Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Category: Class Reports

I am often asked by students if they are “ready” for a class with me. It's a common insecurity- nobody wants to feel that they are holding the class back, or be overwhelmed by a fire-hose of information. I actively seek out opportunities to be a beginner, partly so that I can better understand and empathise with the beginners who train with me. One such opportunity occurred earlier this year. I started bouldering (indoor climbing on low routes, no ropes) a couple of years ago, and on January 20th 2020 took a class with Neil Gresham, at my club, Avid, in Ipswich. It was a great example of being in a class way over my head. But it has been really useful, and while the specific insights regarding bouldering are probably not useful to you, the process of extracting the most value out of a class that is way beyond your current level will be.

There were 10 students, varying in experience from dazzlingly good (from my perspective), to my friend Katie and I (one year of about once a week). One person in the class had been climbing for only two months but was elegantly smashing routes I can’t do (yet), so Katie and I were definitely bottom of the class. Which is the best place to be- literally everywhere you look you can see someone more experienced doing something interesting. You should never give up the opportunity to take a class with a great instructor just because you’re “not experienced enough”. Sure, your brain may fill up in the first ten minutes, but that’s ok, there are ways of capturing the rest of the class for future reference. I’ve been working on the insights from this climbing class for nearly a year now. Money very well spent! But that's only possible because I captured the class outside my brain, and then refiled it.

In short, the process is this:

1) expect to be out of your depth, and to stop taking in new information early in the class

2) take detailed notes (I use pen and paper with stick-man sketches, but any system that works for you by definition works)

3) write up your notes as soon as possible after the seminar. Ideally on the same day. Notes work to trigger memory, and the longer you leave it, the less effective the trigger will be

4) summarise the key points.

Here is my somewhat edited write-up of the seminar, with topics bolded so I can find them easily:

We began with some opening remarks, Neil introduced himself, asked a couple of questions to get the feel of the class. Then we warmed up. The instruction was to do vigorous exercise for a few minutes to get the blood pumping. Wind sprints, burpees, and running were suggested. I did all of those, plus some monkey walks.

Then Neil lead us through some basic joint rotations; shoulders (as front crawl, then reversed), hip rotations (forward-back, then side). He advised to avoid passive stretching before climbing (I agree 100%).

Then it was shoes on, and to the wall. When warming up on the easy grades, here are the rules for improving footwork:

1. No sliding your foot down the wall onto the foothold.

2. No re-placing the foot after contact with the hold.

3. Silent feet.

4. Watch your foot until after you’ve made contact with the hold.

Goal: to improve precision in footwork that will help with harder climbs.

Practice. I spent some time on a green-grey (easiest) grade. It’s surprisingly hard to be that precise, even on really easy climbs. This one approach had me thinking two things: 1) why the hell didn’t I think of that? It’s so very like how I teach swordsmanship footwork: use very basic drills to concentrate on foot placement. And 2) I’ve got my money’s worth already. Everything after this is a bonus.

Then we re-gathered, and Neil talked about arms.

  1. Keep them extended but not locked, as much as possible.
  2. Bent legs, straight arms.
  3. Keep the shoulders engaged though, so you’re not hanging on your joints.

Practice: back on the easy grades. Indeed, as he said, especially at the start, it’s tempting to step up onto the footholds, pulling yourself into the wall. It’s better to hang from the handholds, bending the legs as much as necessary.

Finally, grip: we re-gathered and Neil challenged us to climb easy routes using the minimal tension in our grips. “Use the friction of your skin” to hold on.

Practice: with precise feet and straighter arms and relaxed hands.

Summary: when warming up on the wall, use these rules to encourage precision and minimal strain when climbing. This mental focus will also help transition you mentally from normal life to climbing.

This was followed by a discussion of bouldering training sessions: either volume, or intensity. Volume sessions involve a lot of easier grade climbs. Intense sessions involve working on a few very hard (for you) problems.

Techniques for overhangs:

We went to a part of the wall that overhangs, and Neil talked about how to do it. Fundamentally: left foot goes to right holds, and right foot to left holds. This allows you to reach with an extended arm. No frog-clambering (my term, not his). This did make life a lot easier, where the holds were set up to allow it.

If you have a right foot on a right hold, or vice-versa, you can “flag”: if there’s space, reach through with the other foot inside the one on the hold. If the foot on the wall is too high for that, you can flag “outside”. This has a similar body placement effect to having your left foot on a right hold, etc.

Note: “avoid a pull-ups competition”. Good advice, especially for me. I tend to rely on strong arms more than is gracefully optimal.

Volume sessions: When doing a volume session, try a pyramid approach: start easy, get harder, hardest climbs at the mid-point of the session, then ease back down. (Same idea as our pyramids: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 squats; 2,4,6 etc. Until you max out on one (e.g. 4 pull-ups). Then back down the pyramid: 3-6-9, 2-4-6, 1-2-3.)

“Project” sessions: warm up with 10-12 easier climbs, then pick 2-3 hard problems and work on them. Not too long on any one, or you’ll get tired. Rest: rule of thumb is 1 minute rest for every hand move.

Using the circuit board (a wall with graded routes that go in a circle round the wall, for endurance training): two approaches:

1. “Strength”: pick one hard circuit and go round once. Rest, etc.

2. “Endurance”: pick an easier circuit, and do laps (e.g. 3-4). This trains you for longer climbs, such as rope work outside.

I didn’t mention in class that I find going round once on the easiest circuit to be a sufficient challenge to my endurance! But I’ll work on it, starting by just doing a few moves after the end of the first circuit, to get out of the habit of automatically stopping at the end.

Supportive Conditioning”: for injury prevention. Assuming you’re not a gym rat (good call).

#1 most important exercise to prevent tendonitis: finger extensor training, opening the hand against resistance, e.g. using an exercise band. 3 sets of 20, 2-3 times per week. Yes this is useful but I think I should do a class on forearm maintenance for climbers. They all seem to get tendonitis! (You can find my forearm conditioning training here: go.guywindsor.net)

#2 easiest supportive conditioning: push-ups. 3 sets of 10-25, twice a week.

#3: TRX handles on straps (I’d use my gymnastics rings at home). 3 exercises shown, all knees on floor to start:

1. Push-ups

2. Pec fly, arms out to the sides at shoulder level, recover.

3. Plank, extending the arms out in front like diving into a pool, recover.

#1 stretch, after EVERY climbing session: hand flat on wall, shoulder height, fingers pointing down (extending the wrist). Extend other arm about shoulder height like in a pec fly, look out over your extended hand. Seems useful.

Other stretches recommended:

1. feet wide, knees wide, squat and push knees apart to open hips.

2. Standing, knee to chest, pull knee in to stretch hip.

Best takeaways:

1) After the usual warm-up, warming up on the wall with: precise feet, extended arms, and minimal grip.

2) Flag on overhangs.

3) Pyramid sessions.

4) Use circuits more.

5) Why have my rings been in a box in the shed for the last year?

And finally:

As you can see, that is a TON of information, way more than even the more experienced climbers will be able to remember the next day. How many sets of how many push-ups was it?
And here's the kicker. I'd accidentally left my notebook and pen at home, so I borrowed a pencil and a single envelope from the reception desk. Literally ALL of that was captured in note form, covering both sides of an ordinary envelope (about 4 inches by 9, or 10cm by 22). Notes do not have to be extensive to be useful.

The specifics I tried to capture were notable phrases (such as “avoid a pull-ups competition”), the overall pattern of the class (or I would certainly have forgotten entire sections), and as many specifics as possible (such as “finger extensor training, opening the hand against resistance, e.g. using an exercise band. 3 sets of 20, 2-3 times per week”). Then when writing out the notes, I added as much detail and experience as I could recall.

Experienced students are able to remember more than the less experienced simply because they can chunk the information, and fit it into pre-existing patterns in their heads. I didn't have the experience to chunk the information, nor the pre-existing patterns of climbing theory, terminology, and practice. But even though the class had way more information than I could possibly make use of at the time, and so way more than I'd be likely to remember, I could effectively use the class insights months later when I was ready for them, because I have a way to file them outside my brain.

This is actually better than videoing the class, because it depends on the write-up immediately afterwards. Information outside your brain is of no practical use. To be useful, it must be stored inside your brain. Having a video of the class will tend to let you believe that you have it all available, and so you'll forget to ever watch the video, and the information never breaches the world/brain barrier. But having dodgy notes on a scrap of paper that simply must be written up soon or it will become useless forces you to re-enter the information in another format, which massively improves retention. I saw and heard the class, and experienced the exercises, now I have to recall the class from notes and memory, and re-create it as text. That regurgitation process is absolutely key to getting your brain to hold onto the information.

I hope this is useful, and perhaps persuades at least one beginner to jump in the deep end and take a class above their level. Feel free to share.

Hello.

I’m having trouble making sure I hit all the pain points in my own training. I have a simply enormous variety of exercises and practices that I should be keeping up with. Such as:

Meditation: Awareness of Breathing, Body Scan, Mantra, Movement.

Breathing exercises: Wim Hof method, standing qigong, the Crane, 9 breaths, the Health QiGong form.

Bodyweight exercises: push-ups (many kinds), pull-ups, plank/killer plank, squats (many kinds), quadruped movement.

Leg technique: kicks (front, round, side, back, hook, stomp, crescent inside, crescent outside), leg swings. Footwork drills (accressere discrescere, 4 guards, rapier footwork form, smallsword footwork and lunges etc. etc.) 7-way hips.

Weights: Kettlebells: overhead press, Turkish Get-Up. Small dumbbells: turns, rolls, wings. Clubs: figure 8s, cutty-cutty, krump-schiel-zwerch, squats. Long stick: figure 8s, static catch, twisting catch, feed-through, prima-quarta extensions, play. Short stick: shoulder mobilisation routine, shoulder stretches.

Stretches/ flexibility training: Hamstrings, single leg extension, back arch, forward bend, side bend, twists left and right, four-way wrists, shoulders.

Skills practice:

Pell: sword and buckler, longsword, rapier, sabre, sidesword

Point control: sword and buckler, longsword, rapier, sabre, sidesword, smallsword

Handling drills: sword and buckler, longsword, rapier, sabre, sidesword, smallsword, long stick/spear.

Forms: Longsword, Rapier, Sword and Buckler, T’ai Chi, Health qg.

Massage: knees-feet; elbows-hands

(All of these except the meditation are included in depth on the Solo Training Course. I’m currently working on a standalone meditation course based on a six-week series of classes that is just finishing up.)

There are lots of ways to categorise these activities. Some are very much therapeutic (such as the forearm turns, rolls, and wings with small weights, which are part of my tendonitis prevention routines), others are more about developing or maintaining overall strength and fitness. Massage is only remedial, some skills training is also conditioning (such as kicks), some don’t seem to fit in a simple box. This makes organising them into a clear system hard.

My usual approach is to simply do what my body feels is necessary. My body is very good at telling me what it needs now, but not so good at predicting what it will wish it had done in five years’ time. I need to take a more deliberate approach. This may mean dropping some training altogether- as a deliberate choice, rather than an accidental ‘oh, I haven’t done that in two years’ realisation, and doubling down on the things that work. 

The overall goal is to be fit enough and skilled enough to do my job properly now, and sensible enough to be still able to do my job properly when I’m 70 or 80 (because why retire? From swords? Really?). Most of my exercises are either sword-skill specific, or establishing the necessary ranges of motion under load (so, strength/flexibility combinations), or about creating a state of mind, or deliberately adjusting my metabolism.

I probably could develop a simplified routine that hits all the bases, but I’d get bored of it quite quickly, and it would inevitably become less effective as my body adapted to it. And I’d lose a lot of the fun stuff. As it stands, a normal session will include some breathing, some conditioning, some skills, and some remedial work. I usually do the meditation separately, and the flexibility stretches also separately, at night.

I control my weight through diet (following the principle that you can’t outrun your mouth), so weight loss/gain/control is not a consideration.

I know from experience that writing out a training program for a weekly or monthly routine will be an excellent theoretical exercise but I won’t stick to it for more than maybe a couple of days unless I’m doing it with a group of people. So one option would be to lay out say a month’s worth of training sessions and publish it as a class program, recruit students onto the course, and then I’d have to stick to it.

Another option would be to just keep all my toys handy, and play with the ones I feel like every day. That’s pretty much what I’ve done in the past, and especially with the help of the regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday exercise sessions, it works quite well but not perfectly. If you'd like to join in you can find the sessions here.

The Zoom recordings (when I remember to hit the button) are uploaded on the Solo Course. You can see today's session on my vimeo channel here:

Friends, readers, and students, lend me your brains. What should I do to bring order to this galaxy?

And while you're here, let me invite you to the best party this weekend: my AMA video hangout with Jess Finley on Sunday. Join us!

It is standard operating procedure to write up an event review in the few days following, and blast it across the socialz. Indeed, after the awesome SwordSquatch I attended at the beginning of September, my various feeds were filled to bursting with just such posts. I was tempted to jump in then and there, but refrained because I hadn’t processed it all yet, and also on the grounds that if it’s worth writing, or worth reading, then it will still be so weeks later. There are very few fields (political commentary being one) where getting it written and published right now is essential, and being even a day late can make your writing pointless.

The event was lovely, as one would expect. There were many interesting instructors, including some I hadn’t met before (such as Maija Soderholm- with whom I actually had a short conversation in Finnish! And much longer conversations about duelling culture) and I think every attendee got their time and money’s worth, and then some. So much, so not much different to many other events out there. So let me focus on the things that made this special.

Firstly, it is far and away the most inclusive event I’ve ever been to. Not just in terms of being explicitly inclusive regarding identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), but also in terms of instructors, their backgrounds and experience. They have created a slot explicitly for inexperienced instructors to get some experience at event teaching under their belts. This produced some of the most interesting classes of the weekend. By far the most Renaissance thing I saw was Isaiah Baden-Payne teaching a class on Fabris’ footwork in high heels. This makes perfect sense, because duels would have been fought shod, and those shoes would usually have some pretty chunky heels on them.

A historical perfectionist might note that Isaiah wasn’t wearing early 17th century-type heels, they were wearing snazzy modern stilettos. But the point they were making was abundantly clear- footwear affects footwork, and here’s the takeaway: Fabris’s weird guard position works well, better even, in heels. And it’s easy to get hold of modern heels, much harder to get decent period gear. 

I was also thrilled to see the results of a conversation I had at last year’s Squatch with Rebecca Glass, when she told me she was memorising Liechtenauer’s zettel (mnemonic verses, the foundation of German longsword, to the point that the sources people are basing their interpretations on are almost exclusively glosses on those verses) and I got all excited about the medievalness of doing that. This year, she performed the entire thing. Sadly I was teaching a dagger class at the time, but she kindly did a preview performance for me when I was free. Memorising the zettel has to be the most medieval thing I saw all weekend. And it’s a testament to the organisers of the event that they make space for that kind of thing in the schedule, and more to the point, are themselves so approachable that Isaiah and Rebecca felt comfortable putting themselves forward and applying to run such unusual sessions.

At this event there is none of the respect for hierarchy (or even clicqeuyness) that can lead to the instructors being set apart as an exclusive club. As I’ve usually been a member of that club I’ve tended to take it for granted that that’s the way things are done, and when you’re on the inside, it’s nice. But this is better, for several reasons:

Firstly, there is a lot more interaction between groups that would not normally mix. Everyone fenced everyone, as far as I could see, and there were people crossing swords pretty much all day every day. This is good for training, good for socialisation, good for inspiration. 

Secondly, it prevents the instructors getting precious. Not that we ever would, oh no.

Thirdly, it creates a clear and transparent path for anyone who wants to teach to get started. If all the instructors have decades of experience and multiple publications, etc. etc., then it sets an expectation of ‘that’s what you need to have done to be worthy of teaching’. But it obscures the fact that those of us who have been working in HMA from the beginning were also beginners once, and when we first taught at an international event, we had probably less experience and lower skills than many of the up-and-coming young instructors. And much of what we taught back then was crap. State-of-the-art at the time, we hope, but crap by modern standards. Beginners are the future of the art- but only if there is a path for them to pursue the art along. And this goes double for those learning to teach.

I should also mention it’s the one event offering flaming tetherball as an after-hours activity, which is awesome good fun, and only looks dangerous.

Plus, Mike Lerner set up spear-throwing battleships. I cannot possibly do justice to his introduction to the game, nor the sheer exuberance with which he kept a whole lot of somewhat drunk swordspeople safe while throwing spears at targets. Yes, weapons and alcohol shouldn’t usually mix, but he did an amazing job of setting up and running the game in such a way that it really was safe. Plus, it turns out I’m quite good at throwing spears. I even won a beer!

No wonder this is the only event I’ve ever bought special underwear for. Really. These from MeUndies  encapsulate the Squatch experience.

Rainbow unicorns and stars- but also, really comfortable.

As last year, the organisers gave themselves permission to reward the sorts of behaviour they want to see more of, and during the closing ceremonies they handed out a lot of prizes, for all sorts of things. One student got a beautiful sharp sword made by Gus Trim. One of the volunteers did too. And one instructor. Me. I’m not sure why, but clearly I’ve been doing something right. 

The last time I was in Seattle, in April this year, Gus came by to visit and show me some of his latest creations. I played with them all, and he asked me which was my favourite. The slashiest, wickedest messer was the stand-out choice for me. With no less than three martles on the blade (the bit where the back edge widens out in a spur, to add mass to that bit of the cutting edge). It was gorgeous. And it was the one they gave me during the closing ceremonies. Oh my. Words failed me then, and they continue to fail me nearly a month later. It even came with a group hug. This moment was one of the highlights of my career.

So if you’re thinking about going next year, don’t think, just do it. And if you have an idea for a class, pitch it to them through their online form (all the instructors have to do that- it’s the only way to get on the roster). They won’t bite, and you’re guaranteed a supportive, welcoming, environment whether this is your first event, or your fiftieth, and whether you’re teaching, training, just watching, or all three. See you there!

I have just returned from a trip to the USA, centred around Lord Baltimore’s Challenge, a rapier-themed event held in, you guessed it, Baltimore, and organised by David Biggs.
Because of the vagaries of international air travel, I flew to New York on Wednesday 3rd, and took the train down to Baltimore on the 5th. This gave me a full day in Manhattan, which I spent hanging out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Jared Kirby, and then in the Morgan Library.
Oh my. The Met is huge, and has everything.
Even Christian Cameron in a glass case.

(Note, probably not actually Christian)

Before going to visit Christian, I paid homage to the Studiolo of Gubbio. I remember it from my last trip in 2001 as a woodworker’s explosion. Hot damn that’s some fine marquetry. I love my study, but wow, this is in a different league. While chatting to Jared about it I spotted the garter symbol (the ring-shaped object on the left in the picture), and said that the owner of the studio was probably a Knight of the Garter.


I’d forgotten, or never quite made the connection, that the Studiolo of Gubbio was made for Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino! Father of Guidobaldo, to whom Vadi dedicated his treatise!
Father and son are shown here, but this is not the same study, obviously.

 

I should probably do a “Guy's guide to the Met” or somesuch as I could rhapsodise on about these museums for pages, but will move swiftly on to the event…

I took the train down to Baltimore on the Friday, and we began at about 9 on Saturday morning with a rapier and dagger tournament. I was ring director for three pools, and began each with this address to the combatants: “I am drunk, blind, and biased against you. Make it so even an idiot like me can see your hits. I’m not interested in trying to figure out what might have happened- if it’s not clear, I’ll throw it out and you’ll have to try again.” This established my expectations quite clearly, I think, and certainly I saw a lot of clean fencing.
After lunch I judged three or four pools in the sidesword tournament, which was fun to be a part of. Things were running on the late side by then, and I was not needed for the sword and buckler tournament, so I went back to my hotel room (chauffeured by the excellent Conner Craig, who looked after me the entire weekend) and got a solid hour’s nap. That restored me for ring-directing four pools and several elimination matches in the final tournament, sudden-death single rapier. Oh my we got through a lot of fights (on average there are 15 fights per pool, and a further 8 elimination bouts (I think) per tournament). Though at least one of my pools had seven fencers, so 21 bouts.
What stood out for me though was the honourable nature of the fencers. By the end of the day if a fencer disavowed a match-winning point, or called a match-losing point against themselves, I just took it for granted, because that’s what had been happening all day. It was a delight and an honour to be part of it.
Organising tournaments is not my thing- waaay too much work! But it’s certainly more fun to judge or direct than to simply watch, and while it was a very long day (we finished just shy of 8pm), it was very good fun.

On Sunday I had my classes. We started with an hour of learning how to develop fencing memory (as detailed in The Rapier, part three: Developing Your Skills Workbook), and then I taught a subject I’ve never actually written down, nor covered at an event before: Controlling the Story. This is my approach to eliminating expectations in yourself (to prevent the possibility of being surprised), while creating them in your opponent (to be able to surprise her). I think I’d better write it up somewhere in full, do you agree?Tom Leoni visited the event at lunch and gave a fascinating lecture on the Vienna Anonymous, a fascinating manuscript that is essentially a fencer’s notes on Fabris and Capoferro, dating from the early 1600s. The whiteboard looked like this when he was done:

17th century handwriting for the win!

Immediately after that I taught two hours of Problem Solving, running the students through my approach to training by systematically finding and solving problems. Of course I was then buttonholed by students wanting advice on various aspects of the art… which meant I missed all of Devon Boorman, John Mackenzie Gordon, and Mike Prendergast’s classes
One of the greatest pleasures of events like this is putting faces to names. Quite a few names I recognise from email exchanges or attendance on my online courses came up and introduced themselves. (If you were thinking about introducing yourself but didn’t, next time please do!)
The next day David the indefatigable squired Mike and I around DC: the mall, the Air and Space Museum, and then the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Holy shit. The plane the Wright brothers built and flew in at Kitty Hawk, in 1903. The Spirit of St Louis, the first plane to cross the Atlantic. The X-1, first plane to break the speed of sound. They have a goddam Moon Lander.


And at the MAA: the only know portrait of Custer. Rockwell’s painting of Nixon. Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Obama. The list goes on and on.

The following day I went back to Manhattan en route to JFK, with enough time to visit the Fountain Pen Hospital (fellow pen geeks writhe in envy), the Public Library to see Winnie the Pooh, and then the Frick Collection, because why the hell not.

They have, among a million treasures, Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. But the buggers don’t let you take photos (unlike every other museum I went to this trip), so I scalped this off t’internet.
Home at last yesterday, in time for my younger daughter’s sports day- literally straight off the train from London, no shower for the wicked.
All in all, a wonderful trip, and the event itself was an absolute gem. Thanks particularly to David and Alix, Monica for the food, Lisa for the tea and general organisyness, Conner, my ring judges, and the attendees who made the event such a delight.

In a rural corner of County Clare there is a tiny little village (only three pubs that I could see) called Feakle, which is perhaps the last place one would expect to find a historical swordsmanship event. And yet, I have just returned from the Tempest event held there last weekend, which started off on Friday evening with some knife and axe throwing, and a slinging class lead by Kevin O’Brien (of the Turku branch of my school, no less). I taught a three-hour class on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the afternoons were taken up with tournaments: Longsword on Saturday, Sabre on Sunday. This was organised by Adam Duggan and Sandy Robinson of the Irish School of Historical Combat, and drew fencers in from near and far (I think Kevin travelled the furthest though). 

Helping Sandy appreciate the ligadura mezana…

The best way I can describe the tone of the event is this: apart from Kevin, I had never met any of the attendees or organisers before. But I felt completely at home the entire time. 

Better still, they seemed to really enjoy what  I had to teach, and to find my ‘consulting swordsman’ approach (where I asked them what they wanted and gave it to them) a refreshing change from attending a class with a set content. We covered all sorts of things, from how to hold a sword properly, to structure, power generation and control, and a short intro to Fiore (abrazare, dagger and longsword- nobody had horses or armour with them). My goal was to give them the kind of class that would benefit their training for months or years to come, and I’m quite sure that for several of the students, that’s exactly what happened. Once your eyes have opened to grounding, everything changes.

I can’t possibly name everyone who made the event so enjoyable, but I have to thank Hex for the proper breakfasts; Allie for the wonderful curry; Stef for being the Bard; Nick for bringing a pole lathe, of all wonderful things, to the event; Nina for the best request in class (and lending me her lovely sword); Megan for pushing me over in front of the whole class; Dennis for a great game of Audatia; and Kevin for the slings. As soon as I hit “Publish” on this post, I’ll think of a dozen more folk deserving of thanks.

One final note: tournaments often do not bring out the best in people— everyone wants to win. But at this event, the tournaments stood out for the willingness of the competitors to acknowledge hits against themselves, or dismiss hits that the judges would have awarded them. It was a delight to be a part of it.

Not long ago I braved the North Passage and flew to Seattle via Iceland. This was about my twentieth trip to Seattle, but my first to SwordSquatch. The event is run by a group of Lonin students who got together a few years ago to create the event that they would want to go to. This is its third incarnation. I can’t speak to the first two, but if my Facebook feed is anything to go by they were awesome. My expectations were very high, and increased by the instructor line-up, which included the likes of Jake Norwood and Jess Finley, as well as a host of less well known (for now) faces.

From outside HEMA these included the legendary Ellis Amdur, who taught a fascinating polearms mechanics class, and Da’Mon Stith, who taught a variety of African sword arts, the first time I’d ever seen any. Let me put it this way: it’s a good thing Da’Mon is a nice bloke, so I never have to fight him.

The organisers (Beth, Shanna, Erik, Aidan, Leigh, Olivia, Shane), clearly think outside the box- as well as core HEMA subjects, such as wiktenauer maestro Michael Chidester lecturing on Liechtenauer, there was also Mary Mooney lecturing on European magical traditions and how they relate to swordsmanship. No wonder the event was magical. They booked a magician! (She also gets props for the best class handout ever.)

But it wasn’t really the instructors and classes that made the event for me. Nor even the three hour open session in the flying trapeze tent. (I went three times. It is very frightening.) 

It was the atmosphere. I saw a diversity of people there, on either or both sides of the teacher-student divide, all of whom were getting on with each other. For such a large event (over 150 people) it was remarkably free of politics and ego tripping. As Aidan Blake, one of the organisers, put it on his Facebook wall:

From day one, our goal for Swordsquatch was to create an inclusive, safe space where people could experiment, fail without judgement, and grow from it. Play, Fight, Learn. We wanted a place where everyone, regardless of their level of experience, gender, orientation, religion, race or anything else, was welcome. We also wanted to throw an event where tournaments were not the most important thing, but workshops are.

I’ve never been to an event with more prizes awarded- mostly paper plates with drawings on, also some medals, and a pink plastic unicorn, but also a few seriously good sharp swords. And I think that’s part of the secret sauce. The organisers have given themselves permission to reward the behaviour they most wish to see, regardless. And it works. It tells everyone what is valued in that community.

The Open Tournament was deservedly won by Jan Deneke. He got a medal and much congratulation. Yay!

But Sihong Fu, who came third, won a brand-new Angus Trim sword. Because in the opinion of the organisers and staff, he earned it through the way he pushed himself, without pushing anyone else. As I would put it, in their view he best represented the spirit of the Art.

I enjoyed my three classes; the students were bright and engaged, even in the post-prandial slump (teaching at 2pm is the hardest slot, I think). I revelled in Neal Stephenson’s Indian Clubs class, though had to bow out of the heavy stuff thanks to my still-recovering back injury. Ellis’ polearms mechanics was fascinating; it’s quite different to how I’ve been doing things, and he freely and clearly taught the inner mechanics that are often buried behind mystic bullshit or clan secrecy. 

SwordSquatch brings out the good crazy.

This is me playing flaming tetherball with Alex Hanning.

You read that right. A roll of toilet paper soaked in what Americans call “white gas” (something a bit like diesel, I think), fixed to the end of a chain, and set on fire. Then you bat it back and forth. It is oddly very very hard to see the ball of fire coming towards your face…

It’s also the only event at which nail-painting is strongly encouraged. I got into the spirit of things and let Kaja Sadowski loose on my cuticles.

Normally my nails only get a bit of bling when my kids want to play beautician. But one gay friend of mine at the event told me that my teaching in painted nails sent a kind of welcoming bat-signal to the non-heteronormative students in a really clear and unambiguous way. So don’t be surprised if you see me wearing it more often. It’s not really my style, but it’s a very small thing to do to encourage students who might otherwise feel automatically excluded.

If I had to define the event in three words it would be these: Kindness. Community. Quirk. I was right at home. And proud as hell of my Lonin crew for pulling this off.

On Monday last week I was sat in the departures hall at Vancouver airport when I got a message from my friend Samantha Swords. She suggested I attend an event in London that weekend called the Hero Round Table. She had spoken at one, and had suggested to the organiser, Matt Langdon, that he invite me along. Truthfully, I'm a bit sceptical of events based on short ‘inspiring' talks; I'm not a huge fan of TED, for instance. Sure, there's some value in some of the talks, but the whole format seems set up to be superficial and entertaining rather than truly valuable. I'm also really suspicious of any kind of hype. I was just back from a two week trip on an 8 hour time difference, so I was heavily inclined to stay home, but I talked it over with my wife, and she said I should go if I wanted to, so I did.

The day began with a talk by a schoolteacher from Norwich, Andy Fisher. Whose main hobby, other than some pretty extreme sports? Knife throwing. That's our kind of chap. He was presenting there because he's recently written a book, The Hero Forge (I haven't read it yet so can't comment on it, but his talk was excellent which bodes well). He was followed by author Marcus Alexander, who does longsword with the Schola Gladiatoria in London.

The speakers ranged from whistle-blowing accountant Wendy Addison to academic student of heroism, Prof. Ari Kohen, to author Elizabeth Svodoba, who (as the website says) “wrote the book on heroism”: What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. (Again, not read it yet so can't comment on it, but her talk was interesting so…). They were all good, some more interesting than others, but while I enjoyed the talks, there weren't any ideas expressed that were completely new to me. But then professional swordsmen aren't anybody's target audience. And, as Derek Sivers puts it: if more information were the answer, we'd all be billionaires with perfect abs.

As is usually the case at conference-type events, the real gold is found in the spaces between the presentations. In the first place, the organiser of the event, Katherine Barton, challenged us all to introduce ourselves to five new people that day. I hate doing that. I like meeting new people, but I usually do so in cases where it's obvious who I am (like I'm teaching a seminar), or I'm introduced by a common acquaintance. Dammit, introducing yourself is so un-English. But I damn well did it, getting to six cold introductions by the end of the day. And thereby met some really interesting folk (including the organiser of an event called Sword Punk!). I introduced myself to Katherine, which seemed only fair. And she introduced me to Dan Edwardes, founder of  Parkour Generations, because he trained traditional koryu swordsmanship in Japan for years… What is it with these swordsmen cropping up everywhere? could it be that there's a connection between an interest in heroism and a desire to swing swords? There was even an ex-student of mine, Rasmus Vanagand, who came to some of my seminars in Linköping back in the early days.

Towards the end of the day, coming out of a panel discussion, I saw a chap doing burpees in a corner of the foyer. Naturally, I went over, took off my jacket, and joined in. Goddamn it he pumped those horrid things out. I was completely knackered. He finished his 300 (you read that right). I'd managed perhaps 40.

I found out about 10 minutes later that it was Joe de Sena. Founder of the Spartan Race. Legendary endurance athlete. Complete lunatic (in our kind of way).

He gave a copy of his latest book, Spartan Fit!, to everyone at the event. I've read it, and it's well worth your time. Short and to the point, no fluff (as is no doubt the Spartan way!) it's got me seriously considering training for an obstacle race…

The video may give the impression that I spent the whole time squatting on the floor. Blame Matt, he took this on his phone at the least flattering moment, honest. Joe signed my copy of his book, “Guy, you are a Spartan! we did 50 burpees today!” I think he exaggerates- I maybe did 40.

Perhaps there's something in this whole Hero thing?

My day's highlights were burpees with Joe, chatting to Dan, Katherine, Marcus and Andy, and getting a window into how other people approach the problem of training people to handle frightening situations.

To sum up: don't judge by appearances; when opportunities present themselves, jump at them; get outside your comfort zone; meet new people; join in.

A big thank you to Matt Langdon for inviting me, and to Samantha Swords for giving him the idea. Sam, drinks on me 🙂

Just yesterday Louise Mann, a student on my Knee Maintenance course, sent me a review she had written. It blew me away, so I'm sharing it here, with her permission.

Part 1: A gentle warm up.

Excellent safety advice regarding not following along slavishly, but actually knowing and understanding your own physical limitations and acting appropriately.

Great explanation of where the hips are located, and thus where the movement should be localised. Memorable description of how far you should be looking to squat!

Part 2: Mindful stepping, and balance practice.

The mindful stepping exercise was most instructive. I go barefoot, or wear thin-soled shoes as much of the time as possible, but even then (as I rarely walk around blindfolded) I don’t think that much about what my feet are doing. Having to concentrate on receiving feedback from my feet whilst walking about felt quite strange to begin with, but the longer I did the exercise, the more normal this became. Definitely something to continue with and improve.

Balancing on one leg was easy to begin with – then came level 2 with eyes closed. Absolutely hopeless to begin with and was just glad that no-one was observing my efforts! As with the mindful stepping, this simple exercise showed how easy it is to lose concentration and therefore body awareness.

The ‘book reading’ exercise is probably not one I’ll be using at my local bookshop any time soon as I find squatting more comfortable. However, it certainly is a good strengthening exercise, as well as have some flexibility component as well.

Part 3: Training your knees to move correctly.

This is the best explanation I have ever seen regarding how a knee should track over the foot. The information about ankle and hip mobility is crucial.

Part 4: How to massage your knees.

Invaluable. For myself, the best part of the course. The point about checking as to whether the massaged leg feels better than the unmassaged one is so obvious, yet probably overlooked by most people.

Concluding thoughts.

Clearly shot video with excellent sound throughout. Instruction clear and to the point. Caveats used where appropriate (particularly with regard to warm up).

The quality and depth of this course has led me to the conclusion that I will have to buy some (perhaps all) of your other online offerings! Many thanks for making this course freely available to all.

Louise Mann 08-12-2016

Interested? You can find the course here. If you've already taken it, I'd be glad to hear what you thought of it.

Last weekend I attended the excellent Smallsword Symposium. I am unusual amongst HEMA instructors in that I do lots of different styles; Armizare, of course, but also I.33 sword and buckler, Capoferro rapier, and even the glorious smallsword. The smallsword was my first historical fencing love, way back in the early nineties, and the first treatise I found and distributed was Donald McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion in the National Library of Scotland. My first two books, The Swordsman's Companion and The Duellist's Companion  were named in its honour.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is, smallsword is bliss, and much under-appreciated in the HEMA world, so it was an especial pleasure to attend an event given over wholly to its elegant viciousness. The event was well run, and well attended, with people coming from Norway, Canada, Germany and even Ipswich, as well as the local contingent from (mostly) the Black Boar Swordsmanship School, which organised the symposium. The Black Boar was founded by two ex-DDS members, Phil Crawley and Ian Macintyre, who I had a hand in training back in the bad old days. My (fencing) kids are all growed up! And having kids of their own…

The format of the event was interesting; just two tracks, beginning with a very basic introductory class for newbies, well taught by Sue Kirk, with a more advanced ‘let's get cracking with a bunch of skills training' class run by Phil running at the same time. This got everybody off on the right foot, and paved the way for the classes that followed. These were mostly ‘have a go at this cool new system' type classes, such as Tobias Zimmerman's survey of Schmidt, and Ragnhild Esbenson's survey of McBane. There were also a few concept classes, such as Milo Thurston teaching proprioception using blindfolds, Martin Dougherty (author of several swordy books) teaching attention to technical detail, and my own ‘how to find and fix any technical problem' class.*

The event included a tournament, and I must say it was amazingly well organised. Simply, the contestants are randomly split into four pools and told to establish a winner in 90 minutes by whatever means they agree on. Absolutely no top-down requirements, just tell us who won. Then the four finalists fence off in pairs. The two losers fight for third place, the two winners for first and second. It worked incredibly well, and I saw some lovely smallsword fencing.

One additional highlight for me was meeting Marco Danelli, the swordmaker. I have often been asked about his swords, and have had to reply ‘they look nice in the pictures but I've never handled one'. Now I can say “dear god, buy one!” No wonder he has a two-year waiting list. I also got to see a couple of Andrew Feest's swords, though sadly not Andrew himself, and oh my, they were both extremely pretty and handled delightfully. Mm-mmm, swordmaking is alive and well in Brighton, I can assure you.

All in all, an excellent weekend, and I look forward to coming back next year. On the Monday we went to Glasgow to handle antique swords, but that's a story for another blog post. One of the swords had HORNS! Stay tuned…

*For the benefit of those that were there (or even those that weren't), let me briefly summarise my class:

  1. Run a diagnostic, find the weakest link. E.g. I'm vulnerable to attacks below the sword arm.
  2. Fix the weakest link, using the method below.
  3. Run the diagnostic again.

The method for fixing the weakest link goes like this:

  1. Distinguish between technical and tactical problems. Technical = I did the right thing but it failed. Tactical = I did the wrong thing. This was a technical class so this process is for technical problems.
  2. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  3. Slow it down until you can get the action right.
  4. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail.
  5. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure.
  6. If you can't get it to work, then analyse it in terms of a) timing b) measure c) grounding/structure d) flow/movement. The weakness will be in there.

This class was largely unfamiliar with grounding so we covered that in some detail, with the net result that most of them shifted the way they hold their swords. Success!

In the last 15 minutes we looked at applying the process to tactical problems. It's not much different, it just requires selecting the correct action. For example, learning to identify a feint.

  1. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  2. Slow it down until you can use the correct action (in the case of a feint, a second parry).
  3. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail. Complexity is created by the ‘coach' in the drill either feinting or doing a real attack, forcing you to adapt your actions to theirs.
  4. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure

 

Lonin, April 4th 2016.

I have always made sure that there are at least some women in the photos in all of my training manuals. This photo from The Swordsman's Companion is one of my favourite pictures ever:

Last weekend, teaching at Lonin in Seattle, one of the women students told me that the only reason she had started training was because she had seen the women in my books, and therefore felt it might be ok. She got her biggest, toughest-looking male friend to come with her, just in case, but she came. She’s now on the governing board of her club. I nearly cried when she told me this. Martial arts training should be for everyone who is interested, be they clumsy or deft, weak or strong, timid or bold, tall or short, without regard to their starting point. Everyone can get better with practice.

Later that day, I taught my first ever all-women class. It was a fascinating experience for me as a teacher, and also as the head of a large and very diverse school. In essence, I know nothing at all about the particular requirements women may have in training, so I asked them what they wanted, they told me, and I did my best to oblige. I am, after all, a consulting swordsman. I think the class went well, everyone seemed happy with it, and I’ve only had positive feedback about it so far. And it has got me thinking (again) about the whole issue of gender in martial arts. When I was a kid, one of my role models was Cynthia Rothrock. You can see her famous scorpion kick in this excellent Ameridote video:

At my school karate club we were taught by Mr and Mrs Williams. Either one of them could have kicked my head off. My first fencing coach was a woman, Gail Rudge. She was assisted by the captain of the fencing team, also a woman. Neither of them had any difficulty stabbing young Guy when needed. Which was rather a lot. This all means that I have never been infected with the foolish idea that women can’t do martial arts or swordsmanship to the very highest level.

In a perfect world, no kind of gender discrimination would exist, and so nobody would think to organise a women-only class. But mansplaining is a thing. So is “I couldn’t hit a girl”. So is copping a feel when you’re supposed to be grappling. So I can see that this kind of class could be preferable, at least to some women. I should also point out that Lonin is an extremely inclusive and friendly club, vastly more welcoming to people of all kinds than many others I have seen, so it’s not like they had a special need for this kind of class. But the women training there just decided to organise a semi-regular women’s class, and advertised it to the general public. Over 30 people showed up! Clearly, there was something about a mixed, general, beginners’ class that put these women off, and starting this class just removed that barrier.

A martial artist ought to be able to handle whatever opponents life throws at them. My primary reservation about women-only classes stems from the possibility that women’s training might become ghettoised, and women who train in these classes might never get to train outside them, or might choose not to, and so limit their own development. They should be an option, not a refuge.

But that’s a lot of ‘mights’. What I saw was people happily training, some of whom would not have got started without the psychologically and physically less intimidating option of the women’s class. And it’s probable that some of them will grow in the Art and become role-models for the next generation of swordfighters.

I salute them.

 

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