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Living with Perfectionism: a survivor’s guide

I have just this very day completed the first draft of my next longsword book; snappily titled Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training.

Can you think of a better title?

To celebrate, here is one small section of the book, that actually started out in life as a draft blog post, as a follow up to this one.

Living with perfectionism

One of the many reasons that teaching swordsmanship is the right career choice for me is that it is the one area of my life in which “good enough” is not even close to acceptable. “Excellent” is “ok for now I suppose”. This means that I am emotionally incapable of being satisfied with whatever level of technical and tactical skill I may attain.  Back when I was a cabinet-maker (which I did professionally for five years), if it was good enough, I was happy with it. So I was perpetually frustrated, as I couldn’t apply the necessary uncompromising will to excellence that marks a true craftsman. In swordsmanship though, I simply cannot, will not, accept the current standard as “good enough”. And I am therefore much more satisfied. This will seem a contradiction, but it isn’t: I am satisfied with progress made, not level attained.

And it is that uncompromising, perpetual dissatisfaction with my current level that enables me to maintain the progress that I find so satisfying.

Perfection is unattainable in this lifetime. I have friends who make furniture, like this by Patrick Baxter (who I used to work for)


or swords, or other beautiful things, such as this from JT Pälikkö

Stainless damascus loveliness.
Stainless damascus loveliness.

Their craftsmanship astonishes me. I will look at what they have made and gasp in awe and wonder at its shimmering perfection. They will then say something like “well, it was a bitch to do. That corner isn’t quite right. And the proportions there are a bit off. It’s crap, really. I’m not sure I should let it out of the workshop.” But, and here’s the irony: they love their job. It consumes and enlarges them.

I have seen many students suffer in training from their desire to do everything perfectly. The let the fact that they cannot do it perfectly rob them of the pleasure from doing it more perfectly today than they could yesterday. My point here is that the suffering is unnecessary. Yes, your current level today is not as good as it might be tomorrow- but if this trend continues, it will be better tomorrow, so be happy!

So how to make the switch between focussing on the current level to focussing on progress made? There is no one simple answer to this (is there ever?), but the following ideas have proved helpful to me:

1) Accept your fallible human nature. You will make mistakes, but ideally the mistakes you make today are smaller, less critical, and just plain better than the mistakes you made yesterday. You have eternity to be perfect once you’re dead.

2) Take video of yourself in training doing a basic exercise, and don’t look at it for a year. Then take more video of the same sort of training, and compare the two clips. The improvement should be remarkable. If it isn’t, your training methodology needs fixing.

3)  Understand that as you improve, your ability to spot mistakes improves, and so while you might have noticed huge mistakes in the beginning, thanks to your developing magnifying glass vision, the much smaller mistakes you make now are blown up and appear worse than they really are.

4) Be perfect like the sky. Just what is it about perfection that is so damn attractive? It seems to generally be taken to mean “so good that further progress is impossible”. So, should you attain that state, the only thing to do is stop training because you’re done. But swords are cool, so why would you want to stop training? Really, you can be perfect now: the sky is always perfect, but the sky is always changing. So be perfect like the sky, not perfect like God.

Let me take my mandritto fendente as an example. By the standards of our community at present, it is pretty good, as one would require from a professional. And compared to the average beginner, it is excellent. And yet to me, it is profoundly flawed. Let’s have a look at why. Every blow has four phases: chamber, release, contact, and withdrawal. (As a historical aside: George Silver identifies three such phases: bent= chambered; spent=contact; lying spent=withdrawal.)

When chambered, the blow is ready to go: the sword is withdrawn in some measure from the intended finishing point of the movement, such as lying in posta di donna. The question is, is that chamber perfect? In other words, is every molecule in my body in the perfect place such that releasing the blow requires no adjustment of any kind? No. But eliminating such adjustments eliminates telegraphing the blow to the opponent. This particular blow can start from many different positions: fenestra, tutta porta di ferro, coda longa to name a few. It can also start as a continuation forom another movement: after parrying from zenghiaro, for example, or after a feint in a different line. How smoothly does it flow from that movement? Not very. So, my chambering needs work. The stability drill might help.

Releasing the blow is pretty easy if the sword is already in motion, but quite hard if it is still. I have to overcome the inertia of the sword, and make sure that the threat and opportunities presented to my opponent truly are exactly as I think they are. If I think I have presented no opportunity to counterattack, and I’m right, either the blow lands, or the blow is parried, or if the opponent does counterattack, his action will fail and I will strike. If I am wrong, the counterattack might kill me. Also, the moment of release is the most difficult part of the blow to get right, as any imperfection in the chamber will lead my body to do a semi-conscious mini-chambering action, which will tell my opponent that I’m on my way. If I can control this, I can feed him that tell and profit from his reaction to it. Or hide it, and strike without telegraphing. I can also adjust the rate of acceleration: from “go like hell” all out maximum speed (get there before the parry arrives), or start slow and finish fast (trick him into a too-slow parry), or start fast and slow down a little then speed up again (watch that fast parry go by then hit him), all within the time taken to get from donna to longa. Is my release perfect? Not even close. Better get in front of a mirror or video camera and watch it.

On contact, the blow should be perfectly supported. This means that all the energy in the blow goes into the target, and the equal and opposite reaction that Newton demands is routed perfectly through my sword, through my grip, down my body and into the ground. Or rather, if I choose it to be so, it is.When hitting students or colleagues in free fencing, it is better to break that connection to minimise damage. But breaking that connection mist be done right, or the force of the blow may be absorbed in my wrist, neck, shoulder, hip or knee (to name the usual problem spots) and cause damage over time. If the blow is supposed to be unsupported (such as in a zwerchau), then controlling the impact is even more challenging as there is no structure behind the edge to manipulate the impact with. Good thing we are looking at a nice simple supported mandritto fendente then. Is my contact perfect? Um, no. Striking the tyre, stroking the pell, static pressure grounding exercises, and free fencing all may help.

After contact, I must withdraw safely: there is no sense just leaving the sword stuck in the target. So, is this blow intended to strike through (to zenghiaro for example) or to stay in posta longa? If through, then depending on what I am hitting, it might be best to support the blow all the way through (when cutting targets like tatami) or break on contact (when hitting friends). If cutting through, does that action perfectly chamber the next blow? Or perfectly create the guard I wish to finish in? Cutting through also requires the tactical circumstances in which to withdraw. It might be safer to change the blow and leave the sword in the centre, especially if the blow failed for some reason (like not being perfect). Can I always, and reliably, at full speed adjust my withdrawal accordingly? No. Better work on that then. Tyre, pell, free fencing, drills with degrees of freedom, form, may all help.

So, we have now established the profound imperfections of my mandritto fendente. But I can fence with the best in my community and hit them with it. So it’s not useless. It also rarely fails to slice through tatami. So it’s not useless. It also hits the tyre pretty hard. So it’s not useless. I am much better at manipulating my opponent’s expectations of the blow now than I was five years ago. So that’s getting better. I don’t think power has improved much in that time, so perhaps I should work more on that. My chambering has improved noticeably since regularly incorporating the stability drill into my training, so that’s a double win: a useful drill developed and an improved blow.

OK, that’s the mechanics (structure and flow) of the blow addressed. What about tactics (time and measure)? When is this the right blow to use? It is rarely wrong to strike a good mandritto fendente: I picked a good general purpose blow for that very reason. But can I use this as a parry? A feint? A counterattack? In what measures is it best? If you have ever seen someone trying to land a mandritto fendente when they have the opponent’s arms enveloped in their own left arm, it’s a pitiful sight. Pommel strike, hilt strike, or pull the sword back and thrust would all work better. Though it is clearly implied in the text and picture of the ninth play of the zogho stretto; so wait, perhaps there is work to be done here…pair drills, the plays from the treatise in which it appears, in their canonical forms and in variations, and free fencing, may all help.

Perfectionism, the emotional incapability of accepting less than perfection, is the engine that drives excellence in all its forms. It also cripples many swordsmanship (and other) careers before they even start. It is a powerful and overwhelming force, so treat with it carefully and harness it to your goals.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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