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Tag: warm-up

The ability to ask for what you want is a critical life skill. It does not absolve those around you from paying attention to your needs, but it makes it a whole lot easier to have those needs met. This skill has two components: knowing what you want, and asking for it in such a way that you might actually get it.

As always, swordsmanship can show the way. In the basic class on Tuesday this week, asking for what you want was the theme.

It began in the warm-up, with students spotting each other in the execution of a basic exercise (the scoop). The spotters were supposed to tap their partner on the shoulder when they saw an error, but of course, to start with, they were invariably too far away, and relied of verbal communication instead. So the first fix was I had to ask them more precisely for what I wanted. Once the spotting technique was up to scratch, I had them chose either the push-up or squat to work on, using their partner. First they had to identify one possible error (such as dipping the head in a push-up), and ask their partner to watch for it. The lesson: know what you want, exactly, and ask for it, exactly. People generally are pretty good at being co-operative, but very bad at mind-reading.

The rest of the class went the same way; each student would ask for what they wanted (“give me a mandritto, not too fast”; “let’s run the dagger disarm flowdrill, you break the flow, I’ll try to counter it, put me under pressure”), and their partner would give it to them.

And here is the catch; every time you are giving your partner what they ask for, you should be doing it in such a way that you are also working towards your own goals. Every action can be improved in terms of mechanics, consistency, accuracy, and so on. So even if (especially if!) your partner is a beginner (relative to your exalted level of accomplishment), you should be getting useful practice out of giving them what they want.

Whenever I am asked to do a seminar somewhere, I always ask the organisers and the attendees to be really specific about what they want. We then set goals, work towards them, and run diagnostics to make sure we are meeting them. This practically guarantees not only improvement, but also student satisfaction. But only if, and it is a big if, the students present ask for what they actually want. Not what they think they should want, or have been told to aspire to.

A senior student recently came to me with motivation problems. I asked him what he wanted, and we discussed his goals and how we could work towards them (I see my job as helping my students meet their goals, whatever they may be, so long as they don’t go against my overall goal of restoring European martial arts to their rightful place at the heart of European culture). In this process, he admitted in a kind of embarrassed way, that he wasn’t really into the history side of these arts at all. He was much more interested in the practical, physical swordsmanship. Alleluia! Progress! Because he could articulate what he wanted, I could tailor his training in that direction. No embarrassment required.

The relevance to daily life should be obvious. You must first be honest with yourself about what you truly want. Then ask for it, specifically and without reservation. That way, you might just get it.

Beginner you are not, hmmm? image from www.freepik.com
Beginner you are not, hmmm?

Beginners are the future of any martial art. And lucky too: the best learning environment is when you are the least knowledgeable person in the room. Anyone you train with can teach you something. It is more difficult to keep learning when you are surrounded by relative beginners, and this post is about how to do it. When I moved to Finland in 2001, I was by a mile the most experienced practitioner of European swordsmanship in the country. Literally everyone I crossed longswords with knew less about them than I did. This could easily have lead to stagnation, but I managed to keep learning by:

  • Cross-training 3-4 times a week with other martial arts, one-on-one with senior instructors; basically trading classes. The potential for contaminating my interpretation was huge, but the upside was I developed a lot as a martial artist.
  • Travelling a lot to international events, paying for it by teaching classes there. I treated these trips mostly as recruitment: when I saw an instructor I thought I and my students could learn from, I hired them over to teach seminars. We average about 3 such seminars a year (in the last 9 months alone, Stefan Dieke, Paul Wagner, and Jörg Bellinghausen have all taught here).
  • Learning how to train usefully with beginners.

This post is about the last on that list. We have a beginners course starting next week, so Tuesday’s basic class focused on how the students can train effectively with the new students when they arrive. I will summarise the approach here, for students about to work with beginners, then describe the class step-by-step as a potential class plan for instructors facing this issue.

1.    Be a perfect model. The rule of beginners is this: show it to them right a thousand times, and they will eventually copy it correctly. Show it to them wrong once, and they will copy it perfectly first time. I mean no disrespect. This is just true, and I’ve never seen a beginner for whom it wasn’t. So having beginners around demands that your every action is as perfect as you can make it. No pressure then.
2.    Work at your own level. One of the things beginners have to learn eventually is the terminology of the art. So on the beginners course we do things like call out the names of the steps (accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare, etc.) and they have to do the named step. For more experienced students in the same class this could be unimaginably tedious, but should not be: they are expected to work at their own level. So while they are all doing the same thing, some are working on remembering the terms; some working on perfecting its mechanics; and some are working through possible applications, from power generation, to avoidance, to specific plays.
3.    Use the randomiser. In pair drills, the beginner will naturally get parts of it wrong. Excellent. A genuine randomiser! The attack may be too strong, too far away, too close, in the wrong line, anything. Your job is to effortlessly and spontaneously adapt the drill to the specific conditions of the attack you get, not the one you expected. This demands 100% focus on what is happening. When it is your turn to do what they just attempted, you have to demonstrate it perfectly according to the drill, of course. Your training alternates between 100% perfect tactical choices in real time, and 100% perfect mechanics in your own time. Sounds like 100% perfect training, no?

You should also note the following:
•    The attack is never “wrong”: you get hit only if you fail to defend.
•    Your correction of the attack will be much more convincing if it comes after the attack has failed, than if you just got hit.
•    Coach by modelling, not explaining. Beginners are not stupid, they are just not-yet-skilled. They need opportunities to practise, not a lecture.
•    This kind of training demands 100% focus on the specifics of the attack that you get, not the one you expect.
•    When training with beginners, you have an opportunity to go deep, making a few actions better. But you have less chance to go wide, using a broader range of actions (because this will bewilder the already overwhelmed beginner). When paired with more experienced students, you could take the chance to go wide if it doesn’t conflict with the overall class goals.

So relish the influx of new perfection-demanding random action generators, and relish the fact that in a decade or two, they may well be vastly better at this than you are now. But they will always remember and be grateful for the help you gave them when they were starting out. You may be helping to train the next Bruce Lee, or Aldo Nadi, or even Fiore dei Liberi.

If you find this useful, please share it with your friends!

***
The Class:
We began by setting the goal of the class: to teach the students present how to train usefully with the beginners. Usefully for the beginners too, but specifically usefully for themselves. I explained briefly the three principles above, and then we applied them. This class followed the normal structure: warm-up, footwork/mechanics, dagger, longsword handling, longsword pair drills.

Warm-up
I had the students warm themselves up, structuring the 12 or so minutes according to their own current needs. For some this was the first time they had done that. This got them into the right state of mind: using familiar structures and content, but customising them to their own needs.

Footwork
We then did the basic footwork terminology drill: I called out the names of the steps and turns and they have to do the named action. Then I had them tell me what they should be working on during that drill. Some needed practice at remembering the terms; some were working on perfecting its mechanics; and some were working through the applications.We then did the stick exercise, so they had to use the steps spontaneously.

Dagger
We started as usual with the first play of the first master, and modelled what you should do if the attacker is either too stiff (execute the play perfectly: it works just fine), or too hesitant to strike (ignore the attack, until they learn to actually strike the mask).
18th1stmaster

We also covered the 18th play, what you should do if they are really really stiff.

This should be accompanied by a quick verbal correction, and you modelling the attack for them.

Longsword handling, solo drills
Here we distinguished between a beginners course class, and a general basic class to which beginners can attend. (In my School, all beginners are entitled and encouraged to attend all basic classes.) On the beginners course, you should stick exactly to the drill that has been set, so that the only thing the beginners see is the thing they are supposed to do. So do that thing very, very well. It’s an opportunity to work on the basics. The constraint will highlight things to practise. This lead to the following immortal line:
“All of your problems, in the salle and out of it, stem from imperfect basics.”
In normal class, students are at liberty to train the exact drill as set, or any more basic form, or any more advanced form, unless they are specifically instructed otherwise. I expect students to train at their own level.

Longsword pair drills
We had been working on the stretto form of first drill the previous week, so we took it up again. (For those not in my school: first drill begins with an attack that is parried; the stretto version begins with an attack that is counterattacked into. Let me point out here that it is not the counterattack that determines largo or stretto, it’s the nature of the crossing of the blades: for a fuller discussion and examples see the wiki.) This allowed me to point out that the “basic” version is actually mechanically more complex than the “more advanced” version. The reason for learning the first one first is that it is tactically more basic, and easier to keep in mind. First parry, then strike. Parrying and striking all in one go is harder for most people (not all) to grasp. So we then looked at these two drills as:
•    Parry against the attack (first drill, largo form)
•    Attack against the attack (first drill, stretto form)
•    Which begged the question: what happens when a parry is parried?
Which is what happens all the time with beginners learning this drill. They attack as they are supposed to, but as you start to parry, they instinctively change their motion to put their sword in the way of yours. This leads to the two swords bound together, usually near the points, and suddenly the defender’s continuation as set in the drill makes no sense.
Of course, this type of bind is shown in the treatise: the first master of the zogho largo.

1stMasterZL So we looked at the book, and executed his plays as a response to a poor attack. And then used the attack as a means to draw out the defender’s sword to where it could be bound, and practised the same actions but with different intent. The attacker could bind the sword and take advantage of the crossing generated, or the defender, perceiving the change in the attack in time, could take advantage of the fact that the attack was no longer coming towards them, and execute the plays. This made the point that the difference between beginner’s mistake and advanced technique is often more about why you do it, than it is about how.
We completed this study with the variation on first drill that leads to the third play of the master of zogho largo crossed at the middle of the swords, where his scholar grabs the blade and strikes.

3rdplay2ZLBecause those that know might be about to angulate around the parry, or parry the riposte, while beginners might just be a bit stiff. So the attack could go one of three ways (bind the parry, proceed as in the basic form, angulate), and the defender was expected to effortlessly execute the proper response. And to think: beginners will give you all that variation, at genuinely random intervals, without even being asked to or trained! How fantastically useful is that?
We concluded the class, of course, with first drill, basic form, no variations, every action perfect. Because you have to show it to them right a thousand times…

Week 4 and we are half way through the course. We ran through a normal warm-up, including kicking squats, knuckle push-ups and falling. Then I had them remember as much as they could of the four guards drill, with minimal demonstration. A few of the attendees had missed last week’s class, and this really highlighted what they had missed. I made the point that we run the class for those who have been attending more regularly, but provide as much help in catching up as we can. We then reviewed the three turns, which string together nicely into a little drill (yes, I really do need to catch up with the wiki updates!).

They then had some free practice of the four steps (note, only a superficial demo, so they practice remembering), with the four guards and the three turns. And out with the stick- it was carnage! They had all forgotten how to get out of the way, so we reviewed the exercise. Then I made the point again that these steps and turns are natural actions, that you will do without thought when someone swings a stick at your head- but by classifying them, ordering them into a system, they can be studied and taught. And while the stick was in play, they had naturally done a particular combination, stepping the front foot offline, then passing across. So then we studied the accrescere fora di strada, passare ala traversa combination in isolation.

This brought us on to the third master disarm (PD MS), which we studied for a while, then the first and second plays of the first master (disarm, counter), then the third (ligadura mezana, aka wrap). So, a complete review of the dagger material they have covered so far. We broke for a moment for an intelligence test— I had them hit the ground with their fists. Sure enough, almost all used a hammer fist: but most had been doing the hand strike after the ligadura by straight-punching their partner’s mask. I made the point that striking hard targets with the knuckles of a closed fist is a high level skill, which they have not been taught. I may also have gone on a bit about how boxing gloves have degenerated the noble science into a sport, but heigh-ho.

Then the disarm of the ninth master. They don’t know it, unless they read this blog (as they should!) but the flowdrill is coming next week. All the pieces are now in place. We looked at the technique in the book, then they got to practice whatever dagger material they liked.

Thence to swords and the cutting drill. First just mandritto fendente from donna destra to longa to zenghiaro, and roverso sottano back up; then as a separate drill roverso fendente from donna la sinestra to longa to tutta porta di ferro, and mandritto sottano back up; then we strung together part one of the cutting drill. I also spent some time having them distinguish between tutta porta di ferro and coda longa.

Then to first drill, steps one and two, from last week; then we did step three, the only actually new longsword material this week. At the end I challenged them to find step three (yield to the parry and enter with a pommel strike) in the manuscript for next week.

All in all, good progress!

One of the difficulties of training in any art is the lack of measurable feedback. Every body is different, and there is little we can do to provide objective goals. Enter the tape measure.

Readers familiar with my Max Your Lunge approach to developing a good rapier lunge will see where this is going…

In the intermediate longsword class last night we had a small turn-out, which lent itself to some serious measuring. We  started by measuring our maximum possible reach, from the tip of the sword to the edge of the back foot.

measuring the swordsman

We then struck at the pell, and measured the linear distance on the floor between the back foot and the base of the pell. This gave us a ratio between actual comfortable striking range and our natural reach. We marked position of the base of the pell on the floor, to provide a quick reference point.

reaching the pell
reaching the pell

To eliminate the effect of blade length on the proportions, we subtracted the length of the blade (crossguard to point) from both figures. The range spread was huge- including the blade, our tallest measured 342cm, our shortest 288. But the proportions were strikingly consistent.

I then had the class work for 10 minutes on range, doing whatever exercises they thought might help (this is not a basic class). Then back to the pell, where the average improvement was about 10%! Clearly, these students did not warm up properly before class.

This gave us a sense of their maximum reach. But what proportion of that would we actually use? So next up we hit the tyres, and when that was working well I went round and measured their reach. An average reduction of 42%. To hit hard we want to get closer.

But what about the threat? So next they did the same blow (mandritto fendente) against a partner who would counterattack (step 2 of the stretto form of First drill). And out came the tape again. Now they increased their range from 58% of maximum to 79% of maximum.

So, the correct measure to strike from depends on what you want the strike to do, and the tactical circumstances in which it is to be done. There is value in being able to strike comfortably to the maximum reach of your skeleton, but more value in always being in the right place to strike according to tactical circumstances.

For those of a mathematical bent, here’s the spreadsheet. I am no expert at either spreadsheets or maths, so feel free to spot errors and let me know!

the data

The initial lessons from this are:

  • Targeted warm-up increased range by about 10%
  • Warm range minus blade length was between 48% and 66% of the foot to fingertip length
  • You should be able to reach about 60% of your foot to fingertip length, plus blade length.
  • Your maximum power range is proportionally about half of your warm maximum reach. This was the most variable measurement.
  • When striking against a resisting opponent you will tend to compromise power and reach, using about 80% of your warm maximum range.

So, things to check and work systematically towards are:

  • Being able to comfortably reach to about 60% of your foot to fingertip length
  • Reducing the difference between warm and cold: keeping your body such that warming up becomes unnecessary to strike at your maximum range.
  • Extending the range at which you can strike with power, from wherever it is towards your maximum warm reach. Leverage ensures you'll never get there, so it's a lifetime goal.
  • Understand the relationship between measure and tactical circumstances: more range = less power but more time to react to the opponent’s response. Your ideal striking range will depend among other things on what you expect your opponent to do. The perfect starting point for the attacker in the basic form of First drill is about 70% of maximum range, but that should be increased to about 80% if you expect a counterattack. Good luck making that kind of calculation on the fly!

I don’t mean to suggest that we should reduce the Art of Arms to a set of statistics. But this kind of practice can provide a measurable, objective, set of targets to aim towards, in certain specific aspects of your skill at arms. So go forth and measure!

On Tuesday March 5th we began the 2013 Spring beginners’ course. The goal of the course is always the same: to provide a safe and approachable way for interested people to begin training in the Art of Swordsmanship. As usual, we start them off with Fiore’s Art of Arms, not least as this has the most real-world applicable mechanics and demands only normal range of motion. It also has a breadth of weaponry, which allows us several approaches to the same fundamental principles.

This course is unusually undersubscribed, with only 10 people in attendance by 6pm. So keen readers of this blog will find the content and organisation of this course to be quite different to the last one. As those that know me know, I never plan classes as such, as there is no way to predict the specific make-up of the class, in terms of experience, interests and aptitudes. As far as possible, I tailor all classes to the needs of the students present. One of the purposes of writing up this beginners’ course is to provide a second example of a correctly-done course that is totally different to another correctly-done course. I intend also to write up a full comparison of the two, explaining the reasons behind the differences.

We begin, of course, with the book, Il Fior di Battaglia. I showed them the book on the lectern, and made it clear that they were always welcome to check what we are doing in class against the source. Then the safety briefing, which boils down to one rule: Everybody must finish class healthier than they started it. And is followed by what we expect of all students: Behave at all times as a reasonable adult.

Then we got cracking on the warm-up, taking it gently. The group as a whole are reasonably able to make their bodies go where their minds tell it, just the usual assortment of weaknesses brought on by the 21st century lifestyles we all lead. Unusually we did not go through the basic falling practice, just did the roll-and-up exercise at the end of the warm-up. During the push-ups (taught swiftly from scratch) we separated the skills required into two: keeping the body straight, and bending and straightening the arms under load. We did them separately and then together, then let them practice whichever bit they found harder (arms, body or combination). The warm-up began and ended with the swinging exercise, and I was careful to point out why, thus introducing the idea of running diagnostics to assess the effectiveness of a given practice. Towards the end of the warm-up two more students showed up, having got the time wrong. We could not let them join in, as they had missed the safety briefing, but to their credit they stayed and watched the whole class, and we took them through much of the material during free training.

I then had them do the four steps, passare and tornare first, followed by accrescere and discressere. Then to the book to see the text where Fiore wrote about them. While we were there we went to the four guards, longa, dente di zenghiaro, porta di ferro and frontale, then did them, one at a time, with passing steps. Of course, I used our mnemonic “grab his throat, break his jaw, thumbs in eyes, head on floor”. (For a bookful of such poetic gems, see The Armizare Vade Mecum) Once they had tried them all, I gave them a couple of minutes to practice whatever they could remember, however best suited them, on their own. This done, I pointed out that they had just demonstrated to me that they could perfectly well practice without help, and so could train at home without supervision.

To illustrate the guards and transitioning between them as a way of describing motion and therefore time, I had the class stab each other gently with daggers— the one being stabbed could see the guards happening as natural elements of the motion of drawing and striking. After introducing them to the destroyed-by-medieval-weapons modern fencing mask, we then repeated the stabbings with everyone masked up. This lead naturally into the first play of the dagger, the 1st master’s disarm. First, they did it. Then we looked at it in the book, then did it again. I then smowed them how to check for lines of strength and weakness, and we did it again. The inevitable “wouldn’t you get cut” question duly was asked, so I demonstrated the technique using a big sharp kitchen knife, then they did it again. Then to the book for the second play, the attacker’s counter. Here I made the point that this is a knightly art, and so for professional warriors. There is no moral virtue in self defence here, this is for killing your enemies and gaining renown. So the attacker can counter the defence, and we are as versed in attacking as we are in defending.

This all took us to 7.15, so I showed them how to get a sword off the rack without blinding anyone, and we went through the salute a couple of times, and, as we had plenty of room, straight into swinging the sword from shoulder to shoulder, while passing forwards. After a few reps to get comfortable, I had them pay attention to leading with the blade. I always demonstrate this with a senior (in this case Ken), and have him stab me if I attack leading with the foot. All students were then issued with an imaginary homicidal Ken to strike against. After some more reps, we went to the book to look at the proper cutting lines (jaw to knee) and I mentioned forehand and backhand (mandritto and roverso). And it was back for more reps, before finishing with the salute.

Note that we only did 3 “techniques” but the first and last were done several times with the option of a different focus for the mind, such as leading with the sword, or the line of the blow. In this way a lot of information gets packed into a small number of physical actions. The first iteration is always just “do this action”, with no distracting instructions. Better ways of doing the action come later.

In all, we are off to a very encouraging start!

Last Tuesday I was still away in the USA, teaching a seminar for Lonin and doing some consulting for CLANG. Ilpo Luhtala covered the beginners’ course class, and this post is compiled from his notes.

There were 17 beginners attending, plus a few more experienced students, and overall Ilpo thought it went pretty well. I had asked him to prepare the class for second drill, which I intend to cover in tomorrow’s class (the last of this course), by taking them through the 3rd and 4th plays of the 1st master of the dagger. (They covered the 3rd play last week, so only the 4th is new.) He took the opportunity to tweak the class towards his own current training interests, without introducing inappropriately advanced material, by emphasising grounding and hip work in the dagger plays and in 1st drill. The exercises after the warm-up also focused on these issues. The message was: your hips are stronger than your arms. (Ilpo is currently working on remaining grounded while moving.)

Though the class did not go through 2nd drill, he demonstrated it at the end, underlining the connection to 1st Dagger Master 3rd and 4th plays, so when we do it tomorrow, they will at least have seen it.

The class went like this:

18:00 -18:15: Warm-up, introducing pair push-ups

18:15-18:27:  Four guards drill, emphasising what it is for. Grounding pair drill. Push hands game.

18:27-18:58: Dagger plays: 1st Master 1st and 2nd play; then 5th play; then 5th and 6th (note 6th play is new); then 3rd, then 3rd and 4th (note 4th play is new).

(For those unfamiliar with Fiore’s dagger plays; 2nd counters 1st, 4th counters 3rd, and 6th counters 5th, hence the pairing.)

18:58 – 19:12: Solo sword training: Mandritto fendente and back; roverso fendente and back; Cutting drill, part one.

19:12-19:30: Pair sword training: First drill: 1st and 2nd steps, then 3rd step added, then 4th step. (All familiar material.)

Free training ran from 19.30-20.30.

 

This evening’s class was the smallest yet; some combination of factors had numbers down to 15. Given that at least four of the missing had let me know in advance, there is no immediate cause for concern. If the next class is similarly depleted, I’ll send an email round to those who I haven’t heard from.

Perhaps they were concerned about the warm-up? As promised, we revised 3-point push-ups. When we got to the swinging exercise at the end, I demonstrated hand, hip and leg initiation, using each to strike a kickbag with a backfist. Hand initiation is fastest and least powerful; leg initiation hits hardest but takes longest. We then did the swinging exercise each way, emphasising the choice we usually make in WMA: hand initiation.

We then revised the 3 turns and 4 steps, then the 4 guards. I then defined the correct length of the guard position for them (yes, I know it varies, but beginners need a starting point). Our definition of the correct length is the spacing of the feet that gives the maximum travel of the weight during a volta stabile. I had them pay attention to that while doing the four guards drill.

Then we used gentle pressure to check the details of posta longa, and applied whatever insights were gained in the defence of the first master of the dagger. (Grounding makes much more sense to beginners when it is applied to some useful purpose, I find.) We also revised the roverso disarm, and then I taught them the 9th master disarm from scratch.

With these three techniques in place, they were ready to have a go at the dagger disarm flowdrill.

I then took them to the book to show them the 9th master in all his ball-busting glory. We then looked again at the blows of the sword in the book, before tooling up and practising the mandritto fendente from donna to zenghiaro, and roverso fendente from donna to tutta porta di ferro, that we had done last week.

From there I tied these actions together into part one of the cutting drill. This proved a step too far for some, but well within the competence of others, which is normal for this kind of course.

We then revised first drill, steps 1-3, and had time to cover step 4. So they now know the whole of first drill.

All in all, this is perhaps the fastest beginners’ course I’ve ever taught, not least because so many of them are showing up on Thursday. We even had one brave soul try to attend the advanced class last night (I didn’t allow him to join in, of course, but he seemed to enjoy watching the class and stayed on for free training afterwards.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) prescribe a specific drill or exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) how do you use your voice when coaching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In all cases being careful not to disrupt the lesson.

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

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

All in all, an excellent day.

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

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach left-handers

Teaching Teachers, part one: Class Instruction

Between last week’s class and this one (on the 9th of October) we saw six out of the 24 attend class on Thursday 4th – this is an excellent proportion, especially for the first week. It takes some guts to show up with so little prior experience, but they all got stuck in, and seemed to enjoy themselves. A large part of my job is taking 21st century office slaves and getting them sufficiently fit and strong to do medieval martial arts. The first of this batch to attract my attention in this regard is a tall, slim gentleman with back issues. So I spent twenty minutes or so with him after class working on posture and core strength exercises.

Day two of the beginners’ course saw one new face (who had been sick the week before) who brought with her a history of forearm tendonitis. My specialty. So we spent some time after class fixing that, with massage and wrist strength training exercises. (What on earth makes the average doctor think that strapping up a wrist for a year will actually help? Muscles that don’t get used waste away. Sure, the inflammation in the tendon dies down, but there is nothing stopping it coming back. Doh.)

The class began with the warm-up, almost exactly the same as last week’s but with less time to do more stuff. I added in our current favourite shoulder stability exercise, and cross-squats. I promised them kicking squats this week… We then went straight on to revise the four steps and four guards from last week, then I introduced them to the stick exercise– to get them to do these steps naturally and without thought.

We then gave the students the usual “a mask is not armour” speech, and showed them our utterly destroyed fencing mask – what happens when modern sports equipment meets medieval weaponry. Then I had them tapping each other gently on the mask with wooden daggers. When that was going nicely I taught them the First Master disarm, then showed it to them in the book, first the four strikes, then the five things, then the first master and his play.

I find it works best to show the beginners the technique a few times, let them try it, make a few tweaks, and get them to experience a few successful repetitions, before showing them the book. That way they recognise the images from their own experience, rather than perceive it as something new and different. Then I had them repeat exactly the same exercise having had the source, with all its Italian weirdness, explained to them. So they try to assign the new fancy names to familiar actions, not the other way round.

When that was going nicely I added the counter (second play first master), not least to hammer home the idea that this is not self defence- this is a medieval combat style for professional warriors., there is no moral value assigned to defence per se. The action we were doing, by modern standards, is simply murder- how to strike with a dagger despite the target’s best efforts to stop you.

This took us to 7pm, and we picked up the swords, saluted, and got busy swinging them up the hall. After that was re-familiarised, I had them think about hiding behind the sword as they strike.

I then demonstrated the cut done to the mask, by having a beginner, with whom I had never crossed swords, tap me on the mask while I practised not flinching. It is vital for them to see that they can do it safely. And that I am not asking them to do anything I would not do myself.

It would make no sense to stop there, as practising being hit is of limited value. So we added the parry from tutta porta di ferro (not that I gave them the terminology just yet). I just told them to hit the incoming sword away, middle to middle, using the edge of their sword.  And lo! we ended up at the book again having a look at the second master of the zogho largo. Literally 60 seconds or less of “look at the book, isn’t that cool” and it was “go back and do it again, now that you know what it is”.

That took us to 7.30 and the final salute, after which the President of the SHMS handed out a printed copy of the training guide to each member of the course.

Every evening, before class, the salle is cleaned by the students. Usually this entails just a swift floor-mopping, done more for show than effect. Last night I arrived early and was cleaning the bog. It seems that none of my students are really bothered by the gradual accumulation of filth, and so it tends to be me that clears the drains, cleans the toilet etc. That by itself doesn't bother me so much, but I was amazed by the way that as they arrived, almost none of them got the idea that the salle wasn't clean enough and not even the usual floor mopping got under way without my  pointing out that it needed doing. I despatched a senior to get the downstairs hall floor done. The eight or ten students left just milled about doing nothing. So when 6pm came, and the guys downstairs cleaning the hall weren't finished, I delayed starting class till they were. And made some remark about teamwork. Cue a mad dash to the door, followed by a steady trickle back as they realised that it was just a two-man job.

Swordsmanship is a solitary pursuit. There is no team in the duel. You're on your own.

But this doesn't mean that we as a school don't need each other, and should be better at working together. So I ran a fairly hard warm-up, emphasising exercises done in pairs (shin pushes, leg swings, push-ups where one lies on his back with his hands up, the other clasps hands and they alternate- the one above does a push-up, the one below a bench-press type action). We then did sit-ups as a team- all together, in pairs with ankles lonked, all together in a double line, doing them in synch, clapping palms with the partner, and introducing a medicine ball passed back and forth up and down the line. I then devised a whole lot of dagger drills done in small teams (of 2, 3 or 4), such as dagger collection- only strikes with the dagger to the mask count, and cost a push-up when hit. You also lose your dagger. One member of each team held the collected daggers, but could not strike (the “armoury”). If the armoury is holding multiple daggers, and is hit, the team loses all of them. The team that ends up with ALL the daggers wins, and assigns push-ups to the losers. So the best teamwork lead to the least push-ups.

The sit-up exercise introduced the idea of rhythm, so the rest of the class was spent looking at tempo, and especially setting up an expectation of a certain timing in your partner and then changing it to catch him wrong-footed. We started with simply repeated attacks, with varied timing, then altering the timing of the parry, then a parry-riposte flowdrill with changes of rhythm, then looking at counter-selection as regards timing (some actions take longer than others- after your attack is parried, parrying the riposte takes less time than entering for a pommel strike, for instance).

So, a bit of a crap start led to a pretty good finish.

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