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How to spot the bullshit in any martial arts drill, and what to do about it.

The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.

The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.

Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.

In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:

“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.

Disarm and counter

  1. Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
  2. Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
  3. Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
  4. Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
  5. Defender collects dagger and strikes”

(Quoted from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger page 51)

There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:

  1. The attacker is not trying to kill you.
  2. The weapon is not sharp.
  3. The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
  4. You can’t run away or call the cops.
  5. You have to wait for the attack.
  6. You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
  7. The line of the attack is pre-selected.
  8. Your defence is pre-selected.
  9. The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
  10. The attack is done with little force.
  11. The attack is done slowly.

I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?

To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!

So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?

It does:

  1. Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
  2. Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
  3. Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.

It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.

But be aware that this drill does NOT:

  1. Teach a survival skill.
  2. Teach situational awareness.
  3. Teach decision making or judgement.
  4. Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.

But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*

It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.

So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).

Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?

* The “Rule of Cs” (abridged from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger p136) every drill is first worked through with the players:

  • Cooperating in creating correct choreography

This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.

Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate- if it works all the time, ramp it up- if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit. This is called:

  • Coaching correct actions

Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced scholar should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So,

  • Compete.

 

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4 Responses

  1. May I pinch this, with due accreditation, for my Tai Chi Chuan students. This is what I keep trying to emphasise when we are doing application work.
    The ‘long form’ I teach is against up to four opponents at any one one time. It gets difficult, mainly because you need to work to the level of understanding of the least experienced student. But it is fun; and really shows you where your practice needs work. 🙂

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