On working with novices

On of the more difficult thing we must due during our training is work with and spar against novices. There are a number of things you need to be aware of and due when working with new or lesser experienced people than you. It must be a good experience for the novice, not just blasting them out of their socks every time. To help people with this part of our training I am attempting to write some notes to acknowledge and assist with this process. Any comments or suggestions are going to be well received.


Working with new combatants

Understandably, novices who are in armour and fighting for the first time will be anxious at the thought of being hit and or looking awkward. Getting hit is an adjustment that most people need time to get used to as is hitting someone back. It is totally normal to feel nervous and a bit overwhelmed when it is your first time in amour. For some people it takes a long time to get used to what is going on in a full paced bout.


Start light

When you are sparing with a novice who is just recently in harness it is important to start with light contact and build you up to harder contact. Make sure the novice is ok with what is happening. Take care that you are targeting decent armored areas. Most novices are in loner amour that is not made for them and will not cover everything or may not work that well. You also need to be aware that most people have no amour fitness when they start, do not run them into the ground.


Play against experience

In general I would not get new people sparring with other new people for a while so they can get used to what is going on against an experienced person who can demonstrate good form and control. It takes time to build trust with somebody and know what level of contact they are okay with.



Nobody can read minds so make sure to check how they are feeling. There is no shame in asking for lighter contact. When people get quiet during sparring it often shows that they feel either afraid or they are becoming angry. If somebody lands a good shot that you don’t mind, it’s always a good idea to tell them, “Nice one!” or “Well struck.” You are letting them know that you are okay with the level of contact by giving them those constant little verbal cues.


Fight to their level

It is no good just one-shotting new people, It does not teach them anything. The trick is to fight at just above their level. If they do everything correctly then they should land an attack. It is important to let them succeed to show them that a technique works.

Do not use techniques that they have not yet been taught. An example of this is thrusts. We do not show our novices thrusts until after they have been fighting for a few months, thus we do not use thrusts against them until they have reached that stage in their learning.

It is also important that you do everything you do cleanly and with clean and perfect form (treat this as an excellent training opportunity). The novice will copy what you do, make sure it is worth copying…8-)


Do not overload them

Novices have a lot they need to think about. This is a complex game for the new person. By all means offer some pointers but keep it clear and simple. I generally will only remark on one thing. Any more than this you are likely to create confusion and frustrate the novice who is trying to take it all in.

You must also be aware of the training the novice is receiving. If they are being taught A-frame style DO NOT try to show them something from a different style. This only causes confusion. Just because you have a particular style or move does not mean it is universally applicable.


When does a novice stop being a novice?

Tricky question. Everyone is different and will progress at different levels. As the new combatant grows in skills and experience you can begin to up your levels against them. This is something the more experienced combatant has to judge. Remember, as the senior combatant you are in the position of responsibility and control. Your job is to encourage and demonstrate what good swordsmanship is like. If the lesser experienced person walks off the training field believing they have gained something and want to do more, you have won.


Some thoughts about training etiquette

I thought I would jot down some of my thoughts about etiquette and behaviour during our training sessions. This is in addition to the points I made in an earlier post here.

Be ready

This should be straight forward. Be ready to go. Do not leave your training partner/s waiting for you to get your helm on or for you to do whatever. If you are running late or are delayed, let the people running the session know and allow them to proceed without you. Remember that we often do not have large numbers and some drills and exercises need several people there to make them work. In short, do not make people wait for you.

There is one teacher in the room

Again this is a basic piece of courtesy. There is one person running the class or session. Follow their instructions. By all means ask questions but this is not the place to start a long discussion or demonstration of your take on things. Offering correction is fine (if you know what you are doing) but do not start instructing other people.


Keep things short and concise

We often have to break for a quick check about the effects of an attack or something that happened. Most of the time this should be very short. We are here to train not to talk. So, if you strike someone and they ask if it was good give them an immediate answer. I thought it was good/not good/flat/whatever. Then they can decide. Remember it is always the person receiving the hit that calls the result.

We use some short hand to let people know what is happening. Anything more than a few words and you are taking too long and waffling. If you need to long discussion then wait until you take your helm off.

Shield-the weapon hit the shield and the shield hit you, please do not take it.

Traffic- the weapon hit stuff on the way in, please do not take it.

Not face – the weapon did not go into the face but has hit the helm, unless it is a good hit, please do not take it.

Not good/crap/etc-I do not think I got enough power in the attack, please do not take it.

When calling something be clear – a simple yes or no/light is all you need.

If there is ever a doubt then the strike is probably not good. Your job is to deliver an attack as to leave your opponent in no doubt.

Giving and receiving feedback

During feedback/critique sessions keep your feedback concise. In general keep your comments to one or two points. Be specific. “Your foot work needs work” is not a useful comment. “As you enter range you plant your feet and stop moving” is useful. Be mindful about other people lerning styles and progrssion.  Your feedback should be constructive and this includes an awareness of how different people interact.   

When receiving feedback accept it gracefully. Yes you may be working on something specific and this is a good thing, but listen to the comment, note what you need to, thank them and move on.

Understand that you will not always receive positive comments. People are trying to help you by spotting things you need to work on. If you want positive reinforcement on how awesome you are watch Oprah reruns.

(I know I will offend some folks with my Oprah comment, I very much understand that it is important to receive positive as well as constructive feedback. Training  is more likely to be a situation where you get feedback about where you can build on your skills.  Use tournaments and wars as the basis for ongoing positive affirmation.)

If you are not getting something out of it…

Training will at times be hard, sometimes it wil hurt, particularly if you are struggling with learning or developing a particular skill, however it should contribute to your overall enjoyment of your martial art.   If you are not enjoying the training, take the time to talk with your trainer at the end of the session about this.

Basics basics basics

I thought I would share a conversation I am having with one of my students (Ben the Undersided). He has been very focused on his training and is reaching a point were other people are starting to take a little notice. This notice then comes with offers of advice, “you should do this, have you thought about the other thing…”
In the meantime I have been trying to get my students to stick to the basics or fundamentals and not been too keen to branch out yet.
What is also interesting is Ben’s subsequent comment about this realisation has moved from something he knew in an intellectual sense to now being able to now comprehend at a deeper level.

So anyway here is B’s thoughts on focusing on your basics.

I know I’m flogging a dead horse on this, I sort of had mental/physical epiphany this morning and I needed to share it (and thus understand it better).

If you can’t get the basics to work properly, you’re wasting your time trying to do anything else. Especially in practice. I think too many people are overlooking this.

Years, and years, our sensei (previous Japanese martial art) yelled at us basics basics basics. Because his sensei yelled at him the same. It’s a fact of life. But sensei said it took him years to genuinely understand the importance.

When I joined the SCA, by rote, I sort of knew to focus on basics. So I have, even more so recently.
We have to train these basics to a point where we no longer need to actively think about them.

Now, we all know this is because footwork, timing and technique are basis of all fighting, blah blah martial arts 101. These are what keep your alive, and guarantees the other guy will die.
What occurred to me is the importance of having these for learning capacity, as a beginner.
If you are having to concentrate on the footwork, measure, timing, technique (guard positions & striking) – you leave little mental capacity to concentrate on learning anything more complex on top of this. The moment you try to concentrate on something more complex, you’re having to let those basics run unconsciously. If you stuff so much as one little thing up, whatever is you’re doing will probably fail. That could be the basics, or what it is you’re trying.

As a beginner, 99% time one of your basics are going to fail if left to their own devices. i.e not get the frame-weight transfer on the shot, drop your shield, not get the line etc. If your opponent’s basics are working properly (due concentration or practice) – you’re ‘toasted’ as Count Felix says. Because if I’ve faced the weapon, sitting in a good guard, in control of the measure, I can cover that attack and fire a shot in to whatever gap/line/timing you’ve left open by mistake – potentially without even thinking.

That idea that in the fight, I’m looking to exploit the mistakes (or weaknesses) of my opponent as are they. The more mistakes I make and then offer to my opponent, the more they have to exploit. And the sooner I die.

I can force those mistakes (by misdirection) or encourage my opponent to take actions that are susceptible to mistakes – this is however more advanced. But all that is futile if I’m presenting a mistake from the engagement – because he’s going to toast me from the get go with something basic.

So for us beginners, we need to be getting that focus and training with respect to our basics. Without that solid foundation of fundamental basics skills which can function autonomously – we’re not able to apply the more advanced stuff in combat beyond luck.

Most of this was has been provoked by something (another combatant) was trying to show me. I immediately understood what he was up to (effectively fighting from the bind, but with sword & shield), but it occurred to me that it was a waste of time to practice at my level – there’s other more basic things I needed to focus on. If I did that to you, I’d die in a heartbeat.

The Elephant in the Room

As most of my readers would know, I spend a lot of me time teaching the arts of tournament combat. I will be in Perth, Western Australia next month doing just this. One thing I put on the table very early at any of these session is that I work in a very particular school (Oplomachia) of combat techniques.

Too often people see SCA tournament Combat as a single art. In being a single art a student is free to pick up what they can from where and who ever and add this to their repertoire of technique.

I am firmly of the belief that is simply not the case. SCA combat is evolving into multiple different schools. While there are some commonalities, there are growing differences in techniques and terminology.

An example of this would be looking at the German and Italian long sword schools. Same weapon, different terminology and approach. While many of the techniques are similar there are enough differences that trying to combine them does not really work.
Another example may be comparing it to the different eastern martial arts. So having me trying to teach someone trained in an A-frame style is like a karate instructor trying to run a class in ju-jitsu. There are just too many differences for this to be a simple task and only leads to confusion and poor outcomes for the student.

However there are some things we can sometimes talk about in common. Ideas such as timing, measure etc can often be usefully discussed. When schools are closely aligned there will be more in common, however there are those schools that do things so differently that trying to cross the divide is difficult indeed.

So why is this important? Firstly we need to understand that there are many different ways of combat and that no one way is the only way. We also need to avoid the habit of people trying graft on a range of different techniques and ideas from all over the shop. This is like trying to get a black belt by learning the move of the month from a martial arts magazine.

It is also important to understand that in doing things differently it does not mean that it is incorrect (being crap and not striking with edge aside). I have had some very senior Knights tell me that one of my students did not throw a particular cut and was either offended or confused when I told them that we did not even teach this move as it was almost impossible for lightly built people to deliver it with good power. What they saw as a standard attack in their school was being ignored in mine and they were trying to judge people on their own standards irrespective of how relevant they may have been.

In the end we should be aware that there are many roads we can explore and not one road is necessarily better than others. What I would say is that some roads are well sign posted and other not. Enjoy your journey.

Nerds vs. Jocks

There have been a number of discussions on–line, over beers and in the car about whether or not SCA Tournament Combat is a sport, hobby or a martial art. The answer one gives is often very dependent on what the individual either gets out of their involvement in the group and/or their approach to the activities.

One example of this is a local combatant who sees Tournament Combat as a sport. Because it is a sport for them, they see that if something is allowed under the rules then it is OK. Shortcuts and sneaky plays are not only justifiable they are encouraged within this mindset as it is the win that is primary. On the other side of the scale I also have a trainee who very much sees this as a martial art and thus the way they achieve a victory is the more important thing. They will call back a cut if they were not happy with the technique or thought it was not a good hit. Cheesy moves play no part in this person’s game. I also have someone who is very much the hobbyist. For this person it is all about the look of the thing. Flashy sword moves are to be promoted, regardless of the actual usefulness.

I think many of use exist somewhere between these points and we may indeed shift our perspective over time and dependant on event and activity. What is important here is that we need to understand that what makes sense to one person will not appeal to another and these views are often grounded in how the individual understands what it is we do.

One example of this is the use of the shield to pin the opponent’s weapon and arm. The sporting school would say that using the shield to block is fine in the rules and any pushing back onto the arm (which is not allowed) is unintentional and the opponent should not have allowed themselves to be so pined. The martial artist may suggest that such a move is poor form and that blocking the weapon in such a way prevents the person from being able to fight back thus preventing a truly challenging contest. The hobby people may think that clubbing people is not fun and would not like to be treated that way in return.

This is vastly over simplifying such issues but I find it gives me a useful insight in to peoples outlooks and behaviour.