Guy's Blog

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Tag: teaching

I was recently contacted by a reader asking about teaching left handed students. It’s a common and relatively complex problem, so rather than confine my answer to an email I thought I’d post it here.

The Question

How do you teach left-handers?

Why it’s a problem

Left handers are relatively rare (about 10% of the population, including my dad and my sister), and most of the historical martial arts treatises we work with don’t say much about them. Capoferro has one plate of rapier and dagger showing how to murder a leftie:

Fiore mentions that the guard of coda longa on horseback works against right or left handers (click on the image to expand it, and you can read the text and the translation by Tom Leoni):

Perhaps the biggest section of any treatise dealing explicitly with lefties is in Jeu de la Hache, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall material.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many of the techniques we recreate from the sources simply don’t work the same way as shown in the books when done cross handed. In addition, right handers don’t see many left-handers, so in combat sports generally, left handers tend to be far more common at the top levels than they are in the general population. This is entirely due to familiarity. Everybody knows how to handle righties- we see them all the time. (For an interesting book that also addresses this in some detail, see The Professor in the Cage, which is well worth reading if you have any interest in martial arts…)

The question is about teaching lefties, not fighting them, so I’ll address that. (If you want my best advice for fighting left handers it’s this: fight them a lot. You’ll get better at it.)

What difference does handedness make?

In blade on blade actions, not much. Principally, inside and outside are not symmetrical [For those unfamiliar: if the sword is in your right hand, everything to the left of the blade as you see it is ‘inside’, and everything to the right is ‘outside’.] If we are both same-handed and our blades are crossed, we will both be either on the inside or on the outside of each other’s blades. But when one of us is differently handed, if you are on my inside, I’m on your outside, and vice-versa. This means that some targets are different, and the angles of attack may be different. But usually, the rules regarding how to attack remain the same. For example, I would only push your elbow if I’m on the outside of your arm. That doesn’t change; what changes is how I would get to your outside, and which of my hands may be able to reach your elbow.

In wrestling at the sword, it makes a great deal more difference.

Tricky to pull off cross-handed. Trans. by Tom Leoni.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This wrap, for instance, only works well using the opposite arm (eg left against right) and from the inside of the wrapped person’s arm. Because this is over both arms, it can be used cross-handed, but you won't get the same control of the sword arm.

Likewise this counter rarely occurs cross-handed at the longsword, because the preceding wrap would have to be done by the sword arm, which is unusual (though you can see it in I.33, f.18.v).

Ligadura sottana, 15th play of the zogho stretto. Trans by Tom Leoni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I include specific examples of techniques adapted from symmetrical drills to cross-handed versions in chapter seven of The Medieval Longsword. In case you don't have it to hand, I've extracted it for you here:

Medieval Longsword sample Cross-handed

So that's the problem. What's the solution? There are several approaches you can take:

Approaches to the problem:

1) make everyone train right handed. I think this is a bad idea if your goal is to produce great practitioners, but if your goal is to perfectly reproduce the plays of a specific treatise, in which everyone is right-handed, then it makes sense. When Christian Tobler began researching German medieval sources, he switched from his natural left handedness to do everything right handed because it was much easier than converting everything.

2) make everyone train both sides. I think this is advisable up to a point- I would expect all my senior students to be able to do all our basic drills and actions with either hand, and any professional instructor to be able to demonstrate anything within their art with either hand. But it’s probably not the best way to train beginners.

3) create specific ‘cross-handed’ variations of every major drill or exercise you use. I think this is essential. The basic drills usually assume two right-handers. Two left-handers can do exactly the same drill, it’s just mirrored. The problems only start when there are a right hander and a left hander training together. I include set forms for the cross handed version of every basic drill in my syllabi.

Advice to instructors:

  • If your syllabus is lacking cross-handed drills, create them. You can do this by setting up the drill and seeing where you (as a lefty) get stuck. Then following the basic principles of the art, solve the problem. When the problem is solved, incorporate that solution into the ‘cross-handed version’.
  • When you have a lefty in class, it’s your job to make sure that they learn the standard form of the drill (i.e. with a fellow left hander, which may have to be you), as well as the cross handed forms. Also, you should take advantage of their presence to accustom your other students to dealing with cross-handed situations.
  • As the instructor, you can always require the senior students to reverse their handedness (so lefties become righties, and vice versa), which gives  everyone else the chance to face the less-common situation.
  • Start with the simplest drills- make sure that you can do all the solo drills in your syllabus with your left hand, and can see what they should look like in your students when they are left handed.
  • Set up a basic pair drill, and see what happens. At any given point, the left-hander should be behaving normally for them. Never ask them to attack differently or switch hands for the convenience of the right hander (unless they are very experienced and the righty is a beginner).

I hope that's helpful! Feel free to make any suggestions or ask questions in the comments below.

For more on how to teach, you may find these posts useful:

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach a basic class

Screen Capture from the Dagger Course: the four blows

Last week I talked about the importance of swordsmen learning dagger techniques, and I promised I'd explain how to integrate training the dagger material with the longsword material. This needs to be done at the level of syllabus design, as well as within specific training sessions or classes. Let's start with the syllabus.

NOTE: In this post I'll be referring to lots and lots of specific drills from my syllabus. It would get ridiculously long if I wrote them all out, or even embedded the relevant video at every step. But you can find all of this material online on video on the Armizare syllabus page.

My Armizare syllabus is divided into seven levels, the first four of which are considered ‘basic'. If we take a look at the first couple of levels you'll see that the dagger content is spread out, as is the sword. Level one, for instance, covers the following:

Mechanics and Conditioning:

  • Weight distribution on the feet
  • Tailbone Alignment
  • The basic guard position
  • The guard positions
  • Standing Step drill (aka push-hands)
  • Basic falling, solo
  • Stick avoidance drill
  • Understanding of safe training, control, and School etiquette

Unarmed:

  • Fiore footwork: 4 steps: accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare; 3 turns: volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta
  • Four unarmed poste: longa, dente de zenghiaro, frontale, porta di ferro

Dagger:

  • The meaning of the terms remedy, counter-remedy and counter-counter-remedy
  • 4 lines of attack: mandritto, fendente, roverso, sotto.
  • First remedy master (against mandritto or fendente)First 7 plays of the First Master
  • Roverso disarm (third master, from Pisani-Dossi MS), from Third remedy master (against roverso or fendente)
  • Fendente disarm (fourth master)
  • Sottano disarm (ninth master)

Longsword

  • Five of The 12 guards: Tutta porta di ferro, posta di donna (both sides), posta longa, posta frontale, dente di zenghiaro
  • Two of the Seven Blows: Fendente, Sottano
  • Sword handling drill up, down, around, around.
  • Cutting drill, part one only.
  • The salute
  • First drill
  • Second drill

As you can probably see, there is a minimum of learning large chunks of data (such as all seven blows of the sword), and an emphasis on teaching just enough new elements that the student can start working on applications. So they learn one blow of the dagger, and one defence against it, then the same defence against another blow, then another and another, before they learn all four blows of the dagger as a set to memorise. They also have sword handling drills, and two full-length sword drills. The difficulties they face learning the sword drills will make the dagger material in the next level very welcome; it will solve a problem for them.

In Level Two, they will find:

Mechanics and Conditioning

  • Forearm conditioning: Wrist and Forearm Exercises
  • Forearm massage: Self Massage
  • Basic Breathing exercises
  • Guard position analysis with pressure
  • Volta stabile and pass with pressure
  • The footwork combinations: 1) accressere fora di strada, passare alla traversa, 2) accressere, 3 passi, with tutta volta.
  • Able to competently warm up self

Dagger

  • The Nine Masters One thing from each of the Nine Remedy Masters
  • Dagger disarm flowdrill
  • The 5 things: disarm, strike, lock, break, takedown
  • Five things from four lines

Longsword

  • All of the Blows, including the Mezani, and the 5 Punte
  • All of The 12 guards
  • Sword handling drill 3: six grips
  • Exchange of thrust
  • Breaking the thrust
  • Four corners drill
  • First two plays of sword in one hand

Now that the base has been laid in level one, it's quite easy to build on it in level two. Incidentally, I'm sure that some Fiore scholars will be horrified to see the lack of abrazare so far; that is coming in the next level, at which point, as with the dagger material, it will actively solve a problem for the students, rather than be something they have to plod through to get to the shiny sword.

At this stage, the students have a complete set of basic techniques for the dagger; all nine remedy masters, and all five things that Fiore tells us we need to know (on f9v of the Getty Ms).

This pattern of interleaving dagger and sword (as well as abrazare, spear, and so on) continues throughout the syllabus, though the dagger material is essentially complete by level four. It would be remiss of me not to mention the section of the manuscript that explicitly ties the dagger and sword sections together: the defences of the dagger against a sword attack, and the defences of the sword in the scabbard against a dagger attack. We do cover these in the syllabus, but much later than you would otherwise expect, because the defence of the dagger against the sword requires a) both partners to be able to attack safely with the sword and b) both partners to be able to do a pretty tricky technique. They will usually get there in level four when learning the Syllabus Form, which begins with the defence of the sword against the dagger.

Integrating dagger into the class:

In a well-taught class there is a coherent reason for including every item that is taught. It could simply be ‘you're working on this level, and you need to know this new thing'. That is, if you like, the most basic level of teaching: filling gaps in the students knowledge. For this, you must have a syllabus, and the students must be able to track their progress along the path laid out in the syllabus.

At the next level, there is teaching a single idea across different contexts. For example, in our second drill with the longsword, we have a ligadura mezana at step three (the counter-remedy). This first occurs at time 0.13 in this video.

https://youtu.be/SUw7JSKgFAI

The counter-counter-remedy first occurs at 0.20, and is the 15th play of the zogho stretto (as referred to in last week's post). Most students find this particularly difficult against an enthusiastically applied ligadura. If I'll be teaching second drill, I'll adjust the whole structure of the class to lead up to it. Let me take you through what that would look like, and run you through the usual structure for a 90 minute evening class in my salles at the same time:

Salute

Warm-up (10 min or so). This will emphasise shoulder mobility, to prepare for the locks.

Four guards drill, other footwork drills: 5-10 minutes. Possibly include the standing step drill, and work the ligadura and its counter into that.

Dagger (10-30 minutes): starting with first play first master (disarm), then on to the third and fourth plays (ligadura mezana and its counter). This will be taught from scratch, or revised, depending on the level of the class, and may go on to tactical applications, or executing the plays in more complex environments (such as the dagger disarm flowdrill) if the students are ready for it.

Longsword (rest of the time; usually 30-40 minutes):

Sword handling first: sword handling drills, and/or cutting drill, and/or farfalla di ferro. This may be 5 minutes if sword handling is not usually a critical point of failure in the target (in this example, second drill), or 15 or 20 minutes if it is (e.g. when teaching the punta falsa).

Then second drill, step by step, for the remainder of the class. Assuming that the class is ready for the whole drill, then steps one and two should be pretty solid already, so most of the time will go on working on steps three (ligadura) and four (its counter).

So in this example, we are using the dagger plays as a lead-in to teaching the same basic actions with the sword.

At the next level of teaching, once these basic technical issues are fundamentally resolved, then we can start using the dagger material for training tactical principles, and attributes such as speed, timing, and grounding. For instance, working on counter-remedies. One major difference between knightly combat and modern self defence is that knightly combat is not usually concerned with self defence. It's a military art, for soldiers whose main job is to kill people for social or political reasons. So we have multiple examples of the dagger attacker *overcoming the defender*. By modern standards, this is murder, plain and simple, especially as that defender is often unarmed! (This is one of the examples I use to hammer home to beginners the idea that this is nothing like modern, politically correct, or self-defence-oriented martial arts.) Teaching a student to attack, flow around the defender's response, and strike (many times) is easier with a dagger than a sword. The basic tactical structure of any fencing sequence can be reproduced with the dagger, so you can teach the structure with the easier-to-control weapon, and then move on to applying the same principles with the longsword.

I should point out at this stage that it is *perfectly correct* to simply start at the beginning of the manuscript and work your way through from abrazare, to dagger, to sword, to armour, to polearms, and on to mounted combat. It works just fine. But Fiore certainly did not write his book as a training manual for 21st century computer programmers, nurses, lorry drivers or university students. He wrote it as a complete representation of his art, for a 15th century nobleman who was also an experienced warrior. It should come as no surprise that the ideal pedagogical structure for the average student that comes to my classes is a bit different to the ordering that Fiore gives us.

Let me finish off by saying that the way I solve this problem is not the only way; it's just what seems to work best in my experience. And it's worth mentioning that the exact approach I take in any class is actually student-led; I almost invariably ask the students present in my classes what they are interested in learning, and teach them that. For instance, I'll be in Auckland, New Zealand, teaching a seminar in November 4th and 5th (you can find out the details  here: if you're in the neighbourhood do come; I'd love to see you there). The organisers have specifically requested that I spend a day on the dagger, and then a day on the sword; that's fine by me!

Some useful resources:

The Syllabus wiki: http://www.swordschool.com/wiki/index.php/Fiore_basic_syllabus

You could check out The Medieval Dagger book. You can even get it in German!

And yes, I even have a course on it. But before you dash off to buy it, remember that I’ll be launching it with a hefty discount to my email list in a week or so, so it might be a good idea to sign up below in anticipation of that happy event.

 

Grace and Katriina cooking

Teaching is, and often should be, a stealth activity. Let me take a charming example: my kids learning to cook.
Cooking is one of the most important skills a human being should have. If you can cook, you can exert some control over your diet. Your diet represents probably 60% of your long-term physical health (with exercise being the other 40%). If you can’t cook, you are at the mercy of family, friends, restaurants and corporations for what you can eat. The first two in that list probably have your best interests at heart. The other two? Not so much. So it’s essential parenting to make sure your kids can cook.
The key ingredients in cookery are:
1) Recipes. You can use other people’s or invent your own, but you do need some kind of blueprint.
2) Ingredients. You must be able to find and select the ingredients that are right for your recipe.
3) Cooking techniques: chopping, boiling, frying, baking etc.
To this end, we let our kids watch shows like Great British Bake Off, YouTube channels like Tania Burr, Nerdy Nummies and so on, because children copy what they see, and while this does tend to encourage some odd habits and turns of phrase (some baking is always done in an American accent in our house), it also leads to exchanges like this:
“Daddy, I want to make a [insert name of vile sugary thing here]”
“Ok, make a shopping list”.
The child then gets a piece of paper, and writes out the ingredients (see how we sneak in some writing practice there?), and we go to the shops. In the shop, we find the ingredients. The kids have to read the labels, and make sure they have enough of everything (for which they need arithmetic). We then buy it, go home, and get to work. Of course, boring old daddy doesn’t like watching the video in the kitchen; oh no, the instructions need writing out to! (“I don’t want flour on my mobile phone…”)
And then we follow the instructions, make the triple-caramel-quad-choc-sprinkle-covered diabetic extravaganza, and eat it, to all-round delight.
The point is, by letting them follow their own interests, we create a momentum in the direction of ‘command of diet’. Now all we have to do is to gently steer that momentum in a healthier direction: “we can only eat that after dinner. So what shall we have for dinner?”; “kids who come shopping get to choose what we eat”; that sort of thing.
All of this is why my elder daughter can bake pizza from scratch, makes a mean chicken pie, and has very strong opinions about “store-bought” pastry. My younger daughter is less interested, and so less skilled, but it’s still perfectly normal for her to choose something she wants to make, and set about establishing the recipe, choosing the ingredients, and making it, commandeering whatever help she needs in the process.

Grace baked this Pavlova ‘just because'. We helped put it in and out of the oven, but otherwise were not needed…

The major downside is we eat far more crap than we otherwise would- it plays hell with my low-fast-carb diet. But it’s worth it in the long run because whatever diet my kids choose to follow as adults, they will be able to make from scratch, and control exactly what goes into it. I hope they’ll choose wisely, but whether they do or not, at least they will have the choice.
I take the same attitude towards teaching swordsmanship. It’s not for me to sneer at a student who secretly wants to be an elf, or even an ewok. Whatever brings them to the sword is inherently good. It’s then up to me to gently steer that momentum in a more rewarding direction. This is why I’m not upset in the least by the tournament scene, and why I begin all my classes by asking the students what they want. Sure, sometimes they ask for things that are bad for them, so I redirect things a little but make it clear that it’s the closest I can get them to the goal they set. It would be fundamentally counter-productive to shut them down or bring their enthusiasm to a sudden stop.
This reminds me of steering a boat (as I did on my trip to Guernsey in September). When the boat was stationary (also known as ‘dead in the water’), I couldn’t steer it at all; but when it was under way it took only the gentlest touch to guide it right or left. Sometimes, a wave would hit and bash the ship off-course. Then I let it go, and when the crisis passed a moment later, another gentle touch brought it back to the mark.

One of the most common questions I get asked is this: “there are no HEMA clubs near me. What should I do?”, and my answer is always the same: “start one”. So the next question is “how do I do that?”

The most difficult part of starting a HEMA club is deciding to do so. Once the decision has been made, the rest is not so hard.

I’ve been involved in starting many groups, from the Dawn Duellists’ Society in 1994, to the British Federation for Historical Swordplay in 1999,  The School of European Swordsmanship in 2001, and literally dozens of satellite clubs since then, so I have some ideas on the subject, as you might imagine.

Let’s begin with some general principles (this is extracted from an article published in Teaching and Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship in 2005):

“Starting a group is not as hard as it may seem, it just requires determination, and some basic social skills. The obstacles vary so widely in different countries and cultures that it is very hard to advise on the specifics, but I use a set of basic principles to run my school, which are applicable to any group (summarised in these terms by Mike Stillwell).

  • Group purpose: every group must have a purpose, clearly stated. “The study and practice of historical swordsmanship” covers most, but you may wish to narrow the focus.
  • Group needs: every group has specific needs, which must be met for the group to flourish. Typically they include financial health, sufficient membership, and the specific means to achieve the purpose, such as weapons, treatises and a place to practice.
  • Individual needs: every group is comprised of individuals, who will leave if their needs are not met. Such needs include sharing in the common purpose; assistance for beginners, and the various social needs that we all share. Most practitioners prefer a group where they feel welcome and needed, to one where they are looked on with suspicion until they have “proved” themselves. Even the most inexperienced beginner should be recognised as a vital part of the group: without such beginners, the Art, and the group, have no future.

A group will succeed if all the above needs are met, and kept in balance. Once the needs of any one individual (including the illustrious founder) take precedence, the group is doomed. Likewise, any group decision, whether made by the individual in charge, by a committee, or by the whole group, should be arrived at based on how well it serves the three needs. Individuals whose needs are met by the group will stay, and enable the group needs to be met, which enables the group purpose to be met. Of course, many individuals will fall by the wayside when they discover that their needs are not met by a group with that purpose; this is normal, so expect attrition. Also there are some individuals who feel a need to take over any group they join; this is not a problem provided that the group purpose and needs are served by their ascendancy. Just beware of political infighting, and establish the aims of the group clearly enough to prevent slippage. “

Now we have established the principles, let’s get into the specifics. You want to start a HEMA club: what’s the first step?

1) Find a friend who'll have a go at swords. One friend is good; two is better. What, you’ve got three interested friends? Then this will be easy…

2) Be honest with yourself and your co-founders about your interests, and agree on exactly what, at this stage, the club is going to do. Establish in clear and exact terms the group purpose. For example “we are going to train for HEMA tournaments in Longsword and take part in as many as we can”. Or “we are going to recreate Meyer’s swordsmanship from his book”. Or “we are Jedi and will train accordingly”. Look for the sources and help you might need. For groups wanting to “recreate Fiore’s art of arms”, you could use my books, syllabus and so on; but if you want to study Liechtenauer, then those won’t be much help. Many of my branches started out as “we will train from this book by this Windsor fellow” and grew from there. Choose, a book, a syllabus, a historical source, even a youtube channel, whatever suits your purpose, and say “we'll do this and only this”. It is much better to add things later, once the group is established, than to start out trying to please everyone. To begin with, focus on one thing, and make it absolutely clear what that thing is.

The key question at this stage is ‘does being part of this club actually meet my individual needs?’ If you wanted a club so you could learn to teach 18th century smallsword, and nobody in this club wants to do smallsword (they’re all obsessed with polearms), then start a different club and be clearer about your goals. It is perfectly okay, normal even, for the founders to start the club to scratch their own itch. Start the club you’d want to join.

3) Meet regularly. Once a week minimum, at the same time and in the same place. Depending on the weather and local laws, you could meet in a park, or (as the DDS did for years) train in a courtyard outside a pub in the centre of Edinburgh. You don’t need money for this; there is lots of free spaces most places, if you just look. When you start out, you will be ignorant and unskilled. That is okay!! Everybody starts at zero. But you have SO much more help available than I did in 1992, and I turned out alright. So you will probably do even better.

Fencing with Scott Wilson in Holyrood Park, February 2001.

4) Advertise in any free medium (twitter, facebook, etc). for like-minded people in your neighbourhood. If you’re training in a public space, then be ready for curious people of all ages and types to come up and talk to you. Be very clear about what you are trying to do, so Viking re-enactors won’t come along and be disappointed by your sword and buckler club, or vice-versa. Being specific means that people can see in advance whether the club is likely to meet their individual needs.

5) When you have 6-10 people coming regularly, it’s time to establish a formal club. Start collecting fees. Price it at the cost of a night out per month, minimum. Eg. in the UK, perhaps 25 quid. In Finland, maybe 30 euros. This is essential. One of the biggest mistakes beginner clubs make is to not gather fees, and they do this mostly because they don’t feel they are providing a service that is worth paying for. But you are not selling a service (unless you are setting up a professional school, which I am not covering here), you’re gathering the resources the club needs to meet its goals. Members who don’t want to pay are not going to help meet the group needs.

What is the money for? To help accomplish the group purpose. You can use for whatever helps pursue the purpose, such as to pay for a teacher, buy club equipment, send your most active class leaders to events they can’t afford to go to on their own, pay for a better venue; the list is endless. My point is that clubs that have money can pursue their purpose much more easily than those that don’t. I advise having members use a ‘set it and forget it’ direct debit or paypal regular payment; it’s much more effective than manually collecting dues.

7) At this stage you will need to register a non-profit organisation. This is usually quite easy to do, if you don’t mind filling in forms. Use whatever umbrella organisations are available. University students can start a University society to get access to University facilities. Your local sports fencing club might let you set up a sub-group within their umbrella (as, for instance, my branch in Oulu, Finland, did). If there is a suitable umbrella available, consider joining it. Be careful that doing so does not interfere with your group purpose, though. If joining an umbrella organisation means giving up your core purpose, or unacceptable changes to equipment or rules, then don’t do it.

Be careful that you understand the rules around what a non-profit organisation can and cannot do. I can’t advise you on the law in your country, but in general, you can hire a teacher (but the employee cannot usually be part of the governing board). You cannot use the funds to pay for your personal sword collection. You will also probably have to  file annual accounts and a list of members. This is not too much work if there are many hands helping; maybe one person handles the paperwork; another handles finding new members; a few others run regular classes. At this stage the thing to watch out for is that the individual needs of the people doing all the work are being met. Some kind of compensation for their efforts is appropriate (such as not having to pay dues, or subsidised attendance at an event, or a guarantee of never having to clean the training space, or something). The last thing you want is for the essential administration to not get done because the poor bugger doing it has been snowed under mounds of paper and can’t get to class, so quits. Look after your officers, they deserve it.

And there you have it. It’s really not so hard. It is a lot of work though, but that’s true of almost everything worthwhile.

I wrote this blog post in response to this survey; it was one of the most commonly expressed frustrations. Feel free to take the survey yourself- who knows, I might answer your question!

If you need help learning to teach, you might find this post useful.

If you need help recreating a historical swordsmanship style from a historical source, you might find this course useful.

Lonin, April 4th 2016.

I have always made sure that there are at least some women in the photos in all of my training manuals. This photo from The Swordsman's Companion is one of my favourite pictures ever:

Last weekend, teaching at Lonin in Seattle, one of the women students told me that the only reason she had started training was because she had seen the women in my books, and therefore felt it might be ok. She got her biggest, toughest-looking male friend to come with her, just in case, but she came. She’s now on the governing board of her club. I nearly cried when she told me this. Martial arts training should be for everyone who is interested, be they clumsy or deft, weak or strong, timid or bold, tall or short, without regard to their starting point. Everyone can get better with practice.

Later that day, I taught my first ever all-women class. It was a fascinating experience for me as a teacher, and also as the head of a large and very diverse school. In essence, I know nothing at all about the particular requirements women may have in training, so I asked them what they wanted, they told me, and I did my best to oblige. I am, after all, a consulting swordsman. I think the class went well, everyone seemed happy with it, and I’ve only had positive feedback about it so far. And it has got me thinking (again) about the whole issue of gender in martial arts. When I was a kid, one of my role models was Cynthia Rothrock. You can see her famous scorpion kick in this excellent Ameridote video:

At my school karate club we were taught by Mr and Mrs Williams. Either one of them could have kicked my head off. My first fencing coach was a woman, Gail Rudge. She was assisted by the captain of the fencing team, also a woman. Neither of them had any difficulty stabbing young Guy when needed. Which was rather a lot. This all means that I have never been infected with the foolish idea that women can’t do martial arts or swordsmanship to the very highest level.

In a perfect world, no kind of gender discrimination would exist, and so nobody would think to organise a women-only class. But mansplaining is a thing. So is “I couldn’t hit a girl”. So is copping a feel when you’re supposed to be grappling. So I can see that this kind of class could be preferable, at least to some women. I should also point out that Lonin is an extremely inclusive and friendly club, vastly more welcoming to people of all kinds than many others I have seen, so it’s not like they had a special need for this kind of class. But the women training there just decided to organise a semi-regular women’s class, and advertised it to the general public. Over 30 people showed up! Clearly, there was something about a mixed, general, beginners’ class that put these women off, and starting this class just removed that barrier.

A martial artist ought to be able to handle whatever opponents life throws at them. My primary reservation about women-only classes stems from the possibility that women’s training might become ghettoised, and women who train in these classes might never get to train outside them, or might choose not to, and so limit their own development. They should be an option, not a refuge.

But that’s a lot of ‘mights’. What I saw was people happily training, some of whom would not have got started without the psychologically and physically less intimidating option of the women’s class. And it’s probable that some of them will grow in the Art and become role-models for the next generation of swordfighters.

I salute them.

 

Spring is in the air, the grass is pushing up under the snow, and books are making their way from my dusty hard drive and out into the world.

Ok, in Finland, spring is nowhere to be seen. My kids are going ice-skating and everyone I know has a cold. Bear with me. I have another book out, and it makes me giddy.

I'm spending most of this week fulfilling the promises made in my last Indiegogo campaign, for Advanced Longsword. That means doing battle with Lightning Source's arcane and wilfully inefficient “short run” printing interface, manually creating over 250 book orders so that the backers of the campaign will get their books in the post in a couple of weeks. I am also manually packing and shipping a boxful of The Medieval Dagger books. This is all, on the surface, very tedious, BUT it is actually really nice to feel that moment of personal connection with every backer, even as superficially as when I input their address into a web form.

Backers of Audatia should already know that WE HAVE SHIPPED THE FINAL PACKS: Liechtenauer and the Patron are done, shipped, and that marathon of a campaign is now 100% fulfilled. It only took about two years longer than expected. But it is a load off my mind. Crowdfunding is all about transparency, value, and keeping your promises.

And somehow in the middle of all this, I managed to edit together and publish The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 5: How to Teach a Basic ClassThis booklet is 10,000 words long, enough to cover the really important stuff, like safety, writing class plans, making corrections, and so on. The purpose of it is simple: to give inexperienced instructors confidence. If you've read it, do let me know what you think!

It’s time for a change of pace.

I have been a full-time professional teacher of historical swordsmanship since March 17th 2001. By which I mean it was my one and only job, source of income, and so on. This has had all sorts of benefits, not least that I have accumulated a huge amount of experience in teaching and researching the art of arms. These days, most students who come to one of my seminars for the first time, or have their first private lesson, find it an eye-opening experience. But I realised in 2014 that I do not want to end up being the little old man still teaching day-in-day-out after 50 years; the archetype of the old martial arts teacher. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; it just isn’t me. And that came as a surprise, because it is exactly how I had imagined my life would go.

Up until 2013, about 90% of my income came from the Helsinki branch of the School, with 10% coming from seminars in other branches or for other schools. Then I started self-publishing my books, starting with Veni Vadi Vici. That went well enough that I had the bright idea of re-issuing the out-of-print The Swordsman’s Companion, and The Duellist’s Companion. This turned out to be a game-changer; by the end of 2014, with  The Medieval Longsword also out, they were bringing in enough money every month to pay the mortgage, and accounted for about 50% of my disposable income. This is the financial background that has made it possible for me to wind down my regular teaching at the Helsinki branch (I taught my last class to date (NOT my last class ever, of course!) on my 42nd birthday: November 30th 2015).

I had been a swordsmanship instructor who also wrote books; now it's fair to say I'm a writer who teaches swordsmanship. And to be honest, while I do miss my students, I don't miss having so much of my waking time taken up with class. It's given me much more freedom to write, and play around with training routines, and play with my kids. And I will be taking advantage of that freedom to take my family to the UK in June this year, for at least a year. We are still not decided exactly where, but that question should be settled by the end of this month. I have no intention of starting another branch of my school there; I have my hands full with the branches I already have. Besides, I've been there and done that; I feel no need to do it again. But I may well be looking for training partners, and of course I'm reasonably available for seminars. There is a thriving HEMA scene in the UK, and I look forward to taking some part in it.

For most people in my life, students, friends and family, these changes will make no difference at all. For a few senior students it will come as something of a change, and for me it will make all the difference in the world. Here's why:

When I started my School back in 2001, a strict and clear hierarchy was necessary. I was responsible for the safety of a whole bunch of absolute beginners; they had to do as I said, or someone would get hurt and it would be my fault. As the School developed, and a culture of safe training was firmly established, my iron grip relaxed and classes became much more organic; students had more input, and there was no need for the strict discipline that we had had before. I think people learn better in a relaxed and friendly environment. But at the same time, a hierarchy was established, the sort that is common to most martial arts. Teacher at the top, senior students outranking juniors, and so on. We have skill-levels, but actual rank is not tied directly to them; we have Free Scholars (literally students who have the freedom of the school; they can open the salle for training at any time, that sort of thing), Class Leaders, who are Free Scholars that have been examined and passed for leading basic classes, and Provosts, who are the senior student responsible for a branch. The problem is that all rank promotions come from me directly. Senior students can recommend their peers, and I wouldn’t appoint a Free Scholar without consulting with the existing cohort, but ultimately, it’s down to me.

This means that I have to be super-careful not to play favourites. For promotions to have meaning and value, they must be based on  transparently applied objective criteria. This leads to me being quite isolated from the students; I have to be really careful not to like any of them more than any other. But as a human being, of course I happen to gel with some more easily than others.

One of the legacies of my boarding school experience is that I find it far too easy to detach. In fact, problems of proper attachment are pretty much the hallmark of institutionalised children. So there is a switch in my head, which is either on the “student” position or the “friend” position. And there are no grades in between. It ought to be a rheostat, but instead it’s binary. Over the course of the last 15 years, some of my students have been adept at flicking that switch back and forth, and some have never allowed it to swing into the “student” position.

So what? You might reasonably ask. So, the people I have spent most of my time with, and with whom I have the most in common, have to be kept at arm’s length.

Sure, in any profession, you need a certain level of detachment. A beginner in their first class, or a senior student working hard on a difficult problem, need a teacher that is able to see them in full “student” mode. But even after a decade in class, most of my students have never seen the inside of my home. That’s just plain weird.

This is one of the reasons that I enjoy going to events and teaching seminars outside of my School; I’m not holding the keys to their next diploma; I’m not their judge. So I can interact with them on a much more natural level. And it’s ok to make friends.

I have been feeling this way for a long time. Years in fact. But it’s been a slow-growing realisation of what the problem is. I have always disliked rank exams, because I’ve always disliked the feeling of judging my students. Where you happen to be on the path is far less interesting and relevant to me than how far you have come.

I stopped wearing my all black training uniform, familiar to you all from my books, in favour of a much less forbidding combination of blue t-shirt and white-ish trousers in November 2014. The first time I wore the new threads in class, there were some raised eyebrows, but the world did not end, and the students were taught properly. My blacks had become an armoured carapace for keeping me separate, so I took them off.

Now to my main point for students of The School of European Swordsmanship: Students, my lovely students, if you want ranks and skill-levels, here is what you must do: set up a grading committee, organise panels of examiners, and do it yourselves. I will advise if asked, I’ll sign certificates; I’ll even sit on examining boards. But I will not ever run another exam solo. And if I happen to feel like I have some kind of history with the student being examined, I’ll recuse myself from sitting on their exam board.

As one long-term student of mine put it: “you’re divorcing the School to marry your students”.

If Sherlock Holmes can be a consulting detective, and Moriarty a consulting villain, then dammit, I can be a consulting swordsman. I am delighted to help you with any sword problem you may have, but I am done being in charge. It is not and never has been my nature to command and control. Within the context of a class, of course it is sometimes necessary to exhort students to greater efforts; to tell them what to do. But every class I’ve run for ages now has begun by asking the students what they need from me that day. This often surprises students having their first seminar with me; most teachers just get up and teach their class plan. I co-create the class plan with the students in the first 5-10 minutes of the seminar. On my last teaching trip to the USA, the organiser called this “a very adult way to run a class”. Because it assumes a certain level of competence in the teacher, and a certain level of interest and engagement from the students.

When Salvatore Fabris was fencing master to the King of Denmark, who was in charge?  Which is more likely: “drop and give me 50, your kinginess!” or “Your Majesty, I would strongly advise a few push-ups at this juncture. 50 would be an excellent choice.”

Or as I put it to my students: If I’m Fiore dei Liberi, that makes you Niccolo d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara.

So, my Lords and Ladies, how can I be of service?

The seated star. Damned uncomfortable!

I’m writing this in SeaTac airport, on my way home after teaching classes for my chaps at Lonin. One of the many benefits of my travel schedule is I get to actually spend time with some of my favourite people, even though we live continents apart. Another benefit is that I can see and do things that I can’t get at home. I arrived on Thursday evening, and was picked up and taken home by Eric Artz, who then took me out to dinner at the incredibly good Harvest Vine restaurant, which treated us to a series of wonderful small plates; the Spanish food was as good here as it was in Spain!

I have been working on my jet-lag management, which has reaped dividends in that though I did wake up at stupid-o’clock, I managed to get back to sleep again. Which was as well, because the inestimable Magali Messac, gyrotonics teacher extraordinaire (and wife of martial arts legend Ellis Amdur, which is how we met), had agreed to introduce me to the movement system. It’s a bit like Pilates, in that it uses some very odd equipment with pulleys and weights and such, and Magali gently took me through the basic movements. First on a stool, then on the equipment. It was a really lovely way to get the aeroplane out of my spine. I’ll be incorporating the stuff we did seated into my normal exercise routines, as it requires a full, gentle expression of every range of movement. Magali is passing on her studio to a long-time gyrotonics expert, and student of hers, Vincent, who I also got to meet at the studio.

Friday night saw me in the loft salle at SANCA, where Lonin has their headquarters. It is so nice to be there; in a space dedicated to the arts I practice, plus some interesting additions (which I’ll get to later).

The weekend seminar was on a much more lenient schedule than usual; we had just 3 hours in the morning, then lunch together, and that was it. I packed in as much material as I could, and I think my chaps have plenty to work with. It was a particular pleasure to meet and train with Amanda Trail, who came all the way from Spokane for the seminar.

Saturday evening was interesting; instead of the usual going out with the students, Eric took me along to the birthday party of one of his wife’s friends. So what? you might ask? It was held in a curling rink, and we all got to have a go at curling. You know, sliding rocks on ice and sweeping like a maniac. It was a lovely party, with Susan (the birthday girl) welcoming an additional guest like an old friend.

Sunday morning and more swords, of course; as is usual for me these days, I asked the students what exactly they needed from me, then gave them that. That evening I decamped from Eric and Michelle’s, and went to stay with Neal, just back from Wellington. I spent Monday morning mostly just mooching about and catching up on admin, because I was back in the loft teaching Monday evening (not strictly part of the seminar, but while I’m in town it seems mad not to give them all the training they can handle). We covered grounding, and using dagger training to introduce beginners to principles. Lots of fun!

Tuesday was perhaps my favourite day of the trip: trapeze in the morning, blacksmithing in the afternoon, and Victorian calisthenics (Indian clubs and so forth) in the evening. Today I ache just about everywhere! I've written elsewhere about the importance of trying new things; these three were all well outside my normal range of activity.

Coming to teach at the loft is an interesting experience because it looks out onto one of the SANCA training spaces. Circus people seem to like doing things very high off the ground, so we don’t even need to look down. Indeed, sometimes I’d lose my thread when teaching because an acrobat appears in my eyeline doing something impossible, and I just gawp in awe.

Nobody gawped in awe at me on the trapeze though, though they might have had a giggle at it. I have a video uploading slowly to youtube to embed here in due course, but if you can't live a moment longer without seeing the full nail-biting action of circus' newest star, then you can find it on my Facebook page.

My teacher, Milla Marshall, took me through a quick warm-up (lots of odd jumps on the long trampoline track), then we went through getting onto the trapeze, and doing tricks. Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about hanging upside down; one of the reasons I wanted to do this was to practice dealing with that terror. Oddly enough, the one most frightening bit was not upside down at all; it was the lamppost. Standing sideways on the trapeze, and taking one arm off to the side. My whole body screamed not to do it, as I’d inevitably fall and break something. The fact that the trapeze was so low that I could fall from it safely was beside the point; it might as well have been suspended over a pit full of crocodiles for all my subconscious had to say about it. Milla also had me climb a rope, and then have a go on the silks. It was a fantastic experience; especially the upside-down star, demonstrated here.

Upside down star: it was such fun I burst out laughing every time I went into it!

I didn’t do the crucifix; I left that to the professional!

Milla in flight

Back at Neal’s, he had been wanting to try the core blacksmithing technique of “drawing out”. I won’t explain it here, but basically, you heat up the steel, and bash it on the edge of the anvil to make it draw out into a point. This was my first time doing blacksmithing, but I’ve always wanted to try it. And oh my, it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. If I quit swords to become a maker of grates and pokers, do not be surprised!

In Neal's basement; my first blacksmithing experience!

Then in the evening it was back to SANCA for Neal’s BWAHAHA class; we started out with a lot of Indian clubs, and then at Neal’s request I took the class through some walking stick self-defence (or murder, depending on your perspective). We had a lot of fun, especially with the joint locks. It was great catching up with Nathan Barnett, and in the pub afterwards, the excellent Tim Ruzicki, who I’ve known since DDS days back in the late nineties.

This morning was spent packing, and I footled into town to pick up some supplies for an experiment I’m planning, on using ketosis. I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, if you don’t know what ketosis is or what it’s good for, I recommend this podcast with Dr Dom D’Agostino, interviewed by Tim Ferriss.

It's been a lovely trip; thanks again to Eric, Neal, Haley, Magali, Milla, Michelle, Ellen, and the rest of the Lonin crew!

This is the furthest I have ever travelled to go to a swordsmanship event. 12 hours to Singapore; 9 to Sydney; then another 4 to Wellington. Plus about 6 hours of layovers. Needless to say, I was a tad weary when I arrived, to be met by Heather, the most crucial person at the event: she was in charge of the food!

The event was held in a scout camp, which was actually pretty civilized, especially when the excellent Selwyn pulled out his single malt whisky supply.

The event in full swing. Sword swinging, axe swinging!

I come to these things for three reasons; to help students I don’t normally get to meet, to catch up with old friends, and to meet new people. Of my fellow instructors, Paul Wagner, Rick Cullinan, and Stephen Hand were old friends. Stephen I hadn’t seen for a decade, so it was especially good to catch up.

In a long list of new friends, I got to meet the legendary Peter Lyon, maker of the Lord of the Rings swords, Colin McKinstry, and Callum Forbes the organiser of the incredible Harcourt Park International jousting event . Among the students were several backers of my various crowdfunding campaigns; it’s great to be able to shake their hand and say thank you in person. And then to kick their sorry arses in round after round of Audatia 🙂

I was there to teach, of course. I had a full day on Saturday; three hours of mechanics in the morning, and three hours of tactics in the evening. I heard from the students, and Selwyn (aka Gimli from now on)

that they went down well; the groups were both very easy to teach; keen and enthusiastic. The key thing in my experience is to only teach one thing in a class. In the morning, it was using groundpaths to apply a line of strength to the opponent’s line of weakness. In the afternoon, it was how to construct a tactical drill to solve decision-making problems.

Sunday morning I spent wandering about taking photographs and talking to people, answering the occasional question, and generally not doing very much, because a posse of students lead by Matt Mole had roped me in to run an unscheduled rapier class in the afternoon. I did manage to explore a little, and found all sorts of interesting things, like this tree:

After lunch the rapierists and  I bagged a hall, and spent over an hour and a half going through the footwork form, how to hold a sword, plates 7 and 16, working on the attack by disengage, and finishing up with a quick overview of how I teach the core skills of rapier and dagger. The “one thing” there was how to use the footwork form, for breadth and depth.

At the end of the day I hopped into a very full little car, and drove North with Les and Devon. They were heading back to Auckland; I was going to Mordor…

Some stuff to be done…

This has been quite a month. Since May 1st, here are the projects I have been working on, and some of the stuff I have done, in no particular order.

  • Finishing and publishing the first three instalments of my Swordsman’s Quick Guide series.
  • Working on a complete rewrite of Veni Vadi Vici.
  • Installing a new kitchen in our apartment
  • Moving back into our apartment after the plumbing work.
  • Working on the Liechtenauer expansion pack for Audatia.
  • Preparing my Realities of Steel presentation for Ropecon.
  • Attending Ropecon for three days, mostly playtesting Audatia, and giving the presentation.

All of this in addition to the usual:

  • Teaching at the Salle
  • Running the school, organising seminars etc.
  • Writing this blog
  • And maintaining at least acceptable competence as parent and spouse.

So, as you may imagine, I’ve been a bit busy. But I do not multi-task. So you might very well ask, how do I manage all this?

The short answer is “I don’t”. I let some things slide. Email and social media are the first to go; some poor folk waited two weeks for a reply to some queries. And it’s been a while since my last post, no?

The longer answer is, “prioritise, and do things bit by bit.”

I also delegate where possible.

Let me enlarge on this a bit.

Every project is broken down into tasks. You cannot possibly fit a kitchen. It's too much. So instead one day I laid the floor. On another I painted the ceiling. On another I sanded the worktops. On another I fitted the handles. On any given day, I have only one task. So, today might be the day for sanding down the kitchen surfaces. Or writing a blog post. Or working on Veni Vadi Vici. I start with that, and keep going until I need to stop, or until I finish a given milestone: first draft written; three more chapters proofread; surfaces oiled, whatever.

Then I start on the next project, or lie on the sofa and watch TV, or whatever else I actually feel like, because the day’s work is done. I don’t always get to choose which task is next; those with hard deadlines (like preparing a presentation for an agreed date) go before those with soft ones (finish the Veni Vadi Vici rewrite), but wherever possible, I wake up in the morning with only one work thing to do that day.

Quite often, a task I have built up in my mind as huge and difficult gets done in minutes instead of hours; but my wife will tell you that I have a terrible habit of thinking something will only take an hour or two, and it takes days instead. That’s also sort of part of the system; by underestimating the difficulty of the project I increase the likelihood that I will actually commit to it; once the commitment is there, the task will be done, just not necessarily on schedule. (I hear my Audatia supporters grinding their teeth… the Liechtenauer Expansion is a year late, and it’s my fault for underestimating the time).

I only ever work at 80% capacity or better. If I find that a task is dragging, that I can’t get into the flow with it, then I switch to something I can flow into. So up to a point, my subconscious chooses my tasks for me, and this is a skill I have deliberately developed over many years; I have trained my instinct to tell me what I should be doing. I often don’t know when I wake up in the morning what I will be working on that day. But then I find a particular file open on the computer, or I find myself assembling a tool kit in my head, and just go with it. Dammit, I do use my feelings, Ben!*

I wanted my series out and off my desk this month, as a matter of urgency. So I put that first, and duly published on May 8th. In that week, if (for example) my wife asked me something about the kitchen, I’d say “I don’t care”. Or somesuch. Because right then the only thing I did care about was the series. The major kitchen project was not the one thing I was doing right then.

Task switching has only one useful function: it can be used as a way of productive procrastination, or a rest. If I get tired typing: great, time to put up the shelves in my study. If I’m exhausted from fitting the kitchen: perfect time to run errands. This goes further: I never work late at night. Because with enough rest, food and sleep, I can get twice as much done the next day. Really, it is so much better to work 10 hours at 100% than it is to work 20 hours at 50%.

If I ever am stuck for which task to prioritise, I use a pencil and paper and write down everything that’s pressing. Usually the one on the top of the list is the one I should be working on that day. Also, projects that are likely to make money take precedence over those that cost money. [One corollary to that; when paying bills in a time of cash shortage, I prioritise them according to their impact on the creditor's cashflow. Freelancers get paid before big companies, big companies before governments.]

One trick that I find helps with managing tasks of different sizes, is get one or two of the small ones done first. For example, when I was fitting out my wife’s walk-in wardrobe, I also needed the same toolkit for putting up a shelf in the loo. I did the shelf first, because it got it off my plate, and gave me a feeling of “I’ve actually accomplished something today”, which I could ride on through the tedium of laying floor, drilling 8000 holes for shelving etc. through the rest of the day. If I had left it as something to do after the wardrobe, I would have been too tired to bother with it.

some stuff done. Tiles, painting, tidy up the dishwasher, still to do.

So right now, there are many large tasks waiting, but I also got the balcony table trimmed down a bit, something I’ve been meaning to do for seven years. Having the necessary tools here for the kitchen made resizing the table a small task, easily done in an hour or two.

Delegation is hard, especially on a tight budget when you can’t just hire someone. (I got a lot of help from my friend and student Henry on fitting the kitchen; he did much of the actual fitting on the weekend I was at Ropecon, for example.) But one thing I have delegated a lot of is food-making. My wife and I are way busy, and the kitchen appliances aren’t connected yet (long story), so we have been eating out a lot, delegating the cooking and clean up. It’s not the cheapest or best option, but an ok compromise. But I am so looking forward to getting to play with the gorgeous new induction hob and steam oven…

So, my system in brief, is something like this:

1) Prioritise

2) Do only one thing at a time.

3)  Only work at efficient rates.

4) Leave things of low priority undone

5) Delegate where possible

And one last thing. When a project is not going well, or I find myself stuck or about to take short cuts, I envision a student, and teach them how to do it. While doing the kitchen surfaces, I was running into serious fatigue-related problems, but did not want to switch tasks, so I decided to take my imaginary student, and create a video for her. This is perhaps the worst how-to video in history, because it was not really made for the watcher; it was made because having the video running gave me access to greater reserves of patience. And I threw it up online on the off-chance that somebody somewhere might find it useful, but basically unedited, because I’m too damn busy right now to carefully craft a how-to-sand-and-oil-kitchen-worktops video. It’s not on my to-do list.

* Readers who do not get this reference seriously need to go watch the original Star Wars movie. Right now.

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