Guy's Blog

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

Tag: advanced swordsplay

I have just this very day completed the first draft of my next longsword book; snappily titled Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training.

Can you think of a better title?

To celebrate, here is one small section of the book, that actually started out in life as a draft blog post, as a follow up to this one.

Living with perfectionism

One of the many reasons that teaching swordsmanship is the right career choice for me is that it is the one area of my life in which “good enough” is not even close to acceptable. “Excellent” is “ok for now I suppose”. This means that I am emotionally incapable of being satisfied with whatever level of technical and tactical skill I may attain.  Back when I was a cabinet-maker (which I did professionally for five years), if it was good enough, I was happy with it. So I was perpetually frustrated, as I couldn’t apply the necessary uncompromising will to excellence that marks a true craftsman. In swordsmanship though, I simply cannot, will not, accept the current standard as “good enough”. And I am therefore much more satisfied. This will seem a contradiction, but it isn’t: I am satisfied with progress made, not level attained.

And it is that uncompromising, perpetual dissatisfaction with my current level that enables me to maintain the progress that I find so satisfying.

Perfection is unattainable in this lifetime. I have friends who make furniture, like this by Patrick Baxter (who I used to work for)

Bureau

or swords, or other beautiful things, such as this from JT Pälikkö

Stainless damascus loveliness.
Stainless damascus loveliness.

Their craftsmanship astonishes me. I will look at what they have made and gasp in awe and wonder at its shimmering perfection. They will then say something like “well, it was a bitch to do. That corner isn’t quite right. And the proportions there are a bit off. It’s crap, really. I’m not sure I should let it out of the workshop.” But, and here’s the irony: they love their job. It consumes and enlarges them.

I have seen many students suffer in training from their desire to do everything perfectly. The let the fact that they cannot do it perfectly rob them of the pleasure from doing it more perfectly today than they could yesterday. My point here is that the suffering is unnecessary. Yes, your current level today is not as good as it might be tomorrow- but if this trend continues, it will be better tomorrow, so be happy!

So how to make the switch between focussing on the current level to focussing on progress made? There is no one simple answer to this (is there ever?), but the following ideas have proved helpful to me:

1) Accept your fallible human nature. You will make mistakes, but ideally the mistakes you make today are smaller, less critical, and just plain better than the mistakes you made yesterday. You have eternity to be perfect once you’re dead.

2) Take video of yourself in training doing a basic exercise, and don’t look at it for a year. Then take more video of the same sort of training, and compare the two clips. The improvement should be remarkable. If it isn’t, your training methodology needs fixing.

3)  Understand that as you improve, your ability to spot mistakes improves, and so while you might have noticed huge mistakes in the beginning, thanks to your developing magnifying glass vision, the much smaller mistakes you make now are blown up and appear worse than they really are.

4) Be perfect like the sky. Just what is it about perfection that is so damn attractive? It seems to generally be taken to mean “so good that further progress is impossible”. So, should you attain that state, the only thing to do is stop training because you’re done. But swords are cool, so why would you want to stop training? Really, you can be perfect now: the sky is always perfect, but the sky is always changing. So be perfect like the sky, not perfect like God.

Let me take my mandritto fendente as an example. By the standards of our community at present, it is pretty good, as one would require from a professional. And compared to the average beginner, it is excellent. And yet to me, it is profoundly flawed. Let’s have a look at why. Every blow has four phases: chamber, release, contact, and withdrawal. (As a historical aside: George Silver identifies three such phases: bent= chambered; spent=contact; lying spent=withdrawal.)

When chambered, the blow is ready to go: the sword is withdrawn in some measure from the intended finishing point of the movement, such as lying in posta di donna. The question is, is that chamber perfect? In other words, is every molecule in my body in the perfect place such that releasing the blow requires no adjustment of any kind? No. But eliminating such adjustments eliminates telegraphing the blow to the opponent. This particular blow can start from many different positions: fenestra, tutta porta di ferro, coda longa to name a few. It can also start as a continuation forom another movement: after parrying from zenghiaro, for example, or after a feint in a different line. How smoothly does it flow from that movement? Not very. So, my chambering needs work. The stability drill might help.

Releasing the blow is pretty easy if the sword is already in motion, but quite hard if it is still. I have to overcome the inertia of the sword, and make sure that the threat and opportunities presented to my opponent truly are exactly as I think they are. If I think I have presented no opportunity to counterattack, and I’m right, either the blow lands, or the blow is parried, or if the opponent does counterattack, his action will fail and I will strike. If I am wrong, the counterattack might kill me. Also, the moment of release is the most difficult part of the blow to get right, as any imperfection in the chamber will lead my body to do a semi-conscious mini-chambering action, which will tell my opponent that I’m on my way. If I can control this, I can feed him that tell and profit from his reaction to it. Or hide it, and strike without telegraphing. I can also adjust the rate of acceleration: from “go like hell” all out maximum speed (get there before the parry arrives), or start slow and finish fast (trick him into a too-slow parry), or start fast and slow down a little then speed up again (watch that fast parry go by then hit him), all within the time taken to get from donna to longa. Is my release perfect? Not even close. Better get in front of a mirror or video camera and watch it.

On contact, the blow should be perfectly supported. This means that all the energy in the blow goes into the target, and the equal and opposite reaction that Newton demands is routed perfectly through my sword, through my grip, down my body and into the ground. Or rather, if I choose it to be so, it is.When hitting students or colleagues in free fencing, it is better to break that connection to minimise damage. But breaking that connection mist be done right, or the force of the blow may be absorbed in my wrist, neck, shoulder, hip or knee (to name the usual problem spots) and cause damage over time. If the blow is supposed to be unsupported (such as in a zwerchau), then controlling the impact is even more challenging as there is no structure behind the edge to manipulate the impact with. Good thing we are looking at a nice simple supported mandritto fendente then. Is my contact perfect? Um, no. Striking the tyre, stroking the pell, static pressure grounding exercises, and free fencing all may help.

After contact, I must withdraw safely: there is no sense just leaving the sword stuck in the target. So, is this blow intended to strike through (to zenghiaro for example) or to stay in posta longa? If through, then depending on what I am hitting, it might be best to support the blow all the way through (when cutting targets like tatami) or break on contact (when hitting friends). If cutting through, does that action perfectly chamber the next blow? Or perfectly create the guard I wish to finish in? Cutting through also requires the tactical circumstances in which to withdraw. It might be safer to change the blow and leave the sword in the centre, especially if the blow failed for some reason (like not being perfect). Can I always, and reliably, at full speed adjust my withdrawal accordingly? No. Better work on that then. Tyre, pell, free fencing, drills with degrees of freedom, form, may all help.

So, we have now established the profound imperfections of my mandritto fendente. But I can fence with the best in my community and hit them with it. So it’s not useless. It also rarely fails to slice through tatami. So it’s not useless. It also hits the tyre pretty hard. So it’s not useless. I am much better at manipulating my opponent’s expectations of the blow now than I was five years ago. So that’s getting better. I don’t think power has improved much in that time, so perhaps I should work more on that. My chambering has improved noticeably since regularly incorporating the stability drill into my training, so that’s a double win: a useful drill developed and an improved blow.

OK, that’s the mechanics (structure and flow) of the blow addressed. What about tactics (time and measure)? When is this the right blow to use? It is rarely wrong to strike a good mandritto fendente: I picked a good general purpose blow for that very reason. But can I use this as a parry? A feint? A counterattack? In what measures is it best? If you have ever seen someone trying to land a mandritto fendente when they have the opponent’s arms enveloped in their own left arm, it’s a pitiful sight. Pommel strike, hilt strike, or pull the sword back and thrust would all work better. Though it is clearly implied in the text and picture of the ninth play of the zogho stretto; so wait, perhaps there is work to be done here…pair drills, the plays from the treatise in which it appears, in their canonical forms and in variations, and free fencing, may all help.

Perfectionism, the emotional incapability of accepting less than perfection, is the engine that drives excellence in all its forms. It also cripples many swordsmanship (and other) careers before they even start. It is a powerful and overwhelming force, so treat with it carefully and harness it to your goals.

My next book, Swordfighting, is, from a creative perspective, done. It is still being edited, tweaked into better forms, and has yet to be published, but the creative work, by which I mean “writing new material”, is over. I have a bunch of started book projects on my computer, and  I am wondering which of them most takes your fancy; which one would you most like to see finished first. I posted a poll yesterday, and the top three contenders are:

1) Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training. The sequel to my latest longsword book, which would cover advanced training, techniques, and concepts. (40% of the votes)

2) A new rapier book, to replace The Duellist's Companion. This will take into account about 9 years of teaching rapier regularly, and so be much easier to follow and use. (22% of the votes)

3) How to Train which has sections on strength training, nutrition, range of motion, meditation, and breathing. In other words how to craft your body to be able to do what you want it to do. The emphasis will be on being able to swing swords, but the principles are sufficiently general that it can apply to any area of life. (31% of the votes)

Or is there something else? I'm open to suggestions, which so far have included: a beginner's Bolognese book, Sword & Buckler, combined martial arts and swordsmanship (whatever that is!), and my interpretation of all of Fiore's plays on foot, among others.

So, if you have an opinion, please let me know it by answering my poll. I added 3000 words to my draft of Advanced Longsword today, inspired by yesterday's responses…

Is this a dagger I see before me?
Is this a dagger I see before me?

It has been my experience that beginners feel they have learned something when they get to try a new technique. But experienced students of the art feel they have learned something when they have identified and corrected a flaw in their skills. This is normal, and in both cases, the student is correct. It can seem daunting to a beginner to look at our basic syllabus, and realise just how much new material there is to learn, but it can also be frustrating to a more advanced student to feel that they have done it all before so there is nothing “new” to be learned. Both states of mind are unproductive, and both have at their root a lack of understanding as to what the syllabus is for. So I shall explain.

I guess most of my readers know that I used to work as a cabinet maker, and I still do woodwork as a hobby. So let me offer an analogy for the syllabus problem above, based on woodwork.

The purpose of the syllabus, from breathing exercises to pair drills, from push-ups to freeplay, is simply this: it is a toolkit with which you can craft, from the raw material of yourself, the swordsman you aspire to become.

Once a drill or exercise is sufficiently well learned that it does not require effort to recall, it becomes available to you as a tool. So we equip our beginners with a very basic toolkit, just as someone taking up woodwork might buy a set-square, a saw, a plane and a chisel. Until the drill is in memory, it is effectively useless. When it has been absorbed, it becomes a working tool. We then apply these tools to the business of making swordsmen.

As the student develops, they will acquire new tools, either of a whole new type (hello, G clamp) or a variation on one already owned (such as a plough plane). The process of learning new drills is analogous to the process of buying new tools; lots of fun, and for some people (tool collectors), the whole point of the exercise. But owning tools is not craftsmanship. Knowing how to keep them sharp and put them to use, is. I am an avid tool collector in both fields: I have some woodworking tools I will probably never use, and I have some drills from other arts, and from the early days of my career, that I take out and polish every now and then, but will never actually apply to the business of my improvement as a swordsman.

One of the hallmarks of a craftsman is that they not only have the right tools, but for any given job they will unerringly select the right tool from the rack. And if the job requires a tool they don’t have, then they will buy it or make it. Every cabinet maker has a stock of self-made jigs and tools that they knocked up to get a particular job done. So in swordsmanship, understanding the problem you are trying to fix means you instinctively know what tool you need. And if you don’t have it, you either create it, or buy it (which for my students equals “ask Guy”).

It is also critical to understand your material. Just as a cabinet maker knows that ash is the best material for drawer sides, and beech is stable and cheap, but vulnerable to woodworm; so the student must know their own physical, mental and spiritual strengths and weaknesses. These will determine what kind of swordsman you should create out of yourself, and the tools you will need to do it. Swordsmen are fantastically lucky in that the Art does not require a specific body type. Sure, there are some obvious advantages to being tall and thin if you are a rapier fencer, but the best rapierist I ever trained was neither. But to ignore, in this example, her height would have been stupid. Instead we made her size an integral part of her style. And I have watched her skewer tall skinny blokes more than once.

A student who has a well-earned sense of satisfaction because they now “know” the punta falsa, is in a similar position to the beginner woodworker who has saved up enough money to buy a shiny tool that they have no clue how to use properly. It is a necessary and laudable first step on the way to craftsmanship. If you were to come along to one of our advanced classes, you would see that same drill being put to use in various contexts to expose flaws and correct them. One drill can have many uses, of course: it could be diagnostic, or represent the tactical hierarchy of the system, or be for power-generation, something else, or all of the above. I discuss this in some detail in my dagger book.

So, here are some questions for you:

  • Do you know the proper uses to all the tools you have?
  • Do you have all the tools you need for your current craftsmanship needs?
  • Do you keep them shiny, sharp and accurate so they can be called on when needed?
  • Do you deliberately select the best tool for job in hand?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then see me before, during or after class and we will fix it!

If I wasn’t teaching swordsmanship I’d be teaching something else. Giving instruction is my best learning environment. If ever I’m having difficulty with any skill, be it woodwork, writing, or getting my sword to go where it should, I conjure up an imaginary student and in my mind teach them how to do it. Instant improvement, every time. This means that my job suits my nature, yes; but it also means that because I’ve never really studied teaching, I’ve just always done it, I find it very difficult to pass on my teaching skills. I have no method, I just do. Or rather, I had no method, I just did.

In this I have been failing my students, which is unacceptable, so for the last couple of years I have been working on teaching. I began by attending a British Academy of Fencing coaching course, in April 2010. We trained from 9am to 9pm for five days straight, and I was deeply uncomfortable and out of my depth almost the entire time. Not very enjoyable, as such, but seriously good for me. It opened my eyes to a pedagogy of teaching, and crystallised for me a clear and simple set of goals for teaching. The Art of Arms is a way of organising the practices and principles of combat so that they may be studied and taught. The BAF has done to the art of teaching fencing what Fiore did for the Art of Arms. It is irrelevant that the techniques and theory of sport fencing are radically different to those of my core systems. What matters is that there is a clear body of technical and tactical knowledge, a perfectly defined environment in which it is supposed to be applied, and a systematic way to get students from one to the other. That system is priceless.

I established a set of quite high-level teaching qualifications for the school long ago, but never put in place a clear and unambiguous ladder for students to climb to attain them. This had to change. And so I discussed the issue with various branch leaders, and we agreed that it would be a good idea to institute a series of seminars in which we would go over class instruction and individual instruction from the ground up. Once this is in place, there will be a clear and transparent way for anyone interested in becoming an instructor to do so. By making it a requirement that anyone who stands up in front of a class has had some teacher training before they do so, we not only maintain standards, but also create a face-saving way for anyone who does not wish to teach to avoid ever being asked to do so; they simply never go on the course and so can’t be asked to run a class. Of course we must also grandfather in the senior students who have been running classes for years without a piece of paper saying they can. Actual certificates and course requirements are not yet in place, but we took a major step in that direction last weekend, when I ran my first ever pedagogical weekend course. We covered running a basic class on the Saturday, and giving individual instruction on the Sunday. I’ll cover Sunday’s adventures in a second post, let’s look at what we did on Saturday.

Twelve students attended, varying in experience from having never stood in front of a class before, to having run dozens and dozens of classes. Naturally, one of our topics was how to run a class for a mixed group! But the first step, of course, was to set the requirements, the expectations. It is simply this: at the basic level, the class leader’s job is to provide a safe environment in which training will occur. That’s it. You don’t need to be able to teach the punta falsa from first principles, nor customise the class to the interests of its members: just open the doors, give folk stuff to do, and make sure no-one gets hurt. In short: create and maintain a safe training environment.

We then had a look at the structure of a typical class. It looks like this:

1. Opening salute

2. Warm-up

3. Footwork/mechanics (especially 4 guards drill)

4. Dagger

5. Solo sword practice (especially cutting drill)

6. Pair sword practice.

7. End salute.

Within each section we identified a typical structure: for example, the warm-up usually goes something like:

1. Open joints

2. Heat body

3. Activate stabilisers

4. Establish range of motion

5. Establish smooth movement

The students then had 10 minutes to plan a class, including a specific warm-up. This written plan would be developed further later in the seminar, but to start with I had them test the plan by simply going through their own planned 10  minute warm-up. Did it work as they intended?

We then started to follow the usual pattern, with each student in turn setting and demonstrating the next step, and having the class follow it. I made sure that those with the least teaching experience went first. I also compressed the practice time- the point of the day’s training was to teach the basic drills, not doing them with a partner.

When everyone had had a slot in front of the class, we stopped to look at class progression: how to know when to move on, or take a step back. In short, if everyone is busy training, leave them to it. If the flow starts to clog up, the class is either unready for the current assignment, so bring them back a step; or ready to move on, so add the next action or move on to the next drill.

You should stop the class for one of the following reasons only:

1) Safety. Things are looking dangerous, so stop.

2) Obvious error: more than half the class is making the same mistake. Stop and correct the group, rather than make individual corrections.

3) Training flow is clogged: see above.

4) Time: classes must start and finish on time. It is disrespectful to your class to keep them past the allotted time.

We then looked at the difference between setting the class a new, unfamiliar exercise, and setting them something that most of them know. In short, for new material, demonstrate step by step, and have them do each step before adding the next. Demo for 2 minutes, have them train for 4. For familiar stuff, demo for 1 minute or less, have them practice for 5. (One of my sins is I talk to much in class. Swordsmanship is learned by doing, not listening.)

Once we had set the theory, it was time for practice. They split into three groups of four, and had each member of the group in turn be the teacher, setting a familiar drill. So, short demo, and have them get on with it. The teacher then had to watch their class (all three of them!) and assess whether to move on, move back, or let them get on with it.

I then had the teachers “teach” a new drill (of course everyone present had already passed their level one, so must know the four basic drills already). This had to be done step by step, starting with something familiar, and building up from there.

This helped to introduce the idea of interval training, which is the bedrock of pacing any class. Gradually increase difficulty, until mistakes start to be made, then ease off a little, before pushing ahead again. (I go into this in more detail in my Little Book of Push-ups.)

Given that almost none of my students who lead classes get paid for their time, it is unfair to expect them to sacrifice all their training time to running classes, so we looked at when and how you can incorporate your own practice into the class. One such technique is to join the group, have everyone train in two straight lines, and when time to change partners, you hold the corner and everyone else shifts one place to their right. The person you just trained with goes across to your right (or waits out one turn if there’s an odd number in class including you).

We then turned out attention to running a mixed class, the pattern of which should go:

1) Everyone together, seniors helping juniors.

2) Juniors and seniors split into groups- juniors practice what they just learned, seniors doing something at their level.

3) Back together, but this time seniors get to play a little, taking advantage of the junior’s predictability, or beginner’s unpredictability.

The basic goal is that everyone in class gets something they can do, something they can almost do, and the students at various levels learn to value each other.

Of course it often happens that students may show up to class that have more experience than the student in charge, so I gave the attendees a few key phrases to use for pushing people along who are already ahead of you. Such as: “add a degree of freedom to that”; “coach for the first two passes then do the drill competitively”; “how’s your grounding?” etc.

I had the students expand their original class plans to include more advanced variations on the set drills, so that if more experienced students showed up their plan could easily accommodate them. I showed them how to do it with a basic example:

They then worked up their plan, before putting it into action. I split the attendees into two classes, and each class being further split into “seniors” and “juniors”. The class leader for each group had to practice setting the whole class an exercise, then splitting them up by skill level and assigning different content to each group, then bringing them back together. We largely left out the actual training time, though everyone present knew that in a real class you must leave them to practice. The drill was for the class leader to practice assigning appropriate content, and splitting and reforming the class as necessary.

We then looked how the attendees could maintain and improve the skills they had picked up over the course of the day. It is now school policy that anyone who has attended this kind of course can ask to lead a section of someone else’s class, to get to practice their demonstration and observation skills. We will also encourage them to take a whole class, at first with a more experienced student present as back-up in case things start to go wrong, and then on their own.

Towards the end of the day we discussed the difference between being responsible and being culpable. While students are under your care, you are responsible for their safety. But this is a naturally dangerous activity, and accidents may happen. Provided you stick to the syllabus and safety guidelines and behave responsibly, you can’t be held culpable even if you are the one responsible. This lead us on to a set of scenarios, such as: what do do if

1) You see a student sitting out? ask them what’s wrong, help them if needed.

2) There is an accident? Depending on the severity: either apply first aid, organise a lift to the nearest Accident and Emergency room, or call an ambulance.

3) You have a student asking too many derailing questions? Tell them to ask them after class.

And so on.

It only remained to define success. In order of importance, your basic class was successful if:

1) There are no injuries.

2) Everyone was busy

3) They ended class better swordsmen than they started it.

All in all, it was a hugely important day for the future of the School, and I was absolutely delighted by the way the students engaged with the process of becoming teachers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Posts

Max Your Lunge

I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It’s past

Categories

Categories

Tags