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Tag: training mindset

I’m in the process of recovering from a nasty injury. Why am I telling you this? Because shit happens to everyone, and I thought it might be useful to you to see how I deal with it. This is not my first training injury, and I’d be very surprised if it was my last. My basic approach is the same as for training when sick: fuck it, but don't poke the bear. It boils down to a few key mental principles applicable to most difficult situations, and a couple of guidelines for treating the actual injury, which are applicable to most injuries.

Before we take a step further, while I am technically a doctor now, I’m not a medical doctor. And even if I were, I’m not your doctor. So this is what I do, what works for me, in case you might find it useful or interesting. Do not under any circumstances mistake it for qualified medical advice.

In the course of writing this article, I formulated the principles that I'm following to get through the problem. They are:

  • Keep gently moving (I’ll expand on specific treatment too)
  • Keep a sense of humour (even when you can’t pull up your trousers)
  • Fear is the enemy (much worse than pain)
  • Use professional help (it’s often worth it)
  • Get back on the horse (because fear is still the enemy)
  • Perspective (viewed from the right angle, even severe injuries aren’t that important)

So, what happened?

On Monday January 29th I was in the gym, and managed to sprain my back doing a hex-bar deadlift. (A hex-bar is a weights bar in the shape of a hexagon, which you can step inside of, and lift like picking up two suitcases. You can see the lift discussed and done here.) It was one of those situations where there were no obvious mistakes: my form was correct, I'd prepared properly, I was paying attention, it was a weight I'd lifted before, but for some reason my right thigh declined to take its share of the load half way up, and so the whole lot came onto my lower back. Ow.

I hobbled home, took some ibuprofen, and not to my surprise could barely get out of bed the following day. Major ow.

The injury is on the right hand side of my lower back, between my hip and my spine. When I very carefully levered myself out of bed on January 30th, I ran through some range of motion tests, and found that I could do just about everything except bend forwards. Normally, I can lay my palms flat on the floor with locked-straight legs. Now, I could reach approximately one inch down my thighs.

Keep gently moving

This is a musculoskeletal sprain, in which there is some damage to the muscles, but also to the soft tissues (ligaments and/or tendons). This sets my expectations, and my approach. Using agony as a useful guide to whether a motion was a good idea or not (if it causes shooting pain, don't do it), I gently kept moving for the next few days, and the spasms eased off, and by the Friday (2nd Feb) I was able to go up to London as planned to see a friend. At the weekend I ran some errands, and even managed to drive (though driving was unpleasant). I was taking about 400mgs of ibuprofen three times a day, to limit the inflammation, and doing very gentle range of motion exercises to maintain flexibility as much as possible without aggravating the injury. Pain can be a learned response, a habit. ‘Doing this movement hurts this way'; the pain becomes associated with the movement, and it can persist long after the initial cause for it has gone. So it's really important to learn to move without the pain, and to break the connection as quickly as possible, which is done by doing the movement right up to the point just before the pain starts, and gradually pushing that range of motion further and further without triggering the pain response.

The specifics:

  1. Keep moving as much as possible, but be gentle and attentive about it.
  2. Rest often. Many short sessions, punctuated by many rests, is better than long sessions that induce fatigue.
  3. Regain range of motion before adding weight. It’s critically important that the injury site is returned to a reasonable range of motion before you add weight to the movement. When you have an injured spot, your body will tend to immobilise it, so your range of motion comes from other areas. I think of regaining mobility like making a bow. The idea is to avoid stiff spots or hinges, so the stress of the draw is evenly distributed along the limbs. If the bow hinges at any spot, that’s where it will break. I really don’t want to acquire a compensating over-flexibility next to the stiff area in my back. So I have to be very careful about locating the motion in the correct place.
  4. The timeline for soft tissue injury is at least 9-12 months for full recovery of tendons and ligaments (because they have a very poor blood supply, as they are not very metabolically active). So I will be taking this injury into account in my training for at least a year. Once the worst is over (which it already is) that just means paying attention to the area, doing exercises to build strength there, and retain mobility, and watch for signs of strain. Muscles heal in 3-6 weeks, usually, depending on how badly they are damaged. Muscle damage doesn’t worry me, I only have to make sure that I don’t trigger protective spasms which will slow the process while I stimulate the ligaments to repair themselves.
  5. Breathing and meditation. What, you didn’t think I’d forget about breathing, did you? The best ally you have in healing is your brain. By focussing attention on the problem area, you can persuade your body to send resources to it. I do this by breathing into the area itself (in this case, as if my breath is inflating my arse. Great image, huh?), and by simply sitting (or for the first few weeks lying down, because sitting aggravated the problem) and paying gentle attention to the injury. Not interfering, just noticing.
  6. Medication: no more than two weeks of continuous painkiller use (for me); I can go back to them if needed after a week off. Anti-inflammatories work best if they build up a bit in your system; they usually take a few hours to work their magic. So taking them on rising, on going to bed, and maybe once more during the day, is much better than taking them when the pain happens to peak. I am also using my magic medicine (lotion from a kung-fu instructor) which is great for bruises and sprains, and for pain control, ibuprofen cream on the sore spot. I also found this “Advance 7” cream to be really effective (thanks Sam!).

Keep a sense of humour

Monday morning, Feb 5th, I woke up, moved an inch, and regretted it deeply. Somehow during the night the injury had gotten ten times worse. I lay there with a full bladder, and seriously considered not getting out of bed to get to the bathroom. My wife was away and the kids were in bed, so there was nothing for it but to keep everything as still as possible, while nonetheless getting out of bed onto the floor, from the floor to upright, and making full use of the walls and doors, get to the loo. That done, I woke the kids, and told them they'd be walking themselves to school. Bless their little hearts, they had no problem dressing, getting their own breakfast, and getting on their way. I called the doctor just to check that I didn’t need to go into A+E, and he confirmed that this was common for a back sprain, and told me what symptoms to watch out for (e.g. nerve pain radiating out, or numbness) in case it was something worse.

I was faced with a problem of needing to keep moving, a bit, to prevent everything seizing up completely, and yet every movement creating blinding pain. My solution was to dose up on a bit more ibuprofen, and watch Altered Carbon on Netflix; 45 minutes or so of lying down, then get up at the end of each episode and move a bit. Work of any kind was out of the question, as I couldn’t be in an ergonomically acceptable position to use the laptop (standing or even sitting) for more than a few minutes. And the last thing I needed was to bugger my wrists by typing lying down. Also, the pain was too bad for the kind of work reading I need to do (the kind where you have to pay close attention to something that is not particularly gripping). So no work for me! I did manage to shepherd The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts through layout and into print, but that was it.

The next day was about the same, only worse. Sat on the loo, ready to get back up, I tried to reach down to snag the hem of my trousers between the extended tips of my fingers to pull them up, but it caused a spasm of pain so bad I nearly passed out. I managed to lever myself up, and shuffle to the bedroom and lie down on my side on the bed, and bring my ankles back towards my arse; once there, I could snag the trousers, and pull them up. Picture the scene. I did, and it was bloody funny. Dignity can go fuck itself.

Really. If you'd been there, and had your empathy circuits temporarily removed, you'd have been laughing your arse off. Creating a little distance between the agonised carcass you live in, and the you that's there to notice it, makes handling the injury easier. It's a bit less personal. Most comedy revolves around pain of one sort or another- why not your own?

Fear is the enemy

It would be easy to imagine all sorts of horrible futures in which the injury is permanent, I'll never swing a sword again, all that terrifying shit. But it's also possible to imagine a future in which the back injury is a funny story about events long passed. Focussing on the worst case scenario is borrowing trouble that hasn't happened yet. How mobile I used to be, and how mobile I may become, are both irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how mobile I am now, and what I can do to make that better. Banish ‘if only' statements. “If only I'd stopped one weight earlier”. “If only my back didn't hurt”. And so on. They are useless bullshit to be eradicated. It's perfectly possible to make yourself miserable by grieving for an imagined future *that might never have come to pass*. For all I know, by staying home for a few weeks I may have avoided a fatal car accident that would have killed me had I not been too injured to drive. There's no way to know, so speculation is futile and counter-productive. If you must project into the future, make it positive. “I will get better” or, “even if I don't get better, I'll be fine; I can cope.” But it's much better to just deal with the current situation without judging it relative to past or future.

For me at least, Pain ≠ Suffering. Pain + Fear = Suffering. I can’t avoid the pain, but by eliminating the fear, there’s no suffering. I'm fine, it just hurts.

Gradually, being careful to limit my painkiller intake, and keeping moving, and doing as much of my usual training routines as the injury allowed, it got better over the course of the week— and Altered Carbon was awesome. I probably wouldn't have got to watch it otherwise, as my wife isn't into that sort of show and we usually watch stuff together.

After being on painkillers for two straight weeks, I decided to come off them and just live with the pain. I really don't need a painkiller addiction, nor the kidney or stomach issues they can cause. Two weeks to the day after starting to take them, I stopped.

Get professional help

The following week I was still stuck in the house, unable to walk more than a few steps, or drive at all, pretty much until the weekend, when I had a seminar to teach on the Sunday. Doctor Theatre took over, and the seminar was fine, but it was a stretch and I was very careful not to demonstrate more than absolutely necessary. Progress continued slowly but surely for the next week… Then on Monday 26th February when I woke up my lower back was sore but still getting better, but my neck had seized up. This was not surprising, as I have such a long history of neck issues, and the back injury had prevented me from doing the full preventive routines.  By being super-careful, I didn't make either problem worse, and on the Wednesday I was well enough from the chest down to walk, and so could get out of the house and to go see an osteopath to fix my neck. It took three sessions over the course of the next couple of weeks, but by the second week of March, I was pretty much back to normal.
There are professional services that can sometimes help. Use them.

Also, I bought a pair of those nordic walking sticks, that make you look like you forgot your skis. I was a tad dismissive of them in my previous post, but damn, they make a difference. After having them for a day, I was already able to walk further without hurting my back, and then had a chance encounter with a friend who happened to know how to use them properly and taught me the trick of it. Hot damn, it’s like you can push yourself forwards even when your legs are knackered. Now I use them everywhere I go (despite the constant ski references). I exchange knowing nods with fellow un-embarrassable stick users, and indeed with stick-wielding pensioners. The only really odd thing about them is that I've never caught myself using them in a sword-like fashion. Normally, any long object in my hand gets automatically converted into a sword, but for some reason, these haven't. Maybe it's the hand grips.

Get back on the horse

By gradually increasing the amount of exercise I was getting each day, and being strict as hell about my spine maintenance routines, I was fit to go back to the deadlift on March 16th.

“WHAT???” I hear you cry. “Are you mad?”

No. When I say back to the deadlift, I mean *just the bar*, a very careful single rep to check out the system, a couple more because it was ok, then a few more pulling from the rack (so the bar is held up off the ground). Other than that I did some bench presses, pull-ups, the usual, but all still quite light, and well “in the pocket”. The critical point was getting back on the metaphorical horse; interacting with the bar again to re-learn that it's a tool for creating strength not injury. Since then, I’ve built it back up to nearly half of the weight that I was lifting when the injury occurred. I’m in no rush. I think it's vital for long-term psychological health to get back on the horse.

I had a similar injury some years ago doing kettlebell swings with my 24kg bell. It turns out, after careful examination of the evidence and my experience, that kettlebell swings and my spine are just not made for each other, so I don’t do them any more. But I do do clean and presses with the bell, Turkish get-ups, and similar. I’ve rehabilitated the equipment, but learned to avoid that specific exercise with it.

Perspective

My final thought on this is perspective. I don't view my training goals in increments of weeks or months; I usually think in terms of two to five years. In any five year period there will almost certainly be periods of at least a few weeks where training is impossible for one reason or another. Flu. Injury. Family crisis. Something will come up. But even a major setback is unlikely to take me far away from my long-term goals.
This graph shows the US stock market over the last century:

from http://www.theamateureconomist.com/is-the-u-s-stock-market-going-to-crash/

My back injury is like one of the dips. Shitty to live through, but even the monster crash of 2008 bottomed out at a higher point than the best of the 1960s, and recovery was pretty damn fast. An injury like this, handled right, is just a blip.
This analogy only holds good up to a point: the human body is much less resilient overall than the stock market; its 100 year old self will never outperform its 20 year old self. A body is easy to permanently damage or destroy. I have a friend who has had to quit historical swordsmanship after 20 years because of damage to his knee- he's right to put his health over the Art, and my heart breaks for him. But my point about perspective stands; by viewing my progress over a long enough time span, I don't have to worry about short-term dips like the one I'm just pulling out of. This perspective is also very useful for maintaining a sense of humour.

In the grand scheme of things, my back is the very tiniest of tiny problems. Yes, when the spasm hits it seems to take over the entire world, but that’s an illusion caused by faulty perspective. To put it another way; I’d trade my kids being healthy for my back being fucked any day of the week. On the same day that my back took a turn for the worse (February 5th) two people I care about died. My mother in law Bridget, age 79, after years of ill health, and my friend Hugh Hancock, age 40, with a heart attack out of the blue. Compared to this, a sore back is a minor temporary inconvenience at worst.

You may recall I'm doing a 106km walk on the first weekend of May; the Isle of Wight Action Challenge. This injury has royally fucked my training program, of course. But it has given me at least one very useful practice: keeping moving despite severe pain. I wouldn't be surprised if, around kilometre 90, that's a more useful ability than simple fitness. I’m doing the walk in aid of Room to Read, a charity promoting education in the developing world. If you’d like to support it, please go here and be generous!

To sum up, those points again:

  • Keep gently moving
  • Keep a sense of humour
  • Fear is the enemy
  • Get some help
  • Get back on the horse
  • Perspective

They serve me well: I hope you never need them, but in case you do, I hope they serve you even better!

The New Year is upon us, and with it, a new opportunity to do interesting things, and a time to perhaps take stock and think about what's important. That would be lovely, except right now I'm totally overwhelmed with stuff to do. You might be to, so here's how I deal with it. First, let me take you back a few years….

When I was about 11 years old, I had to do a project on the Second World War at school. I chose British fighter planes. I had three weeks to prepare before I had to hand in my project and give a short talk to the class about it.
The day before the assignment was due, my tutor Mr Rawson found me in tears. I had put off even starting the project until the day before, and had absolutely no idea how to start or what to do. On finding out why I was crying, he pointed out that I’d had three weeks to figure it out or get some help, then showed me a couple of books in the library, and told me what to do. I had found the task too overwhelming to even start it.

I bashed something together, and gave the talk, and handed it in. I got an ok grade, but nobody was impressed.
As you can see from that story, my natural reaction to overwhelm is procrastination.

Overwhelm is a horrible feeling, like drowning in nit-pickery. So many little things, so many big things, all clamouring to be done, and only one me to do it all. Aaaaaaarghhhh! Run away and hide!

I get this feeling often. Right now, I have this list up on the wall by my desk. Lots and lots of different projects, and several continuous processes, all at various stages to be monitored, managed, and done.
The absolute worst bit is the final stages of publishing a book or a course. There are just a gadgillion little steps, and no clear playbook to follow to walk through them all. Again, aaaaaarghhhh!

The little poster on the left of my to-do list has the covers of all my published books and decks of cards (not the courses, they didn’t fit). Clearly, I can actually get stuff done, despite the overwhelm. So here’s how I do it, in the hopes you might find it useful.

1) Slow down. When it’s all piling up, and the to-do list is infinitely long and tedious and tricky and hard, the tendency is to rush. So I slow right down. I literally move in slow motion.

2) Self-talk. “Oh shit I have x y and z to do and only an hour!! Aaaargh!” (Again). This compresses time like no other technique. But I want to extend time, so I slow down, and say something to myself like “a whole luxurious hour. And really, not so much to do! Maybe I’ll take a nap in 30 minutes…”. This changes my perception of the time I have, and dramatically increases the amount I can get done in that time.

3) Do one small thing. The hardest thing, when faced with the badgillion bloody bits of bother, is to find the thread that will unravel the whole thing and make it easy. So I don’t look for it. I don’t spend any time thinking about which bit to do, I just pick one small thing and do that. Then the next, then the next, and so on. And nine times out of ten, it turns out that the first small thing is the magic thread that unravels the whole mess. The only real discipline involved is in not paying attention to the other things, big or small.

4) Productive procrastination. Sometimes I’m just not ready to handle the overwhelming stuff. So I find ways of procrastinating that are actually productive. Such as “I’m not ready to write The Medieval Longsword”. So I’ll build a writing desk.” (You can see it here: Productive Procrastination scroll down to find it). Or, I’ll empty my email inbox. Or I’ll do some training. Or I’ll write this blog post…

5) Break for breathing. Overwhelm is very stressful, and I find that I can break the cortisol spiral by going outside and doing breathing exercises, or push-ups, or kettlebells, or swinging a sword. It all helps. Five minutes or so of exercise gets everything back under control, and makes the process of slowing down and getting on with things easier.

Now that I have productively procrastinated, I’ll get back to the thing that was overwhelming me…

See you later!

If you liked this post, you might also like these others:

Project Management

Following my own advice

What should you spend your time on? My rules for prioritising what to do.

 

Just yesterday Louise Mann, a student on my Knee Maintenance course, sent me a review she had written. It blew me away, so I'm sharing it here, with her permission.

Part 1: A gentle warm up.

Excellent safety advice regarding not following along slavishly, but actually knowing and understanding your own physical limitations and acting appropriately.

Great explanation of where the hips are located, and thus where the movement should be localised. Memorable description of how far you should be looking to squat!

Part 2: Mindful stepping, and balance practice.

The mindful stepping exercise was most instructive. I go barefoot, or wear thin-soled shoes as much of the time as possible, but even then (as I rarely walk around blindfolded) I don’t think that much about what my feet are doing. Having to concentrate on receiving feedback from my feet whilst walking about felt quite strange to begin with, but the longer I did the exercise, the more normal this became. Definitely something to continue with and improve.

Balancing on one leg was easy to begin with – then came level 2 with eyes closed. Absolutely hopeless to begin with and was just glad that no-one was observing my efforts! As with the mindful stepping, this simple exercise showed how easy it is to lose concentration and therefore body awareness.

The ‘book reading’ exercise is probably not one I’ll be using at my local bookshop any time soon as I find squatting more comfortable. However, it certainly is a good strengthening exercise, as well as have some flexibility component as well.

Part 3: Training your knees to move correctly.

This is the best explanation I have ever seen regarding how a knee should track over the foot. The information about ankle and hip mobility is crucial.

Part 4: How to massage your knees.

Invaluable. For myself, the best part of the course. The point about checking as to whether the massaged leg feels better than the unmassaged one is so obvious, yet probably overlooked by most people.

Concluding thoughts.

Clearly shot video with excellent sound throughout. Instruction clear and to the point. Caveats used where appropriate (particularly with regard to warm up).

The quality and depth of this course has led me to the conclusion that I will have to buy some (perhaps all) of your other online offerings! Many thanks for making this course freely available to all.

Louise Mann 08-12-2016

Interested? You can find the course here. If you've already taken it, I'd be glad to hear what you thought of it.

safety-guidelines-cover

Safety Guidelines for the Practice of Swordsmanship

These safety guidelines come from my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources Course and have been adapted from The Duellist's Companion, The Swordsman's Companion, and The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 1: The Seven Principles of Mastery. All of those books are included as downloadable pdfs in the additional course material.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nothing without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Edward Whymper’s admonition, from Scrambles amongst the Alps, elegantly encapsulates the correct attitude to all potentially lethal activities. Substitute “practice swordsmanship” for “climb”, and there is the correct mindset for any swordsman, beginner or expert. Take it to heart before you start training with a partner.

When training with weapons you hold your partner's life in your hands. This is a sacred trust and must not be abused.

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility of any kind for injuries you sustain while you are not under my direct personal supervision. During this course you will be taught how to create safe training drills, and I am certain that if you follow the instructions there is a very low likelihood of injury. But if I am not there in person to create and sustain a safe training environment, I cannot be held responsible for any accidents that may occur.

Principles

The basic principles of safe training are:

  1. Respect: for the Art, your training partners, the weapons, and yourself.
  2. Caution: assume everything is dangerous unless you have reason to believe otherwise.
  3. Know your limits. Just because it’s safe for somebody else, does not necessarily mean it’s safe for you. Never train or fence when you are tired, angry, or in any state of mind or body that makes accidents and injuries more likely.

Most groups that keep going for more than a year have a pretty good set of safety guidelines in place. Make sure you know what they are, and follow them.

My senior students routinely train with sharp swords, often with no protection. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds, when you remember that they have been training usually for 5+ years at that point, under my supervision.

Safety first: you cannot afford time off training for stupid injuries. Life’s too short. Whatever training you are doing must must must leave you healthier than you started it. You will not win Olympic gold medals this way, but you won’t end up a cripple either. The path to sporting glory is littered with the shattered bodies and minds of the unlucky many who broke themselves on the way. Don’t join them.

Every time I find myself teaching a group I don’t know, I tell them that the class will be successful from my point of view if everyone finishes class healthier than they started it. Most injuries in training occur either during tournament (highly competitive) freeplay, or are self-inflicted during things like warm-ups. In my school (and other classes) we have a zero tolerance policy on macho bullshit. If any exercise doesn’t suit you, for any reason, you can sit it out, or do some other exercise. If you are sitting it out, a good instructor will ask you why, and help you develop alternatives or work up to the exercise in easy stages, but will never pressure you to do something that might injure you.

This is also true of work-related injuries, like forearm problems from typing, or the ghastly effects of sitting all day. By avoiding the things that will hurt you, you will naturally seek out the things that are good for you. Hungry? Avoid sugar, avoid processed foods, and lo! there’s a fresh salmon salad. Tired? Sleep is better than barbiturates, no?

This requires good risk-assessment skills (I recommend Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein) and the courage to take risks that truly serve your overall aims. A safe life is not worth living, but foolish risk-taking will not make your life meaningful.

Try adopting these key habits:

  • Before any new activity, do a risk/reward calculation. How risky is it, and how
    rewarding?
  • Practice saying no to training suggestions: even safe ones. Most people do stupidly
    risky things due to peer pressure. Being able to say no to your peers is perhaps the most important skill in reducing injury rates. If this is hard, make it a habit to decline at least one suggestion every session, until it’s easy.

Equipment

Without doubt the single most important bit of safety equipment is good common sense. Fence according to the limits of your equipment, exercise control and respect the weapon at all times, and you will never have a serious injury. Minor bumps and bruises come with the territory.

There were some masters who believed that the safest course is to fence with sharp weapons and no protection. This is how it was often done in the past until the invention of fencing masks (though there are tournament records and declarations as early as the 14th century that record the use of blunt practice weapons; King Rene d’Anjou’s treatise of 1470 is perhaps the best source). Such masters are right in theory, in that freeplay with sharps is the best way for students to learn absolute respect for the weapon, and the importance of absolute control. There are a few contemporary masters with whom I will fence like this, and there is nothing like it for generating a perfect fencing approach. But try explaining that to the insurance companies, or in the event of a slip, the police or coroner. It was often said in the eighteenth century that you could tell a fencing master from his eye-patch and missing teeth. Never forget that even a blunt blade can break bones. When free fencing, or when practicing drills at speed, it is essential that you wear appropriate safety gear. You do this not for your own sake, though self-preservation does come into it, but for the bene t of your training partner. Your protection allows him to hit you safely.

Choosing protection is a very controversial subject. Too little, and you can end up badly hurt (even in practice). Too much, and you can’t fence properly. Firstly, it is important to establish what style of fencing you will be doing. If you are practising armoured combat, then buy the best fitting, best made armour that you can from an armourer who knows how you intend to use it and has seen what you want to do. This is the hardest style of fencing to appropriately regulate, because accurate technique requires you to go for the least armoured spots (throat, eyes, armpits, joints), but safety requirements obviously prohibit that.

As a general guideline, I recommend the following for most weapons.

  1. An FIE standard fencing mask. This allows you to thrust at the face (a very common target), and generally attack the head. This does have three major caveats. Firstly, it leaves the back of the head open, and you must be very careful not to strike at this target. An added apron of thick leather affords some protection. Secondly, it does not protect the head and neck from the wrenching force of over-vigorous blows. It is vital that you and your opponent learn control before engaging in freeplay. Thirdly it is designed to protect the face from high-speed, light, flexible weapons, not slower, heavier, rigid ones. So continually check them for wear, and make absolutely sure that your weapons are properly bated.
  2. A steel or leather gorget, or stiff collar, to protect the throat. Points can slip under the bib of a mask and crush the larynx.
  3. (For women) a rigid plastic chest guard.
  4. A point-resistant fencing jacket rated at least 500 newtons. Sturdy, preferably padded and/or armoured gauntlets, which should extend at least four inches past the jacket cuff to prevent points sliding up your sleeve. I have twice had fingers broken through unpadded mail gloves, and now use a pair of fingered gauntlets from Jiri Krondak, which cost about 150€.
  5. A padded gambeson, or a plastron. If you are making one yourself, bear in mind that it should be thick enough to take the worst out of the impact of the blows, and prevent penetration from a thrust. All openings should be covered. The collar should be high enough that thrusts coming under the bib of the mask do not make contact with your throat. A plastron must wrap around the ribs, and properly cover the collar bones and shoulders. I usually wear a fencing jacket and plastron (as pictured).
  6. A box for men (called a “cup” in the US). You only forget this once.
  7. Rigid plastic protectors for the knees and
  8. For the elbows, of the sort worn by in-line skaters (worn under the
    clothes for that period look if you prefer), will save a lot of pain, and some injury.
  9. Footwear: on the matter of footwear, few practitioners agree. In the longsword treatises, there are no heavy boots, and certainly no built-up heels.  For a completely historical style, it is necessary to wear completely accurate period clothing at least occasionally, because it can affect the way you move. It does not matter much what you wear on your feet provided that you understand grounding, body-mechanics and footwork, but attaining that understanding is much easier barefoot or in very thin flat soles. Excessively grippy soles can lead to joint injury as you may stop too suddenly, or get stuck when you should be turning (particularly in falls at close quarters). The dangers of wearing too slippery soles are obvious. In the salle I usually wear medieval shoes or ‘barefoot’ shoes (aka five-fingers, or ‘toe shoes’), and recommend a thin, flat sole regardless.

The Sword

Training swords come in three main types. Authentic sharp reproductions, which are used for cutting practice and some pair work with advanced students, blunt swords that try to reproduce the handling characteristics of the sharps, and fencing swords that are designed to make fencing safer. These all have their pros and cons, and you should use the sword that’s right for your style and the kind of practice you will be doing.

It’s perfectly all right to use a wooden waster or something similar to start with, but do not imagine that there is any such thing as a safe training sword. Even modern sport fencing blades engineered for fencing sometimes break and puncture people, and anything heavy enough to reproduce the handling of a medieval or renaissance sidearm is going to be able to do damage.

For specific details on choosing a sword, please see Choosing a Sword, which is included in the additional material on this course.

Looking after your weapon is largely a matter of keeping it dry, clean, and free of stress risers (a stress riser is a weak point, usually a deep nick, which encourages the blade to fold at that point).

Occasional rubdowns with a moisture repellent oil and steel wool or scouring pad, followed by a coat of microcrystalline wax, should keep the blade and hilt clean (follow manufacturer’s recommendations if you have a gilt, blued or otherwise ornamented weapon). Do not be afraid to file down any large nicks, and file off any burrs: this is important from a safety perspective, as the blade is most likely to break at a nick, and burrs can be very sharp. The edges of a blunt weapon should always be kept smooth enough that you can run your bare hand hard up the edge and not get scratches or splinters. Even the toughest and most cherished sword will not survive repeated abuse: the best guarantor of longevity for your sword (and yourself) is correct technique.

Rules of Engagement

Once you have agreed to fence with someone, it is important to agree on rules of engagement. This is partly to ensure safety, and partly to create an environment in which you can learn. The two most simple rules are these:

  1. Confine permitted actionss to the safety limits of your protective gear
  2. Confine permitted actions to the technical range of the least trained combatant. In other words, do not allow face-thrusts when wearing open helms, or throws when one of you is not trained to fall safely. The rules can be adapted further to develop specifi aspects of technique: for instance, you may not allow any close quarters work at all, or even restrict allowable hits to one small target. The idea is to come to a clear, common -sense agreement before facing off. You are only ready for no-holds-barred, totally “authentic” fight simulation, when you can enter such a fight with your judgement unimpaired.

Following the rules of engagement will not make you soft, nor will it dull your edge if it comes to the real thing; rather it it will develop self-control.

These rules apply to all fencing:

  1. Agree on a mutually acceptable level of safety.
  2. Wear at least the minimum amount of safety gear commensurate with rule 1. Confine allowable technique to those within the limits of your equipment.
  3. Confine allowable technique to the technical ability of the least trained
    combatant.
  4. Appoint either an experienced student or one of the combatants to
    preside over the bout.
  5. Agree on allowable targets.
  6. Agree on what constitutes a “hit”.
  7. Agree on priority or scoring convention in the event of simultaneous hits. Usually it is better
    to allow a fatal blow before a minor wound, but simultaneous hits should be avoided whenever possible.
  8. Agree on the duration of the bout either in terms of hits, such as first to five, or in real time.
  9. Acknowledge all hits against yourself. This can be done by raising the left arm, or by stopping the bout with a salute, or by calling “Halt!” and telling your opponent where and how you think she hit you.
  10. Maintain self-command at all times.

Safe Training

In my experience most injuries are self-inflicted. It is far more common for students to hurt themselves by doing something they shouldn’t, than to hurt their training partners. Here are a few simple guidelines for joint safety, which should be followed during all training. I am using the lunge as an example of a stressful action, but these principles apply to any physical action.

  1. The knee must always bend in the line of the foot. Knees are hinges, with usually a little under 180° range of movement. The do not respond well to torque (power in rotation). So whenever you bend your knees, in any style for any reason, ensure that the line of your foot, the line of movement of your knee, and the line of movement of your weight, are parallel. This prevents twisting and thus injuries. This one simple rule, carefully followed, eliminates all knee problems other than those arising from impact or genetic disadvantage.
  2. Whenever performing any strenuous task (such as lunging, or lifting heavy objects), tighten your pelvic floor muscles (imagine you need to go to the bathroom, but are stuck in a queue). This supports the base of your spine, and helps with hip alignment.
  3. Joints have two forms of support: active and passive. Passive support refers mainly to the ligaments, which bind the joint capsule together. This is basically set, and can’t be trained. When training your joint strength, with exercises or stretching, avoid any action that strains the joint capsule. Any action that causes pain in the joint itself should be modified or avoided, as it may damage the soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage). These tissues have a very poor blood supply and hence heal very slowly.
  4. Active support refers to the muscles around the joint, and these can be strengthened by carefully straining the joint with small weights and rotations. To strengthen a joint you must stress these muscles, without endangering the ligaments. Any competent physiotherapist can show you a range of exercises for building up the active support around your knees, wrists and elbows, where we need it most.
  5. Rest is part of training. Your body needs time to recover, and is stimulated by the stress of exercise to grow stronger. However, the body is efficient, and will withdraw support from any muscle group that is not used, even if for only a few weeks. So regular training is absolutely crucial.

If you can’t lunge without warming up, don’t lunge except in carefully controlled drills. Warming up is essential before pushing the boundaries of what your body can do.

 

If you find this advice sensible and useful, please feel free to share it as widely as you like!

If you would like these guidelines as a handy PDF, then drop your email in the box below and I'll send it to you.

 

Last weekend I attended the excellent Smallsword Symposium. I am unusual amongst HEMA instructors in that I do lots of different styles; Armizare, of course, but also I.33 sword and buckler, Capoferro rapier, and even the glorious smallsword. The smallsword was my first historical fencing love, way back in the early nineties, and the first treatise I found and distributed was Donald McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion in the National Library of Scotland. My first two books, The Swordsman's Companion and The Duellist's Companion  were named in its honour.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is, smallsword is bliss, and much under-appreciated in the HEMA world, so it was an especial pleasure to attend an event given over wholly to its elegant viciousness. The event was well run, and well attended, with people coming from Norway, Canada, Germany and even Ipswich, as well as the local contingent from (mostly) the Black Boar Swordsmanship School, which organised the symposium. The Black Boar was founded by two ex-DDS members, Phil Crawley and Ian Macintyre, who I had a hand in training back in the bad old days. My (fencing) kids are all growed up! And having kids of their own…

The format of the event was interesting; just two tracks, beginning with a very basic introductory class for newbies, well taught by Sue Kirk, with a more advanced ‘let's get cracking with a bunch of skills training' class run by Phil running at the same time. This got everybody off on the right foot, and paved the way for the classes that followed. These were mostly ‘have a go at this cool new system' type classes, such as Tobias Zimmerman's survey of Schmidt, and Ragnhild Esbenson's survey of McBane. There were also a few concept classes, such as Milo Thurston teaching proprioception using blindfolds, Martin Dougherty (author of several swordy books) teaching attention to technical detail, and my own ‘how to find and fix any technical problem' class.*

The event included a tournament, and I must say it was amazingly well organised. Simply, the contestants are randomly split into four pools and told to establish a winner in 90 minutes by whatever means they agree on. Absolutely no top-down requirements, just tell us who won. Then the four finalists fence off in pairs. The two losers fight for third place, the two winners for first and second. It worked incredibly well, and I saw some lovely smallsword fencing.

One additional highlight for me was meeting Marco Danelli, the swordmaker. I have often been asked about his swords, and have had to reply ‘they look nice in the pictures but I've never handled one'. Now I can say “dear god, buy one!” No wonder he has a two-year waiting list. I also got to see a couple of Andrew Feest's swords, though sadly not Andrew himself, and oh my, they were both extremely pretty and handled delightfully. Mm-mmm, swordmaking is alive and well in Brighton, I can assure you.

All in all, an excellent weekend, and I look forward to coming back next year. On the Monday we went to Glasgow to handle antique swords, but that's a story for another blog post. One of the swords had HORNS! Stay tuned…

*For the benefit of those that were there (or even those that weren't), let me briefly summarise my class:

  1. Run a diagnostic, find the weakest link. E.g. I'm vulnerable to attacks below the sword arm.
  2. Fix the weakest link, using the method below.
  3. Run the diagnostic again.

The method for fixing the weakest link goes like this:

  1. Distinguish between technical and tactical problems. Technical = I did the right thing but it failed. Tactical = I did the wrong thing. This was a technical class so this process is for technical problems.
  2. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  3. Slow it down until you can get the action right.
  4. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail.
  5. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure.
  6. If you can't get it to work, then analyse it in terms of a) timing b) measure c) grounding/structure d) flow/movement. The weakness will be in there.

This class was largely unfamiliar with grounding so we covered that in some detail, with the net result that most of them shifted the way they hold their swords. Success!

In the last 15 minutes we looked at applying the process to tactical problems. It's not much different, it just requires selecting the correct action. For example, learning to identify a feint.

  1. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  2. Slow it down until you can use the correct action (in the case of a feint, a second parry).
  3. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail. Complexity is created by the ‘coach' in the drill either feinting or doing a real attack, forcing you to adapt your actions to theirs.
  4. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure

 

The Prudentia virtue, from the Audatia Duel Deck Nikodemus Kariensis.

There are few things that all martial artists agree on, but I think this may be one of them: “it’s easier to fight someone if you know exactly what they are going to do”. To predict their actions. To see the future. This skill is one of the aspects that marks an experienced fighter in any discipline. They can read their opponent and see what they are about to do; but also they can create the situation so that the opponent is lead into a trap. Fiore de’ Liberi knew about this perfectly well back in the 14th century: it’s one of the four virtues he says a swordsman should possess. Avvisamento (foresight) in the Getty ms, Prudentia  (prudence) in the Pisani-Dossi and the Paris mss. For what is prudence if not the ability to foresee danger and avoid it?

Meglio de mi lovo cervero non vede creatura

Eaquello mette sempre a sesto e a misura.

No creature sees better than I, the lynx

And this virtue puts everything in its right place and its measure. (Tr. Tom Leoni)

Foresight is a virtue and a skill, and it can and should be trained. As you probably guessed, I have a well-developed system for doing exactly that. It relies as always on starting very simple, and gradually increasing complexity, while always focussing precisely on the one thing you’re working on. Because the virtue is first discussed in fencing literature in Il Fior di Battaglia, it makes sense to use longsword for my example, but you should be able to apply this to any martial art. This is the bare bones of the three-step process.

Step one: establish the base

1) Set up a basic drill. We’ll use first drill as an example:

https://youtu.be/1Dc9s21EDkI

2) Set up a simple variation, ideally with the defender responding differently: such as a counterattack, rather than a parry. (Such as in the Stretto form of first drill).

https://youtu.be/99H94CzB1Ik

3) The attacker’s job is to counter the defence; either parry the counterattack, or strike on the other side of the parry (as here in our set drills).

At this stage the attacker is just watching the defender, and the defender is just feeding the attacker one defence then the other. No variations. Ok, we have established our base.

Step two: create controlled complexity.

1) The defender now varies their defence, so that the attacker doesn’t know which one he will pick.

2) The attacker’s job is to predict the defence. If she counters it, then great, that’s a bonus. But we’re working on the skill of foresight, not the application of that skill. The attacker makes five attacks, and counts how many times she accurately predicted which of the two things the defender would do.

3) Change roles, 5 attacks, 5 defences. Try to be as random as possible.

4) Use the rule of c’s* to adjust the level of the drill so that the attacker has difficulty predicting the defence.

In a perfect world, you can always predict exactly what your opponent will do, and set things up so that if he does anything else, it will fail naturally, and if he does what you expect, he falls onto your prepared counter.

Step three: reduce their options

1) The attacker adjusts her attack so that the counterattack will naturally fail. In this example, that means aiming the mandritto fendente slightly further over to the left, and stepping slightly across the strada to the attacker’s left. There is no hole to counterattack into. So the defender either parries, or their action will fail.

2) The attacker adjusts her attack to invite the counterattack, by swinging the mandritto fendente round, offline a bit to the right. If the invitation is accepted, the attacker parries the counterattack; if it is declined, and the defender parries, their parry will be wider than usual, making the attacker’s counter much easier.

3) To start with, exaggerate these adjustments to the attack, and co-operate in the responses. Once the idea is clear in both player’s minds, they should ramp it up a bit.

4) Once this is going well, the attacker’s job becomes simply to predict the defender’s actions, and the defender’s job is to respond naturally to the attack with one of the two options. As before, use the rule of c’s to adjust the level of difficulty until the attacker is getting it right about four times out of five.

And finally: add complexity

So far so good. We have a drill in which there is only one degree of freedom; the defender’s action. Everything else is set; the roles of attacker and defender, the attack, the two defences, everything. So now apply the variation engines: “who moves first”, “add a step”, and “degrees of freedom” that you know from Preparing for Freeplay or The Medieval Longsword, to add complexity to the point where the attacker can only get it right three or four times out of five. This might be as simple as step three above, or as complex as full-on freeplay.

Be very clear about what you are training: if you are working on foresight, success = “I predicted exactly what they would do”. It doesn’t matter if you got hit or not. Of course, as your foresight improves, not getting hit should be a lot easier than before.

One more thing:

As you probably know, Audatia is based on Fiore's art. And it totally killed me that we couldn't have Prudentia being used to make the opponent show their hand. The closest we come to that is in this brilliant card, Eye of the Lynx, in the Boucicault deck:

 

*The rule of c’s is in The Medieval Longsword, and Preparing for Freeplay, and written out in this blog post here.

Justice, from Lorenzetti's "Allegory of Good Governance"
Justice, from Lorenzetti's “Allegory of Good Governance”

Training happens in the brain, and in my experience, the biggest barriers to training exist between a student’s ears. One of the most common problems I have seen (and experienced myself), is the tendency to stop and make judgements when things aren’t going well. For example, I’m practising my still-imperfect mandritto fendente, as part of the Farfalla di Ferro. I make a noticeable mistake, so I stop, berate myself (“you bloody fool, couldn’t swing a sword through a wet paper bag, come on, what kind of idiot are you?”) and then get back to practising.

Or for another example: I’m fighting someone for real. I get hit but am not dead. So I stop fighting back, and start criticizing myself for getting hit. Meanwhile my assailant keeps hitting me.

Do you see the problem? Do you ever do this? I have seen this problem so severely ingrained in a student that he actually stopped in the middle of the class and hit himself three times in the head for making the mistake, about five times a session, three sessions a week, until I trained it out of him. This corrective technique has never once in the history of mankind ever been shown to work.

So what does?

At its core, the mistake is allowing your attention to be taken off what you are doing, and on to what you were doing. This is followed by an emotional reaction to the mistake or imperfection, which locks your attention on to what you have done. This is the very opposite of mindful presence. But because it is disguised as paying attention to what you are doing, because you are indeed paying close attention to what you have done, it can feel like something you should do. And if you are not alone at the time, it can feel like you need to indicate to everyone else that you have noticed the mistake. The social pressure to do this is actually quite severe. But think on this: it’s not them that need to fix the mistake, so bringing it to their attention does nobody any favours. If they are not well trained, they haven't spotted the mistake anyway, and if they are, they will be less impressed by your reaction than they would have been by your dispassionate correction of it next time the opportunity arises.

The trick is to notice the mistake dispassionately, and calmly correct it next time round. It should not break your flow, not so much as a flicker of a frown should cross your brow. There should be no emotional reaction clouding your ability to actually enact the correction. Noticing something and reacting to it are two completely different things.

This is a skill, and can therefore be trained. Here’s how:

  • Set up an exercise in which you know you’ll make a natural error. Do a form a bit faster than usual, or do a pair drill at a level of complexity that challenges you.
  • Knowing that a mistake is coming, decide that when it does you will notice it but not react.
  • Pay attention to your emotional state. When the error arises, spot your reaction. Just notice it, and don’t interfere.
  • Keep running this exercise, the point of which is to practice noticing mistakes without judging them. If this is a common problem for you, then every training drill you do should be done as a way of generating natural errors for you to practice noticing without judging.

Beating yourself up about mistakes simply reinforces the mistake. Noticing them dispassionately allows you to correct them much more quickly and easily. It took my head-bashing student several months to change the habit; because his case was so severe, I had him replace the head-bashing with push-ups to change his reaction before getting rid of it altogether. This worked quite well, and no doubt saved him many brain cells.

The image at the top of this post is of Justice, from the “Allegory of Good and Bad Governance” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Palazzo Publico, Sienna. I saw it last year, and was swept away. Notice that Judgement is necessary, and must distinguish between Good and Evil. But she is calmly seated, dispensing Justice even-handedly. Think on this.

I’m writing this on Wednesday March 30th, and will be flying off to Seattle on the 31st when it goes live. I’ll check in with the comments and whatnot in a couple of days. Looking forward to seeing my Seattle chaps soon! I’m then popping down to visit Sean Hayes in Eugene on Monday, before spending a couple of days in Chicago with Nicole Allen and Greg Mele on my way home. I travel a lot, and yet spend far too little time with my far-flung friends. I’m making a deliberate effort to change that. If you're in any of those cities, I hope to see you too!

Everybody gets sick or injured every now and then, and I’ve had a pretty rough winter so far in that regard which has got me thinking about how I train when sick. In this post I’ll lay out my general principles for dealing with the problem and let me apologise in advance if it ever comes across as me whining about the flu. I really don’t mind getting ill, and I’m generally very lucky with my health.

Let’s start with the overarching principle: health comes first. This is directly drawn from one of my Seven Principles of Mastery: “no injuries”. If training makes you worse, don’t do it! (You’d be amazed how often that rule is broken by people who should know better.) I train for the long-term benefits, not for the short-term buzz.

Injuries

With injuries, the trick is to modify your training to encourage recovery. My latest injury, just before Christmas (of course!) was yet another round of problems with my thoracic and cervical spine; every time I pressed even a small kettlebell above my shoulder, the right side of my neck would seize up in agony. No fun. So I went to the physio, and together we worked out a series of mobility and stability exercises that should restore mobility to the stuck bits, and restore stability to the hyper-mobile bits, and after three weeks of not being able to lift so much as a tennis ball over my head, I was back in business. So I immediately starting hoisting my biggest bell over my head, and the problem came right back. Or, that’s what I would have done when I was younger and stupider. Instead, I stalked my strength like it was a skittish colt. I very, very gently made sure that the full range of the motion was available, then slowly, slowly, added weight back on, all the while paying attention to keeping up the exercises that had restored the movement. The slightest twinge, and I’d stop. Now, three goddam months later, I’m back where I was three months ago.

But if I’d rushed it, I’d still be injured.

For impact injuries and soft-tissue injuries, the goal is the same but you need to pay attention to the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’; good pain you ignore; bad pain, indicating that the injury is being aggravated, you avoid.

The mnemonic I use here is “fuck it, but don’t poke the bear”. Specific neurological pain (such as my neck issue), or pain that indicates an injury is getting worse, is like a sleeping grizzly: the goal is to keep it asleep until it dies of starvation. But all the rest? Fuck it.

Sickness

So what about sickness? I have a very strong sense of the difference between a “walking cold” and a “systemic cold”. A walking cold is one with local symptoms; I might cough, or have a sore throat, or a headache, or whatever else, but the rest of me is basically ok. A systemic cold is when I can’t distinguish the boundaries of the illness, my whole body feel wretched. My goal with a walking cold is to prevent it becoming systemic. Here the principle I follow, along the lines of “no injuries”, is to pay close attention to how I feel right after doing any particular activity. Energy up is good, energy down is bad. “Avoid fatigue” might be another way to put it. So a little light stretching to preserve range of movement, leaving me feeling a bit better is ok; but if doing a push-up makes me feel tired, I’ll stop doing push-ups.

You read that right. Yes, there are times when I stop doing push-ups. Rare, but it does happen.

My first indication that my bout with tag-teaming viruses this winter was something I should pay attention to was when my cold shower in the morning left me feeling chilled to the bone, not invigorated. And yes, I did stop doing them, and gently worked my way back to them.

I’ve noticed that when my system is under attack from some horrid virus I do best by avoiding anything that elevates my heart rate more than a few extra beats per minute. So I might do one light lift, and stop. Swing a sword for a minute or so, and stop. Over the last few months when I’ve been hit by virus after virus (I’ve not been 100% well a single day since Christmas), I haven’t touched the deadlift bar. But I’ve been practising my deadlifts for a couple of minutes about three times a week, using just a stick. So the technique and range of motion is there, and, just last Friday, started back by picking up about half the weight I maxed out on last time I did them properly (before Christmas). Don’t poke the bear.

Most of the time, when I’m ill, it’s a walking cold; I can move around a bit, do light stuff, and not get sicker. But when or if it goes systemic, I have to be super-careful, and usually I don’t train at all, just the very lightest of moving about so my spine won’t seize up completely. Specific symptoms respond differently to different exercises. For example, I had a really bad cough for about three weeks in February; during that time, my Wim Hof breathing had to stop because it made me cough. But I could manage the Crane ok. When the cough morphed into a sinus nastiness, the kind where your entire skull becomes completely filled with nothing but snot, Wim Hof breathing was ok and so were some light kettlebells, but some of my meditation practices brought on bad headaches so I cut them out.

The last time I was at WMAW, in 2013, I had a bad walking cold; I was sick as a dog, coughing and feeling like shit, but I could move around. I had travelled all the way to America to fence with my peers. But I didn’t have a single bout with anyone, because I could feel it might trigger the walking cold to become systemic. That’s how seriously I take this.

Health comes first. As Count Rugen says to Prince Humperdinck, “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.

And if you don't know who they are, start here.

Is this the most famous tower in the world? And is it perfect? Note the two perfect little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.
Is this the most famous tower in the world?
And is it perfect?
Note the two perfect little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.

I understand perfectionism. In some areas of my life, I can see every flaw in what I am doing, and so it feels like everything I do is not nearly good enough.

Good enough for me, that is. But usually, it’s plenty good enough for accomplishing its goal. Let’s take a basic sword strike for an example. My mandritto fendente right now is just a great big mess of inefficiency and flaws. Compared to what it could be, anyway. Compared to what it was five years ago, it’s actually not too bad. I certainly hit a lot of people with it.

That strike is the most common blow in all swordsmanship. What kind of swordsman would I be if I didn’t use it at all, just because it’s not perfect yet? Or if I didn’t expose it to feedback, in the form of resistant opponents or knowledgable peers?

As my writing career has developed, more and more people are coming to me for advice, and excessive perfectionism is one of the more common problems they want help with. It is very hard to let a piece of writing go out into the world when you know it could be better, even when you are well into the realms of diminishing editorial returns, so I thought I’d put together a blog post (laden with imperfect writing, alas) with some mental tricks you can use to make it easier.

Please note that this is intended to help people whose problem is excessive perfectionism. Not to justify sloppy editing or to support writers who let stuff out the door too early. Every published work needs at least two drafts, then editing by at least one, ideally more, external editors, then a final draft incorporating the edits, then proofreading (for typos etc.), then layout, then a final round of proofing, before it should be released. About 10% of the first draft of The Swordsman’s Companion made it into the final version. And I only changed about 5% of that for the second edition. About 90% of the first draft of my second book, The Duellist’s Companion, made it into the final book. (I’m working on a second edition now…)

1. This book is not the final product.

The published book is not the final product. Especially when we are talking about a really discrete work (such as a stand-alone novel, or an interpretation of a specific treatise), it feels like a finished thing in itself, which makes it especially hard to let it go out into the world. But think of this: by denying it publication, you deny it the possibility of perfection. Because you are witholding it from its most keen-eyed critics. The feedback you get from readers who have paid for the book will make the second edition so much better than the first. Look at the first edition as the final editorial pass; the necessary editing round before the second, better edition.

2. This book is only one piece of a larger whole.

Your work over your lifetime is the larger whole. As a training manual, my second longsword book, The Medieval Longsword, is so much better than my first (The Swordsman's Companion). Material I cover in my dagger book I didn’t have to repeat in Veni Vadi Vici. So the work is not finished anyway; any given book is part of an incomplete whole. This lowers the barrier to publication, because it makes each publication feel less of a major event.

3. This book is not the ONE TRUE BOOK.

There is no perfect book. Even a perfect book about swordsmanship, if one could exist, is useless to people who want to learn computer programming. So, this book is the next step in your development as a writer. And it cannot help you develop if it is never published. Because you learn more about what you should have done in it after it’s been published than you can possibly know before.

4. Am I doing my readers a favour?

If you can honestly answer this question with a yes, then publish. You owe it to them. Your book, however flawed, cannot change anybody’s life if you don’t get it off your desk and into their hands. If you’re not sure, then give it to a few likely readers (ideally not your close friends), and ask them if they think the book would be worth paying for. If yes, then go. If no, well excellent, ask them why and you just got another round of editing.

Yes, I just wrote yet another post extolling process over outcome. This is the key to surviving your perfectionist streak. Let every project go out as a work in progress, as a step in the right direction. At the moment of your death, if you have nothing more pressing to think about, you can then review your life’s work and judge it as harshly or as mercifully as you please. Because you will actually have a body of work to look back on, and, for better or worse, it will be finished.

I think that training ought to be focussed and goal oriented. The goal in any fencing context is to strike without being struck, so any problem can be thought of as “I’m getting hit” or “I’m not hitting”. Drills are the means by which we fix either of these core problems.

Let’s start with the “I got hit” problem. Here is a snazzy little flowchart:

Yup, it boils down to this: the only reason you ever get hit is because you failed to parry. The hit is never wrong. This is really important. When we are past the point of teaching beginners the absolute basics, we don’t solve the problem of being hit by changing the attack. The attack is supposed to hit.

So whatever your current fencing problem is, here are the steps to fix it:

1) Reproduce the problem. If you can’t reproduce it, it was either a fluke, and so not something that can be trained against, or you didn’t understand what happened. You can’t fix training problems you don’t understand, so if that happens, find somebody to explain what happened to you. Your opponent might do that, or your teacher.

2) Analyse why you are getting hit. You are either doing the right thing, but not well enough, or you are doing the wrong thing. So the problem is either technical, or tactical. These have quite different solutions.

Technical problems are solved by training the technique in increasingly challenging contexts. In short, slow down until it works, then ramp up the speed and power gradually until you can do it at the necessary level. I think of this as solving problems of incompetence.

Tactical problems are solved by choosing a better solution at the critical moment, which you learn to do by using drills with ever increasing degrees of freedom. I think of this as solving problems of ignorance.

So whatever drill you are doing should be solving a specific problem of either ignorance or incompetence making you wiser and better.

(The specific details of how to use pressure and degrees of freedom are in Preparing for Freeplay. They are also described in The Medieval Longsword.)

I have put all this together in another nifty flowchart. The original was done by me in Scapple, which is a great app for thinking with, but doesn't do pretty charts. Several kind and lovely readers have sent me much prettier versions, of which this, by Andrew R. Mizener, is the clearest.

 

Thanks Andrew! (I absolutely love it when my readers step up and help. Really, it's the best feeling.)

If you’d like specific examples of drills that solve technical or tactical problems, let me know in the comments.

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