No Buts But the But

 I thought I would share some comments from a serious coach, Dave Nixon. I have done a small edit to put this into the realm of swordsmanship.

The power of linguistics is amazing. You can literally swing the mood of a conversation with one single word.

There are a few words we should remove from our vocabulary straight away. One of these words is the word: But.

Whenever providing feedback refrain from using this word at all costs. But takes away. It’s the middle of a poop sandwich. And nobody wants to eat one of those.

Simply sub it for the word ‘and’. This subtle little change makes a massive difference on the back end. ‘And’ adds to your point. Rather than taking away.

Example… “That was a good cut, but next time keep your stance lower and it will be even better.” “That was a good cut and next time think about a lower stance to make it even better.” A simple example that makes a massive difference on the back end.

Next training session, pay attention to just how often you said the word but.

-Dave Nixon.

Going without GPS

So here we are again, writing on this little blog.

Back at Easter I was in Melbourne for the National Kendo Championship and grading. The main aim of this was to go for my first Dan grading.

I had been preparing for this exam for some time. I was attending every training session I could. I spent time at home revising kata. I was going to ace this with flying colours.

I failed.

The study of any martial art or combat sport will always have its ups and downs. There will be time were we have a crap training session. There are time that, despite all our training and efforts we get knocked out of a competition a lot sooner than we would have wished. We have bad days were nothing goes right.

Now I could give you some nice hippy stuff about ‘we all have bad days’ and ‘setbacks build character’. I won’t. These times suck. Sometimes they suck total ass, and there is nothing you can do about it. Life can be like this. Not everyone can be a winner.

It was a long drive back from Melbourne.

So what can we do when we have failed at our goals or not reached our expectation?

I am not sure I can answer this. Sometimes we only need to wait until a new day and things will be different. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and go again. Each of us will have our own share of disappointments and failures. I suppose that is just the nature of things.

What is important is that we do pick ourselves up again. Maybe we will walk away; maybe we will look at what we need to do next time. Each of us has to answer this stuff in their own minds and hearts. It is because we hazard the chance of failure that makes the pursuit of success something worthwhile.

So after the bitter disappointment of the Melbourne exam I took a bit of time out of the dojo. I got some feedback from my teachers, all of whom told me of their exam failures. Some perspective was gained and maybe some humility learnt. Training began anew.

So after a very short time I was able to test again, this time in Sydney in June. I passed. So here I am, kendo first Dan. This is a big thing for me. I have had support form a bunch of wonderful people to get here. But this is just another step. In time the disappointments will be forgotten except as some dim memory as will the successes. There will be new thing to do, new challenges. I will both fail and win through. This is just the way of things.

Setting Goals

Setting goals is an important way of progressing your training. Setting goals will help guide your training and give you distinct techniques and actions to focus on rather then just going out there and fee-sparing.

One way to approach this is to set a goal that you can achieve in a few months. The more specific this is the better. Then use this goal to inform smaller, short term goals than can be achieved within a few training sessions.

These goals should follow the SMART format.

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Attainable – attainable, agreed upon, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Here is an example:

Main Goal- Do well in Baronial Championship
Specific – target a specific area for improvement


Get to fifth round of the Baronial Championship

Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.

Win at least three rounds.

Attainable, agreed upon, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

I am letting my training partners know about this and get there OK to help me train.

Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.

I am my trainers thing this is realistic, but getting a good draw may affect the outcome greatly.

Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

The Tournament is in September. I have six months to train for this.


As you can see the goal here is a bit generic and does not have specifics. That is fine as this general goal then gives you the broad schema for working out how to add the detail.

In the example you have six months to prepare. Break this now down into monthly segments and also work out specific techniques you want to work on.

Example of things to work on to achieve Main Goal:

Get shield defence better, get pendulum cuts to work, make wraps better, fix helm strapping and work on fitness.



Short Term Goal- get pendulum cuts to work
Specific – target a specific area for improvement


Be able to throw a pendulum with power and speed.

Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.

I will be able to hit my opponent with a pendulum with good power and speed

Attainable, agreed upon, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

I need to practice this on the pell and then in training. I need to work with training partners to drill this technique.

Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.

I can do this but will also have to work on setting up the placement and timing.

Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

I will work on this for the next four weeks.


We now have a short term goal that is reasonably specific. You now break this down again into single ‘micro’ goals that are achievable over a single training session or week.

For the pendulum example the first week goal may be to get three 20 minute pell-work sessions practicing the cut. The second may be starting to use the attack in pad work and drills. The simpler you make your short term goals the easier it is to work on them.

Remember that achieving your goal now becomes your victory conditions for free-sparing. So at a practice, you are working on pendulum. Even if you get ‘killed’ most of the time, as long as you are getting pendulums to work then you have ‘won’.

How formal you want to get with your goal setting is up to you. I keep a training diary and keep notes of what I am working on, what is working and what is not.

The important thing is to go into each week with a good idea of what you want to do. This then will also guide what you do at training in armour (or out of it).



Main Goal-
Specific – target a specific area for improvement







Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.





Attainable, agreed upon, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented





Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.







Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.







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.

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.

Do you even lift?

It has been asked “what would you recommend for a beginner to become conditioned for heavy?” A good question and one that is worth a bit of discussion.

Firstly SCA tournament combat is an activity that does not require a high level of fitness. It is an activity (like many sports and martial arts) technique is the main determinate of outcome. Yes big strong people are going to get a good head start as they can shortcut the basic techniques, but they often only go so far before the lack of good form prevents their further progress. The average duel really goes more than 10-30 seconds of actual physical effort and most people can do this.

Having said this I think that improving your strength and conditioning is a very good idea. I talked about some general conditioning and training ideas previously. Improving your fighting endurance is good for training. The longer you can stay in harness swinging a sword then the more you will get out of a practice session, the more experience you will build. An example of this is person A, who can only deal with 10 or so bouts at a session and person B who can fight 20 bouts in a given practice. It is obvious who will gain in experience at a faster rate. Having good ‘armour fitness’ also will make tournament combat a more enjoyable activity. It is a lot more fun doing this if you are not on the side lines gasping for breath every other bout.

In addition to general endurance some strength is also desirable. This is mainly because being general stronger just makes doing anything physical easier it also helps in the prevention of injuries. However strength cannot replace good technique.

So where does someone start? The answer is largely dependent on what your current state of fitness is and how much time and effort you want to devote to this part of tournament combat. I’ll assume you do not smoke. If you do, stop. Smoking is not good for you health, you will have difficulty breathing, it does not make you attractive, you will small like an ashtray and to will die early with a horrible disease…

Anyway – even reasonably fit people will have some difficulty when they put on armour. They are often not used to having to carry and move that sort of weight about. Remember when I wrote about the concept of Specificity? This is the idea that to get better at something you need to work at that specific thing.

So it follows that one of the best training methods for improving your combat endurance is to be in armour a lot. So when you are at your regular practice session keep going to were you would normally get tired and stop. Now do a few more passes with someone. Make sure that you maintain your form and do not get sloppy. The idea here is to push a bit more into your fatigue levels each time, not to break yourself.

You could also do some interval session while in armour. These are variations on attack and defence drill. Working with a partner one of you attacks continuously for 10 to 20 seconds (good luck, this is a long time) and then swap roles. You get a rest while you block your partner’s attacks. A good idea is to do this fast but no power.

From this point there is a lot you can do. Remember that specificity is important. Training for a marathon will not help that much (but would be cool anyway). No one ever lost out working on their general fitness, so try running, riding a bike, go for a hike or take the stairs. Go outside and get your heart rate up and you body moving.

Strength or resistance training is another aspect of combat training and conditioning. While there is a lot of information out there a lot of it over the top and aimed at those people who want to do body building and massive arms. Ignore most of this.

For people new to all of this basic body weight exercises are an excellent place to start.  You cannot go wrong if you do some squats, push ups, dips and pull ups. Primal Fitness is a good book to down load and have a look at and it is fee. Another excellent website is Nerd Fitness. Follow the links, read and try some stuff out. Like I said previously, no one ever regrets getting stronger and fitter.

If you are already going to the gym on a regular basis then you are on the right track. Just step away from the machines and pick up some free weights. This goes double for woman combatants. I have my students focus on the main lifts; dead lifts, squat, bench-press, shoulder press and bent over rows. You could probably drop the arm and shoulder stuff and substitute pull ups if you want. The important thing here is that you need to left heavy things. For most people one session a week is more than enough as long as you work up to the edge of your capacity. Make sure you have good form and maybe get some instruction from a qualified person. Working with big weights does carry a risk of injury if done poorly.

So to go back to the original questions about what can a beginner do. Get in armour and stay there as long as you can. Push yourself that little harder every time. Do some resistance work, body weight stuff is fine and squats are king.

Going the Distance

There was a short conversation last night about what sorts of training are useful for tournament combat. There is a growing trend of combatants hitting the gym and this is an excellent trend and we should all be doing this. However I feel that too many people are not using this time wisely.

Working on strength is a good thing but it is often over emphasised and done poorly. I will write more about this soon because what I would like to talk about here is endurance issues.

Being the strongest person on the field is not that useful (and in my experience often leads to poor technique). A good level of strength is important but it will not help you if you gas out after a few rounds or halfway through your bout. What is important is a level of endurance and the ability to recover quickly.

Now for some science.

This is going to be the very light version. If you want more details then please ask me or do some research.

Remember that nearly every part of you is trainable. While genetics give some people a head start, most skills and abilities are developed over time and with constant work and effort. The body and mind will adapt to the demands placed on them. So if you keep doing a particular sword cut you will get better at it just as if you keep doing a particular lift the muscles responsible will get stronger. This is referred to as Adaptation.

Another important thing to understand is that all training is specific and we refer to this as Specificity. Adaptations brought about by any particular mode of training are highly specific to the physiological demands of that particular training mode. So if you want to get better at throwing a wrap, then practicing a pendulum will not help you that much. Or if you need to develop your leg strength then you need to work on exercises that target these muscle groups (squat, lunge, dead lifts) as all the bench presses in the world will not build the legs. This is why not many things beat being in armour for preparing you for being in armour…

The last principle I would like to mention is the idea of Progressive Overload. The principle is that it is necessary to expose your muscles or energy systems to a level of stress beyond the point to which they have become accustomed. So to get constant improvements you need to constantly work harder, lift more etc.

The big thing I do not want to talk about here is the mental aspect of physical training. Training the mind to do what you need to do is critical. It has been said that “the mind is primary” and it is critical. This is something we can talk about in another post.

OK we now know about the concepts of Adaptation, Specificity and Overload. Good. We need a bit more science.

Energy Systems.

Again I am keeping this at a very basic level. Things are a bit more complex than I describe here but this should give you the basic idea of the principles involved.

In order to move, we need energy. Just as a car requires fuel that it burns to create energy our bodies use a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. Energy for muscles to work is released when ATP is broken down. There is a store of ATP in all muscles; however this is only enough to last for about one second of activity. ATP must then be constantly resynthesised for further energy needs.

There are three systems that are responsible for the resynthesise of ATP. All three of these systems resynthesise ATP in a different manner and are dependent on the duration, power and speed required for the muscle to work.

The first of the three systems is the Phosphate System. This uses the available ATP in the muscles and Creatine Phosphate. Basically this allows a very high output of energy over a very short period of time. Think a 100 metre sprint or a single Olympic lift. The Phosphate System will provide energy for up to ten seconds.

The Second system is the Lactate System. This is used when the activity is of high intensity and short duration. The issue with the Lactate System is that it produces Lactic Acid. As the levels of lactic acid accumulate muscular fatigue will result with a loss in performance. The Anaerobic Threshold is the point where the lactic acid build up produces significant deterioration in performance, fatigue, loss of form, spiking heart rate, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth. All the fun!

In an unfit person this threshold can be reached in about 30 seconds of work at between 60%-70% of age predicted heart rate. In a fitter person this can be about 60 seconds or work between 70% and 80% of max heart rate. So a fitter person can operate longer and harder before the lactic acid build up begins to affect them.

The third energy system is the Aerobic System. The aerobic system is the long term low intensity energy s system. It can produce energy over a long period of time but not at a high intensity. Think here of long distance runners and cyclists.

Generally as you first start to move the phosphate system is in action. This runs out after about 10 seconds and the lactate system kicks in. After about one to two minutes this in turn runs out and your body switches to the aerobic system and you can go for a while albeit at a slower pace. Again this is a gross oversimplification (because all three energy systems are in operation but at different rates) but I want you to get the general idea.

Trainign for Combat Endurance

Ok – that was a lot to take in. Hopefully you are still with me. So we want to train with the idea of Specificity. We need to think about the type of activity were engage in during out tournaments. Most bouts do not last for more than around 60 seconds. Yes there is often a bit of initial carefully moving to test the defence or gain a good moment to strike, but our bouts do not last for very long. We are mostly using the Lactate System for your energy needs so it follow that this is the energy system we should be focusing on improving in our training.

Lactic anaerobic training sucks. There is no way around this. It will not be pleasant. Time to suck it up and get one with it. The form of training required here consists of short strenuous bouts of activity spaced between low intensity recovery periods. Remember the idea of specificity? We need to not only replicate the physical demands of a tournament bout; we would also need to push above these levels in order to force the body into Adaptation.

So the main training protocols here are High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which alternates from short bursts of high intensity anaerobic training followed by even shorter recovery and less intense recovery periods.

Examples of HIIT would be Tabata and Fartlek. Tabata training is normally done with 20 seconds all out effort followed by 10 seconds active rest (you slow down rather than stop) for eight rounds. The work period should be at your absolute maximum effort. If you feel OK after a Tabata session you have not done it right. This may be the worst four minutes of your life.

Fartlek is similar except the work periods are randomised and over a longer period. So a possible session would be a jog for 60 seconds, followed by a hard run for 30 seconds, followed by a jog for 30 seconds, followed by all-out sprint for 10 seconds, followed by a walk for 30 seconds. This would then be repeated for a total of 20-30 minutes.

We also need to go back to the idea of Specificity. The training effect here is muscle specific so you need to do a routine that has the maximum of full body movement. We use elliptical machines as they are readily available and easy to use. You could also do HIIT style stuff in armour. Using either a pell or a training partner go all out for 20 seconds, slow down for 10 and then go again…

Now the nasty bit. As you get fitter in this regard you will have to step up the intensity of your workouts. As your body adapts you will need to progressively up the work load. However if you are at a level that is satisfactory (and almost none of us are) then maintaining that level still requires some work but not the same level that building it does.

The last thing I would like to mention and this is very important. Please make sure you have a reasonable level of general fitness before doing lots of HIIT sessions. These should be hard work and will place a lot of strain on your cardio vascular system.

Right that was a rather long post. I hope some of you find it useful. Fitness and training is much more complex than this but we need to start somewhere.






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.


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


• 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.

A matter of manners.

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.

A discussion about practice

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.

Deliberate practice.

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.

Mindless Practice

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.

Three Problems

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.


Deliberate Practice

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.