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How to train with beginners: 3 principles to make it work for you.

Beginner you are not, hmmm? image from
Beginner you are not, hmmm?

Beginners are the future of any martial art. And lucky too: the best learning environment is when you are the least knowledgeable person in the room. Anyone you train with can teach you something. It is more difficult to keep learning when you are surrounded by relative beginners, and this post is about how to do it. When I moved to Finland in 2001, I was by a mile the most experienced practitioner of European swordsmanship in the country. Literally everyone I crossed longswords with knew less about them than I did. This could easily have lead to stagnation, but I managed to keep learning by:

  • Cross-training 3-4 times a week with other martial arts, one-on-one with senior instructors; basically trading classes. The potential for contaminating my interpretation was huge, but the upside was I developed a lot as a martial artist.
  • Travelling a lot to international events, paying for it by teaching classes there. I treated these trips mostly as recruitment: when I saw an instructor I thought I and my students could learn from, I hired them over to teach seminars. We average about 3 such seminars a year (in the last 9 months alone, Stefan Dieke, Paul Wagner, and Jörg Bellinghausen have all taught here).
  • Learning how to train usefully with beginners.

This post is about the last on that list. We have a beginners course starting next week, so Tuesday’s basic class focused on how the students can train effectively with the new students when they arrive. I will summarise the approach here, for students about to work with beginners, then describe the class step-by-step as a potential class plan for instructors facing this issue.

1.    Be a perfect model. The rule of beginners is this: show it to them right a thousand times, and they will eventually copy it correctly. Show it to them wrong once, and they will copy it perfectly first time. I mean no disrespect. This is just true, and I’ve never seen a beginner for whom it wasn’t. So having beginners around demands that your every action is as perfect as you can make it. No pressure then.
2.    Work at your own level. One of the things beginners have to learn eventually is the terminology of the art. So on the beginners course we do things like call out the names of the steps (accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare, etc.) and they have to do the named step. For more experienced students in the same class this could be unimaginably tedious, but should not be: they are expected to work at their own level. So while they are all doing the same thing, some are working on remembering the terms; some working on perfecting its mechanics; and some are working through possible applications, from power generation, to avoidance, to specific plays.
3.    Use the randomiser. In pair drills, the beginner will naturally get parts of it wrong. Excellent. A genuine randomiser! The attack may be too strong, too far away, too close, in the wrong line, anything. Your job is to effortlessly and spontaneously adapt the drill to the specific conditions of the attack you get, not the one you expected. This demands 100% focus on what is happening. When it is your turn to do what they just attempted, you have to demonstrate it perfectly according to the drill, of course. Your training alternates between 100% perfect tactical choices in real time, and 100% perfect mechanics in your own time. Sounds like 100% perfect training, no?

You should also note the following:
•    The attack is never “wrong”: you get hit only if you fail to defend.
•    Your correction of the attack will be much more convincing if it comes after the attack has failed, than if you just got hit.
•    Coach by modelling, not explaining. Beginners are not stupid, they are just not-yet-skilled. They need opportunities to practise, not a lecture.
•    This kind of training demands 100% focus on the specifics of the attack that you get, not the one you expect.
•    When training with beginners, you have an opportunity to go deep, making a few actions better. But you have less chance to go wide, using a broader range of actions (because this will bewilder the already overwhelmed beginner). When paired with more experienced students, you could take the chance to go wide if it doesn’t conflict with the overall class goals.

So relish the influx of new perfection-demanding random action generators, and relish the fact that in a decade or two, they may well be vastly better at this than you are now. But they will always remember and be grateful for the help you gave them when they were starting out. You may be helping to train the next Bruce Lee, or Aldo Nadi, or even Fiore dei Liberi.

If you find this useful, please share it with your friends!

The Class:
We began by setting the goal of the class: to teach the students present how to train usefully with the beginners. Usefully for the beginners too, but specifically usefully for themselves. I explained briefly the three principles above, and then we applied them. This class followed the normal structure: warm-up, footwork/mechanics, dagger, longsword handling, longsword pair drills.

I had the students warm themselves up, structuring the 12 or so minutes according to their own current needs. For some this was the first time they had done that. This got them into the right state of mind: using familiar structures and content, but customising them to their own needs.

We then did the basic footwork terminology drill: I called out the names of the steps and turns and they have to do the named action. Then I had them tell me what they should be working on during that drill. Some needed practice at remembering the terms; some were working on perfecting its mechanics; and some were working through the applications.We then did the stick exercise, so they had to use the steps spontaneously.

We started as usual with the first play of the first master, and modelled what you should do if the attacker is either too stiff (execute the play perfectly: it works just fine), or too hesitant to strike (ignore the attack, until they learn to actually strike the mask).

We also covered the 18th play, what you should do if they are really really stiff.

This should be accompanied by a quick verbal correction, and you modelling the attack for them.

Longsword handling, solo drills
Here we distinguished between a beginners course class, and a general basic class to which beginners can attend. (In my School, all beginners are entitled and encouraged to attend all basic classes.) On the beginners course, you should stick exactly to the drill that has been set, so that the only thing the beginners see is the thing they are supposed to do. So do that thing very, very well. It’s an opportunity to work on the basics. The constraint will highlight things to practise. This lead to the following immortal line:
“All of your problems, in the salle and out of it, stem from imperfect basics.”
In normal class, students are at liberty to train the exact drill as set, or any more basic form, or any more advanced form, unless they are specifically instructed otherwise. I expect students to train at their own level.

Longsword pair drills
We had been working on the stretto form of first drill the previous week, so we took it up again. (For those not in my school: first drill begins with an attack that is parried; the stretto version begins with an attack that is counterattacked into. Let me point out here that it is not the counterattack that determines largo or stretto, it’s the nature of the crossing of the blades: for a fuller discussion and examples see the wiki.) This allowed me to point out that the “basic” version is actually mechanically more complex than the “more advanced” version. The reason for learning the first one first is that it is tactically more basic, and easier to keep in mind. First parry, then strike. Parrying and striking all in one go is harder for most people (not all) to grasp. So we then looked at these two drills as:
•    Parry against the attack (first drill, largo form)
•    Attack against the attack (first drill, stretto form)
•    Which begged the question: what happens when a parry is parried?
Which is what happens all the time with beginners learning this drill. They attack as they are supposed to, but as you start to parry, they instinctively change their motion to put their sword in the way of yours. This leads to the two swords bound together, usually near the points, and suddenly the defender’s continuation as set in the drill makes no sense.
Of course, this type of bind is shown in the treatise: the first master of the zogho largo.

1stMasterZL So we looked at the book, and executed his plays as a response to a poor attack. And then used the attack as a means to draw out the defender’s sword to where it could be bound, and practised the same actions but with different intent. The attacker could bind the sword and take advantage of the crossing generated, or the defender, perceiving the change in the attack in time, could take advantage of the fact that the attack was no longer coming towards them, and execute the plays. This made the point that the difference between beginner’s mistake and advanced technique is often more about why you do it, than it is about how.
We completed this study with the variation on first drill that leads to the third play of the master of zogho largo crossed at the middle of the swords, where his scholar grabs the blade and strikes.

3rdplay2ZLBecause those that know might be about to angulate around the parry, or parry the riposte, while beginners might just be a bit stiff. So the attack could go one of three ways (bind the parry, proceed as in the basic form, angulate), and the defender was expected to effortlessly execute the proper response. And to think: beginners will give you all that variation, at genuinely random intervals, without even being asked to or trained! How fantastically useful is that?
We concluded the class, of course, with first drill, basic form, no variations, every action perfect. Because you have to show it to them right a thousand times…

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