I was working with one of my students at the last combat practice session. I was trying to get them to reflect on what they were doing and be able to articulate what was working and not working during their bouts. The replies I got were overly generic and consequently not very constructive.
When we look at analysing our martial arts performance it is useful to set up a framework from which we are able to have a useful conversation about what it is we are doing. It is important that we are able to be as specific as possible. As an example, here are two comments; “I was fighting like crap and can not hit them” or “When my opponents attacks to my shield side I am trying to hit them with a moulinet but I cannot get the power happening for it to be a good strike.”
The first comment is so general to be useless in a training sense and such comments also leads the speaker to internalise this idea of “I am fighting like crap therefore I am crap”.
The second comment is a lot more specific. It is something that both a trainer and trainee can work with. From this comment you can run though a list of things that would improve this play. Are their feet in the right position (Measure)? Is this the best attack to use in that circumstance (Attack Selection)? Are they moving the correct way to cut through the target (Delivery)? Once the error is identified, and it may be a combination of things, it is then possible to work on correcting these errors.
So having an analytical framework is very useful. I borrow a schema from Sir Sagan. Break down your fight into two principle areas, Offence and Defence. Now divide these up into five considerations.
•Measure (distance, time and line)
• Target Recognition
• Attack Selection
• Measure (distance, time and line)
• Threat Recognition
• Defence Selection
So when you are thinking about your performance in any particular bout or training session try to break what you are doing down into these categories.
If someone keeps hitting you in the one target (onside head/neck) think about why this is happening. Are you letting them get too close? Are you able to recognise the initial threat? Is your shield in the wrong place? Be specific about what you are doing, or not doing.
It is just as important to carry out the same analysis of what you are doing well. It is not enough just to defeat your opponent by throwing lots of attacks and hoping something gets through. Your actions need to be deliberate and purposeful. Understand why a particular attack or play works. Be able to describe what you do using the points listed above.
You must always be aware of how you fight and also how your opponents fights. This is not an easy thing to do, particularly in the middle of an armoured duel but it is a part of being able to progress your own skills. Use this information to work on those techniques that you may be weak on. Just remember to be specific and break it down.
Sometimes we can become a little lax in displaying proper courtesy and etiquette during our training. Remember that you cannot train without other people to practice with. They are giving up their time for your training as are the instructors running the session.
So here are some ideas to govern your conduct during training sessions. Some may comment that this is overly formal. In some ways this is true, but it is partly the intent. We should be training with a level of seriousness. We only have a limited amount of time to train and practice, so it is important that we make the most of it. A degree of formality helps in the smooth running of a class. It is also important to extend respect and courtesy to those you train with. Remember we are all armed…
Turn up with enough time to be ready at the start of the training session/class.
Be ready on time and always move quickly throughout the class.
Stack all your personal items and gear neatly against the wall or at the side of the area.
Treat your sword as you would a real weapon. Do not lean on it or throw it.
It is extremely rude to talk during a class. If you need clarification on any point then ask the instructor directly.
Keep your harness in good condition (wax steel to prevent rust, fix straps and points and keep clothing laundered).
Do not step over anyone’s equipment — including your own.
Do not touch anyone else’s equipment (even to move it out of the way) without first asking permission.
If you MUST take a break during class, politely salute out. Take a moment to catch your breath or cool down if necessary and then work your way back into class. If you have to leave the session for any reason, please let someone know.
Respond with ‘yes’ or ‘sir’ when given and instruction. This lets the person running the session know you have understood what is required and/or you are ready.
Salute your partner at the beginning and end of any exercise.
Drills are not a game of tag. Focus on doing the movements correctly and always reacting appropriately so that you and your partner both benefit from the drill.
One of my students has recently brought up an excerpt of martial philosophy taken from Munenor’s Life Giving Sword. This was in the context of developing your martial skills as opposed to just looking for the set group of things that will score you victories.
The Death Dealing Sword – one meets an opponent head on, bringing death to his sword.
The sword is poised to strike first. You strike your opponent down with no consideration for his offensive play. You deal death to his sword, stopping it dead in its tracks. And then with your sword you deal death to your opponent. The path of the death dealing sword ends only in death
The Life Giving Sword – one gives life to the opponents sword, leading the opponent to a place where he gives up the sword, hence giving life. An opponent should be subdued without killing him.
Your guard is open, your sword is poised neither for blocking or striking but able to do both. You allow your opponent to strike, and in giving life to his sword, you give life for your sword to take any opportunity you so chose. The path of the life giving sword has no end.
A death dealing sword is effective, but can not resist the life given from the life giving sword. And in doing so, it will come alive and present its weaknesses like a normal sword.
So is this just more ‘listen carefully grasshopper’ commentary? Looking through this I think this idea has something to tell us about tournament combat. To put it into our context then-
‘Death Dealing’ is brute forcing through your opponents. Presenting no gaps, and driving your own sword into/through the gaps of your opponent before he can react. This is the combatant that has a few effective moves and then seeks to use these no matter the opponent or circumstances. While effective such an approach will reach a point where these techniques can be countered and the combatant is unable to adapt to the new contest. This person tries to impose their own will on how the fight should evolve. This is often the path of what I have called ‘the 80%’er’, this is the person who is effective and can win 80% of their bouts but lack the range of skills and/or willingness to risk the outcome to try something different to defeat the top 20%.
The ‘Life Giving Sword’ is to present the openings/fakes/feints/movement, which causes your opponent to present their own openings, to which you can then exploit. This is the combatant that controls themselves and the bout as a whole. They invite their opponent to reach too far or step in the wrong direction. They are not reliant on any one master cut. They can adapt to whatever the fight brings to those involved. By allowing the fight to develop on its own accord the combatant is not trying to force an outcome but allowing the moment for action to present itself and be in readiness to act.
Last year I was pondering my performance in the Rowany Fighter Auction Tournament. The quick summary was that I had muddled my way though the list relying on tenacious defence and fitness to win though. I was not happy with this performance and challenged myself to do better. Since then I have been working steadily in improving my technique and other tournament skills.
I played around with going back to a big shield (24 inch half round). This was too big and just got in my way so I have been cutting down the shields and am now using a 20 inch diameter half round. There has been a bit of advice to switch to a small heater or wankle, but the half round is what I have been using and comfortable with. I know that I should mix it up a little but I think at the size of shield I am using the shape is not that critical.
Most of my training has been working within the Oplomachia School of combat. Here I must give full credit to Count Syr Gemini and Duchess Sir Mari. There support and encouragement has been essential. I will also thank all the combatants I train with. They put up with my schemes and training ideas.
Improvement in the tournament arts is often slow and gradual. It also requires a level of commitment to getting it right and not being lazy. These things are hard in this Kingdom as the pool of high level combatants are scattered over and entire continent.
So in this year’s Fighter Action Tournament I entered with high expectations and under the eye of Sir Mari, who had been running classes in Oplomachia all week. It was time to put what we have been teaching to the test.
My first few rounds progressed well. I had a novice first round who I tried to encourage and have some fun with it. My opponent had already been talked into his own death by his friends…
Second round I drew another newer combatant but they had a lot of other martial arts experience. I could not draw them into any fakes or misdirection’s and had to play a waiting game for them to close in and present an opportunity. These sore of opponents are dangerous in a way as they have very different reactions and timing. It was still early and I could not afford stuff up at this stage.
I do not recall many of the middle bouts in much detail. A few bits did stick in my memory. I stuffed about too much in facing a smaller quite mobile Knight. I was probably showboating too much in matching their movement and position. In doing this my feet were all over the place and I was not fully controlling what was going on. A bout against a tall Count ended quickly as I managed to keep control of the measure and keep them on the back foot. There was also a good bout against a Knight who tends to fight in a variation of A-frame with a big ‘cheater heater’. I gave them an opening to my leg which he took and thus opening him to a moulinet.
One of my favourite encounters was against a Knight from the southern island. I had been working with him the previous day and he had learnt quickly. This was a fast furious bout with him trying to overwhelm my defence and push me back. Not sure how I managed to get out of this but I do remember only just keeping calm and countering.
After all of this I managed to get to finals without dropping a bout. Finals were best of five against a Duke who has a style that is difficult to counter and our bouts often were long drawn out encounters. As it was best of five I think the Duke convinced himself that he did not have the stamina to last though. Anyway it was a solid final with both of us work to be crisp and clean. It was probably one of the best finals in this regard I have been in for a long time.
So, that was a bit of a long winded recount of my tournament for this year. Considering the poor performance last time I am very happy with this improvement. I still have a lot to work on however as there is always room for improvement. So it is back to the pell and the training ground. Remember –always face the weapon.
It is quite natural for many up and coming squires to wonder about what does it take to gain the accolade of knighthood. We do not make this an easy conversation as there is not commonly agreed set of criteria. Too often I have head members of the Chivalry construct a rubric that is ‘just a vibe thing’. While some of this gives you the warm and hippy fuzzies, it is not that helpful for those that aspire to attain this level of accomplishment.
I have talked before about this before and I suppose I am trying to develop my own set of criteria. I believe that it is a good thing to have such a clear and transparent markers. In this way, those that want to be Knights (and I would like to think everyone would want to be at least knightly) have some better signposts to show them the way.
I offer then some things that I am looking for. Remember that these are my criteria alone…8-)
Nobility and appearance
Nobility is a requirement. This nobility should be apparent in both appearance and behaviour. Your armour and equipment must be an example to others. Show that you care and that you will add to the spectacle of the tournament. You must have other accomplishments away from the tournament field. Nobility is something naturally generated as one progresses to a higher level in terms of technique and spirit. Train hard in both physical and mental aspects of tournament combat and face opponents with a belief of winning rather than being possessed by winning.
Attitudes and manners
This is a requirement that applies to everyone, but for a Knight, an irreproachable attitude and manners are required. This goes beyond just ‘do not be a dick’ and becomes an example to all.
Qualifications as an instructor
It is required that a Knight understands tournament combat both in techniques and in theory and is able to pass these on. A knight works to training new people and grow the Society as a whole as well as the combat arts.
In short, this means that one never misses opportunities to attack, use of measure to the advantage demonstrate a good body manoeuvre, does not engage in unnecessary attacks. There should be no unnecessary movement or attacks; it is a result of perfect balance, strikes, techniques and focus. Once you achieve this level of combat, the tournament becomes a thing of beauty in its style of form and movement.
Rational response to an opponent’s attacks and change in technique
The more experienced you become, more rational response to a change is required. Do not be perturbed by opponents, show rational response to attacks or a change in opponents’ attacks. A Knight remains calm against any changes in opponents techniques and respond rationally to it with appropriate counter techniques.
So these are the things I am looking for and indeed they are also the things that I must also continue to work on. While some may see the belt chain and spurs as a reward for your achievements, it is only a marker on the long road of swordsmanship.
I have written before about the idea of having to train and practice a lot in order to improve or martial skills. The 10,000 hours idea has also been brought up a few times.
A group of us have been doing, or I have been attempting to do, the Century Drill. This is doing 100 practice cuts a day for 100 days. So is this sort of practice useful?
The obvious answer is ‘yes’, of cause any form of practice is a good thing right?
I often see people at training or on the pell just going through the motions. This is probably not effective practice. So while thinking about this, a very good article by Noa Kageyama got passed around about better ways to practice. The article itself was aimed at musicians and I am going to shamelessly plagiarise it for the tournament arts.
So, on with Mr Kageyama’s article with some edits…
A Better Way to Practice
When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of ability in any given domain – and in the case of medieval martial arts it is, more like 15-25 years in order to attain an elite level. It is interesting to think that it takes about five or so years for many people to gain the level of Knighthood, well shout of the 10,000 hours for true mastery.
Those are some pretty big numbers. So large, that it is easy to most important factor in the equation.
Meaning, that there is a specific type of practice that facilitates the attainment of an elite level of performance. And then there’s the other kind of practice that most of us are more familiar with.
Have you ever observed a combatant engage in practice? You’ll notice that most practice resembles one of the following distinct patterns.
1. Broken record method: This is where we simply repeat the same thing over and over. Same pell drill, same weapon form/shield, same winning attack or party shot. From a distance it might look like practice, but much of it is simply mindless repetition.
2. Autopilot method: This is where we activate our autopilot system and coast. Just put on your armour and swing a sword around for a bit.
3. Hybrid method: Then there’s the combined approach. This were you see an new technique or weapon style and try to incorporate that one move into your own game. You keep adding cool moves in over time yet will struggle to use it all as a coherent whole.
Unfortunately, there are three problems with practicing this way.
1. It’s a waste of time: Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is why you can “practice” something for hours, days, or weeks, and still not improve all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole; because what this model of practicing does is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, increasing the likelihood of more consistently inconsistent performances. It also forces you to only repeat what you are ok at now and makes it more difficult to clean up these bad habits as time goes on – so you are essentially adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these undesirable tendencies.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent,” and
“practice does not make perfect, prefect practice makes perfect.”
2. It makes you less confident: In addition, practicing mindlessly lowers your confidence, as a part of you realizes you don’t really know how to produce the results you are looking for. Even if you have a fairly high success rate in local tournaments and pickups, there’s a sense of uncertainty deep down that just won’t go away.
Real tournament confidence comes from (a) being able to deal with any opponent and execute all your techniques properly, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because (c) you know precisely why you nail someone or get hit – i.e. you have identified the key technical or mental factors that are necessary to fight well every time.
3. It is mind-numbingly dull: Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Think about doing an hour of pell work…dull? How about an entire training session just repeating basic drills like the perfect circle? Why measure success in units of practice time? What we need are more specific results-oriented outcome goals – such as, practice the pendulum cut until it lands hard without effort and your feet in the correct position, or practice your footwork until you can judge the measure correctly every time.
So what is the alternative? Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just playing through. For example, you might work on just the recovery of a cut to make sure that your body is moving the sword back in the right way and that you are automatically setting up for your next attack.
Deliberate practice also involves monitoring one’s performance – in real-time and via recordings – continually looking for new ways to improve. This means being observant and keenly aware of what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, why did that cut not get taken? Where are your feet? Did your body move the right way to provide power? Was there something out with your timing? Did your opponent manage to get a block in the way?
Let’s say that you cannot get good power in a moulinet. Are you getting any power at all? Is the sword striking in the sweet spot and on target? Are you moving in the right direction?
Let’s say you are getting the moulinet to the target. You are hitting in the right spot and squeezing the grip. Your timing is sound and the cut goes in clean.
Now, let’s imagine you recorded each time you make this cut, and could play back to the last attempt. What do you see yourself doing? Maybe there is a lean back rather than into the cut. Maybe your sword side foot steps away from the target, preventing good frame-weight-transfer. How to correct this small but critical issue?
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Which might explain why few take the time to practice this way. To stop, analyse what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can produce different results the next time.
How to Accelerate Skill Development
Here are the five principles to assist you with developing habits of deliberate practice.
1. Focus is everything:
Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.
2. Timing is everything, too: We are best suited to concentrate and learn at different parts of the day. Some people are morning people and other light up in the evening. Know when you are at your best and see if you can practice then. However this is often impossible as we are often tied to when he group training sessions are being held. Think then of how you can get yourself in a good state of mind for practice.
3. Don’t trust your memory: Use a practice notebook. Plan out your practice, and keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the groove when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear idea of what you want (e.g. making sure my weapon side foot does not slide away during the moulinet), and be relentless in your search for ever better solutions.
When you stumble onto a new insight or discover a solution to a problem, write it down! As you practice more mindfully, you’ll began making so many micro-discoveries that you will need written reminders to remember them all.
4. Smarter, not harder: When things aren’t working, sometimes we simply have to practice more. And then there are times when it means we have to go in a different direction.
I remember struggling with my movement; I was wadding in and waiting for my opponent to make an error. I was just being an inelegant tank. Effective to a point but not progressing my skills.
Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that only sort of worked, I forced myself to think about how I wanted the fights to develop and look. From this I decided to change the size of my shield in order to make me move and have to respond more directly to the attacks thrown at me. This in turn enabled me to see and capitalise of the opening in my opponents defence and look to strike them by being in the better position rather then just waiting for them to make the mistake.
5. Stay on target with a problem-solving model:
It’s extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode. Keep yourself on task using the 6-step problem solving model below.
- Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this technique/cut to look like instead?)
- Analyse the problem. (What is causing it to not work?)
- Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it work the way I want?)
- Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)
- Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)
- Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?
Make Your Time Count
Life is short. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right.
For all the literature and discussions out there about coaching and teaching, the most critical element to this is a willing and eager student. As a student of the tournament arts it is up to you to be in control of your own training and progress. No one is going to make you get better except you.
This may be as simple as having the commitment to turn up every week and get out there and practice. It may be doing 100 cuts on the pell or hitting the gym. These are all things that you alone need to commit to; no one can do it for you.
As often happens, you can receive conflicting or different advice from more experienced combatants. One knight advises to use one type of shield and another tells you to use something totally different. Are they both right? What you should be asking is which kernel of advice is right for you.
Knights (and other people wanting help) will give you advice filtered though their own skills and experience. It is often what works for them or what the common fighting style in their group is. They are trying to help you but sometimes it is too much information or you get too many different options.
It does not hurt to shop around. Find a training mentor, someone who is able to assist in your training and has a good understanding of the combat arts. Ask them to provide some guidance and direction. When you get conflicting advice, run it past your mentor and see what they think is best for you.
This does not need to be a formal relationship such as becoming a squire. Fine someone whose skills and abilities you wish to emulate and begin the conversation. Remember that often these people have their own commitments and do not always have the time or capacity to be of direct help. Sometimes you need to show that you are not wasting people’s time, by displaying your own commitment and dedication to training.
The internet is also an amazing resource. Spend time watching video of some of the best combatants in the SCA or other combat forms. Observe what they do and how they do it. Read some combat or martial arts related blogs. Email, Messenger, Skype and other things are great way of staying in contact with people and asking questions.
To advance in the tournament arts it often helps to follow someone who had been there before you or a very good map, but in the end it is you who are in the driver’s seat.