There are no poor students, only poor teachers.

I would like to take an opportunity to dwell on the topic of teaching the tournament arts. Indeed a great deal of this blog is focused on the discussion of teaching and learning. It is in some ways an attempt to give my readers access to what traditionally would have been passed on in face-to-face situations. We use the tools we have available to make information and ideas commonly available to all who can be bothered to look for it.

So in a world so awash with free information, how can we be sure of the usefulness of what we are looking at? Can I take this a step further and suggest that it is sometimes difficult to establish the credentials and ability of a person running a class or showing you how to make that offside strike.

We live in a place where many ‘teaching’ roles are subject to various levels of accreditation and training. A student will attend a class with the expectation that the teacher has a minimum level of training and is working from an approved curriculum. It is expected that the instructor has a level of attained knowledge in the thing they are teaching and in the act of teaching itself.

There is an important point here. I must stress that the ability and skills of teaching and the skills and knowledge of the thing being taught are two separate and distinct things.

In the tournament arts we have no such accreditation system. In the SCA we give titles to our better combatants and make the assumption that possessing an ability to use weapons is the same as being able to teach it. While the HEMA community has no formal system of titles, I suspect there is a similar group of assumptions.

How then do we determine if a particular person is knowledgeable in the tournament arts? Good question. It is not that difficult to pick up enough information to be able to talk the talk so to speak. I am probably at that level when it comes to many of the historical fechtbooks. I know what they are talking about, probably; understand it to a level that I could impart it in a class situation; only at a very basic level; develop a series of instruction to explore the material in depth, not at all. Yet to a new person I could probably blather on with enough German terms and demonstrate enough moves to appear an expert…

The more formal martial arts have a history of being very careful about whom they allow to teach and you can only open a school if you have permission to do so from your sensei. Sometimes there is even a form of licensing system. This is to ensure that what is being taught is correct. A particular teacher will often give you their martial arts ‘lineage’ as a way of establishing their credentials.

We do not have any such systems or indeed a culture of accrediting teachers. This, of course, leads to all sorts of people trying to teach stuff. Some of them know what they are doing, some of them do not.

It is important that students of the tournament arts be very aware of who they are taking instruction from. The person who has won multiple Crowns may not always be the best person to learn from. Does the instructor have a good understanding of fundamental techniques? Do they know how to work with students of different body types/physique? Can they explain things in a way you can comprehend? The list can be a long one but will mainly be shaped by what your individual needs and aspirations are.

Unfortunately we often do not have the luxury of being able to choose our teacher as there may not be many options in your local group. This can be worked around to an extent. YouTube, Skype and Facebook as augmenters can only go so far.
Another issue is what is actually being taught. I have watched (and had to walk away from) some folk teaching very poor technique that would expose their students to joint injuries or making strikes with the flat of the sword (a particular pet hate of mine). In short, there is some awful stuff being taught out there but I am sure these people are very passionate about what they are doing.

I think, as a teacher, one must be sure you have the right ideas and techniques. A teacher has the ultimate responsibility to get it right. This is not always easy and it takes a lot of work. It is not just repeating a few cool moves you saw on YouTube or in a manual.

I have the greatest respect for those who have progresses to develop their own style or schools. Here are the individuals who have spent countless hours at researching and accumulating experience and knowledge, before they go to the effort of creating a system or school. This doesn’t mean listing a bunch of techniques and then trying to teach it to people. There is great thought into the structure, the hierarchy of techniques, of aspects that go beyond what you see in a technique, and how all this is delivered in a way that MULTIPLE people will make sense of it and make it work for them. There’s psychology of teaching to consider too, not just physiology (which is still complex enough, people do four year degrees to do this).

I think it is always important to acknowledge this sort of effort. It is critical that we have a firm understanding of what we are doing before wanting to repeat what we have learnt. It is one thing to attend a class with someone who has done years of training, researched the crap out the subject, designed teaching plans and curriculums to teach twenty very different students and the person who has only seen the class on YouTube…

I do not want this to sound like I am against people teaching others -far from it. We all, in some ways, are teachers to the people around us and we all have to start some were. I shudder at some of my own initial forays into trying to show people how to swing a sword.

Understanding our own level of skill as teachers of the techniques we are imparting is part of the gift we give to our students – an honest assessment of ourselves and our abilities.

Ultimately what I ask is that we are all aware of our own lineage and limitations. Be humble in what we both know and are yet to learn. Let us give credit to those that showed us the way and make sure we pass on those lessons well.

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Break it all to bits

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.

Offence:

•Measure (distance, time and line)
• Target Recognition
• Attack Selection
• Delivery
• Recovery

Defence:

• Measure (distance, time and line)
• Threat Recognition
• Defence Selection
• Delivery
• Recovery

 

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.