Training needs less Ego and more Leggo…

I have been in a number of discussions about how to teach/couch people to develop a range of skills.

I have been doing some reading around various sport and martial arts pedagogy and there has been one very important thing that stands out. The key to advancing in any activity is ‘simple practice’ or practice that focuses on gradually building higher level skills through constant practice and refinement of the fundaments.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a trainer of the tournament arts is how do I get a student to develop a range of necessary skills to succeed in armoured combat. It is one thing to get someone to be able to strike the pell correctly or to run through a pad drill but get them to be able to move and cut to an opening in an opponent’s defence while moving the shield into a good position is another.

What should be obvious at this point is that any time you run into a problem teaching a high level skill to someone there is a problem with one of the fundamental skills that supports it.

If all of the fundamental movement skills are there it shouldn’t take much coaching from me to get someone doing a pretty good version of what I want them to do. If it takes me more than five minutes to get someone to start grasping what I’m asking them to do then I start to think there may be something more than “bad technique” at play.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate my point. On the right are High Level Skills we all want to do and on the left are Fundamental Level Skills that are often lacking when someone runs into problems with them…

High Level Skill Fundamental Level Skill
Throwing a pendulum Warm up motion
Striking with power Body movement and position
Flourishes (combination attacks) Body Position and foot work
Thrusts Returns and grip

So this list is just by way of an example but you should get the idea. You could even have another column to the right of the fundamental level skills of Foundation or Body Movement Skills such as body weight squats, lunges and Kettle Bell swings, but that is another post.

Now the problem many people run into is that we all want to focus on the left hand column but it is right hand column that holds the keys to real progress.

This means that often when we want to improve a high level skill you don’t want to look to a higher level skill or technique, you want to look back at the fundamental skills and techniques and improve on them.

Again, this gets tough when the Ego tells us that we’re too advanced to go back and work on the basics or, worse yet, that we’ve gotten this far without mastering them so they can’t hold the key to going even further.

This mindset comes from protecting the image we have of ourselves as a “good” combatant and not from a sincere desire to master our art at a higher level.

The funny thing is that by focusing on your fundamental level skills you’ll improve your high level skills without really trying.

“If you continue in this simple practice every day you can attain something wonderful.” – Shunryu Suzuki

The key is a “simple practice”, one that focuses on gently nudging our high level skills up through a constant study and refinement of the fundamentals.

 

 

Being lazy can be good

B and C duel

 

I would like to present some notes on power generation. In Oplomachia we refer to Frame Weight Transfer, or just moving the body into the cut or thrust in order to provide the power required to hit hard with a weapon. This is a subject for another post.

What I want to address here is the idea of power without effort.

Throwing a good cut is much like firing a gun. Once the initial explosion has taken place in the barrel the bullet flies of it own accord. It accelerates naturally and does not need to be push along. While this is technically not quite correct I would like you to keep this analogy in mind.

What is important to realise is that you will never be at your best when trying your hardest. That is you will be able to move and cut more efficiently if you are going at less than 100%. Almost universally, experienced combatants hit their hardest a around 80% and almost as hard at 50% of their effort.

Think to your own experiences. Have you ever delivered a cut with natural movement thinking it was way too light, only to have your opponent stagger and say that you do not have to hit them that hard? This is now the realm of good technique.

Try this experiment at you next training. Have someone hold out a shield for you to hit. Now hit it as hard as you can several times. Have your partner note the power of each strike. Relax. Take some deep breaths and shake out the arms. Now throe the same cut but at 80% of your effort, stay relaxed yet focus on delivering a smooth cut. How hard was it?

Now experiment with a dozen or more strikes going up and down randomly: 50%, 80%, 30%, 90%, 70%, 50%…Loosen up between strikes. Again ask the person holding the shield how hard the cut were. You may be surprised.

You may need to experiment with dialling the ‘volume knob’ in on the desired settings to find your personal optimal setting.

Another aspect of cutting with power is to applying force to the weapon as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Think again the bullet analogy. We must move the body forward to apply forward motion to the weapon and these needs to be a focused movement. If you are tight or stiff it will be hard to accomplish this smoothly. If someone is trying to go at ‘100%’ they are often too tight.

Imagine a video of your swing that is broken down into ten frames. For how many frames are you applying frame weight transfer? At what point do you squeeze the hand to make a solid cut? A new swordsman engages their muscles too long and then too soon in the movement. They are self-conscious about the attack. They are trying to remember technical details. They are using all sorts of energy to move and direct the sword through all ten frames. A more advanced practitioner, in contrast, stays loose and relaxed kicking off the sword in the first few frames and then not tightening until frame seven or eight. At higher levels this last phase may only occur at frame ten.

This efficiency is not soft in anyway. Efficiency does not slow down or weaken the power movements but limits the duration.

Do not confuse speed and power with effort.

Spears!

While I was in Perth I can a quick introduction to Spear work in the Oplomachia style. Several people have asked me for the notes so I’ll provide them here.

This should also go along with Count Gemini’s video on spear and the first spear form.(will add links soon).

 

Terms

Aggressed Stance – stand with body square and feet shoulder with apart. Move the back foot two ½ steps back. Weight on the balls other feet and knees bent. The back foot is the one on the same side as the hand holding the butt end of the spear.

Grip– Forward hand halfway along spear. Back hand at the butt end, this hand is then as far back as you can (point or long guard).

Thrusts are lined off the back shoulder

Greek Thrust – Extend Forward Hand. Bring Back Hand to armpit. Half step forward. Point stays level.

Sliding Thrust – With either a ½ step or passing step. Extend both hands forward, letting the spear slide through the Forward Hand. Do not let the hands closer than about a foot.

Swiss Thrust – Lift spear over head and slide spear forward as per the Sliding Thrust.

Parries must be quick ‘beats’ snappy and return to guard

Outside – push heel of hand out.

Inside – Volta to beat opponents spear away but keep point on line.

High – lift spear straight up, keep point on line (Swiss Thrust).

Low – Squat and beat. Do not drop the point

 

First Spear Form

Aggressed Stance

Face north, left hand leading. Outside, ½ step, Sliding Thrust. Inside, passing step, Sliding Thrust.

Turn to face south, right hand lead. Outside, ½ step, Sliding Thrust. Inside, passing step, Sliding Thrust.

Face east, left hand lead. High Parry, Swiss thrust. Low Parry, passing step, Sliding Thrust

Face west, right hand lead. High Parry, Swiss thrust. Low Parry, passing step, Sliding Thrust.

Face North and come to parade rest.

 

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.

If the shoe fits…

Someone the other day pointed out that all of us in the Whyte Companie wear period(ish) shoes and boots rather than the more common GPs or steel caps worn by many combatants. During the conversation I remarked that it was not only an appearance thing but also almost a necessity to have footwear that was both light and that you could have the right balance and ‘ground feel’ in.

We have talked before that in tournament combat footwork is primary. Most mistakes in any technique begin with problems in stance and position. So it is vital that you have the right equipment to allow you good footwork. I would venture that heavy boots weighting a few pounds are not the best tool for the job.

Looking though the fechtbuchs everyone is wearing reasonably light turnsole shoes or boots (I am going to ignore all the very pointy ones…). So it follows that using such shoes is entirely appropriate for our tournaments, particularly as the feet are not a legal target.

Most Eastern martial arts forgo the use of shoes in any form. This is often to allow the participants better balance and movement. It allows you to move easily on the balls of your feet rather than having the weight on your heels. Japanese tabi are a good attempt to produce a shoe with good ground feel. We have found that light shoes enable similar ability.

I have one student that has extremely fallen aches and has been wearing GP style boots for a long time. Their footwork needed to develop more flow and quickness, so I convinced him to try training in some Vibram FiveFigures.(1) The difference in footwork was immediately noticeable, and the student reported that they felt they could move a lot better than with the older boots and that they were generally more comfortable.

So for those of you wanting to work on your foot work I would almost insist you lose your GPs or Johnny Rebs. Try doing some training in bare feet or very minimalist shoes. Get yourself into something light and reasonably period. It will make a world of difference.

(1) Our Kingdom rules say that all combatants “must wear sturdy footwear which provides adequate protection and support of the foot an ankle for the terrain and activity of combat”. So Fivefingures are probably not kosher at official combat events unless you do something about covering the ankle and they look unacceptably modern. But then the riding boots I use are only light 1.5mm leather and that gives me almost no ‘protection’. Having said that I have a pair for all my out of armour training.

Class notes from Knights School

Here are the class notes from Knights School held in Sydney, September 2012.

It was basicaly a copied version of Count Gemini’s excellent class on shields (avalable on yourtube).

Defence – Knights School September 2012

 Measure

Time + Distance + Line = Measure

  • Time is the time in which it takes to execute a cut or respond to a defensive option. The shorter the distance then the faster a cut will reach the target.
  • Distance is how far away things are. Range.
  • Line is the line between opponents (face the weapon) and the line of the attack.
  • The three options – Out of measure, in measure, closed measure.
  • Measure is defined by the longest reach/weapon

 Shield

  • The Shield must be the primary defence – control of measure helps
  • Position of the shield – stacking the defence.
  • Three shield positions Open, Mid and Closed
  • Sword and shield close as range diminishes – open doors with rain coming in
  • Strong and weak parts of the shield
  • Control Point
  • Historical use?

 Movement

  • Leading foot moves first
  • Always on the balls of your feet
  • Maintain an effective distance for your weapon

When training, always go back to your footwork. Most mistakes in any technique begin with problems in stance and position.

The wisdom of cats

Last week I was at Lochac Knights School. There were about 70 participants and teachers all gathered to further their understanding of SCA combat. I was a good weekend with some interesting observations. I may write something about this soon.

In the meantime I offer here a small story about how a cat can catch a rat. It is originally a kendo/Japanese tale, changed here only a little.

Once upon a time, there was a man called Nicolas who lived in a small village near Gent. He lived alone in his house except for a great, big rat.

He asked his friend if he could borrow three alley cats from him as he knew alley cats were good at catching rats. One of them was extremely quick, the other one was full of fighting spirit and the third one was good at catching rats from any distance. However, none of them could catch the big rat.

After a while, Nicolas heard that there was a famous old cat living in the next village who was good at catching rats. “That’s it!” he thought to himself, “I will get that cat to catch my rat.” He brought the cat back home with him the next day.

The old cat didn’t look like he could catch anything. He didn’t look fast or quick or clever. The rat continued in his insolent way and ran around the house as he pleased, but as soon as the old cat walked into the house, the rat suddenly ran to a corner of the room and stopped moving. He was as still as a stone. The old cat slowly walked up to the rat and caught it easily.

The three alley cats were really surprised. They had never seen a cat quicker or faster or more clever than them. And this one certainly didn’t look like he could do the job. Later that night, Nicolas saw the three cats with many other cats sitting around the old cat listening to his story.

The youngest cat said, “I have a lot of techniques and I can move really fast. But that didn’t work.” “I see.” The old cat said. “It seems you have just learned the technique. That’s why you couldn’t get him. Speed is not everything. If you are obsessed about catching your target quickly, you may think speed is most important. You certainly need speed to use your technical skills, but this it is not just quick action.” The old cat continued, “You have to try to watch for the time your opponent is about to lose concentration. This the real technique. Chance is not always visible. You have to feel it.”

Then, another older cat said “I am working hard to control my mind and give mental pressure to my opponent. I always use my mind to the utmost when I fight. I initiate the fight and then I attack. Therefore, I have never lost before. But it didn’t work on the big rat. I wonder why.” “I see.” The old cat said. ”Your fighting spirit is the same as a flood. Nothing more will come out once all the water is gone. You should remember that there are two different kinds of energy. One is the force of circumstance. This is limited. And the other is force from spirit. It is unlimited. The big rat was fighting to death. Its force was from spirit. Showing aggression is not an energy force.”

The third cat came out in front of the old cat and said “I use spirit and distance well for fighting. I don’t attack in the fight. If the opponent moves forward, I step back. If the opponent moves back, I move forward and always keep the same distance”. The old cat said “I see. That is not the spirit for fighting. It is merely coexistence”.

The cats seemed to understand and agreed with what the old cat said. Then the three cats said that it was the old cat’s turn to tell them his technique. The old cat said, “Now I will tell you what I did. There was nothing in my mind. I just let it happen.”

Seventh rule: fights will go on as long as they have to

 How often have you seen a contest start at the lay-on, a brief bit of pointless circling and then both combatants closing in attacking for all they are worth in the hope something will strike home?

Tournament combat should be a deliberate act. Every move is there for a reason, to cause a reaction or to respond to some feint. We create a threat by our position and guards, causing our opponent into some countermove. Even in our preliminary attacks, we are testing the defence, seeking to gain an understanding of our opponents timing and reaction. Like a commanding general we scout out the enemy position, try to find a weakness in their defensive line.

This process is one that takes a good understanding of measure. Come in too close and you are committed and in the fight before you are ready. Too far out and you are no threat, your opponent safely ignoring your plays.

Always remember, just as in Fight Club, a fight will go on as long as it has to. Never be in a rush. Remain calm. This does not mean stand back and do nothing. You must be comfortable on the edge of measure, always a threat and always ready to disengage if you need to. Look to find the moment that will allow you close in for an attack/s. Lay traps, move one way and then once your opponent is responding shift to a different action.

If your opponent is pressing in with a strong attack then you are able to give ground, get out of measure and reset the engagement. Sometimes you need to do this several times, all the while seeking the opportunity to counter.

Quite often, your opponent, used to the quick flailing encounter, will grow frustrated and make a mistake, over extend or commit at the wrong time. This is then the moment in which you are able to capitalise. In turn, you must be patient but always ready.

If your opponent will not close then sometimes you must go to them. Again misdirection is vital. Confound their distance and timing. Make them pause so you can control the range.

Be confident in your skills and training. Use the weapons the way they are made for. Stay active and moving. Be calm. Never give your opponent space to rest or relax. Most importantly take your time!

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.