Show me the child at seven

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

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

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

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

Training and progression

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

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

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

A place to belong

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

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

Pageantry and romance

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

This is not for everyone

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

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

Preparing for Crown Redux

It is looking like Elizabeth and I are planning on entering the next May Crown Tournament. While this is not an absolute I have started planning out my preparations for this. Some of you may think that 7-8 month lead in is a bit much I would argue that depending on what you are wanting to achieve it may not be enough.

Anyway, just as I have done previously I am splitting my time into blocks with specific preparation and training to be done. I am also following my previous advice of looking at what gear and equipment I may need. So my training plan will break down into several slightly overlapping phases. I will be looking to have most of this done by Rowany Festival and then use the few weeks after that to rest and get ready for the tournament itself.

Physical/conditioning

I have about six months to get physically prepared for the tournament. I am currently working on both stripping fat and maintaining basic strength. By body fat percentage is now at 23% and I would like that to be comfortably under 20% by Christmas. This is going well so far but there is always the issue of also loosing muscle mass while dropping weight. After Christmas I will probably not focus on the fat loss and this will mean changing my eating a small degree.

Gym work at the moment is a tricky balance. I have cut back on the number of workouts and have been upping the intensity. I am focused on maintaining muscle mass during the fat loss process. I am just running though the five principle lifts of squat, dead-lift, rows, bench press and shoulder press. These are done to failure with high weights and very low reps. What I am finding is that this does require a few day of recovery so I am only doing this once a week at the moment.

This is also complicated in that I am also training for a 100km charity ride at the end of this month, so I need to spend time on the bike doing a lot of climbing work. This sort of training does not mesh well with a pure strength building program.

In a month or so I will be able to increase volume and intensity, moving to a more generalist program to build  across several areas of fitness. This will take me through to February and is working out three times a week, three recovery days (60 min runs/ride) and a rest day. From there the focus will be on developing power and endurance. This will all taper off around Easter and I will just be in a maintenance phase. I also will need to incorporate a lot of stretching in all of this as I need to develop greater range of movement in my shoulders as this is very poor.

Combat Training

The idea is to spend the first few months just stepping back and refining technique. I am playing with a mace to develop a better control of distance and timing. I am also working on refining all my basics. All my sparring time during this period needs to be focused on clean correct technique. Besting opponents is not the goal here. In fact I should cut down my in armour time and concentrate on drills, the pell and focus mitt work.

After Christmas I will start upping the armour time and look at getting as much exposure to opponents with different styles and weapon forms as I can. This is mostly about still being in a learning phase. I will be looking at getting an understanding of the timing and options of what I will be facing in Crown.

Then several weeks out armoured training is cut back again. Here you just run through ‘mock’ crown fights. This is just working though everyone at training (with their understanding) and doing either a single or best of three pass only. The idea here is to build the ability to end the fight on your own terms and in your own time. It is to replicate the mental pressures of the tournament. Every bout must count for something.

The last bit I would throw in here is Festival will be for getting in some fighting and having some fun with it all. It would be silly to break myself at this stage.

Gear

I need to make a fair bit of new kit. I will have to replace my helm. I am looking at making a new one out of 3140 spring steel. It will be a copy of my current helm as I very much love it but ithe poor thing is now about 14 years old and is need of repair or replacement. I also need to make a new vambrace. My current one is way too big and is causing me issues in gauging the hits. This is not good.

I am also planning on making a new arming doublet along the lines of the pourpoint I am currently using to secure the leg harness but with collar and sleaves. A heraldic will then go over this.

So all of this is in the planning stages. We have lot of things that will have to happen before we do enter Crown but at least the training starts now.

Ultimate Fighter Lochac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now a step in the right direction

Last year I was pondering my performance in the Rowany Fighter Auction Tournament. The quick summary was that I had muddled my way though the list relying on tenacious defence and fitness to win though. I was not happy with this performance and challenged myself to do better. Since then I have been working steadily in improving my technique and other tournament skills.

I played around with going back to a big shield (24 inch half round). This was too big and just got in my way so I have been cutting down the shields and am now using a 20 inch diameter half round. There has been a bit of advice to switch to a small heater or wankle, but the half round is what I have been using and comfortable with. I know that I should mix it up a little but I think at the size of shield I am using the shape is not that critical.

Most of my training has been working within the Oplomachia School of combat. Here I must give full credit to Count Syr Gemini and Duchess Sir Mari. There support and encouragement has been essential. I will also thank all the combatants I train with. They put up with my schemes and training ideas.

Improvement in the tournament arts is often slow and gradual. It also requires a level of commitment to getting it right and not being lazy. These things are hard in this Kingdom as the pool of high level combatants are scattered over and entire continent.

So in this year’s Fighter Action Tournament I entered with high expectations and under the eye of Sir Mari, who had been running classes in Oplomachia all week. It was time to put what we have been teaching to the test.

My first few rounds progressed well. I had a novice first round who I tried to encourage and have some fun with it. My opponent had already been talked into his own death by his friends…

Second round I drew another newer combatant but they had a lot of other martial arts experience. I could not draw them into any fakes or misdirection’s and had to play a waiting game for them to close in and present an opportunity. These sore of opponents are dangerous in a way as they have very different reactions and timing. It was still early and I could not afford stuff up at this stage.

I do not recall many of the middle bouts in much detail. A few bits did stick in my memory. I stuffed about too much in facing a smaller quite mobile Knight. I was probably showboating too much in matching their movement and position. In doing this my feet were all over the place and I was not fully controlling what was going on. A bout against a tall Count ended quickly as I managed to keep control of the measure and keep them on the back foot. There was also a good bout against a Knight who tends to fight in a variation of A-frame with a big ‘cheater heater’. I gave them an opening to my leg which he took and thus opening him to a moulinet.

One of my favourite encounters was against a Knight from the southern island. I had been working with him the previous day and he had learnt quickly. This was a fast furious bout with him trying to overwhelm my defence and push me back. Not sure how I managed to get out of this but I do remember only just keeping calm and countering.

After all of this I managed to get to finals without dropping a bout. Finals were best of five against a Duke who has a style that is difficult to counter and our bouts often were long drawn out encounters. As it was best of five I think the Duke convinced himself that he did not have the stamina to last though. Anyway it was a solid final with both of us work to be crisp and clean. It was probably one of the best finals in this regard I have been in for a long time.

So, that was a bit of a long winded recount of my tournament for this year. Considering the poor performance last time I am very happy with this improvement. I still have a lot to work on however as there is always room for improvement. So it is back to the pell and the training ground. Remember –always face the weapon.

 

 

Passing the Torch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are two paths you can go on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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!

At the Beginning

I would like to share something from Valgard’s most excellent blog SCA Fighter. Here he talkes about the improtance of your opening salute.

Somewhat along that line, I tend to start with the salute. It is where the fight begins, and so it is where training should begin as well. The first thing we learned in Judo was how to bow. Radnor taught me that the fight begins long before the lay on. You can win a fight from the way you step onto the field. Everything you do should be calculated to unease your opponent, or at least to put him on his heels. The most important part of this is the salute. Most people don’t give any thought to their salutes. They just raise the sword in the general direction of their opponents and then wait for the lay on. Then they come on guard, again without thought or determination.

Radnor’s salute is very strong and direct. Every part of it is designed to prepare him for the fight, to take over the space, and to dominate his opponent. He stands with his sword foot forward, his body in profile to his opponent, his head turned to look him square in the eye. When the salute is called for, the Duke points his sword directly at his opponent (at times he will point to the spot where he intends to strike). He draws the sword straight back to his chest, breathing in as he does so to center himself and focus. Next he brings his sword around to his shoulder in a sweeping, circular motion, essentially drawing a circle around himself and cutting himself off from all distractions and all things outside the fight. As he does this, he steps forward into the en garde position (if he is fighting sword foot forward he can take two steps). Before the lay on is called he is already moving forward to attack his opponent. It can be disturbing. This is the salute I use. I have more than once won fights using that salute, before a blow was struck. This is the first lesson: how to salute and come on guard. It teaches a number of important lessons, the most important of which is Always Be Closing.

Two paths you may go on

Being stuck at home feeling a bit under the weather I asked what I should write about in this post. On that popped up was the question, ‘ what is the difference between a fighter and a swordswoman/man’?

I have mentioned in previous entries my dislike for the term ‘fighter’, evoking images of bare knuckle boxing and bad MMA. I have tried to use other terms in its stead: combatant, swordsman and knight are a few of the options.

Anyway, here is a bit of thinking about these two terms and how they may describe different approaches to the tournament arts

A fighter in one sense of the term is a person who seeks to gain victories on the field. The development of technique and skill is focused this very tangible outcome. The fighter works hard to develop game winning moves and becomes very good at what they do. 

Traveling on a slightly different path is the swordsman. The Swordsman is studying the tournament arts to better themselves. Victory is an outcome of their training, not the focus of it. To shamelessly steal something from kendo-

The study of swordsmanship is:
to mold the mind and body,
to cultivate a vigorous spirit,
and through correct and rigid training,
to strive for improvement in the art of the sword.
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honour,
to associate with others with sincerity, and
and to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

To relate this to my conversation about the Rowany Fighter Auction. I won that as a fighter. I need to now look to being a swordsman.

I feel that we can step from one road to another on our journey. One is not better than the other. They are just different approaches to what we do.

A small note. We will always have some struggle with gendered terminology. This is perhase where the term ‘fighter’ is useful. Anyway – I only use ‘swordsman’ as a short hand because writing swordsman/woman is clunky. I convey no appropriation of a gendered meaning to these words.

One back, two forward…

I talked a few weeks ago about how I was unhappy with my performance at the Festival Fighter Auction Tournament. In short, when I am faced with a high calibre opponent I tend to not move in a positive manner. I hunker down, go very defensive and turn the match into a defensive grind devoid of any crisp and decisive plays. This is not how I want my tournaments to be.

In order to change out of this I am needing to approach some of my training and fighting differently.

We often rank our skills in terms of a win-loss ratio. How many wins you rack up, in both tournament and practice becomes the benchmark of our progress as well as a primary driver of renown. I must firmly move away from such an outlook. I no longer can chase the simple tournament victory but must look at the entirety of my performance. Sometimes we need to change our victory conditions in order to progress.

While we all now nod our heads and agree, this is sometimes a very hard thing to do. For those seeking the recognition of Knighthood in the SCA, not focusing on immediate victories can be seen poorly. For those already with belts there is the expectation of peers, squires and consorts to consistently perform. There is also the very real challenge to one’s deep ego that has too long become accustomed to success.

The challenge (and this is one of absolute necessity) is to accept that a victory is no longer one of striking your opponent first, but lies in the way you accomplish this. This will be a difficult thing, but I hope that I am able to continue this journey of swordsmanship and find a new understandings of what we can do.