I was recently contacted by a reader asking about teaching left handed students. It’s a common and relatively complex problem, so rather than confine my answer to an email I thought I’d post it here.
How do you teach left-handers?
Why it’s a problem
Left handers are relatively rare (about 10% of the population, including my dad and my sister), and most of the historical martial arts treatises we work with don’t say much about them. Capoferro has one plate of rapier and dagger showing how to murder a leftie:
Fiore mentions that the guard of coda longa on horseback works against right or left handers (click on the image to expand it, and you can read the text and the translation by Tom Leoni):
Perhaps the biggest section of any treatise dealing explicitly with lefties is in Jeu de la Hache, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall material.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that many of the techniques we recreate from the sources simply don’t work the same way as shown in the books when done cross handed. In addition, right handers don’t see many left-handers, so in combat sports generally, left handers tend to be far more common at the top levels than they are in the general population. This is entirely due to familiarity. Everybody knows how to handle righties- we see them all the time. (For an interesting book that also addresses this in some detail, see The Professor in the Cage, which is well worth reading if you have any interest in martial arts…)
The question is about teaching lefties, not fighting them, so I’ll address that. (If you want my best advice for fighting left handers it’s this: fight them a lot. You’ll get better at it.)
What difference does handedness make?
In blade on blade actions, not much. Principally, inside and outside are not symmetrical [For those unfamiliar: if the sword is in your right hand, everything to the left of the blade as you see it is ‘inside’, and everything to the right is ‘outside’.] If we are both same-handed and our blades are crossed, we will both be either on the inside or on the outside of each other’s blades. But when one of us is differently handed, if you are on my inside, I’m on your outside, and vice-versa. This means that some targets are different, and the angles of attack may be different. But usually, the rules regarding how to attack remain the same. For example, I would only push your elbow if I’m on the outside of your arm. That doesn’t change; what changes is how I would get to your outside, and which of my hands may be able to reach your elbow.
In wrestling at the sword, it makes a great deal more difference.
This wrap, for instance, only works well using the opposite arm (eg left against right) and from the inside of the wrapped person’s arm. Because this is over both arms, it can be used cross-handed, but you won't get the same control of the sword arm.
Likewise this counter rarely occurs cross-handed at the longsword, because the preceding wrap would have to be done by the sword arm, which is unusual (though you can see it in I.33, f.18.v).
I include specific examples of techniques adapted from symmetrical drills to cross-handed versions in chapter seven of The Medieval Longsword. In case you don't have it to hand, I've extracted it for you here:
So that's the problem. What's the solution? There are several approaches you can take:
Approaches to the problem:
1) make everyone train right handed. I think this is a bad idea if your goal is to produce great practitioners, but if your goal is to perfectly reproduce the plays of a specific treatise, in which everyone is right-handed, then it makes sense. When Christian Tobler began researching German medieval sources, he switched from his natural left handedness to do everything right handed because it was much easier than converting everything.
2) make everyone train both sides. I think this is advisable up to a point- I would expect all my senior students to be able to do all our basic drills and actions with either hand, and any professional instructor to be able to demonstrate anything within their art with either hand. But it’s probably not the best way to train beginners.
3) create specific ‘cross-handed’ variations of every major drill or exercise you use. I think this is essential. The basic drills usually assume two right-handers. Two left-handers can do exactly the same drill, it’s just mirrored. The problems only start when there are a right hander and a left hander training together. I include set forms for the cross handed version of every basic drill in my syllabi.
Advice to instructors:
- If your syllabus is lacking cross-handed drills, create them. You can do this by setting up the drill and seeing where you (as a lefty) get stuck. Then following the basic principles of the art, solve the problem. When the problem is solved, incorporate that solution into the ‘cross-handed version’.
- When you have a lefty in class, it’s your job to make sure that they learn the standard form of the drill (i.e. with a fellow left hander, which may have to be you), as well as the cross handed forms. Also, you should take advantage of their presence to accustom your other students to dealing with cross-handed situations.
- As the instructor, you can always require the senior students to reverse their handedness (so lefties become righties, and vice versa), which gives everyone else the chance to face the less-common situation.
- Start with the simplest drills- make sure that you can do all the solo drills in your syllabus with your left hand, and can see what they should look like in your students when they are left handed.
- Set up a basic pair drill, and see what happens. At any given point, the left-hander should be behaving normally for them. Never ask them to attack differently or switch hands for the convenience of the right hander (unless they are very experienced and the righty is a beginner).
I hope that's helpful! Feel free to make any suggestions or ask questions in the comments below.
For more on how to teach, you may find these posts useful:
How to teach a basic class