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How to teach from a shopping list

One of the issues that I face as an itinerant swordsmanship instructor, presiding over a school that exists on three continents, is that I can only visit each branch occasionally. I encourage the branches to ask for what they want, to be actively engaged with their own training. I also encourage all students in regular class to ask for the material they are most interested in, or feel they need to cover next. This means that the group I am teaching on any given day will tend to have a list of material that they would like me to cover, which is often pretty haphazard. For example, last month before going to Turku to teach a class, I received this email:

Here are some wishes for the seminar from the intermediates and class leaders:

1) How to train with someone who is much stronger than you? How to prove that their technique is wrong if they succeed in it only because of their strength?

2) How to get the most out of training with a beginner? How to benefit from this situation?

3) Safe ways of training and ergonomics at work. Maybe focus on shoulders? (Four people in THMS have shoulder injuries at the moment). Maybe something similar to what you were writing in your blog about the seminar in Oulu.

4) 2nd drill stretto (there were some confusion about the way it should be done correctly).

5) Punta falsa.

6) Could we learn some Vadi techniques?


PS. There will be beginners attending to this seminar. They know some techniques with dagger, but haven't probably learned all parts of the 1st and 2nd drills yet.


As you can see, there is not much obvious connection between teaching the stretto form of second drill, and teaching students to train with others that are much stronger or much less experienced than they are. I spotted a teaching opportunity, and so began the seminar by discussing this list with the students present, and explaining to them the order in which we were going to do everything, and why.

The first step was to identify the most general item. In this case ergonomics, because correct form and structure are required for everything you ever do, in the salle and out. So we spent quite a long time working on perfect push-ups, perfect squats, and the structural foundation of Fiore’s movement dynamics.

Then, using ergonomics as our base, we moved on to the skill of how to use a beginner partner to develop your own skills. This is a very common request, and given that since I came to Finland in 2001 the vast majority of the people I have crossed swords with have been my students, I have an awful lot of experience in making less experienced training partners nonetheless useful. There are basically three ways to do it: you either take advantage of their unpredictability to create genuinely random drills to train your responsiveness; or within the bounds of a set drill, you demonstrate perfect form, because they will copy your every mistake; or in a competitive drill, you aim to win by the narrowest possible margin. We used the standing step drill as a good example of this last idea, and I demonstrated with someone clearly smaller and weaker than myself, who had been training for about a month. By allowing her to push me to the very limit of my balance I was able to use the minimal resistance she was able to give to practice at the edge of my skill.

(I plan to blog about this in specific skill in depth and detail soon…)

This introduced the idea of customising your actions to the specific training partner that you have, and in this case how, without being dramatically more skilful, can you train a beginner out of using their superior strength. There is nothing wrong with strength: strength is good, skill is better, strength applied skilfully is best of all. The trick of course, is to make it so that if they stiffen up, their action fails; but if they execute the action in a relaxed way it succeeds. They will only learn to let go of their strength if they don’t need it. We used the third and fourth plays of the first master of the dagger as our example plays for this exercise. I then had them all look for actions which made themselves tense up, to understand better the problem of relying on strength, and within the context of those actions, focus on using only the minimum necessary force.

So, with ergonomics underpinning all, and focussed experience in working usefully with the beginner, and working usefully with a much stronger partner, we can then address the system-specific technical requests.

We started with the cutting drill, emphasising shoulder stabilisation from the perfect push-ups, and I spotted and corrected some branch-wide errors. We then used a sword handling drill to focus on correct ergonomics for holding the sword. From there we went into first drill, and use that as the basis for working on the punta falsa. At this stage, those that had difficulty with the basic drill were separated out and worked on that. We needed to make sure that the mechanics of the punta falsa were clearly understood, which our economics study had prepared us for. Then the two groups were put back together, with the seniors required to make sure that when they attacked, as the blades met the circumstances were correct for the defender’s set response; and when they defended, they had to respond correctly to the exact conditions of the blade relationship that actually occurred. This made them work on parts 1 and 2 of the training with beginners theory above.

From there we went into second drill, and built the stretto form of it step-by-step from the basic, largo, form. (Note: this drill has been updated since the seminar) Again, those that didn’t know the basic form were taught that, and those that did learned the more difficult stretto version.This was classic, straightforward teaching basic drills from the set syllabus. The trick was to connect them explicitly to the foundational skills we worked on before, namely ergonomics, using beginners, and dealing with stronger partners. Of course the stretto forms of the drills explicitly deal with resistant partners, so fit nicely with the theme.

By finishing up with the stretto form of second drill, we had introduced the zogho stretto situation, and so it was easy to segue into spending the last hour working on Vadi’s solutions to the zogho stretto, and why they differ from Fiore’s.

To summarise, the process of teaching from a list of requests goes:


  1. Identify the most generally applicable concept, start with that
  2. Take each request in order of specificity, from most generally applicable, to the most specific
  3. Organise the parts into a logical sequence, paying particular attention to the connections between the items on your list
  4. Make the organisation of the material part of the lesson, so that the students can see how their requests are being dealt with.


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