What are we doing here?

As part of a discussion the other day some asked what would I remove from SCA combat to make it ‘better’.

Better is a very subjective idea. A lot of  it depends on what it is you are trying to do. Some people will describe SCA combat as an attempt to recreate knightly tournament combat, others will say that it is live action roleplaying with a lot more bruises.

So here is an attempt to have a think about how SCA combat rules effect what it is and how it works and what may not work.

 

SCA combat has evolved over 50 years mostly by trial and error. It started as an attempt to stage armoured combat of the middle ages. When they started they did not have access to armour, equipment or any understanding of what historical European martial arts looked like. Indeed I suspect that no one had herd of Fiore or Talhoffer at this point.

What then evolved was a rule system that allowed people to put on various levels of armour and go out and have competitions, massed combat and other things. It is a rule set that allows a reasonably simple level of entry. The equipment requirements are also very accessible. The SCA has certainly grown but is not the only game in town. It now exists along with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), HMB (aka Battle of Nations), Metal Weapons, LARP, Jugger and probably stuff I have not yet heard of.

So to create a system in order to replicate combat we introduce rules to make sure people do not get badly injured. This is where we start to get compromises in EVERY system. Even MMA has rules of what you can and cannot do, there is a list of attacks that are not allowed. HMB does not allow thrusts and side strikes to the knees etc.

The more rules to put in place to minimise the risks the further you move from anything approximating a real duel or contest.

An extreme example of this would be some LARP games. No protective gear is needed (apart from eyes) and the weapons are very light and padded and you cannot strike the head. Having some armour gives you extra ‘hits’, all you need to do to score is touch your opponent with a weapon. LARP combat is a matter of just tapping your opponent multiple times, there is no need to take weapon type into account. This all leads to fights that have people leaping about, flailing madly in all sorts of weird ways. Yes this is a lot of crazy fun, a even passable facsimile of historical combat, no. (To be fair, LARP players are under no belief what they are doing is in anyway realistic.)

So what about SCA combat? Let’s look at some of the compromises.

No hand to hand. SCA rules do not allow the very wide range of kicks, punches, elbows, take downs, leg sweeps etc that are an intrinsic part of fighting. Looking at many of the fechtbooks I would argue that many armoured fights would end up with some level of take down or ground fighting.

Taking out hand to hand stuff means we lose a very important component of any martial system. It also means that combatants can stand toe to toe and slug it out with no fear of a kick or disarm. Watch any great weapon duel where the two combatants get in close and you can see how odd this can be. It also means that being able to step and move are not as important as they would be historically.

Effects of weapons. SCA combat has an ‘assumed armour’ standard. It is basically mail body armour and nasal helm. Sort of 10-12th century. It also assumes that a single strike from handed sword can put someone in this armour down. I am not totally convinced this is the case. There are plenty of literary examples of knights trading blows to little or no effect. Yes there are also some examples of people being cut in two from a single blow, but I would argue this is grand story telling. I would also refer to a lot of test cutting people have done with weapons trying to cause damage to something (poor pig carcasses) covered in padding and mail. Armour works. Watching the HMB people is also interesting. Ok their gear is mostly 14th century (a lot more plate) and the weapons are blunted. But you can see that repeated strikes with even two handed axes does little to slow down an armoured man. So the SCA rules makes single handed weapons way more effective than they probably are.

Armour. The SCA has a minimum set of armour standards. It is for protection against rattan sticks. It is in no way encouraging historical armour. You are able to get away with a helm, some basic covering of the joints and that is about it. This means that SCA combatants (and yes I am one of these) can largely compete in what is effectively no armour. No weight of gear restricting your movement or slowing you down. The SCA likes to think of itself as a game of armoured combat, yet many of it’s top competitors can go onto the field with little armour at all.

Target areas. In the SCA you cannot strike below the knee and the hands are basically invulnerable. The no below the knee thing means that graves are not a requirement (see note above) and also means that low leg sweeps with pole weapons are not going to happen. The invulnerable hand thing, alongside the almost universal use of protective basket hilts (not at all a medieval item) means that weapon blocking is common place. The targeting of the hands was a common technique in many of the historical texts. Indeed in many manuals the main purpose of the buckler was to prevent the hands from being struck. Again these things mean that staying in measure and trying to block attacks with your weapon is a viable tactic, after all, your hand will not get ‘hit’.

Limb hits. Ok getting hit in the leg and then being able to fight on while kneeling and being able to change arms if your arm is hit. I am sure we do not have to talk about this one.

Indestructible super light shields. SCA shields are basically Indestructible. That two handed axe, well you can keep statically blocking that all day long…Historically shields broke. Weapons could get stuck in them. Shields were made to be reasonably light and manoeuvrable but this also meant that they could be smashed. The commonality of the big aluminium SCA means you can wave around a big blocking thing that weighs little and is never going to break. Again this feeds into the primacy of SCA combatants standing toe to toe trying to score a hit around a big ultra light shield.

Judging of hits. The SCA rules stipulate that the person getting hit calls the effect of the strike. The obvious problem here is that it is very easy to cheat the system. This system also leads to very inconsistent levels of what can be judged a scoring hit. One persons kill may be someone else’s ‘not good’. What looks good from the sidelines may have been a very glancing strike. I could also mention edges here but I have ranted about that previously. Also the level of ‘power’ that is needed to score is totally arbitrary; it varies from group to group and changes over time. So it is no wonder that this is the main area were disagreements and conflict arise.

 

So going through this list it is obvious that the SCA does a poor job of recreating medieval armoured combat. I think it can be a fun game and lots of people enjoy running around trying to hit other people. However I think it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. A fun game that can be played with a minimal of gear and training? Yes. A reasonable facsimile of historical combat? Absolutely not.

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.

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.

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.

The Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerds vs. Jocks

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

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

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

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

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

Bare Bones

Re-thinking Break it All to Bits.

Two posts ago I was suggesting a schema for deconstructing your fighting in order to enable a systematic way of analysing and thus being able to improve your technique and abilities.

Following this post and in discussing it with my teacher I am thinking that this approach is not that useful or constructive. While the five by five schema may appeal to our analytic tenancies and is good to muse over while not on the training ground, it is simply too complex to be beneficial.

While at a certain level the martial arts can be an intellectual exercise it is firstly and primarily a physical one. The way we learn the martial arts is by slow and deliberate training and repetition. Understanding comes, but only after many hours spent at the pell and in practice. The need for analysing everything is simply unnecessary and overly complex.

I think it is important to be clear about what the student needs to work on. But only one thing at a time. All the other things, and there are always other things, will come in time, but only after there is progress in the first thing.

Understanding in the mind will come, but only after the physical lessons have been undertaken.

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.

A Sword of Life and Death

One of my students has recently brought up an excerpt of martial philosophy taken from Munenor’s Life Giving Sword. This was in the context of developing your martial skills as opposed to just looking for the set group of things that will score you victories.

The Death Dealing Sword – one meets an opponent head on, bringing death to his sword.
The sword is poised to strike first. You strike your opponent down with no consideration for his offensive play. You deal death to his sword, stopping it dead in its tracks. And then with your sword you deal death to your opponent. The path of the death dealing sword ends only in death

The Life Giving Sword – one gives life to the opponents sword, leading the opponent to a place where he gives up the sword, hence giving life. An opponent should be subdued without killing him.
Your guard is open, your sword is poised neither for blocking or striking but able to do both. You allow your opponent to strike, and in giving life to his sword, you give life for your sword to take any opportunity you so chose. The path of the life giving sword has no end.

A death dealing sword is effective, but can not resist the life given from the life giving sword. And in doing so, it will come alive and present its weaknesses like a normal sword.

So is this just more ‘listen carefully grasshopper’ commentary? Looking through this I think this idea has something to tell us about tournament combat. To put it into our context then-

‘Death Dealing’ is brute forcing through your opponents. Presenting no gaps, and driving your own sword into/through the gaps of your opponent before he can react. This is the combatant that has a few effective moves and then seeks to use these no matter the opponent or circumstances. While effective such an approach will reach a point where these techniques can be countered and the combatant is unable to adapt to the new contest. This person tries to impose their own will on how the fight should evolve. This is often the path of what I have called ‘the 80%’er’, this is the person who is effective and can win 80% of their bouts but lack the range of skills and/or willingness to risk the outcome to try something different to defeat the top 20%.
The ‘Life Giving Sword’ is to present the openings/fakes/feints/movement, which causes your opponent to present their own openings, to which you can then exploit. This is the combatant that controls themselves and the bout as a whole. They invite their opponent to reach too far or step in the wrong direction. They are not reliant on any one master cut. They can adapt to whatever the fight brings to those involved. By allowing the fight to develop on its own accord the combatant is not trying to force an outcome but allowing the moment for action to present itself and be in readiness to act.