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Tag: intermediate swordsplay

We had an interesting time in the “intermediates” class this week. (Those scare quotes are to point out that after all these years, we should probably be calling it the Advanced class. So I will.) We began by establishing the goal of the class: to address the problem of freeplay devolving into tippy-tappy shit. You probably know this kind of thing: right leg leading, no passing at all, sniping out with snappy little cuts from a middle guard position. The sort of sport-fency speedy stuff that has nothing to do with the Art as Fiore represented it in his book. But here’s the thing; when fencing for points, it is far and away the best approach, which is why sport fencers do it. And in any kind of competitive fencing environment, that is what fencers will tend to do, because it works. But we are not creating sport fencers here, we are training martial artists in a specific historical system, so we had to come up with a way to make our free-fencing practice more faithful to the source.

Rather than dive right into freeplay, we only tried to create first drill, with a designated attacker and defender, in the usual set-up (one person taking on each member of the class in turn) and when a blow was landed, at whichever step of the drill, the combatants had to maintain awareness of each other, and retreat out of measure without dropping their guard.

  • In round one, the defender had to stand their ground, and the attacker had to approach from out of measure and attack with a committed mandritto fendente.
  • In round two, the defender could work from any guard.
  • In round three, the attacker could attack with any blow.

Needless to say, we almost never saw first drill in its basic form. All sorts of things went “wrong”, and most of the fighting that ensued was done in the proper measure, with proper commitment. The idea of the set drill was enough to shoe-horn the students into a better approach. There was no tippy-tappy shit at all. Maintaining focus after a blow was struck and you were safely out of measure was perhaps the hardest thing for most, so we worked on that. (I made reference to the way koryu students do their drills: bow out of measure, enter into measure, do the drill, retreat with total focus, bow again. We need more of that in class, I think. I last saw it done in Spain on my trip last year, by Marcos Sala Ivars demonstrating with the naginata.)

The drill was for both students to approach into measure simultaneously, with an agreed attacker and defender roles, do first drill without pause, and passing each other, retreat under cover until out of measure again. Change roles and repeat.

It was not good, the first few rounds. So we had a discussion on mindset, and suddenly it got a lot better.

This is a common problem in just about every advanced class I teach. The first round of anything is crap, so we have a short chat, and then it gets much much better right away. This means that students are entering the class in the wrong mind-set. Obviously, in any martial art, you only get the first opportunity to win. Because if you lose once you die. There are no practise runs, no rehearsals. State of mind is everything. Improvement should be gradual: if it leaps ahead after telling the class something they already know, then the problem is in their state of mind, not their knowledge or skill level.

If a whole class is doing something badly, it can only be my fault. I must not have trained them in the necessary skill. So we had a look at the key techniques for establishing a desired state of mind: visualisation and focus.

We started with visualisation, choosing images that generate a specific state. First injustice, to generate anger. Think of any injustice, and the state of rage begins to build. Then a rose, which calmed them down. Then the person(s) you love most in the world. Three different states of mind in as many minutes. So then, how to focus. For this we used the “awareness of breathing” meditation. Breathing is usually so boring that normally you don’t think of it at all. Requiring yourself to simply notice every breath is really hard: the mind naturally wanders. So the practise is to gently return your attention to the intended object. This works best if it is not inherently interesting, as there is more likelihood of being swiftly distracted.

We then chose images that represent the desired physical attributes of a swordsman. The class chose grounding, agility, relaxation and balance. Each student chose something that symbolised these things to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then the mental attributes: the class chose calmness and relaxed focussed attention. Each student chose something that represented the desired state to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then they combined these images, if applicable (there were some pretty funny mashups). The idea is to create a personal symbol that represents the ideal physical and mental virtues of the perfect swordsman, and be able to meditate upon it for a few minutes, to establish the optimum state of mind for training.

We then got up and did the same drill as before. And it went much better, of course.

To finish up, I asked them to think about this practise, and develop their own image to meditate upon, to generate the correct state of mind before class. Every class. Let’s see how things go next week!

This kind of performance-related meditation has been absolutely critical to my own development, and we really should do more of it in regular class. If you’d like to find out for yourself how it is done, I am teaching a full day seminar on it here in Helsinki on September 8th. More details here.

Every activity has its optimum state of mind. Knowing what it is, is one thing. Establishing it in yourself before the activity begins, is another. It isn't easy, but it is simple. Hold your attention on the right image for long enough that the state of mind develops. This is a skill like any other, and gets better with focussed practice.


In this week’s intermediate level class, our monthly freeplay diagnostic session, the theme was One Thing. We began with the cutting drill, and I gave them one round of it to identify one general movement issue to work on. Then about one minute of basic power drills to identify one technical or tactical weakness to work on. They could then choose either the general movement issue, or the specific technical or tactical issue, to pay attention to while sparring. As the class was quite small I had them spar in the following format: one student stood his ground and fought one pass against all the other students in turn; then the next student in line stood their ground, and so it went on until every student had had a go standing their ground.

I then had them determine from that experience one specific weakness, one action or situation that they had difficulty dealing with. This had to be articulated as clearly as possible. The next step was to return to the sparring format, with each student simply trying to create the problem; this often meant getting hit, but countering was not forbidden. In other words, if a student had difficulty dealing with the feint of mandritto, followed by a roverso strike, they were primarily trying to draw that action out of their opponent; whether they successfully defended against the roverso or not was irrelevant. Out of eight passes the top score was four: one student managed to create the circumstances they wanted in half of their fights. Most had much more difficulty. Getting hit the way you want to be hit is high-level shit.

They then paired off and worked on the solution to their weakness; the technical or tactical counter to the hits they had received. This was done in a variety of formats, from a basic set drill to a coaching session, depending on need, and could focus on predicting the action, or the technical aspects of countering it.

We then went back into the sparring setup, with an unusual scoring ruleset: each student had to identify to me the specific problem they were having, which I wrote down. They would score one point for getting their opponent to make that action; one point for successfully defending against it (i.e. not getting it); and one point for striking the opponent (in any context). This was particularly interesting to watch, as when the opponent figured out what action they would do that would automatically grant their opponent a point regardless of success, they started to avoid doing it. But the purpose of this was to direct the attention of the fencers onto working on one specific thing, rather than just fencing opportunistically.

This of course is an extremely artificial set-up, not to be confused with competitive sparring or a tournament ruleset. It was very effective in getting the students to pay  attention to the one skill they were trying to develop, rather than getting sucked into a game of sword tag. We finished off with some normal fencing, i.e. you score for striking, and nothing else. This left us with about 20 minutes to work on the new stretto drills, which we worked out and videoed that evening.

This week’s intermediate class yielded some interesting insights. I began by asking my students what they thought my job was. As far as I see it, at their level, my job is mainly to keep their practice mindful, and provide solutions to any problem that crops up that they cannot solve themselves. We started by having each student identify for themselves a specific problem they were having, and articulate it clearly to the class. These included difficulty in closing the line after the first action in a bout, difficulty in controlling measure in dynamic situations, and difficulty in maintaining flow under pressure.

We began with the cutting drill as usual, and then discussed how it could be used or adapted to address their specific needs. We concluded that for their purposes right now, it was of limited use in its basic form. So we went to the X-drill, with the pell in the middle of the salle, and the students divided into two groups. One individual from each group crossed the space in style and struck the pell couple of times, with one group’s aim being to arrive first, and the other group’s aim being to arrive at the same time. This brought in dynamic control of measure and timing.

The next exercise was first drill, with the variations the attacker may feint, and the defendant may counter-attack instead of parry. This highlighted specific difficulties, such as vulnerability to a counter-attack, or difficulty in distinguishing between a feint and a real attack. After a few minutes of this each student had a super-specific example of a specific weakness related to the more general problems they had highlighted at the beginning of class.

So, the next exercise was to articulate exactly the problem they were having to their partner who then coached them through that specific issue. For example if you found that you were vulnerable to a feint, your partner would coach you in getting that second parry in time. This required the coaching partner be able to control elements of the fight in real time so that their student was training at the optimum level of difficulty. After five minutes the roles were reversed and then, each student having had a lesson, we returned to the particular variation on first drill, with the same original partner, to see whether the corrections had taken.

Next up we have to establish whether the corrections, having worked (because each student reported an improvement), were general or specific. In other words, whether an improved ability to defend against a feint of mandritto fendente followed by a roverso fendente lead to an improved ability to deal with feints in general. So I had the students change the drill so that they could defend from any right side guard and the attack to be of any kind from any side, real or feint. As it turned out most of the improvement was quite specific, which meant that what we ought to have done next would have been developing that more general skill, but given the problems declared at the beginning of class, it was necessary to move on to address the issue of controlling measure. I pointed out that they could follow this thread in free training. By this stage they were all sweating hard and out of breath. This is one of the hallmarks of mindful practice. It is tiring.

We started our addressing the issue of measure with a drill that I invented back in 2001, where one student establishes a measure with their partner, then the students move around freely with the partner initiating change that measure, and when I clap at random intervals they were to check whether they were still in measure. There may have been push-ups involved. Then we used wooden bucklers like focus mitts , with one student coaching another. This prepared them for giving a specific lesson on measure,  for which, given that the students present were not trained coaches, I gave a specific example for them to copy. In this case simply a variation on first drill in which the coach is defending, and if he ends up close after his parry, the student should pommel strike, but if he ends up further away the student should cut on the other side. This allowed them, in a very simple set up, to take one specific aspect of the art and develop measurable improvement.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with gathering together with some swordy friends and having a bash. Neither is there anything wrong with playing around with some aspects of swordsmanship. I would actually go so far as to say that not all practice should be mindful, as you can become too goal oriented: it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. But for those activities, you don’t need a professional instructor. So when I am running the class, there is no point my being there unless I am making it possible for my students to really improve, and for that mindful practice is without doubt the most efficient approach.

The basic pattern is this:

  1. Practice something that you know, at a pace and level that generates error.
  2. Articulate the error in the clearest possible terms. This becomes your goal.
  3. Select the training tools that you think will most efficiently address your goal. Apply them with rigour.
  4. Test to see whether your goal has been reached, by returning to the original set up in which the error occurred. If yes, return to step 1 to find a new error if no, either select new tools, or apply the same ones better.

If you’re not sure what skill that you’re trying to develop, it’s not mindful practice. If it does not demand the absolute limit of your concentration and physical skill, it’s not mindful practice. If it does not generate measurable improvement, it’s not mindful practice. If it’s not tiring, frustrating, or painful, it’s probably not mindful practice. If your practice highlights your every weakness and makes you strengthen it, efficiently and deeply, then it is, must be, mindful.

I have just come back from teaching seminar in Oulu, a charming little town in the North of Finland. Friday afternoon was spent doing game development with our game designer for the new card game, which is coming on very nicely. I was asked to run a conditioning class before the intermediate class that evening, and it seemed to me most useful to skip the usual jumppa* nonsense, and actually teach the people present something useful. We ran through the beginning of the basic warmup, and then spent 25 minutes working on the basic push-up. We separated the push-up position from the motion, and took them separately. We used a spear or long stick to establish a straight line between heels, hip and head. The stick should touch the back of the head (chin tucked), the middle of the thoracic spine, the tailbone, and the heels. Having found the position, the trick is to keep it as you go down. For most people during the push up the relationship between body and stick changes. It should not. We did this in pairs, one person spotting the other.

Then it was time to look at the stabilisation of the scapulae. We established the correct relationship of the scapulae to the spine, for the purpose of generating force forwards, and then found that everybody was breaking that connection when going down in the push-up. We practiced the motion standing up, and established that everybody could do it properly when there was no stress on the system. So then we did it against a wall, again spotting each other. We then tried to do the push-up correctly, keeping the scapulae stable, up from start to finish. As expected, nobody could do it. But they all understood why they should train towards it.

Then it was time for squats. Mechanically, the squat is a lesson in the correct relationship of spine, hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Leaning forward has no place in a good squat. So we did them facing the wall. Knees should not go forwards over the toes. So we did them in pairs spotting each other. Chins should not come up, so we did them with plastic drinking glasses held between jaw and chest. To help with this we also did Pythagoras stepping. By the end of the 45 minute class, everyone had a new understanding of the mechanical depth of our basic warmup, and seemed to be very keen to develop perfect push-ups and perfect squats.

This was followed by an intermediate-level class. I think it came as something as a shock to most of those involved, throwing them in the deep end as it were. But while many of them may have had trouble keeping up, none drowned. We started with the cutting drill as usual, and then worked some of the approach variations using the pell. This broke them out of the set-drill mentality, and set them up to work on the first couple of steps of first drill.  Entering into measure to strike, without leaving an opening of your opponent to exploit, is tricky. We train this by allowing the defender to enter with a thrust to the face if you leave the opening. Ideally, the attacker will either leave no opening and force the parry, or deliberately invite the defender’s entry onto his prepared defence. We gradually increased the level of complexity to eventually allow the defender to enter, parry and strike, or counter-attack as he saw fit, and the attacker to either invite the entry, feint to generate the parry or the counter-attack, and in each case ideally to strike.  Of course they swiftly stopped paying attention to blade relationship.  So we threw that in there.

We used this escalating complexity to find areas of weakness in the group as a whole and in the individual swordsmen, and allowed time for the students to correct their own personal weaknesses, using their knowledge of the syllabus.  We also emphasised having one student up deliberately coach another, so it was absolutely clear who was training what, with what specific, measurable goal.

To calibrate the machine, or zero the scales, we returned to the basic form of first drill exactly as we would find it in a basic class. Of course, if first drill is done correctly, the set response to each step is the only correct one.  Which means that the attack must leave no opening, the blade relationship on the parry must lead naturally to the second play of the second master of the zogho largo, the pommel strike must be the only reasonable continuation, and structured such that the defender’s own pommel strike is the only reasonable solution to it.  Not impossible, just very difficult.  This prepared them nicely for the rest of the weekend, in which we covered much of the basic syllabus, returned to intermediate level training on Sunday morning, and ran through quite a bit of the basic sword and buckler syllabus on Sunday afternoon. I may write up my notes on this, but have last month’s seminar in Kuopio to do first.

All in all, I was very impressed by the level of training that the Oulu branch was able to absorb, with even the beginners doing a pretty good job of keeping up, while I beat the hell out of the seniors who seemed to relish the challenge. This was an exhausting pleasure, from start to finish.

*jumppa is a very useful Finnish word for general calisthenics, or jumping about for health and fitness. Something I do as little as possible, preferring skills that happen to make you sweat, like swordsmanship training, to mindless exercise.

One of the difficulties of training in any art is the lack of measurable feedback. Every body is different, and there is little we can do to provide objective goals. Enter the tape measure.

Readers familiar with my Max Your Lunge approach to developing a good rapier lunge will see where this is going…

In the intermediate longsword class last night we had a small turn-out, which lent itself to some serious measuring. We  started by measuring our maximum possible reach, from the tip of the sword to the edge of the back foot.

measuring the swordsman

We then struck at the pell, and measured the linear distance on the floor between the back foot and the base of the pell. This gave us a ratio between actual comfortable striking range and our natural reach. We marked position of the base of the pell on the floor, to provide a quick reference point.

reaching the pell
reaching the pell

To eliminate the effect of blade length on the proportions, we subtracted the length of the blade (crossguard to point) from both figures. The range spread was huge- including the blade, our tallest measured 342cm, our shortest 288. But the proportions were strikingly consistent.

I then had the class work for 10 minutes on range, doing whatever exercises they thought might help (this is not a basic class). Then back to the pell, where the average improvement was about 10%! Clearly, these students did not warm up properly before class.

This gave us a sense of their maximum reach. But what proportion of that would we actually use? So next up we hit the tyres, and when that was working well I went round and measured their reach. An average reduction of 42%. To hit hard we want to get closer.

But what about the threat? So next they did the same blow (mandritto fendente) against a partner who would counterattack (step 2 of the stretto form of First drill). And out came the tape again. Now they increased their range from 58% of maximum to 79% of maximum.

So, the correct measure to strike from depends on what you want the strike to do, and the tactical circumstances in which it is to be done. There is value in being able to strike comfortably to the maximum reach of your skeleton, but more value in always being in the right place to strike according to tactical circumstances.

For those of a mathematical bent, here’s the spreadsheet. I am no expert at either spreadsheets or maths, so feel free to spot errors and let me know!

the data

The initial lessons from this are:

  • Targeted warm-up increased range by about 10%
  • Warm range minus blade length was between 48% and 66% of the foot to fingertip length
  • You should be able to reach about 60% of your foot to fingertip length, plus blade length.
  • Your maximum power range is proportionally about half of your warm maximum reach. This was the most variable measurement.
  • When striking against a resisting opponent you will tend to compromise power and reach, using about 80% of your warm maximum range.

So, things to check and work systematically towards are:

  • Being able to comfortably reach to about 60% of your foot to fingertip length
  • Reducing the difference between warm and cold: keeping your body such that warming up becomes unnecessary to strike at your maximum range.
  • Extending the range at which you can strike with power, from wherever it is towards your maximum warm reach. Leverage ensures you'll never get there, so it's a lifetime goal.
  • Understand the relationship between measure and tactical circumstances: more range = less power but more time to react to the opponent’s response. Your ideal striking range will depend among other things on what you expect your opponent to do. The perfect starting point for the attacker in the basic form of First drill is about 70% of maximum range, but that should be increased to about 80% if you expect a counterattack. Good luck making that kind of calculation on the fly!

I don’t mean to suggest that we should reduce the Art of Arms to a set of statistics. But this kind of practice can provide a measurable, objective, set of targets to aim towards, in certain specific aspects of your skill at arms. So go forth and measure!

Intermediates class on Sept 3rd 2012 was run as a freeplay class. The goal of this class was to improve students' freeplay skills, and to remind them of freeplay's place in the practice of historical swordsmanship. It went like this:

The class ran for 90 minutes and was loosely divided into five sections. We began all kitted up.

1) One pair at a time fenced, while the rest of the class watched. Each observer was given a specific thing to look for, depending on experience level. From as simple as “who got hit?” to as complex as “what specific patterns does fencer x do that you might exploit when you fence him?”. After each hit, each observer (there were four) was asked for their specific answer.

This lasted about 45 minutes, and was followed by a series of three minute rounds:

2) Three minute rounds: Everyone paired up and freeplayed for one minute. They each had to identify a problem they were having. In the second minute one fencer asked for the specific context they were having difficulty with to be reproduced for them to learn to handle it. Then the other fencer got to ask for what they needed. Total three minutes. Then change partner and repeat. Given changeover times etc, each round actually lasted about 4 minutes.

Time spent: about 20 minutes.

3) Each student then had to identify a specific problem they were having with freeplay in general (not with a specific opponent). And in pairs or solo use the appropriate part of the syllabus to correct the problem.

Time: 10 minutes.

4) Each student then had to identify a specific problem they were having a specific opponent. Then with a different partner (not the problem opponent), explain it well enough that their partner could mimic the problem, so they had an opportunity to solve it. So one party had to understand the problem and explain it, the other had to be able to recreate a specific technical or tactical situation that was probably not in their natural repertoire.

Time: 10 minutes

5) We then spent five minutes doing form work (cutting drill etc.) in kit to re-establish correct movement habits that had eroded during the freeplay exercises.

In an ideal world we would then have done another round of freeplay to see what improvements had been generated, but we were out of time.

All in all this went so well that we decided that the first Monday intermediate class of every month will focus on either preparing for freeplay or developing freeplay skills.

Branch leaders etc. feel free to use this model for running freeplay sessions in your branches.

One of the benefits to running an intermediate level class first thing every Monday evening, is that I get to put the seniors under a bit of pressure, make them work outside their comfort zones, and see what cracks. If a classful of students have difficulty with the same thing, it's a pretty clear indication that their training is at fault. This occurred recently, when saying goodbye to a well liked and respected student who was returning home to Germany. Goodbye SES style generally involves a bit of violence, and in this instance we had him face the entire class one at a time, such that they entered measure and attacked, and he just had to defend himself. Over and over again 🙂

It became abundantly obvious very quickly that most students had no clue about entering into measure in style. They could walk up, set themselves in guard, and launch, and God knows they can bugger about on the edge of measure forever. But marching forward swinging a sword and be in the right place to attack without pause, and without creating a tempo in which the defender could reasonably enter, was beyond them. Clearly, there was a gap in the basic syllabus. So I immediately created a set of drills to fix it. They are:

1) On the pell: start from way out of measure, i.e. from across the salle, and enter smoothly, with full blows, moving only forwards, and arrive in the right measure with the right movement to strike the pell in perfect control (of course). This puts a strain on the imagination, and requires constant tiny adjustments to familiar movements to be in exactly the right spot to strike.

2) Add a step before step one of a basic drill. So, the defender stands still and waits, the attacker normally starts from a set guard. In this version, he has to precede the attack with a pass into measure with a blow that chambers the actual attack (e.g. the attack is mandritto fendente; chamber it with a roverso fendente). Once this sort of thing is comfortable, we must guard against false times and creating tempi for the enemy, and so the defender can strike if the chambering action leaves the attacker open. In practice this means chambering with an action that is differently timed to a normal strike, in which the sword is at maximum extension as you arrive in measure. That would leave you standing still with the sword leaving the centre, in measure- a gift to the opponent. So instead the sword tends to travel past it's maximum extension earlier, so as you arrive in measure it is coming back to the centre.

3) Add a step before step 2 of a basic drill: so the defender steps into measure with a blow that creates the starting defensive guard of the drill: the attacker uses that motion as his tempo to strike. So the defender has to be able to enter measure and respond to the attacker's attempt to take time on him.

This can all be done with other weapons, but its natural home is the longsword. This also prefigures the use of assalti in the Bolognese system, which can serve as set ways to enter boldly to the fray. You can just walk up to someone and start the fight, but it is psychologically advantageous to do so boldly, dramatically, and hopefully terrify them into immobility by your martial vigour. And now we have a way to practice that.

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