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How to train with a rapier (or anything else), part 1

This post is extracted from the new The Rapier, Part 3: Developing Skills Workbook.

If you don't already have parts one and two, you can buy all three volumes at a healthy discount from Fallen Rook Press:

Parts 1-3 Right-handed layout

Parts 1-3 Left-handed layout

Now, on with the show:

How do you take things you already know, and make them actually work under pressure? How do you become a swordsman/swordswoman/swordsperson, not just a person who knows some sword moves? This is the heart of swordsmanship, and it’s most sophisticated element. The key skill to learn is how to coach, because that’s how your training partner will get better. And as they learn themselves, they can coach you.

This is the difference between evolution by natural selection and intelligent design. If you just fence, sure enough you will get better. Slowly, and in a haphazard way. But using a disciplined approach, you can deliberately work on your areas of weakness, find and enhance your natural areas of strength, and deliberately, intelligently, improve. 

Birds are amazing examples of the awesome power of evolution. But compare them to the history of powered flight. By the application of intelligent design, we got from a short hop of 120 feet in 1903, to the moon in 1969. Evolution can go suck eggs.

This is the kind of astonishingly rapid improvement that we are aiming for in every training session.

We get there by building a bridge between your current level (whatever that is) to where you wish to be: expert fencer.

This idea is the heart of my new workbook: Rapier part three: Developing Skills. Much of this blog post is adapted from the book.

It is relatively easy to teach set drills to a student or class. She does this, you do that. And it is relatively easy to set up a freeplay (sparring, fencing) environment that is reasonably safe. I have seen many groups and schools that have nice set drills, and freeplay quite a bit, but there is no real relationship between the two kinds of training, and nothing in between those two extremes. As a result, the things done in freeplay bear scant resemblance to the actions in the drills. In the new workbook I will show you how to build a bridge between set drills and freeplay. This is especially important for historical swordsmanship, as the manuals tend to show short, simple sequences (an attack and a defence, usually) which are easy to turn into drills, but very hard to pull off in friendly freeplay or against a resisting opponent.

In a nutshell, you need to be able to identify your areas of weakness, and fix them. We do the former by running diagnostic drills, and the latter by training at the optimal rate of failure. 

Run a Diagnostic

Almost any drill can be used as a diagnostic. The purpose of a diagnostic drill is to establish at what point you are failing. Taking Plate 7 as an example, by running through it you may find that you don’t remember the drill (solution: learn the choreography. Refer to the first workbook), or one part of the drill isn’t as good as it should be. Your disengage, for example. Or your parry. It doesn’t matter which, it only matters that you can find it. For this you need clear feedback mechanisms.

This approach can be applied to any weapon and any system, of course, but I’ll stick to rapier examples for now.

Feedback mechanisms

The best feedback mechanism is a partner who will invariably hit you when you make a mistake, and who you will invariably hit without getting hit, when you do something right. 

That partner is a coach.

But nobody is perfect, so your training will be slowed down by false positives (you hit with things that shouldn’t work, or your partner fails to hit you when you’ve left an opening), and false negatives, when you’re doing the right thing, but your partner prevents it from working in a way that isn’t useful for your development.

Secondary feedback mechanisms include video cameras, so you can see what actually happened, and verbal feedback from coaches and training partners.

Direct immediate accurate feedback is the holy grail of training. Quest for it.

The Optimal Rate of Failure

The optimal rate of failure in combat is zero. But in training, the optimal rate of failure is about two out of ten. Whatever you are doing should work 80% of the time, and fail the other 20%. If you are succeeding 100% of the time you’re not learning anything. If you’re failing much more than 20% of the time, you will get frustrated, and frustration is the enemy of learning.

The coach’s job is to keep the student training in that zone: and for the coach, the optimal rate of failure is zero. Because the coach isn’t supposed to be training: they are supposed to be the perfect feedback mechanism.

The rest of the workbook addresses exactly how to do that, like so:

  1. Addressing the common psychological impediments to learning swordsmanship.
  2. Building a bridge between set drills and freeplay. By deliberately layering up the complexity, we can improve faster.
  3. Learning to identify the problem areas.
  4. Learning how to modify drills to fix specific problems.
  5. Learning how to coach.

Next week I’ll take you through a few basic coaching exercises that will establish the principles of being a good partner/coach.

If you don't already have parts one and two, you can buy all three volumes at a healthy discount from Fallen Rook Press.

Parts 1-3 Right-handed layout

Parts 1-3 Left-handed layout

This post has been all about the theory of practice… if you've enjoyed this post but rapier isn't your thing, you might find the Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts interesting, or indeed the next post in this series: how to train with a rapier or anything else, part two.

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