Show me the child at seven

I have been asked to provide some thoughts on how we can ensure the retention of those new people who have just begun their first steps in learning swordsmanship.

Our experience has been that for every ten people we get starting training such as the Beginners Classes only 20-40% will get to free sparing in armour. Of these, 50% drop off before too long. What then can we do to increase these retention rates?

I will start by admitting that SCA combat is not for everyone. It can be hard to get the basics down and it takes time. Compare this to Foam weapons groups were you will be out there wielding a sword in your first session.

My feeling is that we have to provide a range of attractor’s in order to keep people coming back. So here are some of my ideas. I would suggest that these are not in any order of importance as different things will appeal to different folk.

Training and progression

The first thing we need to do is provide new combatants clear and progressive training beyond authorisation. This can be difficult but I am sure most groups could easily together training sessions or seminars on different weapons forms, war fighting, different shield types.  This gives new people a clear path of learning and also means they are not dumped in a tournament facing something that they have no idea of what to do.

I think a grading system would be a useful thing. I am not convinced that we can be able to introduce such a thing on a Kingdom wide scale. However we often do have the awards system and the various guards such as your local Baronial Guard. Make this recognition of progress for new combatants. Something to aspire to and maybe work towards. It trick always is to pitch such acknowledgements at a level that requires some effort. No one wants an award for attendance.

What is important is to give people progressive and achievable goals within the tournament arts.

A place to belong

The social parts of the SCA is often one of the things many people tell me keeps them coming back. Ensure that your new people are bought in to the social activities of the group. Get people to go to events and participate. Invite the new people to the pub after training.

War Units are a good group building activity. Getting your newly authorised combatants to be formally inducted into your group’s war unit can be both good theatre as well as groups building. Call a newly authorised person up in court and hand them a tabard and shield.

Pageantry and romance

Even though I have not talked about this a great deal on this blog, pageantry and romance are one of the big excitements for me. The entire image of banners flying the breeze, gorgeous ladies in the gallerie and heralds calling you to the field to swear an oath to the King, is in many ways what the SCA does best. It is important that we get our new people to be able to walk that stage as well. In their first tournament make sure they are carrying a favour. Make sure this means something. Point out all the good moments. Reward and acknowledge, but again this should be for real achievements and not so every kiddie gets a prise.

This is not for everyone

The final point I would like to make is that the activities of the SCA, LARP, HEMA, Metal Weapons, Battle of Nations, whatever group is not for everyone. Different people will have different levels of interest and involvement. Some things will appeal to differently. There is no shame in this.

I tend to start off by telling my beginning students that this is not the easiest of activities. It can be hard work, painful and bruising, frustrating and costly. But for those who put in the time effort and passion, you can get a lot out of this. Be honest with what it is we do, but also let people know that in all of this there is great friendships to be made, adventures to be had and victories to be won.

Ultimate Fighter Lochac

Introducing ‘Ultimate Fighter Lochac (UFL)’! The idea is that three unbelted combatants are teamed up with a Knight, who they normally would not train under, who then prepares them for a variety of combat competitions in six months time.

There has been a reasonable amount of interest in this project and the predictable amount of trash talking for those who tend to that sort of thing. I am however a bit unsure of what to make of it.
I think have being assigned three people and then having six months to work with them is not going to produce any serious changes to their levels of skill and technique. How many sessions are we realistically going to get in this time?

What is the purpose of the tournament/completion at the end of the six months? Is it to gauge participant’s improvement? This is probably better done as we already judge performance as gradual growth of skills, confidence and understanding in what the student is doing.

Is the final completion to pad the ego’s of the trainers or some of the participants in the ‘winning team’? I am sure this is not the case.

If the idea of UFL is to give some people better access to some of the Chivalry to exchange ideas and maybe learn a little on the way then this is a good thing. But this brings me to another issue.

I am uncomfortable in being assigned anyone’s squires or students. It would be highly likely I would be imparting very particular techniques and way of doing things and I would not want my ideas to be countering what their own Knight is teaching them. This would just lead to confusion and students getting annoyed and Knights being pissed off.

I have had a few people say that this is not such an issue. I am not sure of this. Our combat forms are not as interchangeable as many would pretend. I do not think it is a good thing to mix and match techniques. Try for example reconciling Duke Paul’s school with the Duke Brannos A-frame techniques… There are major and fundamental differences in play. One style will not necessarily mesh well with a style that does things too differently.

I am also going to have to admit that I am not keen about some of my students picking up what I would see as bad habits. Again this is the sort of thing that will just cause confusion and people getting annoyed. This may be ego on my part or just a level of hubris on what I have to say.

As you may have guessed, I have agreed to participate in UFL, despite some of my reservations. I think the final completion is possibly counterproductive but if it motivates more people to train more than it is not all bad. I am hoping that the entire project gives a large range of people some additional ideas and motivation. Maybe it will lead to some people being exposed to other teachers rather than just the ones in their local group. If UFL enables many of the participants to improve what they do then this is a project that will be very worthwhile, and a credit to the person who came up with the idea and is putting in the work to make it happen.

And now a step in the right direction

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.

 

 

A Rubric of Knighthood

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.

Crisp technique
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.

You are in the Driver’s Seat

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.

Passing the Torch

This was going to be a bit of a summation on Lochac Crown Tournament but I may wander off a little.

Last weekend was Crown. I love Crown Tournaments. This is where the pageantry, excitement, expectation and challenges all come together. The challengers to the list are there in their best harness, consorts beautifully dressed, banners and a heady sense of expectation. This is where people bring their A game. In no other tournament are the eyes of the gallery so focused on what happens on the field. Renown will be gained and reputations can be lowered.

Everyone should entre Crown Tournament if they are able. It not only enhances the list but why miss an opportunity to challenge yourself and (this is the best bit) represent your consort on the centre stage of the Kingdom.

This list had 20 entrants, seven of these Knights, rather good for a Lochac Crown. Of this I had about eight combatants from my household and associates, so I was playing soccer mum for a third of the list.

All of them did very well, even after the enevatble late night repainting shields and making surcotes and arming doublets. Many of them this was their first big tournament and I am happy to say they brought the fight to their opponents with dash and élan. It is a tribute to the efforts and time these people have spent on their training, gear and commitment.

But the Tournament belonged to Sir Felix Arnett von Dazing. His bouts were one of the finest examples of control and timing I have seen. He was surgically efficient. It was wonderful to watch. At the end it was Felix who was able to give Eva the Coronet of the Crown Princess.

As some of you would know Sir Felix was a squire of mine and Eva still has a red belt. Seeing your students’ win Crown is a humbling thing. The role of a mentor is always to ensure those you work with can exceed what it is you do. It is an awesome moment when you realise this has happened.

I hope (and probably know) that there will be others to win Crown in the future. But there is that first moment when the young take that torch from you and with that fire are able to run far ahead.

And there are two paths you can go on…

On of the more interesting aspect of our combat form is the idea that the outcome is declared by the defeated.

This idea is neatly articulated in the ‘Laws of Honourable Combat’, these being-

The First Lemma of Honorable Combat being that victory is achieved
only through declaration of the vanquished.

The Second Lemma of Honorable Combat being that the force of a blow
can only be judged by the recipient of same.

The Third Lemma of Honorable Combat being violation of either of the
first two does corrupt the probity of Honorable Combat.

This idea is possibly the most important aspect of our tournaments. It is this that focuses our actions and demands a high level of personal responsibility that is hard to find in any other sport or martial art. We cannot rely on some third party judge; there is no action reply on the day.

We must enter into a bond of trust with all those we face. We must place in our competitors that they walk onto the field with the same honesty as we do. We trust that they will follow the rules and are playing the same game. We trust that they will strike us in appropriate target areas, we trust that they will strike with the blade and we trust that they will strike hard enough that a good attack can be called confidently.

It is also beholden on us to do our utmost to return this same trust, not only to our opponents but also to the Gallery. Our actions must leave no doubt to our honourable intentions. It is sometime more important that we be seen to fight crisply and with honesty. Should I strike my opponent I want it to be without doubt. If they are standing there wondering if a cut was good, then I have not made a successful attack. A good cut or thrust must land so there is no doubt that that it is good.

The same thing also applies to cuts. It is better to refight about if there was any doubt that you did not strike with edge. If you have cut them properly the first time then you can do so again. If you did not manage to cut properly then the victory was never yours in the first place.

Do we use a particular tactic because it is within the rules or because it leads to a great contest of arms? Just because it is permissible does not make it Knightly.

In all of these, your greatest opponent is often yourself. The greatest challenge we face in our tournaments is the defeat of our own ego and desires to win. Yes, victory on the field is what we train for, but it must be tempered by never letting go of the trust that is placed on us every time the lay-on is called.

 

 

Ultimate Warrior

It has been interesting watching the development of marketing materials for SCA tournament combat. I think these are a great step forward and I hope they will bring a lot more people into out game. But there is something often missing. While the flyers encourage people to discover western martial arts or to become warriors there is hardly any mention of being a knight.

I find this a little odd. One of the central themes of the SCA is the quest to better your own skills and character. Why is it that we shy away from placing the quest for Knighthood front and centre to what we do?

Perhaps it is a bit too complex to distil in a short advertising flyer. We already have the idea of warrior imprinted in modernity through games, MMA and mainstream sports. I am sure it appeals to many, particular those more familiar with levelling up in World of Warcraft. He is an idea that you can start as a couch dweller and turn yourself into a warrior, fit, ripped and ready to fight anyone who is in your way.

While I would like to be fit and ripped, I am not sure this is really what we are about. To me the image of the warrior is a little raw in tooth and claw. It comes from a tribal way of warfare. It is the cult of the individual above all else.

What then is the path of knighthood? The ideals of the Knightly arts go far beyond martial prowess. Beyond the weapons and armor of a Knight is the focus of social and personal responsibility. Here then is the shifting of a pure warrior ethos to one focused on several virtues: Fidelity, Justice, Courtesy, Honor, Prowess, Humility, Strength, Courage and Honesty.

It is the knight, not the warrior who stands on the field of combat to win honour and renown for their consort, not themselves. It is the knight who thinks of the group and others first. Perhaps these ideas of humble achievement and service do not market well in a society where the individual is everything? Yes we need our heroes, but what sort of heroes do we need? I am sure that Arthur and Lancelot would have a very interesting conversation with Conan and Rambo.   

 

Still trying to reclaim the blade

Many of you would be aware of my slight obsession with always striking with the edge of your sword. I even did a short clip on this a while back which caused a little bit of discussion in other forums.

 There has been a trend in many SCA groups to simply ignore or to be unaware of the need to treat our tournament sticks as though they were a weapon with an edge.

 Indeed there are some combatants were this ignorance forms a part of their technique (or lack thereof).

 I have even read some members of the Chivalry claim that striking with edge and in the plane of the blade is not necessary.

 The rules here are clear, to quote-

6.4 Effects of Blows

1. Blows must be delivered with effective technique for the particular type of weapon used, and must strike properly oriented and with sufficient force, to be considered an effective, or good, blow.

Lets think for a moment what “must strike properly oriented” means, simply that you must strike in the plane of the blade. It does not mean that you have to strike on the taped edge.

Pretend for a moment that you are holding a real bladed sword. Perform your cut as you would with a rattan weapon. Are you striking with the edge? Did you cut come in along that same line? It is this last bit that is critical, not only for delivering a cut with good power but also for making the weapon work in the manner it has been designed to do.

 Let us look at an example of this, difficult as it is to talk about this without pictures. Someone attacks with a wrap to the back of their opponent’s helm. The sword comes high dropping almost vertically down hitting the back of the helm directly on the strip of tape marking the swords edge. This cut would be considered flat as the arc of the cut was at right angles to the plane of the blade. For this cut to be legal the sword would need to come in horizontally or for the sword to strike on a very different part of the stick.

 Such flat/with tape cuts happen a lot on the fast wraps many combatant use. Indeed I am absolutely guilty of doing this until (to my shame) I saw video of me taking someone’s leg with just such an illegal cut.

 Another common place was combatants throw a flat cut is in attacks to the offside. As they try to reach around the defence the sword will strike with the flat of the blade. Just like the wraps, some of these strikes come in at an angle that would never work with a real weapon.

 Remember that it is the way the sword moves to the target that is the best determinate of it a cut was properly oriented, not the tape making the edge.

 It is true that by ignoring the rule some folk are able to make hits that would have been impossible or slower if they had made a correct cut. To be blunt these people are scoring victories that they have in no way earned. At best they are either poorly trained or ignorant of the rules by which we play. At worst they are simply cheating. There is no honour to be gained by false victories.

 How do we ensure that we always cut properly? I think we need to do several things. Having a proper grip on your sword is a good start. Do some pell work with a real sword is an excellent thing to do. Making sure you are delivering your cuts properly is also a fundamental part of this. Retape your sword and see if there are any marks on the flat of the blade. Use this to correct your technique. Most importantly, be honest with yourself. Are you really using your weapon as it is intended or are you cheating yourself as much as anyone else?

 Have the people you train with look out for any errant strikes. If anyone calls a strike flat, refight the bout. Remember, victory must be by skill not by doing things incorrectly.

 I will be the first to put up there hand and say that I am not perfect in this matter. I have had to drop a very effective attack because I simply have been unable to perform this cut correctly.  

 Unfortunately there are some combatants that are unaware of the requirement to strike properly. This is sometimes the fault of their environment. If you are from a group that does not pick up on these bad habits then it is difficult to correct them. Make them aware of what good swordsmanship is gently. In the end it is only yourself that you have control over.

 I am sure to annoy some people my comments here. That is probably partly my intention. While we all sometimes make mistakes, I have witnessed many examples of combatants who are simply ignoring the rules and this is cheating.

 In the end we all must be honest with ourselves and what we do. In some way this is a true lesson of swordsmanship.