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Using the Seven Principles case study: an advanced dagger class.

Happy Mothers' day, from sunny Finland!

And what could be more motherly than a spot of medieval combat?

It is very hard to defend yourself against a fully-committed attack with a dagger. To be honest, it’s not something we focus on all that much; we tend to prefer sword fights. But a couple of weeks ago I ran a class on dealing with committed dagger attacks. It went like this:

First we ran a diagnostic; did everyone present have a reasonably complete knowledge of the dagger curriculum? The answer came back “yes”. There were no obvious gaps in knowledge (distinguishing carefully between knowledge and skill). Then I polled them; how many felt confident of defending themselves with a sword against a sword attack? All hands went up. Unarmed against a dagger? No hands went up.

The next step was to analyse our drills from the point of view of my “bullshit” theory. Where is the bullshit?

The attacks they were used to from basic classes were a) done with a training dagger, not the real thing; b) done singly; just one blow, or maybe two. No flurries of strikes; c) done without a great deal of force; and d) done usually in a set pattern of some kind, allowing them to predict what the sequence would be, so what techniques were likely to work.

We began with speed: the attacker had to make multiple fast strikes. This quickly overwhelmed the defender. Clearly there was no point being competitive about this, so using my rule of ‘c’s (which is there in the “how to spot the bullshit” post), we had the attacker coach the defender by easing off the speed to the level where the defender was successful most, but not all, of the time.

Then strength; instead of lots of fast blows, the attack was to be done as a single blow, but with maximum force. This generated slower, but more forceful actions. Again, the attacker had to coach the defender; modifying the force to what they could only just handle. All the students agreed that a single hard blow was much easier to deal with than multiple fast ones.

Speed and strength had been trained against using rubber or wooden daggers; it’s easy to be brave against a dummy weapon. So the students were given the option to train with or without masks, and with sharp daggers. Some chose no mask with sharps; some chose masks with sharps; some chose no mask with blunts; some chose masks and blunts. But all of them went more slowly, and more gently. Funny that. It is hard to be bold against lethal force.

It was actually at this stage in the class that I noticed that we were actually working through Fiore’s four virtues (celeritas, forteza, ardimento, avvisamento) one at a time. So I thought for a minute about how to train for avvisamento, foresight. And I came up with responsiveness drills, in which the attacker varies his response to the defender’s initial defence, and the defender has to adapt; they do not know what is coming in advance.

Of course, at each stage of this class, we were working on just one thing. We never did full speed, full force, highly variable attacks with a sharp weapon against an unprotected face, because someone would have died. But by breaking the problem down into its component challenges, we could address each area of bullshit in turn.

Readers of my Seven Principles of Mastery booklet will have recognised the principles at work here: we trained with no injuries, we differentiated between knowledge and skill, we ran a diagnostic, and we worked on the 20% of technique that make up 80% of what you’re likely to use (though we didn’t actually address the range of techniques available except to establish at the start that all the students in class had a sufficiently broad knowledge base). The practice was mindful, and the students were sufficiently challenged that they spent most of the time in a state of flow. The one thing we didn't really go into was adopting useful beliefs; perhaps that should be the subject of another post?

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