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How to use martial arts drills: a woodworking analogy.

Is this a dagger I see before me?
Is this a dagger I see before me?

It has been my experience that beginners feel they have learned something when they get to try a new technique. But experienced students of the art feel they have learned something when they have identified and corrected a flaw in their skills. This is normal, and in both cases, the student is correct. It can seem daunting to a beginner to look at our basic syllabus, and realise just how much new material there is to learn, but it can also be frustrating to a more advanced student to feel that they have done it all before so there is nothing “new” to be learned. Both states of mind are unproductive, and both have at their root a lack of understanding as to what the syllabus is for. So I shall explain.

I guess most of my readers know that I used to work as a cabinet maker, and I still do woodwork as a hobby. So let me offer an analogy for the syllabus problem above, based on woodwork.

The purpose of the syllabus, from breathing exercises to pair drills, from push-ups to freeplay, is simply this: it is a toolkit with which you can craft, from the raw material of yourself, the swordsman you aspire to become.

Once a drill or exercise is sufficiently well learned that it does not require effort to recall, it becomes available to you as a tool. So we equip our beginners with a very basic toolkit, just as someone taking up woodwork might buy a set-square, a saw, a plane and a chisel. Until the drill is in memory, it is effectively useless. When it has been absorbed, it becomes a working tool. We then apply these tools to the business of making swordsmen.

As the student develops, they will acquire new tools, either of a whole new type (hello, G clamp) or a variation on one already owned (such as a plough plane). The process of learning new drills is analogous to the process of buying new tools; lots of fun, and for some people (tool collectors), the whole point of the exercise. But owning tools is not craftsmanship. Knowing how to keep them sharp and put them to use, is. I am an avid tool collector in both fields: I have some woodworking tools I will probably never use, and I have some drills from other arts, and from the early days of my career, that I take out and polish every now and then, but will never actually apply to the business of my improvement as a swordsman.

One of the hallmarks of a craftsman is that they not only have the right tools, but for any given job they will unerringly select the right tool from the rack. And if the job requires a tool they don’t have, then they will buy it or make it. Every cabinet maker has a stock of self-made jigs and tools that they knocked up to get a particular job done. So in swordsmanship, understanding the problem you are trying to fix means you instinctively know what tool you need. And if you don’t have it, you either create it, or buy it (which for my students equals “ask Guy”).

It is also critical to understand your material. Just as a cabinet maker knows that ash is the best material for drawer sides, and beech is stable and cheap, but vulnerable to woodworm; so the student must know their own physical, mental and spiritual strengths and weaknesses. These will determine what kind of swordsman you should create out of yourself, and the tools you will need to do it. Swordsmen are fantastically lucky in that the Art does not require a specific body type. Sure, there are some obvious advantages to being tall and thin if you are a rapier fencer, but the best rapierist I ever trained was neither. But to ignore, in this example, her height would have been stupid. Instead we made her size an integral part of her style. And I have watched her skewer tall skinny blokes more than once.

A student who has a well-earned sense of satisfaction because they now “know” the punta falsa, is in a similar position to the beginner woodworker who has saved up enough money to buy a shiny tool that they have no clue how to use properly. It is a necessary and laudable first step on the way to craftsmanship. If you were to come along to one of our advanced classes, you would see that same drill being put to use in various contexts to expose flaws and correct them. One drill can have many uses, of course: it could be diagnostic, or represent the tactical hierarchy of the system, or be for power-generation, something else, or all of the above. I discuss this in some detail in my dagger book.

So, here are some questions for you:

  • Do you know the proper uses to all the tools you have?
  • Do you have all the tools you need for your current craftsmanship needs?
  • Do you keep them shiny, sharp and accurate so they can be called on when needed?
  • Do you deliberately select the best tool for job in hand?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then see me before, during or after class and we will fix it!

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