Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Absolutely no absolutes

The more I study and learn of historical fighting and the more I teach, the more I become careful in throwing around "absolutes" in terms of technique. I find that to say that something is "wrong" is a sub-optimal way of thinking about fencing that hinders development. Rather I like to highlight that everything is situational, i.e. with a proper understand of the principles of fencing that there is often a time and a place where a particular piece of technique that is often labeled as "wrong" is, in fact, optimal and that you should not completely discount anything.

For example:

(and I'd like to make it clear that I'm not being negative on these examples, I liked and remembered both these videos I'm just using them to illustrate a pedagogical mindset.)

In this interesting video, the view is put forward that you should cut and step at the same pace to ensure that your hand and body land together. This is so that you cut with maximum strength and for reasons of balance.  The idea of not stepping and cutting at the same pace is demonstrated to be wrong.

However, in the below video we have a different opinion, that the arm should slightly precede the body with the foot to follow quickly afterwards to ensure they land at the same time. This is so you can track your opponent if they move. To move with hand and body together at the same pace is demonstrated to be wrong. 

Who is correct?

From my opinion they are both right for different situations. Firstly from test cutting I find that you absolutely want the hand and foot at the same pace for maximum effect, moving the hand first and the foot following faster is invariably a weaker strike. Moving the body with the cut seems to allow for maximum engagement of body mechanics and gives you a better draw through the target. However, the second video is also correct if I fear my opponent is keyed up to counter-attack me, i.e. to attack at the same tempo as my strike, then by leading with my arm I can either draw out his response or track his movement before I commit myself. So, both are correct for different situations.

I guess my point is that neither of these people are wrong, but that in terms of how you explain technique it's important to highlight that there are few absolutes in terms of correct/incorrect technique.

When I teach and someone says "is this wrong?" I'm always very careful to say "no, it's just not optimal in these circumstances." The key point being, I think, is that by telling people something is wrong you are closing a door for them. Instead, I feel we should be cultivating a broad understanding of the underlying principles, to analyse and understand. Thus if an opponent varies the timing or measure then suddenly the "wrong" footwork becomes optimal they won't struggle against it thinking "but I was told this was wrong!" and will instead rationalise it and understand what is happening.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Kit Mod: Blacking the Blackfencer

My only criticism in my review of the Blackfencer sythetics was that the unprotected steel easily rusts and that this is a level of care I really would rather not be bothered with in a synthetic weapon.

I investigated several options for steel care and decided upon gun bluing as the best option. Frankly it's been a breeze to put this onto mild-steel like the Blackfencer guards. I went and bought some inexpensive "gun blue" liquid from a hunting shop (Outers Gun Blue). Be careful in your purchase as their is blue for Steel and blue for Aluminium, putting the wrong thing on could be awkward. While it's called "blue" you can select from blue to black and I went with the blackest option. I picked the smallest volume bottle (60ml) and so far I've gone through half a bottle to do four weapons.

It's pretty simple to apply. Firstly you fully de-grease your steel. I used a simple degreasing spray and gave the metal and good once over with some sandpaper to remove any oil or rust. Then you get the bluing liquid and paint it on your metal, leave for 5 minutes, rinse off with water and then dry thoroughly. I've found it takes about 4-5 coats to get a deep black colour but all in all couldn't be easier.

The end result looks pretty good and will hopefully provide a much lower maintenance training tool.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Di Grassi on the exercise and strength of arms

"As touching the weight or heft, which is borne in the hand, be it sword or other weapon, I commend not their opinion anyway, who will for the strengthening of a man's arm that he handle first a heavy weapon, because being first used to them, afterwards, ordinary weapons will seem the lighter unto him, but I think rather the contrary, to wit, that first to the end, he does not over burden and choke his strength, he handle a very light sword, and such a one, that he may most nimbly move. For the end of this art is not to lift up or bear great burdens, but to move swiftly. And there is no doubt but he vanquishes which is most nimble, and this nimbleness is not obtained by handling of great hefts or weights, but by often moving." - Giacomo di Grassi, His True Art of Defence 1594

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Kit mod: improved design for back of head protector

Back of head protection, it's one of those things (like a box) that you don't need until you really need it. Simply as protection from hooking shots or from instinctively turning your the head.

I bought a SPES Vectir a while ago but it isn't compatible with Leon Paul masks and when I adapted it still wasn't satisfied with the large gaps left at the top and sides when you are moving around. Unlike "normal" fencing masks Leon Paul masks don't have a large wire bar thing at the top filling in the top.
I've been looked at various more complete head protectors but I've been reluctant to purchase anything like this basically because one of the joys of fencing masks is that they ventilate really well. Wrapping your mask in an insulating layer of leather and padding strikes me as a really bad idea. They also they seem to restrict your head movement, side/side and up/down, which I would find really annoying.

So, to solve my problems I need something that:

1. Provides comprehensive protection to the back of my head without having to wrap my mask in a giant blanket
2. Attaches to a Leon Paul mask

 Pretty simple really it's a hardened leather shell which attaches at the top of the mask by a thin velcro strip into the existing velcro strap and at the bottom with a thin elastic cord under the chin. The shape follows the contours of the head and I've put leather "tabs" at the top and side that slide into the mask to ensure it overlaps where it joins the mask. Finally, there's a small thin piece of padding directly behind where it rests on the plastic head strap.

 This picture shows the overlapping tabs at the points where you usually get gaps.

So far it works pretty well. It's light weight and doesn't appear to hold any heat. Aesthetically it looks quite good as well being quite minimalist. I've smacked myself on the head quite hard with different weapons and it holds up quite well. Finally, as I move around it doesn't seem to open up and expose any gaps so I guess I'm quite happy.

Already I'm looking to make a few tweaks, mainly to put the elastic chin strap around the outside of the back so that it'll improve things by pushing the tabs into the mask, at the moment being on the inside it pushes them out a little when in place. I also might add an articulated plate to cover the base of my neck.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Post tournament thoughts

Initial thoughts on tournament:

It definitely appears to work better to have judges call all hits, not because they are good at it but because at least it's a level playing field of incompetence that affects all participants equally. Therefore we had a lot of grumbling about the judges but it didn't progress into outright whining because, well people whos hits weren't called also had hits against them not called. This also, as we thought, tended to favour fighters who gave clean, decisive blows over scrappers and snipers. Having said that, all the training had paid off and the standard of judging was much higher than in previous years.

As per usual, a lot of the outcome was determined by the luck of the draw. Many of the better fighters were paired up and went out early, whereas many of the newer fighters were paired up and went into the later rounds. I think that is part of the charm of a tournament but I think that some kind of experimentation with a seeding process would probably be a good idea.

I noted again that people with simple strategies tend to win tournaments. A lot like Dal'aggochie's "how to train someone to win a duel in a week" or all of Di Grassi. Pick a max of two high percentage combinations that you can do really well and fast and then do them really well and fast. Conversely people who go in for "good fights" tend to go out early. I think this perfectly exemplifies the historical dichotomy between the True and False Arts, people who are all business and people who want to play.

I also noted, for the steel competitions, that there was a direct correlation between sword weight and success: the fighters with the lighter swords definitely came out better.

We had all our scoring and matching run through an excel spreadsheet, all programmed up to calculate everything from randomly selecting matches to calculating who was winning etc. We projected this onto a wall. While there were occasional technical hiccups with this, mostly centred around people dropping in or out of competitions, this worked really well. Fighters could see on the display how they were doing, who was winning and what their upcoming fights were in real time. This made the organisation super smooth.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Tournament fun

"I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn't be our style. Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever." Shane Falco, The Replacements.

So, for my sins, I volunteered to organise our Clubs annual tournament. For the first time, in my experience, we actually have spent the better part of three months preparing for this tournament. Which is why it has been a little quiet on here lately. It's been an interesting learning experience and I'll try and summarise some thoughts here:

1. Format

After experimenting with various formats we decided that we liked a customised ruleset based on the Fechtshule New York rules. This is with:
  • The bout halts after a single exchange
  • Hits to the core score more than a hit to the extremities
  • Each fighter has three lives
  • Line judges call hits
I wasn't initially a big fan of this ruleset but I've come around and will admit that the results are pretty good. The single exchange encourages people to fight more like they are worried about receiving an injury while the fact that each fighter has three lives means that they get at least three fights, often with three different people. Line judges calling the hits means that the polite fighters aren't getting unfairly eliminated and also means people have to focus on delivering more significant blows that are clearly visible to the judges. In short, we've found that relying on judges penalises snipers, as the whole "hit fast and withdraw" approach is hard to judge. Having three lives also means that when there are judging mistakes you still have more fights on the way to make up for it. Finally, this format is fast. You can plough through people really quickly.

2. Judge and Marshall Training

Every year we're like "we should do training for Judges and Marshalls" and every year we pretty much just give people a couple of goes at it. This year we have been doing weekly in-house tournaments for the last couple of months with most people taking a turn. This has worked both ways with fighters giving judges feedback and then the same fighters have a turn at judging and understanding better the issues. It makes a massive difference.

It has also allowed us to work through the nuance of the ruleset. We're fortunate to have some real pedants in our Club and that has been an asset in testing the ruleset, what exactly do we mean by a certain rule. Of course, the flip side has been understanding and developing arguments to ensure that we are not trying to legislate everything.

3. Response to tournament

I'm always up for tournaments and competitions in general. I don't care so much about winning, far more factors than simple skill are involved in winning a tournament, but I do care about being a "serious contender." By this, I mean that when people look at the draw they see my name and go "oh shit" or the like. This is my bar, if people are like "ok, that's not a problem" then I have more work to do.

However, clearly many people find tournaments really challenging and I can understand. I think if you've got serious investment in the idea of being "good" at something then the possibility of going out in the first round of a tournament must be really upsetting. On this basis, I always expect to see some negative reactions ranging from a distinct lack of enthusiasm, to excuse finding to not attend, to outright hostility to the very concept. This is just to be expected. To a certain extent we've taken steps to try and mitigate issues here. By providing quite a few sections, this allows people more chances to shine and the opportunity to raise to the top in a least one section.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Command your temper

"Command your Temper and you will do much better, than if you give way to your Passion; and if you do Command it, and are Engaged with a Person who can not, you will have very much the Advantage of him, for his Passion will make him Play wild and wide, and consequently exposes himself to be Hit very often, wheras your thoughts not being in Hurry and Confusion, you may Defend your self with ease and judgement, and take an Advantage readily when ever you have a mind, you are the more capable of doing this, because your Strength, Mind and Spirit are not Spent or Exhausted." Donald McBain, The Expert Swordsman's Companion 1728