Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Prize played and won.

Just enjoyed a great weekend of fencing, and successfully played for my Free Scholar's Prize.

So, before I forget, I learned first hand some important things which, whilst falling under the category of 'bleeding obvious, you git', bear noting down if only as a permanent reminder to me.

I'm talking about the difference between being relaxed and tense, and the vast different it makes to one's performance.

Case in point: my Free Scholar's prize.

Half an hour before my bouts, I was warming up with a Journeyman whose lines of attack and defense were tight and controlled. I was fretting over whether my run of poor health and resultant lack of overall fitness were going to have a strong impact on my performance.

I got tense, and the warm-up seemed to go badly. It felt as if, with every step, I was wading through mud. My bladework was slow and my confidence falling. NOT how one wants to be right before they fight a prize.

I shared my concerns with some more experienced fencers and my sponsor for the match.
Their remedy: more warm-up bouts, but with an emphasis on 'fun' not 'finesse'.

It worked. I got laughing, and suddenly my feet were moving properly, my arms were responding, and my bladework picked up a notch. I was performing well again.

At that point I decided to forget 'focus on technique' and determined to focus on the 'fun', letting my training take care of the technical aspects of the fight.
It went well.

Several people who know me, if they read this, will roll their eyes and say 'I bloody told you this ages ago'. My thanks to them!

On a sidenote: I learned a bit about Joachim Meyer's approach to Rapier fencing (assimilated into the German tradition of swordsmanship) and I liked what I saw.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Random musings from the past month and a half.

Poor health again. Not conducive to training.
Tonight I'm going to get some random thoughts down to keep my hand in, as it were.

So, within the scope of the SCA game, I am recently authorised in 'cut & thrust' which pleases me immensely, because I can start playing with the bolognese swordplay without being hamstrung to point-only play.

And, lets face it, swashbuckling is fun.

In other recent news, I had the pleasure of attending a class on English swordplay by Paul Wagner, a day on Silver, and a day on the English longsword. The English longsword is an interesting and fun approach, and I can see myself spending more time with it as time progresses.

With Silver's swordplay, I regret not having a blade suitable to the style, but certainly the guardant fight can be applied tactically within the scope of pre-17th century Italian fencing.

Notes on training:
I now have another student of sorts, and when schedules permit we have an additional training night outside of the usual wednesday nights.

- underdeveloped arm muscles (much like mine were 7 years ago) and tires quickly.
- easily flustered by flamboyant or aggressive bladework.
- treestump syndrome: hasn't yet learned to co-ordinate upper and lower body under pressure.

- willing to learn
- agile
- good habit of keeping the swordpoint at the opponent most of the time.

Current lessons:
- basic footwork
- basic blade defense
- converting a solid defense into an attack
- learning to deal with an aggressive opponent
- small strength building exercises mixed with cavazione practice

It proceeds well, and once she has a steel blade of her own, we will be able to make better progress, methinks.

Notes on what I need to work on myself:
- Footwork. Always footwork. I'll be bloody 100 years old and fencing from a zimmer frame and still practicing footwork, I can tell you. Current area of interest is the passing step. I've neglected the tactical advantage a passing step can present, and need to rectify this.
- Battere/beats - I'm improving, but I still need much better control and positioning
- Lunge - neglect it for a couple of months and what happens? It becomes bloody horrid.
- Blade control and timing during defensive bladework. I'm still too sloppy with my movements.
- Point control and targeting practice on the thrust. There's not enough room inside for my old training routines. I'll need to case out my apartment neighbours, and see if any are likely to get weird if I do some practice in the courtyard.

At the moment, I have put Capoferro aside to practice the simplified style of fencing that I am teaching to newcomers. Unless I'm comfortable fighting with it, I don't think I'll be able to teach it well. Thus far, apart from one or two hiccups which I have workshopped with the ever-helpful and skilled Jason, it progesses smoothly. I'm getting a much better handle over its strengths and weaknesses, and how people are likely to attempt to break the initial guard.

Well, that is all my fuzzy head can manage at this point. Bed, methinks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Post-training thoughts 04/02/2010

Offloading some thoughts before they get entirely scattered by imminent sleep.

I forsook playtime again, as we have a newcomer who I think will become a regular face at the school. The gentleman is certainly keen and has a number of aspects which show a lot of promise.

There is an interesting dilemma, though, in that due to shoulder injuries he is unable to utilise a high guard in any way. This necessitates for some creativity in determining how to teach certain techniques, and how to use the principles of fencing to adapt and tweak standard techniques into something he can use.

More on that as time progresses. This week, though, the teaching side of things continued in a similar vein to last week - structured freeplay (sole attack vs sole defense) and footwork.

I'm beginning to find the Offensive vs Defensive drill to be very useful for picking up on bad habits (both my own and that of the student). Today, I noticed a recurring tendency for the gentleman to cross his footwork and leave himself open to danger.

So, we returned to footwork, and started with the very basics. After a small while, it became apparent that even with forward-backward movements the problem was still recurring. More was needed to tackle the problem which seems to stem from the gentleman's preference for a very tight stance, having a tendency for the rear foot to end up directly behind the lead foot.

It is fortunate that the hall we use has lines on the floor from some time in the distant past where tape had been laid down for some event. So we moved from outside to inside, and it made things a lot easier. By starting the drill with lead foot on the right hand side of the line, and the rear foot on the left hand side, it gave the student a visual cue for self-correction. Things started to go a bit more smoothly from there.

After a while, there was noticeable improvement, so I used one of the first footwork drills ever inflicted upon me - the distancing game for footwork. The leader moves, and the follower needs to use footwork to maintain equal distance. Always good for a chuckle.

For tonight, I kept it linear, so that if the student returned to the error of crossing his feet over he'd perforce trip himself up - a handy reminder.

It went surprisingly well (and was also a reminder that I could definitely benefit from running through this drill more often myself. I was far from perfect). The student early on had difficulty, but after a couple of reminders, the stance became a bit less congested and allowed for ease of forward and backward movements.

Homework is one of my old training routines, which I still use variants of for all my footwork: the student will find a straight line at home (i.e floorboards), set up stance along it with one foot either side, and practice stepping forwards and backwards, checking foot position each time until it starts to feel a bit more natural.

I'm interested to see how things go.

On my end, I am pleased to note that, when I was playing defensively in the drills, my movements were becoming a bit more controlled again. On a number of occasions I neatly closed off the line with a tight cavazione, or by shifting the line of my blade slightly, often present a viable threat in the process. A good sign. I need to keep working with this.

Also, mental note: Will keep students 'all defensive' time to a minimum for now until the footwork has a bit more work done on it, or at least until the initial crossed-over footwork problem is resolved.

Well, the old brain is telling me to go sleep before it lodges formal grievance procedures, so I'll oblige it with a bit of shuteye. I'm sure there was something else I wanted down before I forgot it, but alas, too late.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Capoferro, Capoferro, wherefore art thou Capoferro?

With a longsword seminar coming up the next weekend, this seemed a perfect time to offload some thoughts on Italian Rapier.

Capoferro. Much more of a workout ever since my posture and stance was corrected. (I may thank you, Don Emrys, but my legs are not so sanguine about the whole affair)

Things I am finding as my body adapts to the new knowledge:
1 - movement at this stage is not as fluid as I had previously been with the erroneous (aka Lazy) stance. In fact, while my muscles and tendons are getting used to it, I find my movements are rather slow and difficult by comparison to my rather lazier 'fence like a drunken dandy' approach. But that is gradually improving. Discipline. It's all about disclipline. And not posing or showing off, or pretending to be Inigo Montoya.

2 - balance is GREATLY improved with the more correct posture. This alone is worth a bottle of 12yr aged-in-oak tawny port should I get to spend time at another event with Emrys.

In related news - lunge footwork is improving as an individual unit. Now I need to focus on drills incorporating other footwork leading up to the lunge. Also, I need to return to the retreating lunge. It was always a boon to me and I've been neglecting it atrociously in favour of prancing around like a fop at a ball. For shame.

Blade control is improving. Beginning to get a feel for the lines and vectors of the blade in attack and defense. (By 'beginning to' I mean exactly that. Still rank novice stuff as yet. Very much hit and miss at times.)

PARTE THE SECONDE: Adventures in the mysterious realms of teaching.

So, with the blessing of Jason/Everard, I have been working with the odd newcomer on rapier basics. I'm still disorganised and feeling my way, as I am yet to be confident that I can teach things 100% correctly.

Still it has been going well, and I have been learning a lot in the process.

Some thoughts from the most recent experience:
- It is easier, in comparison, to explain the concepts of controlling the blade (where to strike and apply pressure to control the line and deliver the point) than it is to physically demonstrate them when one's own skills are still woefully insufficient. That I somehow succeeded to do both to some extent is a sign of hope for my own progress.

- Committing to solely defensive footwork and bladework to allow the 'student' to get a feel for attacking and finding weaknesses is bloody hard work and quite a workout. It is also good practice for me. I now realise how sloppy my defensive blade movements are.
(I'll need a lot more control and economy of movement if I'm going to face certain Dons with something resembling even odds. This, I think, is going to take a lot of work.)

- Taking turns to be wholly defensive and offensive had its advantages, but seemed to encourage the person in the role of attacker to get a bit sloppy and leave massive openings while trying to make a hole in the opponents defense. Tried a variant where, if an opening was too large, I'd feint towards it to create an awareness of the opening without overly disrupting the offensive flow for the 'student'. Seemed to work. Will experiment more with that, as I certainly got benefits out of being the defender and would like to work with this a bit more.

- Footwork teaching and drills are becoming easier to work with. I think I am becoming a bit more adept at explaining and demonstrating the basic movements.

Somewhat proud of myself: created an ad hoc drill to help someone develop better footwork when stepping offline for the sloping pace, or in the manner of the Spanish curved and mixed steps. At the start, the 'student' was unable to make it work, either completely crossing himself over, or not completing the step. Neither explanation nor demonstration were helping, so I had to try and figure out which biomechanical principals were at work, and build some kind of drill.

What I came up with was a progression of the basic forwards-backwards and side-to-side drills we do. I started with a repetitive drill of a simple diagonal step, both advancing and retreating. Once the 'student' had that down comfortably whilst maintaining a consistent stance, I added the final pivot/adjustment to allow the fencer's stance to 'face their opponent'. The drill turned out to be a bit time-consuming, but it worked well. The 'student' was able to take a slope step and maintain a consistent stance whilst having their front toe lining up with the target.

In the future I will likely continue to use it for similar challenges.

All in all, while I have too many areas to count which need improvement, at least improvement is occurring.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching to learn

Well, with major illness passed, Christmas and New Year's over, and my stamina regained, it is time to get back into the swing of things. Which means both training and this blog. Can't let myself be too lazy.


A number of wise and knowledgeable heads from various fields, including some that I know personally, have mentioned at one time or another the benefits one can gain in the act of teaching.

I have to be honest: I figured "Sure, but you have to be fairly skilled to be able to teach, and also you need to have the knack for teaching, right?"

Well yes, true to an extent.
However, I have come to realise that my attitude completely missed the point.

By TRYING to teach something with which I am familiar (even if I am not an expert), I am forced to carefully evaluate every aspect of what I'm doing, physically and mentally.

After all it is very easy, when tired or lazy in the comfort of one's own home, to fall into the trap of "Okay, that was kind of sloppy but whatever. Time to browse youtube for longsword clips." Sad, but true. In that situation though, only I am being disadvantaged.

One does not have that luxury when engaged in the challenge of trying to teach: after all, if you get it wrong, you are essentially messing with the training habits of a friend. And a gentleman just does not do such a thing. It's just not cricket.

So, getting back to the point: I recently returned to training. After spending a bit of time bouting to warm up, there was an opportunity where I could assist a new fencer with some basics.
So for once I decided not to avoid the challenge in favour of playtime. Turns out, good choice.

About 1 hour of the 2.5 hour evening was spent with a gentleman who wanted to work on some basic technique and footwork. Mostly footwork, with the final focus on the lunge.

While I hope it was of some assistance to the gentleman, here is what I learned:

1 - Explaining is hard (but the challenge is worthwhile).

As I tried to explain why we moved in certain ways, and why we needed a certain posture to improve our ability to perform certain actions, I realised that communicating these concepts is rather difficult. You know what the result needs to be, but how do you get there?

I mean, one is trying to impart not only the conceptual foundation of a technique, but also the practical execution and applications of it. That isn't necessarily easy for a scholar trying out the teaching side of fencing.

The challenge lay in tackling each explanation and demonstration from different angles until it made sense whilst not derailing the learning experience. It took as much concentration as a good game of chess. (I think we got there, by and large)

2 - Teaching physical activity is a different game to teaching ideas alone.

Yes, I am Captain Obvious. Now take your seat, soldier.

While this is not the first time I have acted in a role where I was teaching some kind of skill, I have never taught a PHYSICAL skill. I have never had to try and teach someone both an IDEA and an intrinsically related ACTION in tandem so that they both make sense and are applied as a cohesive whole.

As a result, I never realised that, when your entire focus is on evaluating technique and physical movements, your thought processes shift into an entirely different gear from when teaching purely intellectual concepts. There are a lot more cues that have to be taken from the eyes.
I had to really think about HOW the body moves in an analytical sense (probably for the first time in my life, really). I had to then try to explain why certain foot positions and leg positions were detrimental to the fencer where others were beneficial. And I had to explain it well, or there would be no reason for the 'student' to listen to what I was saying.

3. Teaching IS learning.

In Soviet Russia, Students Teach You! (Sorry Yakov, I promise not to do that again)

The upshot of all of this was that for every basic technique that I was ostensibly 'teaching', I was forced by the mere attempt of teaching to do the following:
- think about the technique
- mentally picture the technique to explain it
- physically demonstrate the technique
- correct inaccuracies when the 'student' attempts it
- explain why the inaccuracies were 'inaccurate' to begin with.
- revise my own interpretations in the face of obvious evidence that I am 'doing it wrong' (This becomes evident, for example, when the student does EXACTLY what you ask them to do, and you look at it, and you think "Uh oh. That explains those bruises on the upper right arm. O for a full length mirror at home and space to move.")
- recognise when a technique is performed adequately or well
- advise the student in a timely fashion when they performed the technique well, and explain why.
- show the student how to recognise the signs of a correctly executed technique themselves for future reference and solo training.

For example, with the lunge: I put a lot more thought into the lunge when trying to teach it than I ever did while practicing it at home. I feel certain that a lot more practical theory and application crystalised in my own head regarding the lunge in that little session than had in the past few months. Not to mention I had to be very careful of my own execution of the lunge to be able to demonstrate it adequately.

All in all, trying to teach, even at a basic level, was a very interesting experience.

I have a lot more to learn about effective teaching, but I can guarantee I'll learn more by attempting to do so than otherwise.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why I train at home (despite being lazy by nature)

This entry falls under 'Stating the obvious in as verbose a fashion as humanly possible'.
I want to get this down while I'm thinking about it.

I write this because, due to time and health limitations, I can rarely go to more than one night-time training session with my peers each week.

The obvious penalty to this situation is that, if I relied upon a single training session each week, I would make little progress at all in my studies of the sword for two reasons: 1 - lack of physical practice and resultant conditioning; 2 - less chances for the brain to make the necessary neural connections to allow learning to take a hold.

I'm a big believer that, if you go to bed soon after focusing on an area of study you will have a better chance for the knowledge to sink in, take root, and consolidate.

For those of you with the occasional interest in reading scientific articles, here is one on the subject of sleep and motor skill learning, and an experiment conducted to see if sleep improved motor-skill learning:

An excerpt for those who DON'T want to click the link:
"...subjects were trained either in the morning or evening and retested at subsequent 12-h intervals following wake or sleep. Although practice on the motor-skill task improved performance within the training session for all groups equally, regardless of time of day, subjects trained in the morning demonstrated no significant improvement in speed when retested after 12 h of wake. In contrast, they showed an average 20% improvement by the next morning, following a night of sleep."

So, according to the above article, each night spent training and thinking about fencing before a decent night of sleep is going to give me a boost in my knowledge/skill retention.

Therefore, if I only think about fencing one night a week, and practice the physical skills one night a week, then I am missing several opportunities to push along my quest for improvement.

In conclusion, and stating the bloody obvious: it makes every kind of good sense to spend some time training each night before having a shower and going to bed, so much so that even a lazy man such as myself cannot help but give into the demands of logic.

I may go into what exercises I currently use in a later entry.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Exercises I use for developing strength in the arms

One thing I noticed very quickly when I first started training with swords was how rapidly my arms and shoulders wore out and became too fatigued to safely or successfully execute any fencing techniques.

(Quick background: when I was in Uni, I was quite weak in the torso and arms due to malnutrition, although my legs were fairly reliable from several years of lengthy walks and bicycle rides)

Now, whether one trains with a HEMA group or a re-enactment group, chances are you generally don't spend enough time in class each week to develop the requisite strength quickly. At least, such was the case for me.

Now, you could go to the gym, true, but you may not have the time, money and/or inclination to do so. Personally, I prefer a method which is cheap and doesn't require me to leave home.

The method I ended up going with is simply this: Handweights.
Pop down to your local Sports Equipment Store (eg. Rebel Sports) and fork out between 5-15$ for a couple of light handweights.

Ideally, you'd want 2 of the 1.5kg or 2kg weights - however, if at this time you are having difficulty holding a rapier in extended guard for more than a minute, then start with the 1kg weights, but get the 1.5kg ones as well (which you can use to test how far your strength is coming along).


1 - The Spanish Guard
This exercise is ideal for getting used to having your sword arm extended in guard for lengthy periods. You can do this while standing in front of the television, or at any time when your mind is otherwise engaged but your body and arms are doing nothing of use.

Simply hold the weight in your hand like you would a rapier's grip, feet approximately shoulders width wide, and hold your arm at length (as per image to the right). Do not lock in your elbow.

Periodically change your hand position from fingernails facing down, to fingernails facing to the inside, and then with fingernails facing up. When one arm gets too tired, swap arms.

(Image from Pacheco's The Book of the Greatness of the Sword (1600) with thanks to the hard work of Mary and Puck Curtis)

2 - The Cuts
Now, simply holding your arm out with weight in hand isn't going to work all of the required arm and shoulder muscles. So, when boredom with the first exercise sets in (and it will, trust me!), switch over to this one.

This exercise is fairly intuitive for anyone who has watched any swashbuckling movies (Pirates of the Caribbean included). Without damaging your household or those you may live with, perform a sequence of cuts with arm extended and weight in hand.

NB: Do not lock the elbow in, but make sure that at the point where you imagine the cut has 'connected' your arm should be almost straight if you want to be working the arm and shoulder well. Remember you can cut with finesse and panache using movements of the wrist and elbow. Not every strike has to be a 'Conan Special'.

3 - The Guards
This exercise presumes that you have been taught a range of wards and guards for your particular style of bladework.

This exercise simply consists of moving from one guard/ward to the next with the weight in hand. Try different speeds, ranging from slow and deliberate to fast (but only as fast as you can maintain the correct guard position). Make sure you hold your arm in the guard/ward position for at least 5-10 seconds. Make sure that, at some point, you hold each guard for a lengthy position, as you did in Exercise 1 - The Spanish Guard.

HOW TO GAUGE PROGRESS and push it forward more.

This is relatively simple to do - all you need is a timer of some form.
Let us assume for arguments sake that you started with a 1kg handweight, and could only have it extended in the Spanish Guard for 1 minute before you had to drop your arm.

Every time you subsequently hold the guard for longer than 1 minute is a sign of improvement.

When you can hold it for 5 minutes or more at the current weight, increase the weight (to 1.5kg, for this example).

You will find that you may once again only be able to hold the new weight for around a minute or so. However, when your arm gets too tired for the 1.5kg weight, change it immediately to the 1kg (without taking a break). You should find that you will be able to continue the exercise for a couple more minutes.

As time progresses you will find in much the way that I have, that when you pick up the rapier at training or in the fighting lists, your arm will not tire out so quickly and you will be able to get in a lot more quality fencing for your time and effort.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer