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Tag: mindful practice


I have been stuck in bed with some ghastly ailment for the last week or so, and am still not recovered yet (don't tell my wife I'm working!), so I'll be brief.

The question on many fencers' minds is how to win more matches. The solution is pretty simple: be a better fencer. Good fencers win more matches.
Problems arise when we get this the wrong way round; you don't become a good fencer by winning matches. You win matches when you're a better fencer.

Today's post is inspired by a teaching opportunity that raised its head after rapier class a couple of weeks ago. Three senior students were fencing each other, and getting frustrated by lack of progress. In short, they were trying to win each point, and as a result being too cautious, snipy and generally not very swordsmanlike. So I stepped in to help, with a couple of simple rule hacks.

Firstly, we created a rule that if your opponent disengages, you must attack. This directly led to some obviously foolish attacking, yes, but also bumped them out of their excessive caution.

Then they fenced between two lines on the ground, far enough apart that with their back foot on the line, they were one step out of measure. The winning conditions were now strike, or get your opponent to step over the line. This reduced the tendency to run away! At this stage I had each fencer identify one thing they should be working on. One needed to be bolder, one wanted to work on their attack by disengage, and the third was working on keeping their parries neat under pressure (if I recall correctly).

Then I had them fence normally, but explicitly working on the one specific aspect they were trying to improve. Unsurprisingly, they were fencing much, much better. This is because they were not trying to win points, they were trying to fence better, let the points fall where they may.

So your goal in every match should not be to win it; it should be to improve one specific aspect of your fencing. This might be boldness, speed, maintaining technique under pressure, getting one specific action to work, whatever. If you pursue this consistently, you will inevitably improve, and, as a result, win more matches.

Yes, you caught me. This is just another way of prioritising process over outcome. But it can be very hard to let go of the point-scoring mentality, which is why little rule hacks can really help. Play with them, and let me know how you get on!

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

Can you think of a better title?

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

Living with perfectionism

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

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

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


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

Stainless damascus loveliness.
Stainless damascus loveliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory is the key component of mastery. Being able to effortlessly recall and recombine elements held in long term memory is the essence of creativity and expertise. This is why I have deliberately crafted my School’s syllabus to be a memory palace. It is obvious when reading Fiore that his system has been organised for memorisation, which is especially apparent in his use of numbers: the 4 guards of abrazare; the “8 things you should know” for abrazare; the four blows of the dagger, and the “five things you should know” to do against the dagger… five plus four is nine, so is it any wonder that there are nine remedy masters of the dagger?

The basic level classes in Helsinki have been focussing on these aspects of the system for the last couple of weeks. Just as Fiore loves us and wants us to be happy, and so provides an answer to every sword-related problem, so too do I love my students, and want them to be happy, so have created all sorts of devices to help them remember the things they wish to learn. Among these efforts are a set of memory verses, published in 2010 as The Armizare Vade Mecum.
By way of a wishing you all a merry Christmas, here is the verse on the nine masters of the dagger. The full text is below the video.
See you next year!

Here we are, Nine masters we,
Teach you all to remedy,
Safe defence for any threat,
We have ne’er been beaten yet!

When the blows come from above,
From right or left, or with a shove,
Left hand, crossed hands, right hand then
Both hands high we win again!
When he comes to collar grab,
Fifth will cover any stab!
Dagger high, it’s sixth you see,
Disarm, stab him, done with glee!
Seventh has the dagger crossed
In armour he has never lost,
Dagger low, eighth of course,
Also done hands joined for force.
Then both hands down for number nine:
See that player wince and whine!

But watchful for the counters thus:
See he comes to elbow push,
Or trap your wrist, or feint you see,
Or see it not! Then one two three!
When he wants to give you strife,
Go fast against his dang’rous knife!
Hands arms and elbows, all must play
And surely you will win the day.

O scholar you must heed our call
Arms crossed armour; never fall;
Make your cover, make your strike,
Then to break him as you like.
The five things all go together:
Like sword and dagger, steel and leather:
Disarm locks breaks throw him down,
Strike to win the master’s crown!

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 don’t believe in innate talent. I’ve never seen it in a student, and I have noticed no correlation between early successes in training and long-term achievement. But you can draw a linear relationship between hours spent in class and acknowledged skill. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is my sort-of-ex-student (in that he has gone on to set up his own independent school) Ilkka Hartikainen. Round about the time he was developing an international reputation for his Bolognese research, we co-incidentally did a review of attendance data. Turns out that my star student had 50% more class time logged than the next-keenest student. A clear indication that his effort, not some genetic predisposition to historical swordsmanship, was the underlying cause of his success, as I'm sure he'd agree. This is as it should be. I see no point in engaging in any sort of activity where genetic factors are the prime determinant of success. And everybody now knows (or should do!) about the 10,000 hour rule, which indicates that ten thousand hours of dedicated practice (not just going through the motions), is needed for mastery in any complex field. A major component of my job is to ensure that the time students spend in class is actually dedicated practice, not just swinging a sword about.

This always begs the question though, of what is complexity? In what areas does this rule apply, and where does it not? In one lecture I gave on this subject, someone who clearly felt threatened by the idea that it’s effort, not talent, that generates expertise, asked me if it took 10,000 hours to master blinking. The best definition I have so far come across for complexity in this context is in Matthew Syed’s Bounce, the subtitle of which is bang on the money: the myth of talent and the power of practice. He says (on p48 of the 2011 Fourth Estate paperback edition):

“…complexity… describes those tasks characterised by combinatorial explosion; tasks where success is determined, first and foremost, by superiority in software (pattern recognition and sophisticated motor programs) rather than hardware (simple speed or strength).

The usual example of a pursuit characterised by combinatorial explosion is chess. 32 men on 64 squares leads to more possible game permutations than there are atoms in the universe. But from our perspective, chess is simple! It doesn’t matter how you place your knight on the board, just where. Slam it down or place it silently, makes no difference. Likewise, there is only one desired result: checkmate. There are no nuances or degrees. You can win, lose, or draw. We can learn much from the paths to mastery that top chess players have used (e.g. Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning), but in terms of breadth, chess is sadly lacking. In addition to the complexities of tactics that chess players use, we can add depth and breadth of research, skills of motor execution (not smashing up cars, performing the physical movements of the art), levels of control allowing a choice of outcomes (kill, wound, capture, evade etc.) and so on. Even if someone suffers from severe physical disability, there is nothing stopping them from mastering an area of this art to a degree that puts them at the top of their part of this giant field.

There are many insights in Syed’s book that will no doubt make their way into this blog at some point (he has a lovely section on double-think, for instance, and another on the necessity of consistent execution of basic actions, for another instance), but I’ll leave you with this thought: The only thing that stands between you and mastery of the art of arms is the amount of dedicated practice you are willing to put into it.

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.

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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Sad news, but be happy

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so