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Tag: sword drill

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.

This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. And frankly, while the course itself may be concluded, it is not even the end of the beginning. But the last class of the current beginners’ course is now over, and while it was not as well attended as I’d have liked (only 17 of the beginners could come, though some of the missing 7 have been seen since), those that did come did a pretty good job of remembering the course content so far, and then building on it.

The class began with the warm-up, of course (remind me to post about warm-ups- practically nobody gets what they are for). Then we ran through the basic footwork elements using Fiore’s terms (accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare; volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta). Only the turns needed revision. Then I threw in the stick exercise, and the four guards drill.

We then ran through the first seven plays of the first master of dagger, before segueing to the dagger disarm flowdrill. That allowed the students to see a lot of material in a short time, and pick the worst bits to practise. The key is to pick something you can recall, but can’t do well yet. We then went over the 3rd and 4th plays of the 1st master (again!), picking up some extra detail, and referring to THE BOOK. I also made the point that while in the previous exercise they had practised what they needed personally, I had then chosen what was best for the class as a whole. The distinction between what one individual needs and what the group needs can be pretty stark; a further encouragement (I hope) for students to stick around for free training, or book private lessons.

We switched to swords at 6.45, and walked through part 1 of the cutting drill. Posta longa was the clear group weak point, so I pointed it out and had them emphasise it in the next round of part one. We then walked through first drill, step by step, making the point that Fiore talks about remedy masters (step 2) counter-remedy masters (step 3) and counter-counter-remedy masters (step 4). We the  repeated the cutting drill, as a mnemonic aid to first drill, giving them leave to act out the steps of the drill when the reached the appropriate point in the cutting drill.

I then taught them steps 1 and 2 of second drill, then added the third, then the fourth, pointing out the mechanical similarity with the 3rd and 4th plays of the first master of the dagger. In other words, after only two months, this group could as a whole pick up a new four-step longsword drill, without too much difficulty, and well enough that those that came along for the syllabus day seminar last Saturday could remember the drills having been shown them once.

I will leave a detailed summary of the content and structure of this course for a later post, but for now just notice that the whole thing, within each class and from week to week, has been intervalling up from super-basic solo actions to quite complex pair drills.

I look forward to seeing how many of this crop of beginners are still training a year from now: 50% is very healthy, less than 25% and I’ll have to reconsider my approach…

Perhaps the single most useful insight I got from the BAF course alluded to earlier is the idea that in an individual lesson, the coach should create an environment in which the desired behaviour results in the student striking, and undesired behaviour results in the student being struck. This may seem obvious, and it’s one of those things I’ve sort of known for years, but it came into focus for me when one of the coaches on the course got cross with me for praising a student verbally when what he had done was not actually correct. That insight alone was worth the trip.

One of the refrains on Saturday’s class instruction seminar was that you don’t have to be technically superior to your students to run a good class. The refrain on Sunday was that coaching requires the highest levels of technical skill, because you have to be in sufficient control of the situation that you allow yourself to be hit when the student has done what you want, but whenever his action is undesired, it must fail and you must strike. This way the student learns very, very fast, as the environment he is in makes learning and improving absolutely natural.

We started out with a general warm-up, with the 10 minutes split between the three least experienced students- mostly so I could watch them in front of a whole class. Then I split them into pairs and had them run the following exercise: the “student” did one iteration of the cutting drill; the “coach” watched it and made one verbal correction. The student then repeated the drill, applying the correction. When everyone had taken both roles, I asked them if they found the corrections useful, and 12 out of 12 said they did. Which had us bowling nicely along the right track.

The next round was a little more advanced. Basically the same set-up, but this time the coach had to prescribe a specific exercise to be done, either solo or with the coach, to improve the cutting drill, with a second iteration of the cutting drill to see whether the coach’s prescription worked. Again, 12 out of 12.

That introduced the idea of targeting the content of a lesson to a specific need; the students then had to take one of our basic drills and improve their student’s execution of one step of it (e.g. Step 3 of second drill). They had to set it up so if the action was improving, the student succeeded, if not, then they failed. The trick being to adjust the difficulty level such that the student usually succeeded, but only by working at their upper limit.

We then looked at step one of a drill; in its basic form a simple attack from wide measure. The trick was to get it better and better, and faster and faster, by having the student beat the coach’s parry. The parry should be done such that it creates a closing window, that the attack should just sneak through (I borrowed this wholesale from Prof Bruce’s foil coaching- make the student quicker by giving them less time, in a natural setting).

This brought us on to the topic of how to use this kind of skill when just taking part in a normal class. The class had formed themselves into pairs of notable distinct skill level within each pair, and having noticed this I took advantage of it. I set the more experienced person the target of raising their partner’s skill level without actually giving them a formal lesson- just subtly modify what you do so that they naturally improve. (This is high level stuff, and not a basic requirement of the course, just a useful sidetrack.)

We then turned this on its head and looked at abuse of power: in the same pairs, the more experienced student had to use their skill advantage to make the drill a frustrating misery for their partner. Why, you may very well ask? Because more advanced students can fall into this behaviour without malice and by accident. By doing it deliberately, they bring it into consciousness and hence under control. This (very short) section of the class finished by the more advanced students giving their partners a solid technical lesson by way of apology.

We then mixed up the pairs so that the skill levels were about even, and I had each student in turn ask their coach for help with a specific difficulty (“I find the exchange of thrust hard from posta di donna”, for instance).

We then looked at the structure and planning of a 6-7 minute technical lesson. It goes like this:

1) identify or illustrate the problem (get the student to show you it, not describe it)

2) identify the cause of the problem (usually not what the student thinks it is!)

3) prescribe a specific drill or exercise

4) assess the results. If good, go to step 5, if not good go back to step 2.

5) increase the pressure under which the student performs the corrected action.

This lead us on to a discussion of the process of diagnosis, and I sent them all off to practice it. Before breaking for lunch, I asked them to think up questions to be answered in the afternoon session.

After lunch, the questions that made it into my notebook were:

1) How do you apply these skills in a basic class?

2) how do you do a finger-safe version of the punta falsa? (this from a student with a bleeding thumb)

3) how do you use your voice when coaching?

4) how do you use pair drills to improve guard positions?

5) what do you do with a resistant or frustrated student?

6) how can you react in time to a student’s error to give the necessary physical feedback?

7) how do you run a beginner’s course?

8) how do you help a student who is much stronger than you are?

This allowed me to couch the afternoon’s material in the terms most useful to the students present. We started with a finger-safe version of the punta falsa, as a base technical drill in which to practice other coaching skills too. The punta falsa is of course perfectly finger-safe as it is; but done incorrectly, it can lead to putting your left hand in the way of the player’s riposte. So I showed them how to teach that particular correction (emphasise parrying between your hands and then striking with the point, smoothing out the two steps until they are one again), and covered how to use your voice when coaching: use single words, to draw the student’s attention to specific details. E.g. “Parry.” Or “foot”. Avoid where possible “good”, “bad” type judgement statements, reserve that for praise at the end of the lesson. (Praise is useful, necessary even, but must always be sincere. Even if the student totally screwed up the lesson, find something to praise. And always, focus on their efforts not their accomplishments.)

Then we looked at helping a strong student to be precise, instead of relying on his natural advantage. This is technically challenging, as what you have to do is make their strength insufficient; not too hard sword against sword, but much more so when grappling. In essence, you need to give the student a reason to use correct technique, because insufficient accuracy leads to being hit.

(At this point in the class my phone rang (I had forgotten to turn it to silent), because my younger daughter had gone missing in a supermarket, and my wife, having called the police, called me. The fact that, statistically, it was vanishingly unlikely that anything really bad had happened did not actually help the rising panic, but I got that under control in a breath, halted the class, explained the situation in under 10 seconds, handed the class off to the senior student present, enlisted a driver (my wife had the car), and was out the door in under a minute. While we were backing out of the parking lot my phone went again to say the little monkey had been found, and so I went back to work after getting my heart rate back below 100 and doing a much-needed 20 push-ups, which are due if your phone rings in class.)

I then moved the class on to look at the problem of fixing guard positions in a pair drill. It’s pretty easy to work on them when you (the coach) are standing by with a helpful finger or useful suggestion, but sword in hand it can be a bit more challenging. We started with correcting a position at the beginning of a pair drill. Simply do not allow the drill to start until the position is better. Within a phrase, you have to find the reason why the position must improve- usually because if it stays as it is it cannot withstand the forces acting on it. So increase those forces such that the position fails until the student corrects it (making sure of course that they know why they are getting hit). To help with this we looked at setting up drills where the student’s line of strength in their position determined their success. Fairly basic for anyone with a grounding in grounding. So I set the more advanced students the challenge of setting up a drill such that the student had to get their lines of weakness right before their actions could work. This took more doing- apparently they had forgotten yielding actions (such as the colpo di villano).

Reaction times are a tougher nut to crack. Basically, if you can’t see the student’s error in time, you can’t give the lesson. So, either slow the lesson down, to give you more time, or learn to read the error earlier in the student’s action.

We then looked at giving a tactical lesson- improving the student’s choice of action, rather than the action itself. Adding a degree of freedom is of course the usual tool; in circumstance a, do this, in b, do that. The coach then sets up the circumstances such that they control when a or b occur.

This brought us on to Beginners, bless them. The rule of beginners is this:

Show it to them correctly a thousand times, and they will eventually get it. Show it to them wrong once, and they’ll copy it correctly first time.

Every action must be taught from the familiar: walking across the salle becomes passing steps; swinging the sword from shoulder to shoulder becomes striking; etc. We didn’t spend much time on this as it was a little off-topic. For further insights into running a beginners’ course, see my blog post series.

Then we studied how to use these coaching skills in a basic class (where you are not the teacher). In any pair arrangement either:

1) your skill > your partner’s; subtly tweak what you do to bring out their best.

2) your skill < your partner’s; ask for a (non verbal!) lesson on the drill in question. Or simply study how they do it.

3) your skill = your partner’s; play with the drill.

In all cases being careful not to disrupt the lesson.

We then came back to the beginning: the students paired up and watched each other do the cutting drill, making whatever correction seemed most necessary to them. This highlighted the spiral nature of training; you are always coming back to the beginning, just (if your training worked) at a higher level. Advanced technique is just basic technique done really well.

Then to finish off, they paired up again and gave each other 5 minute technical lessons.

All in all, an excellent day.

I'm currently working on a book about how to teach historical martial arts, but in the meantime, you can find more here:

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach left-handers

Teaching Teachers, part one: Class Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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