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Safety Guidelines for the Practice of Swordsmanship

These safety guidelines come from my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources Course and have been adapted from The Duellist's Companion, The Swordsman's Companion, and The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 1: The Seven Principles of Mastery. All of those books are included as downloadable pdfs in the additional course material.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nothing without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Edward Whymper’s admonition, from Scrambles amongst the Alps, elegantly encapsulates the correct attitude to all potentially lethal activities. Substitute “practice swordsmanship” for “climb”, and there is the correct mindset for any swordsman, beginner or expert. Take it to heart before you start training with a partner.

When training with weapons you hold your partner's life in your hands. This is a sacred trust and must not be abused.

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility of any kind for injuries you sustain while you are not under my direct personal supervision. During this course you will be taught how to create safe training drills, and I am certain that if you follow the instructions there is a very low likelihood of injury. But if I am not there in person to create and sustain a safe training environment, I cannot be held responsible for any accidents that may occur.

Principles

The basic principles of safe training are:

  1. Respect: for the Art, your training partners, the weapons, and yourself.
  2. Caution: assume everything is dangerous unless you have reason to believe otherwise.
  3. Know your limits. Just because it’s safe for somebody else, does not necessarily mean it’s safe for you. Never train or fence when you are tired, angry, or in any state of mind or body that makes accidents and injuries more likely.

Most groups that keep going for more than a year have a pretty good set of safety guidelines in place. Make sure you know what they are, and follow them.

My senior students routinely train with sharp swords, often with no protection. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds, when you remember that they have been training usually for 5+ years at that point, under my supervision.

Safety first: you cannot afford time off training for stupid injuries. Life’s too short. Whatever training you are doing must must must leave you healthier than you started it. You will not win Olympic gold medals this way, but you won’t end up a cripple either. The path to sporting glory is littered with the shattered bodies and minds of the unlucky many who broke themselves on the way. Don’t join them.

Every time I find myself teaching a group I don’t know, I tell them that the class will be successful from my point of view if everyone finishes class healthier than they started it. Most injuries in training occur either during tournament (highly competitive) freeplay, or are self-inflicted during things like warm-ups. In my school (and other classes) we have a zero tolerance policy on macho bullshit. If any exercise doesn’t suit you, for any reason, you can sit it out, or do some other exercise. If you are sitting it out, a good instructor will ask you why, and help you develop alternatives or work up to the exercise in easy stages, but will never pressure you to do something that might injure you.

This is also true of work-related injuries, like forearm problems from typing, or the ghastly effects of sitting all day. By avoiding the things that will hurt you, you will naturally seek out the things that are good for you. Hungry? Avoid sugar, avoid processed foods, and lo! there’s a fresh salmon salad. Tired? Sleep is better than barbiturates, no?

This requires good risk-assessment skills (I recommend Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein) and the courage to take risks that truly serve your overall aims. A safe life is not worth living, but foolish risk-taking will not make your life meaningful.

Try adopting these key habits:

  • Before any new activity, do a risk/reward calculation. How risky is it, and how
    rewarding?
  • Practice saying no to training suggestions: even safe ones. Most people do stupidly
    risky things due to peer pressure. Being able to say no to your peers is perhaps the most important skill in reducing injury rates. If this is hard, make it a habit to decline at least one suggestion every session, until it’s easy.

Equipment

Without doubt the single most important bit of safety equipment is good common sense. Fence according to the limits of your equipment, exercise control and respect the weapon at all times, and you will never have a serious injury. Minor bumps and bruises come with the territory.

There were some masters who believed that the safest course is to fence with sharp weapons and no protection. This is how it was often done in the past until the invention of fencing masks (though there are tournament records and declarations as early as the 14th century that record the use of blunt practice weapons; King Rene d’Anjou’s treatise of 1470 is perhaps the best source). Such masters are right in theory, in that freeplay with sharps is the best way for students to learn absolute respect for the weapon, and the importance of absolute control. There are a few contemporary masters with whom I will fence like this, and there is nothing like it for generating a perfect fencing approach. But try explaining that to the insurance companies, or in the event of a slip, the police or coroner. It was often said in the eighteenth century that you could tell a fencing master from his eye-patch and missing teeth. Never forget that even a blunt blade can break bones. When free fencing, or when practicing drills at speed, it is essential that you wear appropriate safety gear. You do this not for your own sake, though self-preservation does come into it, but for the bene t of your training partner. Your protection allows him to hit you safely.

Choosing protection is a very controversial subject. Too little, and you can end up badly hurt (even in practice). Too much, and you can’t fence properly. Firstly, it is important to establish what style of fencing you will be doing. If you are practising armoured combat, then buy the best fitting, best made armour that you can from an armourer who knows how you intend to use it and has seen what you want to do. This is the hardest style of fencing to appropriately regulate, because accurate technique requires you to go for the least armoured spots (throat, eyes, armpits, joints), but safety requirements obviously prohibit that.

As a general guideline, I recommend the following for most weapons.

  1. An FIE standard fencing mask. This allows you to thrust at the face (a very common target), and generally attack the head. This does have three major caveats. Firstly, it leaves the back of the head open, and you must be very careful not to strike at this target. An added apron of thick leather affords some protection. Secondly, it does not protect the head and neck from the wrenching force of over-vigorous blows. It is vital that you and your opponent learn control before engaging in freeplay. Thirdly it is designed to protect the face from high-speed, light, flexible weapons, not slower, heavier, rigid ones. So continually check them for wear, and make absolutely sure that your weapons are properly bated.
  2. A steel or leather gorget, or stiff collar, to protect the throat. Points can slip under the bib of a mask and crush the larynx.
  3. (For women) a rigid plastic chest guard.
  4. A point-resistant fencing jacket rated at least 500 newtons. Sturdy, preferably padded and/or armoured gauntlets, which should extend at least four inches past the jacket cuff to prevent points sliding up your sleeve. I have twice had fingers broken through unpadded mail gloves, and now use a pair of fingered gauntlets from Jiri Krondak, which cost about 150€.
  5. A padded gambeson, or a plastron. If you are making one yourself, bear in mind that it should be thick enough to take the worst out of the impact of the blows, and prevent penetration from a thrust. All openings should be covered. The collar should be high enough that thrusts coming under the bib of the mask do not make contact with your throat. A plastron must wrap around the ribs, and properly cover the collar bones and shoulders. I usually wear a fencing jacket and plastron (as pictured).
  6. A box for men (called a “cup” in the US). You only forget this once.
  7. Rigid plastic protectors for the knees and
  8. For the elbows, of the sort worn by in-line skaters (worn under the
    clothes for that period look if you prefer), will save a lot of pain, and some injury.
  9. Footwear: on the matter of footwear, few practitioners agree. In the longsword treatises, there are no heavy boots, and certainly no built-up heels.  For a completely historical style, it is necessary to wear completely accurate period clothing at least occasionally, because it can affect the way you move. It does not matter much what you wear on your feet provided that you understand grounding, body-mechanics and footwork, but attaining that understanding is much easier barefoot or in very thin flat soles. Excessively grippy soles can lead to joint injury as you may stop too suddenly, or get stuck when you should be turning (particularly in falls at close quarters). The dangers of wearing too slippery soles are obvious. In the salle I usually wear medieval shoes or ‘barefoot’ shoes (aka five-fingers, or ‘toe shoes’), and recommend a thin, flat sole regardless.

The Sword

Training swords come in three main types. Authentic sharp reproductions, which are used for cutting practice and some pair work with advanced students, blunt swords that try to reproduce the handling characteristics of the sharps, and fencing swords that are designed to make fencing safer. These all have their pros and cons, and you should use the sword that’s right for your style and the kind of practice you will be doing.

It’s perfectly all right to use a wooden waster or something similar to start with, but do not imagine that there is any such thing as a safe training sword. Even modern sport fencing blades engineered for fencing sometimes break and puncture people, and anything heavy enough to reproduce the handling of a medieval or renaissance sidearm is going to be able to do damage.

For specific details on choosing a sword, please see Choosing a Sword, which is included in the additional material on this course.

Looking after your weapon is largely a matter of keeping it dry, clean, and free of stress risers (a stress riser is a weak point, usually a deep nick, which encourages the blade to fold at that point).

Occasional rubdowns with a moisture repellent oil and steel wool or scouring pad, followed by a coat of microcrystalline wax, should keep the blade and hilt clean (follow manufacturer’s recommendations if you have a gilt, blued or otherwise ornamented weapon). Do not be afraid to file down any large nicks, and file off any burrs: this is important from a safety perspective, as the blade is most likely to break at a nick, and burrs can be very sharp. The edges of a blunt weapon should always be kept smooth enough that you can run your bare hand hard up the edge and not get scratches or splinters. Even the toughest and most cherished sword will not survive repeated abuse: the best guarantor of longevity for your sword (and yourself) is correct technique.

Rules of Engagement

Once you have agreed to fence with someone, it is important to agree on rules of engagement. This is partly to ensure safety, and partly to create an environment in which you can learn. The two most simple rules are these:

  1. Confine permitted actionss to the safety limits of your protective gear
  2. Confine permitted actions to the technical range of the least trained combatant. In other words, do not allow face-thrusts when wearing open helms, or throws when one of you is not trained to fall safely. The rules can be adapted further to develop specifi aspects of technique: for instance, you may not allow any close quarters work at all, or even restrict allowable hits to one small target. The idea is to come to a clear, common -sense agreement before facing off. You are only ready for no-holds-barred, totally “authentic” fight simulation, when you can enter such a fight with your judgement unimpaired.

Following the rules of engagement will not make you soft, nor will it dull your edge if it comes to the real thing; rather it it will develop self-control.

These rules apply to all fencing:

  1. Agree on a mutually acceptable level of safety.
  2. Wear at least the minimum amount of safety gear commensurate with rule 1. Confine allowable technique to those within the limits of your equipment.
  3. Confine allowable technique to the technical ability of the least trained
    combatant.
  4. Appoint either an experienced student or one of the combatants to
    preside over the bout.
  5. Agree on allowable targets.
  6. Agree on what constitutes a “hit”.
  7. Agree on priority or scoring convention in the event of simultaneous hits. Usually it is better
    to allow a fatal blow before a minor wound, but simultaneous hits should be avoided whenever possible.
  8. Agree on the duration of the bout either in terms of hits, such as first to five, or in real time.
  9. Acknowledge all hits against yourself. This can be done by raising the left arm, or by stopping the bout with a salute, or by calling “Halt!” and telling your opponent where and how you think she hit you.
  10. Maintain self-command at all times.

Safe Training

In my experience most injuries are self-inflicted. It is far more common for students to hurt themselves by doing something they shouldn’t, than to hurt their training partners. Here are a few simple guidelines for joint safety, which should be followed during all training. I am using the lunge as an example of a stressful action, but these principles apply to any physical action.

  1. The knee must always bend in the line of the foot. Knees are hinges, with usually a little under 180° range of movement. The do not respond well to torque (power in rotation). So whenever you bend your knees, in any style for any reason, ensure that the line of your foot, the line of movement of your knee, and the line of movement of your weight, are parallel. This prevents twisting and thus injuries. This one simple rule, carefully followed, eliminates all knee problems other than those arising from impact or genetic disadvantage.
  2. Whenever performing any strenuous task (such as lunging, or lifting heavy objects), tighten your pelvic floor muscles (imagine you need to go to the bathroom, but are stuck in a queue). This supports the base of your spine, and helps with hip alignment.
  3. Joints have two forms of support: active and passive. Passive support refers mainly to the ligaments, which bind the joint capsule together. This is basically set, and can’t be trained. When training your joint strength, with exercises or stretching, avoid any action that strains the joint capsule. Any action that causes pain in the joint itself should be modified or avoided, as it may damage the soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage). These tissues have a very poor blood supply and hence heal very slowly.
  4. Active support refers to the muscles around the joint, and these can be strengthened by carefully straining the joint with small weights and rotations. To strengthen a joint you must stress these muscles, without endangering the ligaments. Any competent physiotherapist can show you a range of exercises for building up the active support around your knees, wrists and elbows, where we need it most.
  5. Rest is part of training. Your body needs time to recover, and is stimulated by the stress of exercise to grow stronger. However, the body is efficient, and will withdraw support from any muscle group that is not used, even if for only a few weeks. So regular training is absolutely crucial.

If you can’t lunge without warming up, don’t lunge except in carefully controlled drills. Warming up is essential before pushing the boundaries of what your body can do.

 

If you find this advice sensible and useful, please feel free to share it as widely as you like!

If you would like these guidelines as a handy PDF, then drop your email in the box below and I'll send it to you.

 

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Everybody gets sick or injured every now and then, and I’ve had a pretty rough winter so far in that regard which has got me thinking about how I train when sick. In this post I’ll lay out my general principles for dealing with the problem and let me apologise in advance if it ever comes across as me whining about the flu. I really don’t mind getting ill, and I’m generally very lucky with my health.

Let’s start with the overarching principle: health comes first. This is directly drawn from one of my Seven Principles of Mastery: “no injuries”. If training makes you worse, don’t do it! (You’d be amazed how often that rule is broken by people who should know better.) I train for the long-term benefits, not for the short-term buzz.

Injuries

With injuries, the trick is to modify your training to encourage recovery. My latest injury, just before Christmas (of course!) was yet another round of problems with my thoracic and cervical spine; every time I pressed even a small kettlebell above my shoulder, the right side of my neck would seize up in agony. No fun. So I went to the physio, and together we worked out a series of mobility and stability exercises that should restore mobility to the stuck bits, and restore stability to the hyper-mobile bits, and after three weeks of not being able to lift so much as a tennis ball over my head, I was back in business. So I immediately starting hoisting my biggest bell over my head, and the problem came right back. Or, that’s what I would have done when I was younger and stupider. Instead, I stalked my strength like it was a skittish colt. I very, very gently made sure that the full range of the motion was available, then slowly, slowly, added weight back on, all the while paying attention to keeping up the exercises that had restored the movement. The slightest twinge, and I’d stop. Now, three goddam months later, I’m back where I was three months ago.

But if I’d rushed it, I’d still be injured.

For impact injuries and soft-tissue injuries, the goal is the same but you need to pay attention to the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’; good pain you ignore; bad pain, indicating that the injury is being aggravated, you avoid.

The mnemonic I use here is “fuck it, but don’t poke the bear”. Specific neurological pain (such as my neck issue), or pain that indicates an injury is getting worse, is like a sleeping grizzly: the goal is to keep it asleep until it dies of starvation. But all the rest? Fuck it.

Sickness

So what about sickness? I have a very strong sense of the difference between a “walking cold” and a “systemic cold”. A walking cold is one with local symptoms; I might cough, or have a sore throat, or a headache, or whatever else, but the rest of me is basically ok. A systemic cold is when I can’t distinguish the boundaries of the illness, my whole body feel wretched. My goal with a walking cold is to prevent it becoming systemic. Here the principle I follow, along the lines of “no injuries”, is to pay close attention to how I feel right after doing any particular activity. Energy up is good, energy down is bad. “Avoid fatigue” might be another way to put it. So a little light stretching to preserve range of movement, leaving me feeling a bit better is ok; but if doing a push-up makes me feel tired, I’ll stop doing push-ups.

You read that right. Yes, there are times when I stop doing push-ups. Rare, but it does happen.

My first indication that my bout with tag-teaming viruses this winter was something I should pay attention to was when my cold shower in the morning left me feeling chilled to the bone, not invigorated. And yes, I did stop doing them, and gently worked my way back to them.

I’ve noticed that when my system is under attack from some horrid virus I do best by avoiding anything that elevates my heart rate more than a few extra beats per minute. So I might do one light lift, and stop. Swing a sword for a minute or so, and stop. Over the last few months when I’ve been hit by virus after virus (I’ve not been 100% well a single day since Christmas), I haven’t touched the deadlift bar. But I’ve been practising my deadlifts for a couple of minutes about three times a week, using just a stick. So the technique and range of motion is there, and, just last Friday, started back by picking up about half the weight I maxed out on last time I did them properly (before Christmas). Don’t poke the bear.

Most of the time, when I’m ill, it’s a walking cold; I can move around a bit, do light stuff, and not get sicker. But when or if it goes systemic, I have to be super-careful, and usually I don’t train at all, just the very lightest of moving about so my spine won’t seize up completely. Specific symptoms respond differently to different exercises. For example, I had a really bad cough for about three weeks in February; during that time, my Wim Hof breathing had to stop because it made me cough. But I could manage the Crane ok. When the cough morphed into a sinus nastiness, the kind where your entire skull becomes completely filled with nothing but snot, Wim Hof breathing was ok and so were some light kettlebells, but some of my meditation practices brought on bad headaches so I cut them out.

The last time I was at WMAW, in 2013, I had a bad walking cold; I was sick as a dog, coughing and feeling like shit, but I could move around. I had travelled all the way to America to fence with my peers. But I didn’t have a single bout with anyone, because I could feel it might trigger the walking cold to become systemic. That’s how seriously I take this.

Health comes first. As Count Rugen says to Prince Humperdinck, “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.

And if you don't know who they are, start here.

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Happy Mothers' day, from sunny Finland!

And what could be more motherly than a spot of medieval combat?

It is very hard to defend yourself against a fully-committed attack with a dagger. To be honest, it’s not something we focus on all that much; we tend to prefer sword fights. But a couple of weeks ago I ran a class on dealing with committed dagger attacks. It went like this:

First we ran a diagnostic; did everyone present have a reasonably complete knowledge of the dagger curriculum? The answer came back “yes”. There were no obvious gaps in knowledge (distinguishing carefully between knowledge and skill). Then I polled them; how many felt confident of defending themselves with a sword against a sword attack? All hands went up. Unarmed against a dagger? No hands went up.

The next step was to analyse our drills from the point of view of my “bullshit” theory. Where is the bullshit?

The attacks they were used to from basic classes were a) done with a training dagger, not the real thing; b) done singly; just one blow, or maybe two. No flurries of strikes; c) done without a great deal of force; and d) done usually in a set pattern of some kind, allowing them to predict what the sequence would be, so what techniques were likely to work.

We began with speed: the attacker had to make multiple fast strikes. This quickly overwhelmed the defender. Clearly there was no point being competitive about this, so using my rule of ‘c’s (which is there in the “how to spot the bullshit” post), we had the attacker coach the defender by easing off the speed to the level where the defender was successful most, but not all, of the time.

Then strength; instead of lots of fast blows, the attack was to be done as a single blow, but with maximum force. This generated slower, but more forceful actions. Again, the attacker had to coach the defender; modifying the force to what they could only just handle. All the students agreed that a single hard blow was much easier to deal with than multiple fast ones.

Speed and strength had been trained against using rubber or wooden daggers; it’s easy to be brave against a dummy weapon. So the students were given the option to train with or without masks, and with sharp daggers. Some chose no mask with sharps; some chose masks with sharps; some chose no mask with blunts; some chose masks and blunts. But all of them went more slowly, and more gently. Funny that. It is hard to be bold against lethal force.

It was actually at this stage in the class that I noticed that we were actually working through Fiore’s four virtues (celeritas, forteza, ardimento, avvisamento) one at a time. So I thought for a minute about how to train for avvisamento, foresight. And I came up with responsiveness drills, in which the attacker varies his response to the defender’s initial defence, and the defender has to adapt; they do not know what is coming in advance.

Of course, at each stage of this class, we were working on just one thing. We never did full speed, full force, highly variable attacks with a sharp weapon against an unprotected face, because someone would have died. But by breaking the problem down into its component challenges, we could address each area of bullshit in turn.

Readers of my Seven Principles of Mastery booklet will have recognised the principles at work here: we trained with no injuries, we differentiated between knowledge and skill, we ran a diagnostic, and we worked on the 20% of technique that make up 80% of what you’re likely to use (though we didn’t actually address the range of techniques available except to establish at the start that all the students in class had a sufficiently broad knowledge base). The practice was mindful, and the students were sufficiently challenged that they spent most of the time in a state of flow. The one thing we didn't really go into was adopting useful beliefs; perhaps that should be the subject of another post?

7PrinciplesCover

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As you may imagine, I think about violence a lot. It’s been my experience that most people in our society either embrace violence, or shy away from it, and it’s certainly the case that we are, as a culture, massively less tolerant of violence than we used to be. Physical violence, that is. The psychological violence of our culture is appalling; entire communities of perfectly decent people vilified for believing in the wrong god, or no god, or wanting to do sex differently, perhaps with the wrong sort of person, or whatever the hell else. And at the same time, despite prohibiting violence, we have boxing (aptly described in this fascinating article on martial arts and self defence here as “a brain-damage contest”), MMA, and we allow people to take part in all sorts of activities in which they might get very badly hurt. Driving cars, for instance.

In addition, we have political parties like UKIP and the “True” Finns who would send all immigrants back to whatever hell-hole they escaped from, non-violently of course (though god knows what sort of violence awaits most of them when they get there). But that’s fine (at least according to a depressingly large number of voters) because they are not advocating direct violence against these people.

So let’s take a concrete example of an act of violence.

I honestly believe that throwing a punch is not the worst thing you can do. And in some cases, it is utterly justified. I know that this is not a popular belief, but check out this video, in which Buzz Aldrin, an elderly man, is being bullied by an arrogant and entitled little shit of a conspiracy theorist, and resolves the situation by decking him.

https://youtu.be/wptn5RE2I-k

Nice punch, Colonel Aldrin, sir!

Why do I approve? Because the person who got punched was using our culture’s restrictions on violence to get away with a different kind of violence. He had no right whatsoever to make Col. Aldrin listen to his importunate demands regarding the moon landings. He had no right to Col. Aldrin’s time, attention, or response. Yet he was aggressively invading Col. Aldrin’s personal space. Col. Aldrin tried to walk away. A hotel employee asked the entitled little prick to stop. Col. Aldrin asks him “can you please get away from me”. He finally calls Col. Aldrin a coward, a liar and a thief. And got what he entirely deserved.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here; I imagine that most of my readers, and indeed most martial artists, would see this punch as justified (as indeed local law enforcement did), and have thought a lot about things like self-defence, the right to bear arms, and so on.

But for those of you who are new to thinking about violence in anything other than black and white terms, I have a thought experiment for you, to demonstrate that any recoverable injuries sustained by violence are far less problematic than our emotional response to the violence itself. I call this “three broken legs.”

You wake up in hospital in a lot of pain. You have a broken leg.

1) You went skiing/hang-gliding/mountaineering/insert fun but dangerous activity of choice. You had an accident, and your leg is broken. It happens, you knew the risks and took them.

2) You were walking down the street one day, when somebody came up to you with a baseball bat, shouted hate into your face, and broke your leg with the bat.

3) You were walking down the same street one day, and saw a truck about to run over a child. You leap into action, you save the child, but the truck breaks your leg.

One of these injuries is neutral; one is likely to require some serious counselling and may result in long-term psychological problems, and one is a badge of honour that you will draw strength from for the rest of your life. The broken leg is the same in each case.

I suggest that your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. Deciding whether Buzz Aldrin’s punch was right or wrong requires that you take the context of it into account (I was careful to link to the version of the video that shows the build-up); and determining the damage done necessarily entails finding out how the prick (I will not call him a victim, because he was the victimiser, neither will I mention his name) responded emotionally to the violence. Did it give him nightmares? Probably not. He probably went back to his posse wearing his aching jaw as a badge of pride. Was it the best solution to the problem? Hard to say. Maybe, maybe not. But I see no reason why anyone should have to put up with behaviour like that, and I don’t see any available exit.

I do not require that my students hold one opinion or another about this sort of subject. I just require that they engage with this sort of question: “is this act of violence justified”?

And I would point out that except for extreme cases, resulting in permanent disability or death, the psychological violence we do to each other is potentially vastly more damaging than a bloody nose.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Swordsmanship practice is inherently dangerous. The study of risk has been developed to the nth degree over the last five hundred years or so. For an excellent overview, see Against the Gods, the remarkable story of risk, by Peter Bernstein. (Thanks to my friend Lenard Voelker for sending me a copy!). The assessment of risk may be described as assigning probabilities to events that have not yet occurred. If they have happened before, then we can see how many times over a given period, and use that data to evaluate the likelihood of it happening again. For example, if it has snowed at Christmas 20 times in the last 100 years, you can state with some confidence that there is about a 1 in 5 chance of it happening again this year. But many of the events we fear have no measurable risk- either because they have not happened (yet), or we have an insufficient pool of data to draw meaningful probabilities from. So they are uncertain, but have no definite probability. This distinction was drawn by Milton Keynes (and explained by Niall Ferguson on p 343 of his book The Ascent of Money).

The risk we all fear is a training accident leading to serious injury or death. In the wider world of swordsmanship practice, all of the serious accidents (which I define as requiring hospitalisation) have occurred in either competitive freeplay, or outside the bounds of a formal school (such as on the re-enactment field). So while we know that there is a possibility of such accidents occurring in the salle, they have no definable risk as the incidence is so low. They are instead uncertain. Given the thousands of hours spent in swordsmanship training worldwide every year, and how few accidents occur, it is reasonable to assign a low probability of serious injury or death. Assuming that we do not relax our safety standards in response to this, then we can assure prospective scholars of the art that “this is dangerous, but pretty safe”.

Cars are also pretty safe these days. Airbags, crumple zones, safety glass, seat belts, all reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death in the case of a collision. But they do nothing to prevent collisions in the first place, and encourage a false sense of security. Cocooned in hi-tech armour, we ride invulnerable to our deaths. I think a shiny steel spike sticking out of the steering wheel to impale the driver at the merest fender-bender would do wonders to improve road safety.
When a risky activity becomes safer, human beings tend to consume that risk. Safer cars are driven faster. Better healthcare encourages unhealthy lifestyles. The Munich taxi experiment described here is an excellent example. Given better brakes, drivers went faster. So protective equipment in swordsmanship offers the comforting illusion of safety. Given good protective equipment we take more risks. Yes, armour works. But tell that to the French knights at Agincourt.
So, a balanced approach to swordsmanship training requires at least some time spent face to face with the naked possibility of your own death. A sharp sword, aimed at your unprotected face, in careful pair drills with a trusted, highly trained partner under competent supervision. There is nothing like a sharp steel point inches from your eyes to cut through the illusory safety of a fencing mask.
My favourite quote on this comes from Viggiani’s Lo Schermo (1575) (as translated by Jherek Swanger: note he does not translate “spada da marra”, which is a kind of blunt steel practice sword):

ROD:… but now it is time that we begin to practice, before the hour grows later: take up your sword, Conte.
CON: How so, my sword? Isn’t it better to take one meant for practice?
ROD: Not now, because with those practice weapons it is not possible to acquire valor or prowess of the heart, nor ever to learn a perfect schermo. CON: I believe the former, but the latter I doubt. What is the reason, Rodomonte, that it is not possible to learn (so you say) a perfect schermo with that sort of weapon? Can’t you deliver the same blows with that, as with one which is edged?
ROD: I would not say now that you cannot do all those ways of striking, of warding, and of guards, with those weapons, and equally with these, but you will do them imperfectly with those, and most perfectly with these edged ones, because if (for example) you ward a thrust put to you by the enemy, beating aside his sword with a mandritto, so that that thrust did not face your breast, while playing with spada da marra, it will suffice you to beat it only a little, indeed, for you to learn the schermo; but if they were spade da filo, you would drive that mandritto with all of your strength in order to push well aside the enemy’s thrust. Behold that this would be a perfect blow, done with wisdom, and with promptness, unleashed with more length, and thrown with more force, that it would have been with those other arms. How will you fare, Conte, if you take perfect arms in your hand, and not stand with all your spirit, and with all your intent judgment?
[53R] CON: Yes, but it is a great danger to train with arms that puncture; if I were to make the slightest mistake, I could do enormous harm. Nonetheless we will indeed do as is more pleasing to you, because you will be on guard not to harm me, and I will be certain to parry, and I will pay constant attention to your point in order to know which blow may come forth from your hand, which is necessary in a good warrior.

This says it all!
You can download the whole book here:  and Jherek’s translation here.

In case it is not obvious from the small sample here, Rodomonte/Viggiani's student the Conte is clearly an accomplished swordsman already, there is no suggestion of equipping beginners with sharps. As Manciolino (an ardent proponent of using blunt steel swords, as am I) put it in Book Six of his Opera Nova (as translated by Tom Leoni, and available from here)

Manciolino begins book six of his Opera Nova thus:

“I now wish to show how wrong those are who insist that good swordsmanship can never proceed from practice with blunted weapons, but only from training with sharp swords. …

It is far preferable to learn to strike with bated blades then with sharp ones; and it would not be fair to arm untrained students with sharp swords or with other weapons that can inflict injury for the purpose of training new students to defend themselves.”

(with thanks to Ilkka Hartikainen for digging out and typing up the reference.)

Quite: “untrained students” find blunt steel sufficiently threatening that there is no need to make the swords sharp, and indeed it would be grossly irresponsible to do so. Highly trained and experienced students tend over time to take the blunt steel less and less seriously, and need to be reminded that swords are weapons. Likewise, the more armour you wear, the less vulnerable you are, and the less vulnerable you feel, which tends in most people to actually increase the risk of injury as this safety margin, and a bit more, is consumed.

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I have often remarked in class that I have broken bones in training so that my students don't have to. In other words, the safety regulations we have were arrived at through my getting hurt and figuring out ways to avoid it happening again. One of my favourite such examples occurred at a training session at the Dawn Duellist's Society, a historical fencing club I helped to found back in 1994. I had challenged a dozen or so folk to duel at the weapons of their choice. My last fight of the evening was with the redoubtable Kieran Robb, who was a) very tired and had to be persuaded to fence (mistake no.1) b) using a flamberge bladed longsword (mistake no. 2). I was also tired (mistake no.3) and was using just a normal fencing mask with no back-of-the head protection (mistake no 4.).

Merrily I attacked and lo, he stepped offline, parrying my blow and letting it go by, and his sword crashed into the back of my head. The moment was caught on camera.

That's Kieran on the right, in red, me getting whacked on the left, in green.

Assessing the damage. After this shot I tootled off to casualty for three staples in my scalp. But not before assembling a group shot with all my opponents of the evening, holding the weapon we fought at:

This was an important evening for me as it established in my own mind my willingness to take serious physical risks in pursuit of the art- and of the need for better safety standards for the school I was planning to open. My decision to open a school was made in September 2000, this photo was taken in October, and the school opened in March 2001. Not long after this I got a broken finger playing around with longswords- while my steel gauntlets were in my bag about 5 feet away. We had no proper rules, and so laziness and stupidity got me hurt, twice in a couple of months. Doh.

 

 

 

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