Category Archives: Training

Forgive me Maestro…

Forgive me Maestro, it has been 130 days since my last fencing bout…

I’m sitting here after AWMAC 2018 feeling very despondent, and it’s taken me most of the day to realise what the problem is. I’m feeling like a failure because I barely did any fencing over the 3 days of AWMAC, a conference in which I did most of the prep work in the lead up to it! I only bouted with 2 people over the course of the event, and for some reason it’s making me feel like a failure, and the feeling has been there gnawing at me for weeks.

Stopping to think about I really don’t consciously think I’m a failure because of the very successful event we ran. We got 150% turnout compared to AWMAC 2016, and we got people from all across the country, and 1 guest from Singapore! Everybody complimented us on the event, and the number of times I heard “don’t thank me, thank Rick because he stepped up and just made it happen!” I also happened to run the most populated class throughout the event (Marozzo’s dagger presa) which had around half the attendees turn up for. Totally unplanned and unexpected, since we all expected the longsword class in that time slot to be the popular one. That there is I think my clue for what is going on.

I am a chronic introvert. Conferences are a personal nightmare, with the expectations of networking, small talk and chatting, basically interacting with lots of people, and I’ve become exceptionally overloaded with human interactions over the course of the event. There are 4 things that stand out for me from the event, my 3 classes in the schedule, the private lesson I gave to the Singapore chap, and Matthew Boyd’s English Wrestling class. What do you notice about these things? Most of them are when I was in control of the situation!

In the 2 group classes, and the private lesson, I’m the one controlling the social interaction. I’m able to manage my emotional energy so that it’s not being bled dry, and I get a lot of satisfaction coming back to me as I see people just get it during my one-on one work with people. The wrestling class was just me and and a friend working together having fun learning some new cool material. Again a controlled emotional energy set up. The rest of the time it felt like it was too much work to interact with people. Somewhere along this fencing journey, I’ve become not a fencer, but a fencing teacher because it’s so much easier to control my emotional energy levels!

My introvert nature is actually my secret weapon, and most successful tool. The deep thought and quiet contemplation of what I’m reading and researching to develop a holistic understanding of the material, and the constant reflection on what I’m doing have all gotten me to this point in my fencing career. It’s why I can just watch someone and point out an issue they are having, and help them fix it to become a better fencer. (For example, many people had a lot of problems in spadone because their leading hand was gripping the sword too tightly.) I’ve gotten amazingly good at the whole teaching thing apparently, which I never expected would happen, but somewhere I lost my joy of just fencing. Maybe I’m over analysing everything and always feel like I should be on as a teacher. Maybe I’ve just untrained my ability to read the opponent when I’m in front of them, and replaced it with the outside observation ability I use as a teacher.

I’ve always joked that fencing is like sprinting whilst playing chess, but I’ve lost my taste for it. I’ve done very little bouting in the last 12 months, and most of the time I’ve been bouting as fencing teacher not a fencer. What’s the difference you ask? Well as a fencer you try to win, but as a fencing teacher you set it up for the student to win. I do stuff at 110% of the ability of the person in front of me, so that they have a good chance to hit me if they do everything right. I’m applying pressure so that they can improve, but I’m not really trying hard to beat my opponent, just to make them work. It’s a little demoralising though as a fencer, because you always get hit a lot if you can’t switch that teaching mode off. I think subconsciously I may have been avoiding the whole bouting thing because I’m feeling very unhappy about my current fencing ability, it’s just not where I want it to be.

Oh and as I said I’m an introvert, and I’m not going to come up and ask people to bout. I’ll stand around waiting for people to ask me to bout. I did have a few people ask to bout, but we didn’t make it happen. My issue was they caught me when I was busy doing something else for the event, and we never set a time to catch up, so of course I avoided it because my introvert nature was very overwhelmed by the number of people I was dealing with. So to those of you who wanted to fence with me and missed out, I’m sorry. It was all me and had nothing to do with you, or me not wanting to fence you.

Looking around, I saw there were a few people like me just standing back, so it’s obviously not just me having issues. There are a few ways you can help people like me though, so here are a few suggestions.

  1. If there is someone you particularly want to fence, and they are standing off to the side – ask them quietly if they want to fence. Being invited can break an introvert out of the social paralysis. I’ll we stand waiting for people and never interrupt them.
  2. If they say they are busy, and you really want to fence them, ask for or negotiate a set time that you can both play. My introvert brain will help me avoid catch-ups, but it will also make me keep appointments. Social interactions are scary, but my sense of propriety will make sure I turn up to honour the agreement.
  3. Set up the bouting space so that people can just jump in without having to find themselves a bouting partner. I’m probably going to do this for a bouting evening at AWMAC 2019, where we divide the hall into 3 or 4 spaces for bouting, and each space will be a different weapon, and we cycle through people rather than forcing them to find a bouting partner. Make an inclusion place rather than a “challenge” space.

It’s been kind of crazy to realise that I’m avoiding bouting, because it’s a lot of strain on my emotional energy. It’s also made me realise that it has carried over into my classes, which I’m going to have to redesign to incorporate more bouting into my class structure. After all we actually learn this stiff to put it into practice, and if I don’t make an environment where that happens it’s a disservice to my amazing students.

Being an introvert can be crazy making at times, because the world really has become geared for satisfying extroverts. I think I need to go reread “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I need to remember that my brain chemistry is different, and that I can’t just pretend that I’m the same as other people.

It’s all one system!

I’ve been teaching Bolognese swordsmanship for many years now, and one of the most important things to understand is that it’s actually all one system, not a collection of tricks for each weapon combination.

I work primarily out of Manciolino, with some additions from Marozzo. Both of these authors use sword and small buckler as their primary teaching system, and I follow this pedagogy as well. The buckler teaches dual hand use right from the start, and also gives students a great focus point for cutting actions.

One of the things that many people miss is the instructions for how to use the buckler. We get some simple instructions regarding how to hold the buckler in Manciolino and a relatively unhelpful instruction for how to use it to parry. What we really need to understand is that the use of the offhand in defence is really embedded in the sword and dagger material, which is where Marozzo really comes into his own due to his quite comprehensive instructions.

A prime example of how this works is  the crosswise parry with the offhand against the riverso. (Right handed fencers is assumed in this discusssion.) In the buckler material we get the unhelpful instruction to “defend the head with the buckler” from both authors. In sword and dagger though, Marozzo tells us to turn down the point and parry the blow with the true edge. This thumb down hand position (1st hand position in Classical Italian fencing) is a strong skeletal alignment, that forms a true cross against the opponent’s sword. The parry is also made close to the furniture on the oponent’s forte, preventing redirection. Now when it comes to holding the dagger, the hilt is held exactly the same way we hold the buckler handle, so this parry should work exactly the same way in sword and buckler and lo and behold it does. Our natural inclination  to make the buckler parry with the hand in 3rd (thumb up) creates a weak collapsible skeletal alignment,  but the thumb down position doesn’t! 

Without this dagger instruction, we wouldn’t understand the buckler parries, which is to use it exactly as we would with a dagger true edge parry. The instructions for holding the buckler tell us how to hold the dagger, but the dagger material really fills in the blanks for using the buckler to parry. Together, it all makes one comprehensive teaching  system! So the upshot of this post is that if you want to study Bolognese Swordsmanship, you can’t study the individual weapon combinations in isolation but need to look at the material holistically. I’ve been teaching the sword  and dagger material this way over the last term in 2016, with reference back to the buckler material, and have seen  the understanding of my students go through the roof!

Bolognese Swordsmanship isn’t just a collection of tricks for using different weapons combinations, it’s actually a beautiful art and system that teaches you core principles that can be applied to all weapon combinations! I love it, and it will reward you if you take the time to really plumb it’s depths.

Expectations of a good training partner

A large part of the classes conducted at Stoccata (and most fencing clubs for that matter) rely on learning through partner drills. The following are the list of attributes I expect to find in an excellent drilling partner:

  • Understands they are a partner not an opponent
  • Performs each action correctly
  • Gives the right cues
  • Sticks to the drill
  • Looks for mistakes to help their partner
  • Drills at the right tempo for their partner
  • Communicates with their partner
  • Doesn’t try to beat the drill
  • Drills with control

Having a good partner in a can make or break your ability to learn, and conversely being a good drilling partner can help the both of you in the drill learn much faster. Let’s have a look at why these attributes are important, and why need to instil them as a habit in our drilling practices.

Understands they are a partner not an opponent

A partner drill is a cooperative exercise, where you work with your partner to learn the correct technical or tactical action the drill is designed to teach. All too often, people perform drills as if they are fights to be won, not exercises. The only way to win a drill is to perform it properly.

The key to this success is you need to be a partner not an opponent in the drill. If you don’t hold up your side of the drill so that your partner can perform the action correctly, how can you expect them to learn good technique? More importantly, how can you expect them to do the drill properly for you if you won’t reciprocate? If you work as a partnership you’ll find drilling much more rewarding and enjoyable because you’ll earn the benefits of that cooperation through becoming a better fencer. This really is the core attribute, the rest are details about how to be a cooperative drilling partner.

Performs each action correctly

Drills by their nature are repetitive which can become boring, especially if you’re the one getting hit in the drill. However, if you don’t perform your actions properly the drill will rapidly fall apart. Let’s look at a parry – riposte drill. You throw a cut at the head for the opponent to parry and then hit you on the riposte. However, if you throw a sloppy flat cut instead of the correct descending angle, or off target at say the arm, or one that falls short, your partner can’t parry this action and they actually learn nothing in the drill.

So what is the answer? When you are the attacker, throw the correct blow with correct technique. Use this time as an opportunity to practice correct cutting technique, with correct line, angle and technique. If you do the right action and your opponent gets hit they learn that they just made a mistake which can be corrected. If you flub your action, how are they supposed to learn what they did was wrong? Ancillary to this is making sure you drill from the right distance for the actions involved. Don’t be too far away where all your blows fall short, or too close where you don’t have the time and space to do the right actions.

The other thing to consider is that the human body learns through repetition. Each time you repeat an action you reinforce the neural pathway in the brain, speeding up the routine response, especially in the pressure situation of a fencing bout. However, if you repeatedly perform the action wrong, you set down the wrong neural pathway and in a pressure situation you will revert to this incorrect technique, which will usually mean you are going to get hit! Drill as if your life depended on it, and always use the correct technique.

Gives the right cues

A part of drilling is feeding cues to your partner to initiate an action from them. The success or failure of the drill can depend on whether you feed them the right cue or not. Lets look at an example from an Italian rapier drill for gaining the sword. The leading partner presents their point via an extension of the arm, inviting the defender to gain the sword in the correct line. For the purposes of the drill we present that tip around the hilt of the sword on the 4 diagonal lines no more than the width of your palm away from your partner’s sword hilt, and threatening to hit the body. If we do this the partner can easily make a proper gain of the sword, and hit with the appropriate thrust. However, if we do the gain off target, or too far away from the hilt, our partner learns to reach for the sword or to gain when they should have just hit with a direct thrust, all of which are bad habits. Bad habits come back to bite us hard in fencing bouts.

Again think cooperatively and think about the purpose of your action so that you can do it properly to maximise the learning process. In the case of the example above, I think of it as practice presenting the tip to invite my partner to gain my sword. If I practice that and get it right, I’m learning how to set them up for a killer attack via disengage!

Sticks to the drill

One of the most annoying things I can ever hear in a drill as a partner or instructor is “but in a real fight I’d do…” This sort of comment reveals that this person is trying to win the drill. A drill can have many different purposes, some obvious and some not so obvious. A drill can be teaching a technique, or a tactic, or it could just be an exercise to warm you up or increase flexibility, reaction speed or precision. The other one thing that really annoys me is the partner that never lets you hit them. If you always don’t hit your opponent, you never learn what it means to hit with correct technique, or the right distance for it and you never learn how much force you deliver! Come bouting time, what you find is when you do use the technique and you do actually hit, the blow takes their head off, or you sit there posing asking to be hit by a redouble. We encourage students to wear padding on mask and body during drills, not so that you don’t get hurt but so that your partner can learn proper technique and blow calibration without the fear of hurting you.

To master any activity, it has been calculated it takes about 10,000 hours of mindful diligent practice. The mindful diligent practice is the key. We must concentrate on getting and performing better, but if we go off drill we won’t be learning what the drill is supposed to teach. We are short cutting our learning experience time, and as a consequence stunting our growth as a fencer. Long term success as a fencer requires depth of technique and knowledge and doing all your drills properly is how we achieve that long term success goal.

Looks for mistakes to help their partner

How can we improve if we don’ know we are making a mistake? Providing feedback on mistakes to a partner is the fastest way to help them improve. As well as throwing all your actions correctly, look for why your partner is not succeeding. Typically it is poor footwork, body alignment or sword angle that are the main culprits. When they step, are they keeping knee in line with foot? Are they turning the hips throwing their body alignment out? On cuts look to make sure they cut at the right angle as this is usually the biggest mistake. Are they hunching their shoulder? This leads to short blows and stiff arm actions.

The other point about feedback is get the gross motor actions right first before you worry about the fine motor skills. Also, no more than 2 corrections per repetition otherwise the feedback will overwhelm and destroy the confidence of your partner. Don’t forget, you want your partner to do this for you when it’s your turn doing the drill. Remember what we said about cooperation?

Drills at the right tempo for their partner

If you can always throw a blow so fast that your partner never parries it, will they learn anything? Have you achieved anything beyond proving your superiority? Not really, as all you’ve done is taught your partner that you are a right bastard no one wants to drill with.

In any drill, we can do our bit so slowly that our partner always succeeds, or so fast they can never succeed or at a speed that challenges their ability forcing them to concentrate on using correct technique so that they can succeed. This last one is the tempo we should aim for in all our actions. We learn best when we are challenged, because this puts us into a mindful diligent practice mindset, which is the mindset where maximum learning occurs. If we go too slow they aren’t challenged and operate on reflex not in a learning condition. If we go to fast, they operate in panic and flinch reflex, again a non-learning condition. We want the learning mindset, and when we are there we can gradually increase the speed as they learn until they can drill the action at a proper bouting speed. The speed will come but we need to help them get there.

So during the drill, watch for your partner’s reactions. Is it a bored rote response, a thoughtful response or a flinch response? Adjust till you get the thoughtful response.

Communicates with their partner

In all of the attributes so far, notice how we need to work with our opponent? This all falls apart if we don’t communicate with our partner. If they go too fast, ask them to slow down. If you keep getting it wrong, ask for feedback. If you see the wrong action happening in a drill, tell your partner. The whole section about looking for mistakes relies on communication between partners. A silent unresponsive partner is nothing more than a flesh covered pell, which can help you improve, but will never help you get over the most obvious mistake. You’re there to cooperate, and that relies on communication.

Doesn’t try to beat the drill

The only way to win a drill is to do it right! We’ve all experienced the drilling partner who has to always be the one getting the hit, and how frustrating an experience that really is. Drills are not played for points, they are exercises you use to learn technique and tactics. I’ve already given numerous examples of how people can try to win drills, so I won’t repeat them here. You win the drill when both you and your partner can do the actions properly, with good tempo and control.

Drills with control

Nothing puts me off drilling faster than a partner who wails on me like I’m a pinata, or a tent peg to be driven into the ground. This sort of attitude shows a complete disrespect for your drilling partner and really is not acceptable. Your actions should not ever injure your opponent in a drill, and they should most definitely not get concussion because of your actions. Our aim in a drill is to improve the ability of both our partner and ourselves. This requires control of ourselves and our weapon so that we can both learn in a safe, cooperative controlled environment. The aspect people most forget is that to fence with correct actions, we must also fence with control otherwise all we’re doing is going through the motions with brute force.

So in summary, be the sort of training partner you expect to have facing you. Use your drilling time as a time for thoughtful, mindful diligent practice, and you will develop and progress far beyond what you thought you were capable of. Working together with your drilling partner you can both become the kick-ass fencers you want to be.