Five years ago, I hired Jessica Finley to come teach a medieval wrestling seminar for my School in Finland. It was awesome, and my students all thoroughly enjoyed it, though I think their favourite bit was the way she bashed me on the floor like the Hulk dealing with Loki.
But Jess is nothing like the Hulk. She doesn’t turn green when she’s angry, for a start.
And she uses skill and speed not raw brute strength.
The effect is much the same though.
Why am I telling you this?
Because she has kindly produced a series of solo wrestling videos for my Solo Course. It turns out that there’s a lot of wrestling practice you can do alone; and yes, conditioning is even more important for any unarmed arts than it is for fighting with weapons.
The new material covers:
Introduction and Warm-Up
Falling practice- how to do back falls, side falls, forward rolls, backwards rolls, and how to get up off the ground when you’re in armour
Mat exercises, like the shrimp, and sit-outs.
And training with a dummy, learning to throw, and practicing setting up throws.
This is great stuff, and I’ve learned a lot just editing the videos. Imagine if I actually practised the content!
This is included in the Solo Course, which you can either buy outright, or subscribe to through the Mastering the Art of Arms package at Swordschool Online.
It has been a very long time since I showed up to a martial arts club as a beginner, but over the summer I found myself looking for a regular martial arts class that fit my schedule, and in which I had no experience. I stumbled upon Jushinkan, here in Ipswich. I asked about beginners’ courses, but they said to just show up, so I dug out my old gi and toddled along to class. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it turns out that in my head there was already a list of things to look for in a martial arts school or club. I realised this when the instructor (Richard, an 8th dan, who is so old-school that he doesn’t even do email) hit every single point on my unconscious checklist. He asked me whether I had any experience (I said yes, but not in this art); any disabilities or injuries he should know about (none), and told me that it was ok to sit out any exercise I felt would be bad for me. I felt welcome, and under no pressure to perform. Richard ran us through some naginata, spear, and sword kata. He said things like: “this is not self-defence” “this is stylised, for kata. The applications might look like this, or this” “now if that doesn’t work, try this” “this is a last-ditch I’m probably going to die but I’ll try this anyway situation” “no, grip me really hard as if your life depended on it, so we can see if this really works”. Hitting the items on my list like he’d read my mind. With about forty minutes left of class time, he handed the class over to a young man (about half his age) who “is much better than me at ground fighting, so he’s going to cover this stuff”. Absolutely no standing on rank whatsoever. And the person I was paired off with was not just very skilled, but an artist, alive to the nuances of the actions. After my second class I was sure I’d be coming along regularly, so I took the instructor aside and told him what I do for a living. His reaction was enthusiastic delight, and the hope that I’d perhaps teach a class for them sometime, because they are always looking for new approaches. If training is any use at all, it changes you. The demeanour of the more senior members of a club is a pretty good guide to how a club is run and what effect the training has on your character. Every other member of the class on that day (and on most days since) were very experienced: I’m usually the only one on the mat without a black belt. And everyone, without exception, has been friendly to the newbie, and highly skilled. The other night a couple of young women came to watch class, one of them in a hijab. One of the club’s founders, Brian Rogers, another 8th dan with about 40 years experience, spent the entire evening going over the absolute basics with them. Nobody found it remarkable. I have learned a great deal so far, especially about joint locks, takedowns and ground fighting, but that is perhaps the least important aspect of the club and the style. It is much more important to me that I could recommend it to anyone without even thinking about how they will be treated if they show up. If you are lucky, you’ll be wondering why I bothered to write this post: surely that’s how all martial arts clubs are run?
Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:
This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:
Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!
This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.
4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.
When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.
I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.
But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.
If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.
2. T’ai Chi Chuan
When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.
“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”
“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”
“We do a lot of forms …”
“Goddam it, where do I sign???”
Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.
In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.
I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…
1. Historical European Martial Arts
You guessed that it was coming, right?
I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.
I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.
That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.
Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.
But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.
So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?
The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.
Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.
In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:
“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.
Disarm and counter
Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:
The attacker is not trying to kill you.
The weapon is not sharp.
The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
You can’t run away or call the cops.
You have to wait for the attack.
You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
The line of the attack is pre-selected.
Your defence is pre-selected.
The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
The attack is done with little force.
The attack is done slowly.
I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?
To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!
So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?
Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.
It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.
But be aware that this drill does NOT:
Teach a survival skill.
Teach situational awareness.
Teach decision making or judgement.
Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.
But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*
It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.
So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).
Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?
This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.
Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate- if it works all the time, ramp it up- if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit. This is called:
Coaching correct actions
Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced scholar should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So,
For those of us engaged in recreating the killing arts, it seems odd that kendo would be thought of as a “pure” martial art: from our perspective, if it has World Championships, it must be a sport. But the kendoka I have met all insist on it being a martial art, and I've never really understood why until reading this article. The key is in the last few lines:
“Kendo is not a sport, it’s a martial art,” said Daniel Ebihara, who has taught in New York since 1958 and coaches the Venezuelan national team. “It’s not about how to win. How to be is more important.”
This is places the definition of martial art as they are using it squarely at the self-improvement pole (I think of martial arts being pulled towards five poles: killing, self-improvement, sport, spectacle and health. See pp 5-6 of The Swordsman's Companion for the full argument). The article continues:
Getting points and winning medals and becoming a champion are hardly the aims, Ebihara said, yet he sees kendo going in that direction. For him, victory entails something else.
“In kendo, the prime opponent is yourself,” he said. “If ippon is perfectly executed, the other side will bow to you and smile.”
I love this. It absolutely defines the nature of a good bout in our arts. Winning a tournament is of infinitely less value than becoming more than you were; and a great hit is wonderful to be a part of, whether you deliver it or receive it. If you weren't fencing at your best, your opponent could not pull off that stroke.
But this is fencing. The Art half of martial art. It leaves out the essential nature of what makes a martial art martial.
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