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

Tag: martial arts

 To Share or Not To Share?

A good martial artist is responsive, not reactive. This is one of the key life benefits from martial arts training, so I’ll explain in some detail.

Recently, some anonymous fool posted a long and completely valueless article dissing HEMA on the grounds that it is not optimised for street self-defence or MMA. It was an obvious example of a straw-man argument, criticising HEMA for something it has never pretended to be. Useful criticism is essential for growth (which is why I sent out 100 copies of the first draft of my book, The Theory and Practice of Historical European Martial Arts, for beta-readers to critique— and sure enough I had a month of revisions, corrections, and improvements to make). But this particular article was not offering constructive criticism, because the (very angry) writer was not criticising any version of HEMA I have ever come across.

The only reason I came across this waste of pixels and my time was because several of my colleagues shared it. They were furious, and so shared the article so everyone else could be furious too. This was reactivity, and such inappropriate behaviour on their part that I was simply appalled that supposedly trained martial artists would behave this way. Somebody was wrong on the internet, and their reaction was completely out of proportion, and very counter-productive. I thought about it for a while, then posted this on my Facebook wall (this was in 2017, when I was still active on social media):

“To my HEMA friends: some numbnut has written a long and eminently stupid article about how crap HEMA is. You know it's stupid, I know it's stupid. He probably knows it's stupid, which is why he's anonymous. So why the hell are you all sharing it? Attention feeds trolls. Traffic is king. Starve the troll, deny him traffic, and he will wither and die.

C'mon people, share the GOOD stuff, not the crap!

Anyone sharing the article in the comments will be blocked.”

And sure enough, a lot of people started thinking about whether they should share bad articles.

Can you see the difference? A reaction is immediate, and may or may not serve your interests. A response is deliberate, based on your skills and experience, and should, all things considered, serve your interests. In this case, my response was to call out the behaviour of colleagues who should know better, in the hopes that they would stop sharing low-quality material. It seems to have worked, and at least got some of them to think about what they were doing.

Please note that I don't give two hoots about the article itself: my response, of which this blog post is an expansion, is to the reactivity shown by my colleagues. I have some hope of influencing them with reasonable argument. That writer? Clearly not.

Responsiveness v. Reactiveness re productivity

It is generally good advice to avoid checking emails until after you’ve got something useful done in your working day. Your inbox is everyone else’s agenda; a to-do list that anyone with your email address can add to. Putting that first will tend to make you reactive, not responsive. Put your own agenda first, and you can then respond to other people’s afterwards, secure in the knowledge that whatever they want from you is not going to derail your day. It is a good idea to do whatever is necessary to avoid slipping into a reactive state of mind. Probably the best book on this at the moment is Cal Newport's Deep Work.

Three rules for remaining responsive on the internet

Absolutely nothing on the internet is so urgent that you can’t wait, breathe, think, and decide calmly what response, if any, is needed. In most cases, there is no action required. Bad blog posts have nothing in common with a sudden violent assault, or with something going wrong during heart surgery, or a van swerving into your lane on the highway, or any other time-critical thing. It’s the internet. It is never time-critical. There is always time to calm down and think rationally about how to respond.

I simplify my decision regarding sharing and commenting with three simple rules:

1) Only share if you're doing your friends a favour. If you admire it, like it, find it interesting, useful or engaging, then share away. If you don’t see positive value in it, don’t share it. That doesn’t mean I don’t share things I don’t agree with— I can disagree with a writer and still find their work useful, and thus shareable. If I come across an article that I feel should be responded to, but I don't want it to pass unchallenged, I'll share a link to it within the text of my response. You can see that in action in this wild rant. I had to respond, but I didn't just share the article. I should perhaps remind you that this post is not a response to the crappy article that was posted; it's a response to the behaviour of my colleagues in sharing something they knew was of no value.

2) If in doubt, do nothing. The back button is your friend. Nobody will notice that you did nothing.

3) If you feel it in your chest or gut, wait a day, better two or three. Strong emotion makes for bad decisions. In the example above, my colleagues were angry, frustrated, outraged. This lead them into profoundly counterproductive reactivity. It’s done the same for me many times.

I’m sure you can think of many exceptions; a friend’s mother dies, you feel it strongly, but you condole immediately, breaking rule three. These rules don’t apply in all situations. But I think if more people followed them most of the time, the internet would be a happier, safer, better, and more useful place.

Reactivity, the OODA loop, and operant conditioning

Reactivity has its place, of course. If you are suddenly attacked, you must react. There is a time-critical element, and anything you can do to shorten the time between stimulus and response is good. The primary training tool for this is called operant conditioning, and it works by breaking the OODA loop. When something happens, you Observe it, Orient to it, Decide on your response, and then Act. This is why surprise attacks work: you notice it, but while you are trying to rearrange your worldview to accommodate the idea that somebody is trying to hurt you, and deciding what to do about it, they hit you. Operant conditioning sets up the stimulus, and rewards you for acting immediately. No orientation, no decision. OODA becomes OA. This is also why it’s a very bad idea to sneak up on some people; if you surprise them, their reaction (e.g. Draw and shoot) may be completely out of proportion to the stimulus (e.g. Jump out and say boo!). In self-defence training, breaking the OODA loop through operant conditioning is the most important kind of physical training, though training situational awareness (so you can avoid the situation before it arises) should be the primary goal of any self-defence class. Regular readers of this blog know I'm a fan of Rory Miller; he's written a lot of useful stuff on this. Start with Meditations on Violence.

Responsiveness beats reactivity

The key to useful operant conditioning is establishing what constitutes an appropriate stimulus. Kid with water-pistol, don’t shoot. Operant conditioning is dangerous because it is really, really effective, and once learned is hard to train out of. It is not so useful for training for prearranged combat, such as duelling, fencing, sparring etc, because success in those arenas come from controlling the environment and seeing what your opponent will do in advance. A reactive opponent is easy to beat, because they will fall for feints very easily. Instead, we must train for responsiveness, which is quite different. A responsive person identifies the threat and can deal with it without having to short-circuit their reasoning skills. I have seen experienced police officers dealing with what to me would have seemed an incredibly dangerous environment, serious OODA loop territory, but for them it did not trigger a violent response. They remained responsive, not reactive, and brought the situation to a safe and gentle conclusion. It was a demonstration of very high-level martial arts.

If you find this article helpful, useful, interesting, or valuable in any way, please share it. If you think it’s rubbish, then let it die the internet death of no traffic. Don't inflict it on your friends!

 

SQG7 Breathing Cover

Everybody breathes, but some do it better than others. Breathing training is the foundation of my martial practice, and as with everything else I do, I'm happy to teach it to you. The topic for the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide  was chosen by my student Cecilia Äijälä, and she picked Breathing Training. I was delighted when she did so, because it forced me to get on and write up my training methods.

This book comes in three packages:

1.The Book, with Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in.
  • It also includes a £10 discount voucher for the course.


I want this book

2.The Book with Audio and Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in,
  • plus the audiobook,
  • plus mp3 recordings of the instructions for the individual exercises,
  • plus two bonus exercises (video).
  • It also includes a £25 discount voucher for the course.


I want this one!

3. The Breathing Course

The course is a carefully designed progression of exercises, spread out over six weeks (you can pace it as you wish, and do it faster or slower). Each week begins with a lesson, in which you will learn the exercises for the week. The week then continues with a shorter practice session, which you repeat ideally every day for the next six days. In the final week, you will learn how to create 5 minute, ten minute, and twenty minute practice routines, so that you will always be able to find time to do some practice.

The course material  includes everything in the other two packages, so all of the book, audio, and video files. The course is available now, but the lesson and practice routine videos are not completed yet. Week one is ready, and all of the book with all of its audio and video material too. Weeks 2-4 have been shot, and I'm editing them right now. The rest of the course material will be uploaded by October 1st.

http://swordschool.teachable.com/courses/breathing-basics

I released this to my email list yesterday (they get just about everything first!) with a healthy 50% discount. If you would like the same treatment, you can sign up to my list below, and I'll send you the same discount links. These links expire on Friday 9th September, so if you're interested, now's your best chance to save a packet.

 

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:

This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:

5. Shooting

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it  feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.

4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.

When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.

3. Aikido

I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.

But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.

If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.

2. T’ai Chi Chuan

When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.

“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”

“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”

“We do a lot of forms …”

“Goddam it, where do I sign???”

Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.

In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.

I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…

1. Historical European Martial Arts

You guessed that it was coming, right?

I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.

I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.

But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.

So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?

Orwell Park School: doesn't look too bad, does it? Image credit: James Appleton, 2010.

 

Oh my, what a week it has been.

I was scared of hitting “publish” on my last post, for obvious reasons. I am a big bad scary martial arty swordsman, or at least that’s how a lot of people seem to see me. And now anyone who reads my blog can see me as a great big cry-baby if they so choose.

I had to be ok with that before I published. The risk was entirely about how people regard me. Who wants a swordfighting lesson from a wimp?

But here’s the oddest thing: the single most common response I’ve got has been “you’re brave”. Because, and this is the heart of it, everybody who has lived at all has taken some kind of damage in the process. Some has healed completely, some has left scars, and some is still a big gaping wound. And everybody knows that it can be very frightening to face it, and even more so to expose it to others, because it feels like they could use it to hurt you more.

Because everybody has some experience of trauma, and of being scared of it, so long as the person you’re talking to is actually a decent human being, you get no criticism or contempt at all for opening up about something like this. It’s really not that risky.

Think about that for a second.

Of course, this would be a million times more difficult if I had any shame about it; if I felt that it was my fault, or if I had behaved appallingly. (Which I have at times, but it wasn’t my fault I got sent away.) Likewise, I have no crimes to confess in this process; nothing that might get me sent to jail, anyway. The only thing I risk is my ego. So there’s no real risk, because my ego is not in the hands of the general public; it’s in the hands of my wife and kids, family and close friends.

This is still a very new situation for me, but I thought I’d update you all on what seems to be working for me, and what I see the pitfalls as being. I am moving very fast on this, because that’s how I approach problems: I attack them with a vigorous blow to the head. To give you an idea of how fast: this all came up in such a way that I realised it was a real problem on Tuesday last week. I wrote and posted “The Price of Privilege” on Wednesday. Since then I’ve had three counselling sessions. None with conventional psychotherapists (yet), but the sessions have been incredibly helpful. Perhaps because it means setting aside specific times in which the only thing on my to-do list is deal with this shit. And these lovely people have made me feel safe enough to really go back there and dig. I think that finding the right person to talk to is probably much more important than what therapeutic discipline they practise.

[‘“Therapeutic discipline”, eh?’ I can hear the back row snickering. Fine, laugh it up! Nothing like a good dose of the swishy cane to bring up childhood memories, what? See what I mean about the “naughty club” references in my last post? If you want to know what happens to beaten children, I recommend both Roald Dahl’s Boy and Tall Tales by Ian Kendall. And if you think beating children is funny, it’s not me that needs help.]

Amongst the general outpouring of affection and support that I have received this week, for which I will never cease to be grateful, there were also quite a few contacts from people who also went to boarding school, and some who went to mine. It is very clear that I am not at all alone in this.

Now, things to watch out for. This is an aide-memoire for me; I absolutely am not speaking for or about anybody else. But these things might bite me on the arse, so I’m sharing them here.

1) Trauma explains much, but excuses nothing.  Sure, I can point to several occasions in my life where I am 99% sure that my boarding school experience lead me to treat somebody badly. But it’s still my responsibility; I’ll go further: it’s still my fault. I am not responsible for my feelings, but I am 100% responsible for my actions. Unless or until I am certified insane, that remains the case.

2) It’s not a competition. One of the things that held me back from posting about this is knowing so many people who have gone through so much worse experiences. Boarders who made no friends; combat veterans; rape survivors; domestic abuse survivors; the list goes on. What happened to me is utterly trivial next to what has happened to them. It felt like whining, until I realised that even relatively minor wounds can turn septic. In fact, the most dangerous injury I’ve sustained in 15 years of professional swordsmanship was a splinter I got while woodworking. I took it out, but it went septic anyway; without modern antibiotics I would probably have lost my hand. Ignoring it because there are people out there dying of worse infections never occurred to me. Likewise, my experience was empirically worse than some other peoples’s. So what? There is no prize at all for being the most injured. Exactly the reverse.

3) Attention is addictive. It’s really lovely to get such overwhelming messages of support. I can quite see how Munchausen Syndrome https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munchausen_syndrome develops. This could lead me (especially given the attachment issues that are part of “boarding school syndrome”) to hold on to the damage to keep getting the attention. That would not be good. But I’m aware of it, as are all competent therapists, so it shouldn’t be such a problem. I intend to purge this, heal it, and move on. I have no interest in defining myself as “that kid who was fucked up by boarding school”. I'd rather be a master swordsman, excellent writer, great dad, adored husband, and much-loved friend, thank you very much.

I hope my experiences are useful to you. This is what I’m for, after all. At root, I am by nature a teacher. I can’t quite see the point of mastering a skill if  I’m not going to pass it on; and it’s much easier to allocate the necessary time and energy to this problem if I think that my example might help somebody else. If that's the case, please do let me know. It makes such a difference.

You might be wondering what effects this problem has had on me. Well, there are dozens, some of which I don’t intend to share just yet, and some I may never share outside of counselling, but here’s a big and obvious one.

I have no sense of home being a place. Home is people. Originally my parents, of course; now my wife and kids. The only exception to that is a negative: in my head, England ≠ Home. England is the place I was sent to that by definition was not home. Anywhere else on the planet could be home, but not fucking England.

But rationally, England ≠ boarding school. There is a whole ton of great stuff there that I have shut myself off from. This would have been different if my family had lived in England at the time, of course, and perhaps if I had got into Cambridge University (Edinburgh was my second choice, more fool me). We lived in England until I was five years old, then we moved to Argentina (’79-’80),  then Botswana (’81-’86), and then Peru (’86-’92). They were home. My family then moved to Scotland, which as anyone who has ever been there knows is very much NOT England. And since then, I’ve only lived in Edinburgh and Helsinki (if we don’t count 3 months in lovely Lucca).

Why does this matter? Because to my wife, only England will ever = Home. And I have twisted and turned in a totally irrational way to avoid giving her the chance to live there. Not fair. I realised this when after we got back from Italy, and saw that the School thrived without me (as it should), we decided to go to England for a significant period, from the middle of next year. This is a perfectly rational move to make. And it was my suggestion. But it made me absolutely miserable, and I didn’t know why, until all this boarding school crap bubbled to the surface. So when I have cleared it, the aversion to living in England for any period, or more precisely, calling England “Home”, should clear with it. This should give my wife a fair crack at living in England, as she has wanted to do for the last decade.

I’d say that was worth a few tears, wouldn’t you?

I intend to keep posting about this; to keep it separate from the usual sword-specific stuff I've created a new category, “boarding school”. I think my next post on this topic will be about the people who made being in boarding school much easier than it might have been. [Update: that next post is here.]

Ethics (also moral philosophy) is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.”  – Wikipedia

I am writing the fourth instalment of my Swordsman's Quick Guide series, and the topic is Ethics.

I believe that the study of ethics is at least as important to a historical swordsman at any level, as the study of mechanics or tactics. One of the larger goals of modern swordsmanship training is the development of character; through self-discipline, we become able to behave as we believe we ought, in ever more difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be good when everything is going well. But it is much much harder when the shit has hit the fan.

One important tool in the study of ethics is the question to which there is no straight answer. Geoffrey de Charny’s Book of Chivalry (of which my favourite modern edition is The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy) contains perhaps the most famous set of questions in HEMA circles. The key point here is that Charny does not include the answers; they are not the point. The point is to engage with the questions, to come up with your own answers, and to then live by those answers.

The questions that are discussed in the booklet are:

1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

5) Can violence be beautiful?

6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

You may notice that not all of them would normally be considered a matter of ethics (such as number 3), but my interest is primarily in getting people to think more widely about the martial arts we practise. I would be very interested to read your thoughts on them; if you'd like to join in the discussion, please post your answers in the comments below, or email them to me at guywindsor@gmail.com. Please also indicate whether you are willing to be quoted in the booklet, and if so, whether you'd like to be credited, or remain anonymous.

Thanks for taking part!

this is not from the Assalti, but it is from the lovely 1568 edition of Marozzo.
this is not from the Assalti, but it is from the lovely 1568 edition of Marozzo.

Forms have been at the heart of martial arts practice since at least as far back as the Pyrriche war dances of ancient Greece, and documented in detail as early as 1536, in Achille Marozzo’s assalti in his monumental work L’Arte dell’Armi. I learned my first form while doing karate aged about 11, and have been a huge fan of them ever since. Forms can provide a system-summary zip-file of techniques and tactics, a means to acquire the key movement aesthetic of a style, and a varied and interesting basis for all other training. (For more about forms and how to use them, see my free article on the subject here; this post is just about memorising them.)

But they can be hell to memorise. Indeed, committing a form to memory is often the primary challenge a student faces when encountering forms for the first time. The recent visit of Roberto Laura to my salle to teach a weekend seminar on traditional (i.e. living tradition) Italian knife systems brought this into focus; at least one of the styles he taught uses set forms as the starting point for teaching the Art. We covered the first form on Sunday afternoon, and by Monday I had no trouble picking up the second form in about half an hour. It lives in my head now, and can be practised at any time.

Roberto in action
Roberto in action

Learning forms is a skill in itself, and having been taught perhaps 20 of them over the last 20 years, I have a system for picking them up relatively quickly and keeping them.Watching my beginners struggle to pick up their first form, and hearing their groans of dismay when they hear that we are updating it with some major changes, I thought I’d set down here my method for rapid form memorisation.

1) I break it into chunks. In the beginning, especially if the system itself is new to me, I don’t even try to keep the whole thing in memory. Instead, I have a number of separate little forms which together make up the whole. This is much, much, easier than trying to keep the pattern of the whole thing, and is easier still if the actual techniques or actions are thoroughly familiar, which is why I teach form after applications, not before.

2) I name each chunk creatively: this bit is “fighting ten trolls while avoiding the cat vomit”. This bit is “a helicopter rescuing Hello Kitty from a volcano”. And so on. There is no need to tell anyone what your names for these steps are; just make them memorable. Many forms have specific names for their chunks; such as “fair ladies weave shuttles” in T’ai Chi Chuan, or “colpo di villano” in our Syllabus form, or “tre passi in chiuso” in the second knife form that Roberto showed me. I incorporate these in my chunk naming if possible, if not, I apply them after the form is in memory.

3) I break up my repetitions over the course of a day, and over several days. Never more than about 10 minutes for each session, and usually much less. The key skill I am working on is retrieving the form from memory, not actually practising the form itself.

4) I use any non-training time to walk through the chunks in my head. Such as when waiting for a bus. This is often accompanied by little hand or foot motions, which can make others around me a tad nervous of the scary weirdo, but as I’ve said before, nobody can reasonably expect me to be normal.

5) During form training time, I go through the form (or as much of it as I know) as a whole, then separately in chunks, then work on the trickiest bits in isolation, then put it all together again. At any one time, I am only working on one thing, one aspect of the form, such as: a particular step, or getting every application right, or the movement aesthetic, or indeed remembering the form as a whole. Of course, once the form is in memory, you don’t need to practise memorising it any more, and can focus only on execution.

6) If the form is not from an art I am currently practising, I review it once a month or so; if it is still fluent, I run it a few times and move on; if not, then I work it back up from memory, and go over it again at least a couple of times in the following week.

I have certainly forgotten more forms than most of my students will ever learn because if I definitively quit an art, I drop the forms from my practice altogether. In three months they are moth-eaten; in six months they are gone. So be warned that once you have a form in memory, you use it or lose it. This is why I am planning on writing the Advanced longsword book (follow-up to my current The Medieval Longsword) using our Syllabus form as its base. Having it in writing and on video can easily refresh the memory, even if circumstances have conspired to prevent you from even thinking the form through every now and then.

One of the most irritating things an instructor can do is come along and correct a detail of technique when I’m working on memorising the form. It’s inevitable that there will be some slippage in execution when my focus is on the overall pattern. Once the form is down in memory, or I’m working on technical execution, then yes, such interruptions are necessary. This is why I tend to leave students who are learning a form alone until they clearly get stuck, unless they are repeating an error that matters to what they are doing; such as if they have steps out of order while working on memorising the form, or when they are getting a step wrong in one application that leaves them with the wrong foot forwards for the next one. But this is a tricky judgement call, which is why I almost always ask them what they are working on, before offering a correction.

So if you see me waving a pen around, or even a knife, and jumping about a bit, I'm probably keeping last weekend's material, and two spiffy new forms, alive in my head. No cause for alarm!

 

It's all Guardia Alta!
It's all Guardia Alta!

I am as appalled as anyone at the outbreak of violence at the Golden Temple in India last week. It is amazing and very fortunate that so few were injured. It does however give us a (thankfully) rare insight into how trained fighters (I am assuming that these chaps actually practise with their weapons; there is a long tradition of Sikh warrior arts) actually behave under the stress of combat.

Take the above image, (by Reuters, taken from here) for example: of the five swords visible, four are being held above the head to strike a downwards blow; one appears to be held for a thrust. The gentleman in the yellow shirt and blue turban, on the right, is holding his (empty) scabbard like a sword; perhaps he is left-handed and his sword is in his left hand and not visible to the camera. You can see it more clearly here:

scabbard1

 

Which is taken from this image (taken from here):

sikhs3

Which has a fascinating range of grip styles on view. Reading from left to right, we have a standard “hammer grip”:

grip1Then a very strange combination of grips on what appears to be a sickle, but is actually some kind of steel bar, with the blade that appears to be going between his fore and middle fingers being actually behind him, wielded by the man with the above hammer grip:

grip2What the left hand is doing there, I cannot say. This may be an improvised weapon. You can see it is a tube of some kind from this closeup of the other photo:

sikh 6

The chap with the bandolier, going down the stairs, is extending his weapon behind him, I guess to keep the onslaught at bay. He is holding his sword in an extended grip, as one would expect:

grip3

 

Then we have a very interesting finger-over-the-crossguard grip, with the thumb on the back edge, like in modern and classical sabre, here:grip4

And finally another finger-over grip, and the thumb making a fist, here:

grip5

 

Looking at the two images side by side, it's actually quite hard to say which was taken first; I think it is this one:

sikhs3

because if you look at the man in the doorway holding an orange cloth, here he seems to be out and thrusting. And, most interestingly, somebody is apparently holding him back by the elbow:

It's all Guardia Alta!There is some video here; it is not terribly graphic, but purists will note just how many of these men apparently violate our sacred tenets of leading with the sword, striking with control, etc. Watch especially for the man who is disarmed, runs to grab another weapon from one of his mates, and ends up arguing with him too! And all this, apparently, over an argument about who would speak first at the ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of a military raid.

Leaving aside the irony of this, one thing leaps out at me: under the stress of actual combat, people fall back on gross motor actions, and haul off to hit really, really hard; even with weapons that can slice a man's arm off with barely any effort. I'd be very interested to hear from any practitioners of the Sikh martial arts regarding how this matches with their training.

 

 

The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.

The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.

Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.

In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:

“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.

Disarm and counter

  1. Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
  2. Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
  3. Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
  4. Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
  5. Defender collects dagger and strikes”

(Quoted from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger page 51)

There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:

  1. The attacker is not trying to kill you.
  2. The weapon is not sharp.
  3. The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
  4. You can’t run away or call the cops.
  5. You have to wait for the attack.
  6. You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
  7. The line of the attack is pre-selected.
  8. Your defence is pre-selected.
  9. The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
  10. The attack is done with little force.
  11. The attack is done slowly.

I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?

To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!

So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?

It does:

  1. Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
  2. Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
  3. Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.

It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.

But be aware that this drill does NOT:

  1. Teach a survival skill.
  2. Teach situational awareness.
  3. Teach decision making or judgement.
  4. Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.

But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*

It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.

So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).

Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?

* The “Rule of Cs” (abridged from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger p136) every drill is first worked through with the players:

  • Cooperating in creating correct choreography

This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.

Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate- if it works all the time, ramp it up- if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit. This is called:

  • Coaching correct actions

Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced scholar should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So,

  • Compete.

 

What do you consider “real swordfighting”? For some, only tournament bouts really count. For others, there has to be a corpse by the end. My answer to this vexing question is below.

When I was a little boy I want nothing more than to learn real swordfighting. My mum told me that real swordfighting was called “fencing”, and that her dad, my grandpa, was an expert. He had been a keen fencer for about 70 years at this point, and was duly prevailed upon to give his grandson an introductory lesson in the noble art. This involved him sitting in his armchair smoking a rollup cigarette while I stood there holding a foil. When he yelled “extension!” I stuck my arm out, and when he barked “Lunge!” I stepped forwards with my front foot. I was about eight years old, and this was heaven. REAL swordfighting! Unfortunately though he was extremely old (about 88) and my family were living in Botswana while he was in London, so I only ever got a couple of sessions with him before he died.

I made do then with what I saw on the silver screen, though at this time sword flicks were pretty rare. Conan the Barbarian was my primary source, with supporting material from such legendary high-quality movies as Hawk the Slayer. But it was very very hard to get my hands on movies like this, as a) the VCR had only just been invented and b) we didn’t have so much as a TV to plug one into. But while I was home for the school holidays I went most Saturday afternoons to Gaborone’s one and only cinema, the Capitol. The kids’ matinee was occasionally such gems as Clash of the Titans, but usually full-length, uncut, Hong Kong kung-fu movies, complete with hardcore violence and some pretty nasty porn. My friend Mark and I would gloss over the bits with naked women in (we were only 9 or 10) but treat the rest of the film as instructional; on the walk home we practised the top-level moves we had learned. I never did quite manage to jump backwards onto a tree branch, but we waved our arms and legs with vigour, and we were both adept at the sound effects.

My martial arts education took more serious turn when a karate group started up at the local golf course. It was run by Korean man who barely spoke, and spent quite some time after most classes trying to break concrete paving slabs with his bare hands. He would set up a couple between some breeze blocks, put a thin towel on top, and slam his hand down. The top slab always cracked in two, but I never did see him break both at once. The class consisted of three or four students, and we would start by running somewhere on the course, finding a quiet spot and going through a set of ritualised opening moves before the punching and kicking would begin. The first command, which sounded like “Chariot!” had us standing up straight with our hands by our sides; then “Chumbi!” and we would drop a little with our hands fisted in front of us. This was by way of salute, I think. What with commuting to the UK three times a year for school I didn’t get a lot of training, but the buzz of doing real martial arts for the first time will never leave me. (This still strikes me as by far the best use a golf course has ever been put to, and I would urge those of you of an activist frame of mind to set up an “occupy golf courses” movement, so that these lovely spaces can serve a worthwhile function as outdoor dojos.)

My school at this time was a boys-only boarding school in rural Suffolk, not far from Ipswich. There was a general policy that if enough boys were interested in something, the school would organise classes in it. So I campaigned for martial arts, and eventually, at the beginning of my final year there, the powers that be allowed a karate class to start. My name was first on the sign-up sheet, and I went to the deputy head, a normally terrifying individual, and begged for a guarantee that I would be picked. The list of those doing karate was posted a week later and thank the lord, there was my name.

Imagine my delight when the karate we were doing turned out to be basically the same style, chariot, chumbi and all. But this time we also had belts and ranks, and so gradings.  The club began in September 1986, which was also the beginning of my final year, and the year in which we moved from Botswana to Peru. This meant that two days before my first ever grading I had a load of really nasty vaccinations, and took the test with my left arm swollen and in constant agony. There were tears running down my face for most of the exam, and I was shaking like a leaf by the end. But, and here’s the lesson, I got a first-class pass. This had nothing to do with my rather feeble ap chagis (front kicks) and everything to do with my having got through it without quitting.

This martial arts heaven lasted only a year before I was packed off to public school and there was no karate to be had. But, joy of joys, finally there was fencing. Not only that but fencing had just been designated a “major sport” in the school, which meant that taking it I was not obliged to do any other sport. In other words I never had to chase after another fucking round object again. I cannot tell you how much of my life had been wasted by my being forced to pretend to care where a leather bag (football or rugby), or solid round object (hockey or cricket) ended up relative to a white line and some posts. Hockey at least had the decency to supply me with a weapon and people to hit with it, but the rest were just so stupid. Surrounded by boys who were sports-mad, as good little Englishmen are trained to be, I had always felt like a complete alien. Sometimes I even faked a bit of enthusiasm. But hanging about outside in a muddy field, wearing shorts in winter, and being yelled at for not paying attention to a completely arbitrary set of rules is just the single least explicable human pursuit. But fencing, that made sense. Someone is trying to stab me. I’m trying to not get stabbed and to stab them instead so they have to stop. Makes perfect sense. I am motivated.

I loved every minute of fencing, from footwork drills to technical drills to individual lessons with the coach, to the actual competitive fencing. But the tournaments themselves were a pain. It meant getting up early at the weekend, going somewhere in a coach (I despise and abhor all forms of motorised transport unless I’m driving), hanging about for endless hours waiting for it to be my turn, fiddling with stupid kit, and then finally getting to fence people I hadn’t fenced before. Total time investment: perhaps 9 hours. Total bouts: maybe 10. Less if I got eliminated early and one of my teammates didn’t so we all had to stay. Inefficient, the least good bit about the whole fencing endeavour, but with some useful aspects, mostly to do with the experience of crossing blades with new people.

I spent all five years of my secondary education doing no other sport but fencing, and by the end of it, I was reasonably good; good enough to be captain of the team, but not good enough to get into the nationals. In September 1992 I went up to Edinburgh University to read English Literature. I naturally joined the Fencing Society, and showed up to my first session wondering what the level would be like. Fencing clubs are one of the few environments on Earth where it is perfectly polite, friendly even, to go up to someone you don’t know and say “fancy a fight?”. This I did, to a tall Chinese-looking chap who was already kitted up. He agreed, and we set to. On the first pass it was obvious to me he was out of my league, but I did ok- I even pulled off a lovely doublé in carte (he was a left hander). The score was 4-3 in his favour when I saw the opportunity for another doublé. As I took it, he neatly stepped offline with his back foot and counterattacked under my arm, my point went sailing inches past his chest. 5-3, I lose. Then I noticed the logos on his kit- he was just back from the Barcelona Olympics, where he was on the British team. Suddenly losing was far less important than the fact that I’d got three hits! And having seen my predilection for the doublé, he had set me up for the second one. Lovely.

Sad to say though, that bout was the highlight of my University fencing, because at the time a completely erroneous interpretation of the FIE rules was being applied by pretty much all tournament referees. The rule states (in foil) that the attack is determined as the extension of the sword arm with the point threatening the target. But it was interpreted as “whoever moves forward first is attacking”. This lead to people running forwards with their point back over their left shoulder, and walking onto my extended arm, while flicking their point around to touch my shoulder. According to the rules, my attack on their preparation. In a duel, their pierced liver versus my small bruise on the shoulder. According to the referees, a hit against me. Given that my interest was in real swordfighting, I was not prepared to fence like that, so I stopped going to competitions. But around this time I fell in with some other fencers who wanted to do things for real, and started meeting up with them to fight the way we wanted to- in a way that felt real.

One of the books in my grandfather’s house was a first edition of Alfred Hutton’s The Sword and the Centuries. It opened my eyes to the possibility of researching historical fencing styles, and even provided some details about the sources I might work from. Amazing- there were books that could tell us how real swordfighters really fought with real swords for real! Then in the National Library of Scotland, I stumbled upon a little book that was to change everything: The Expert Sword-man’s Companion, by Donald Mcbane. What a book! I wangled it onto my English Lit course Identity in 17th century Literature with Dr. Jonquil Bevan, and even managed to get course credit for it- I wrote an essay on it called The Gallant Pander. Best of all, from my perspective, was that the smallsword material McBane presents did not contradict my early fencing training, but allowed me to apply what I knew in a historical way. It may come as a surprise, given that these days I am best known for my work on medieval Italian swordsmanship, but my first love was 18th century French smallsword as taught by a Scottish thug.

So, my friends and I started the Dawn Duellists Society, in 1994, to bring together like-minded people to fight with. I quickly found that in order for the fights to be anything like the books, I had to teach these people first. So I ended up teaching historical swordsmanship in order to create opponents. The whole point of researching these historical systems was to pick up new tricks for winning fencing matches with historical weapons. I had a complete separation in my mind between stuff done with swords, and martial arts. Martial arts were about killing people; sword-activities were about fencing. Martial arts were serious, fencing was not. Martial arts was about the Path, swordsmanship was about scoring touches. Given my interest in real swordfighting, this makes no sense now, but it was how my head worked back then.

The psychological wall I had built between swordsmanship and martial arts melted away during the summer of 2000. I won’t go into the full story here- suffice to say it involves witches and angels, sex and violence, lust, betrayal and a mountain-top revelation. Yes, really. And no, not while sober. Suffice to say I suddenly decided to move to Helsinki and open a school- a school devoted to historical, european, martial, swordsmanship. Above all, restoring the arts of our ancestors, and maintaining at all costs the martial depth of the practice. Because that, to me, is real swordfighting.

I am weak. So I study strength. In martial arts, strength has little to do with the usual measures of muscular performance, and everything to do with grounding, structure, power generation and joint maintenance.

Given my choice of profession my naturally weak skeleton is a blessing. My petite 12 year-old niece has wrists about the same size as mine; I’ve had neck issues since I was 14; and I will generally get injured at the slightest provocation. This means I have always been looking for ways to win fights that did not rely on robustness, and that I have always been working through health issues of my own. So I am able to help my students, most of whom have some kind of physical imperfection. Indeed, about half my time in private lessons is spent fixing postural issues, knee or wrist problems, or similar.

My wrists, for example, have suffered from tendonitis since the early nineties. It got so bad when I was working as a cabinet-maker that I literally had to choose between swinging a sword and working the next day. Then I met a kung-fu instructor who in 20 agonising minutes did what the combined medical profession of Edinburgh had failed to do in 5 years: fix my wrists. The treatment involved massage (the agonising bit), very specific exercises with very light weights, and breathing exercises. I had gone a year without touching a sword, five years without push-ups, then suddenly, my wrists worked again. I can now do push-ups on the backs of my hands. So it is no wonder that I place massage, targeted weight training and breathing exercises at the core of the conditioning syllabus. If your body doesn’t work, you can’t use it. Striking targets, and being one, require that your joints can handle the impact of hitting and being hit.

Simply building up the joints is not enough: we have to minimise the impact they are subjected to. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: when you hit the target, the target hits back. That energy has to go somewhere: if it is not carefully directed, it may very well go into shocking your joints. So it is necessary to establish a safe route for the kinetic energy coming back from the target: it either moves the weapon (not ideal, usually), or is routed down into the ground through the passive structure of your skeleton. This skill can be refined for decades, but I find that even beginners can generate major improvements if we simply create the position of the moment of impact (the lunge, for instance), and apply very gentle pressure in the reciprocal direction to the strike. The student can feel the place where it takes most effort to hold the position (the lead shoulder, for instance), and create a correction to the position that allows the same pressure to be absorbed with less effort. Then we can apply the pressure at the beginning of the movement and establish that the entire movement is properly grounded. (This is much easier with thrusts than cuts, obviously.) Ultimately, we are looking for a structure which does not need to change at all to route the energy: when we add the pressure, there is no need for any kind of muscular reaction, any increase in effort or tension.

This sort of practice leads to all sorts of gains in efficiency: the starting position, the movement, and the end position are all naturally grounded, and so all the muscular effort being made is directly applying force to the strike. Muscles that are not working to hold the position are available for generating power. So, a deeply relaxed guard, and a deeply relaxed movement, allow for massive increases in power generation. We can see hints of this in Fiore's famous elephant: the only one of the four animals depicted standing on a surface (which is square, suggesting stability), the tower on its back indicating that your back should be straight, and balanced.

As the text says:

Ellefante son e un castello porto per chargo/ E non mi inzinochio ne perdo vargo

I am the elephant, and a castle I carry as cargo/ And I do not kneel nor lose my stride

Power is generated by muscular contraction, the difference between the relaxed state of the muscle and the contracted state. It pays to work both ends of the differential. Increasing the raw strength of the muscle is an obvious way to go: creating more efficient positions and movement is less obvious but generates much faster gains because it doesn’t require opening up new nerve channels nor building muscle mass. The stability drill is a good example of this kind of training. Of course, most beginners come to their first class woefully weak and unfit- it is necessary that swordsmen, especially in the early years, develop a decent level of core strength and fitness. This prevents injury, allows sufficient endurance for long-enough training sessions to actually learn the cool stuff, and makes precise postural adjustments much easier. As a basic guideline, if the warm-up shown here feels like a warm-up, not a workout, then you should have the basic strength and fitness level at which the fastest gains come from the kind of grounding training we are looking at here. Note that, compared to the average competitive boxer or wrestler, we are pathetically unfit, but then the sword is a labour-saving device, not an odd-shaped dumbell.

In many students the weak link in the chain between sword-point and ground is their grip on the sword. I don’t think I have ever come across a student in any seminar, regardless of experience, whose grip could not be improved. In most cases, the interface between sword and hand does not allow a clean flow of energy from the blade up the arm. The modern tendency to chunky grips exacerbates this; most antiques I have handled have very slim grips, which when you understand grounding, makes perfect sense. Indeed, after coming to a seminar on this topic, many students end up having their sword grip modified. The human hand is an incredibly complex and sensitive machine- but all too often folk hold onto their swords like they were carrying a suitcase.

I usually demonstrate the proper interface by hitting a tyre with a longsword with both my hands open, and by hitting the wall target with my rapier, again with my hand open. Simple beer-can-crushing grip strength has almost nothing to do with striking power with the sword. The role of the fingers is to direct the energy in the sword into the lifeline of the palm, and thence up the arm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grb3wgBk7Zs

With thanks to Ville Vartianien on camera, and Janne Högdahl holding the tyre.

Having established a safe and efficient route for the energy to travel down, we can use the same pathway for energy to travel out. With a rapier, for instance, once the lunge position is grounded, we can find the same pathway in the guard position too. Clearly though, while the lunge creates a straight diagonal line from the point of the sword to the ground, in guard that line goes horizontally along the arm, and curves in the upper back to go down through the hips and into the (usually) back leg. If you can feel this line clearly, lunging is simply a matter of taking that curve and snapping it straight. A more sophisticated version of this works for cuts too (with any weapon). It is much easier to maintain the groundpath than to break and reform it in motion, so establish it in guard, and let the strike be a resistance-free extension of it.

As you become more efficient so you hit much harder, so there is more energy coming back down into your body, so you need to improve your grounding, so you can hit harder, so there is more energy coming back, etc. Given that you can break your hand by punching a concrete wall, it is obvious that you can generate far more power than you can withstand the impact of. So gains in power generation come from increases in your ability to handle the power, more than increases in the power itself.

When you practice like this, it swiftly becomes obvious that general carry-a-TV-up-the-stairs real-word strength has little bearing on the outcome of a sword fight, and so it is necessary (because real-world, TV-carrying strength is useful, just not so much in the salle) to do a bunch of not-sword-training to develop it. Push-ups, kettlebells, and the like. This is not to help us hit harder, but more an insurance policy against errors in technique, and for general health and fitness. Likewise, joint strength training and massage should ideally be a matter of maintenance, not cure.

P.S. added Dec 5th 2012: there is a very interesting article the use of strength training in HEMA here, which points out that strength training has added benefits that I have not addressed above.

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