is without doubt the most efficient approach.

The basic pattern is this:

  1. Practice something that you know, at a pace and level that generates error.
  2. Articulate the error in the clearest possible terms. This becomes your goal.
  3. Select the training tools that you think will most efficiently address your goal. Apply them with rigour.
  4. Test to see whether your goal has been reached, by returning to the original set up in which the error occurred. If yes, return to step 1 to find a new error if no, either select new tools, or apply the same ones better.

If you’re not sure what skill that you’re trying to develop, it’s not mindful practice. If it does not demand the absolute limit of your concentration and physical skill, it’s not mindful practice. If it does not generate measurable improvement, it’s not mindful practice. If it’s not tiring, frustrating, or painful, it’s probably not mindful practice. If your practice highlights your every weakness and makes you strengthen it, efficiently and deeply, then it is, must be, mindful.

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