Sunday, 29 May 2016

The path we take



“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” - Socrates

I, like many other people it seems on Facebook, enjoyed the TEDex talk by Devon Boorman's . It was refreshing to see someone talk about HEMA from a personal development perspective which I think is a very compelling selling point for HEMA in general. It's also something I could watch with my Wife and discuss themes that we could both relate to.

My perspective was/is slightly different from Devon's but similar. I was physically capable of "sports" and on school "field" days I did quite well and spent several years being gently harassed by various Coaches to attend games. Now I was never top shelf material and I'm pretty sure I was only seen as necessary to make up a full squad. But they could just never get me to show up for games. 

Partly this was down to the social side of it. In my experience, team sports at school are not really about ability but largely about social interaction. If you were part of the right social group then you would get the ball, you would "fit in" with the team and from that you would receive attention from the Coach. While I knew a few people who were genuinely gifted at Sports the vast majority I knew were just the friends of those people. I generally wasn't friends with the designated "sporty types" so I didn't really get the opportunity to get into Sports. This was largely choice though on my behalf because I just found them boring. I never wanted to sacrifice the joys of running through the woods with a pretend sword or building immense castles out of straw bales for getting up early on a weekend morning to catch a bus, in school uniform, to stand in the pissing rain in some frozen field somewhere in Scotland to stand around while a bunch of other guys passed the ball to each other.

Fortunately though I never labelled myself as "not sporty" I just labelled myself as "not part of the Sporting Aristocracy." The net result was that when life presented me with an opportunity for physical activity that stimulated my interest I've not been loath to take it. From multi-day wilderness hikes, to rock climbing, kayaking, biking, boxing and when I found a bunch of guys fighting with swords in a car park (exactly like Devon's experience) I took it. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Marcelli's thoughts on Internet Warriors

"Take care not to be so delicate of spirit, or flighty of will, that at every minimal clash, or trivial occasion, you look to put your hand to your sword; copying the example of the bravoes of our age, who think that by using it often they acquire the reputation of being brave and strong.

The gentleman I deem more gallant than any other, is the one who with the mere presence of his virtue, and credit of his valour, renders himself formidable to enemies, and esteemed by companions; not one who does not pass a day without seeing his brand unsheathed in his hand. He is the most vile, and least regarded of all, since it shows he lacks the virtue to make himself feared, and the qualities to make himself esteemed. Hence he is often given occasion, to have insults to avenge." 
- Francesco Antonio Marcelli (via Piermarco Terminiello)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Why you should not treat armed combat like unarmed combat

"In unarmed fighting, the relative difficulty of accomplishing a single, instantly incapacitating blow means that an aggressive fighter can take a reasonable, calculated gamble in dodging, blocking, absorbing, or riding his opponent’s blows while launching his own strikes. This same level of aggression becomes reckless when faced with e.g. a sharp sword, due to the increased risk of incapacitating injury as well as the additional speed required to traverse the increased effective range of the weapon." - Dakao Do

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Some thoughts around running a HEMA club

"How can profit and authenticity be reconciled so that one does not destroy the other?" - Ashley Read, Authentic Profits

I'm currently reading this book which is rather good. It's about how to run a Martial Art club in a way that does not compromise your integrity (and still make money if that is a goal that interests you). I have always been rather skeptical of people who run their HEMA club as a business, the main reason for this is that many appear to automatically fall into the ubiquitous "Mcdojo" approach.

To run such a model leads to most of the pitfalls I see in most Martial Arts and is, from what I can see, an ongoing and emerging issue in HEMA:

1. High quantity, low-quality

The club will never turn away anyone because larger groups equal more money for the business owner. It's all about getting as many people as possible in the door and paying fees. This means heavy marketing and appealing to every possible market: this is "street", "spiritual", "sport", etc. In being something for everyone it is, in fact, equally nothing to everyone, i.e. does nothing well and people become quickly disillusioned. The net result is that it attracts lots of people the majority of whom then leave.

2. All filler, no killer

Time = money so the more classes the students have to take the more income for the business owner. Also the higher student to teacher ratio the more profit. This means almost an inevitably slow and tedious progression for any student irrespective of ability or interest. A way many Clubs have to maintain interest despite glacial progression is to have extensive and complex ranking systems, as they are a great way to give the appearance of content without the substance. Finally, it's a good way of selecting the "true believers", because no large club can go it alone and the "Master" needs proven sycophants, er I mean "assistants", and those who have invested the money and time to progress through complex hierarchies are unlikely to rock the boat.

3. The all-knowing and powerful dictator

The Martial Arts "mastery" of the business owner is their unique selling point and nothing must be allowed to happen that would threaten this. Unfortunately, nothing is a bigger threat to this than those pesky students, which means that any dissent or discussion that runs contrary to the teaching of the Leader must be quashed. Even with an essentially well-meaning teacher, the high student to teacher ratio makes dealing with everyone fully and with attention is impossible. It also means, given the stakes that loss of reputation entails, they must treat sparring or competing with extreme caution. The end result being that the teacher builds a wall of authority between themselves and all but a select few trusted students.

4. Everyone else does it wrong

When operated through this business model which tries to be everything to everyone, then naturally every other club out there is a potential threat and most be destroyed! (or even in the most benign club they are all "doing it wrong") This often becomes personal because every other teacher out there is a potential threat to the business owners unique selling point, their "mastery."

So, what's the "other way" to this? Well, to have a rational think about some of the outcomes of the above:

1. Large numbers = high overheads and low quality
2. Trying to be everything to everyone = hard sell and inevitable disappointment with high turnover
3. Relying on your "mastery" = Compromising your training for fear for your own authority from students and your peers

The solution could then be seen as:

1. Small numbers = smaller overheads and better quality teaching
2. Focused on a niche market = higher quality product which can be sold for more money and less need to see everyone as rivals. In fact, it's in your interests to turn away unsuitable students and you can recommend them other places more suited to their interests.
3. Be more like a coach = have a more personal relationship with students (which equals more loyal customers and an ability to charge more money) but makes it Ok for them to progress beyond you.

To put this in business lingo: the end result is a more quality product, with more consistent customers that you can sell your "product" to for more money. 

Which club would I rather train with? I'd go for the smaller, more personal training with direct access to an quality training, at my pace and with a teacher who wasn't afraid to prove themselves. And I pay more money for it and if I didn't want to then there's all those McDojo's out there ready and waiting for me.

Of course most of this goes out the window if you're not running your club as a business. But some of the factors remain constant, do you want the hassle of a larger numbers of students and the resultant higher overheads with lower student-teacher ratios? Well maybe you do, especially if you tweak the model so it looks like this:

1. Large numbers - higher overheads but more paying members
2. Still focused on a niche market - better retention because you've chosen a popular subject, stuck at it and are doing it well
3. Still acting like a coach - because it's not dependant on your personal prestige (and your eye isn't on your personal bottom line) the sky's the limit in terms of instructors which means better teacher-student ratios. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Let your opponent do the parrying

"For in combat you cannot easily know or quickly see what kind of device he will execute against you, much less be so quickly able to think how to counter it. Therefore I always hold with one who knows many devices and few counters, and how to execute them judiciously in the Before and After, and allows his opponent to concern himself about the counters" Joachim Meyer 2.27v.1

Friday, 29 April 2016

Kit review: Titan Exchange HEMA mask

"The forces generated by larger swords and the contact nature of the sport demand more than a fencing mask with HEMA written on. The Titan mask uses stainless steel mesh that is 20% stronger than a traditional FIE mask, the bib is bigger and uses the contour plus strap to keep your mask locked onto your head."

Recently I upgraded my old style Leon Paul mask for the new "Titan Range HEMA X-change mask", which I'll assume will just be called the Leon Paul "HEMA Mask" from now on.

Ordering

I ordered this from the main Leon Paul site (rather than the Leon Paul Australia site, which doesn't seem to work for me). It was a breeze to order thanks to a well thought out online ordering system. Postage wasn't expensive and it arrived in New Zealand from the UK is less than a week. There were email updates as the order was processed and the courier tracking system worked nicely.

Pros

Many pros for this mask:
    Firstly it's significantly stronger than my old Leon Paul mask. If I take my old mask in my hands and press on the sides I can easily flex the mesh on the sides. If I take the new HEMA mask it's practically impossible. I think this speaks to a much stronger mesh. This is notable in free-play, often I find myself taking reasonable hits on the mask but not really feeling them and having to confirm with my opponent.

    The mesh extends much further around the sides and chin replacing the somewhat dubious protection of bib with that a solid mesh. This is definitely another plus in terms of head protection.

    The bib appears to be more firm and substantial. Poking myself in the throat with a (blunt) dagger is much more comfortable with this bib.

    Take out these inserts
    I ordered the extra high impact padding which is pretty smartly arranged and probably the biggest plus for me of the mask. It's definitely more substantial at all the normal points at the chin, forehead, side of the throat and across the top of the head. This all velcros in and can be quickly rearranged. Not only does it come with beefier padding it also comes with extra inserts that allow customise your padding arrangements. You can remove the extra padding to give you more ventilation and visibility when drilling in low impact situations but then add it back in when you are sparring for extra padding. The fact that it can be moved around also lets you arrange it to where you want, filling in gaps or double padding as required. If you're feeling squeezed in one arrangement, simply rearrange it to suit you. Pretty cool.

    Full padding
    Light padding












    Finally, it's a got a little cord for tying around the back of your neck to prevent the mask coming off, presumably in a grappling or gripping situation. This wasn't much of a problem to me previously, Leon Pauls back of mask strap pretty much makes this very difficult to pull off, but it's a nice touch.

    Cons

    The least interesting thing to me is the x-change bib. To be honest I've not even tried removing it. I've never had a problem cleaning the fabric bib on my masks before: run a small sink of warm water, add a small amount of washing powder and scrub with a brush until it's all clean. Simple really and I've never understood what was complicated about this. Asides from not really understanding the point of the x-change system and resenting slightly the extra cost, it's really not a big negative.

    This brings us to the cost, it's a very expensive mask. I could almost buy four cheap masks for this price. However, for the sake of something I'll use every single time I train I'm happy to pay extra for small but significant increases in quality and convenience. I've certainly bought cheap gear before and I'm glad that I'm moving beyond that. 

    Conclusion

    If you've got the money it's definitely worth it. Seems to offer an overall increase in terms protection and convenience without any significant negatives. I'm a fan.



    Wednesday, 27 April 2016

    10 simple tips for improving HEMA sparring

    Shamelessly inspired by this article:

    1. Game

    I agree that relaxation is important. Being tense means you're thinking about being tense and not smiting the other guy. One of the simplest ways I've found to do this is to play more. This means treating sword fighting more like a game than a serious life and death situation because the only thing in danger in our pretend sword poking is our egos. Here are a whole bunch of games to help induce a relaxed mindset.

    2. Train fast and get faster

    Not many sword fighting sources have ponderous complex actions but rather lots of simple actions done at the correct time and measure very, very fast. Want to be fast? Then recognise that what you are doing now is actually slow and do specific drills to improve your explosive speed. Just try this and see what I mean:

    • Throw a glove in the air and do as many cuts as you can before it falls. Go as fast as you can while maintaining good body mechanics. If you're loosing good mechanics than slow it down a notch. This is your current max speed.
    • Work at this for a week
    • You'll find your number of cuts with good mechanics has increased in the same period of time
    • You'll realise that your original speed was actually slow and this is your new normal speed
    • This will be more immediately useful to you as a fencer than most "slow play" exercises I can think of.

    3. Block your opponent

    It's simple: if you don't want to be hit then always ensure that your sword is between you and your opponent. They're holding the sword that way because they want to hit you from there so don't let them. Be a dick about it and don't "give" them openings, always place your sword blocking the line your opponent is threatening. Don't have a "neutral" fall back position, have your position always be blocking their sword. This means that they will either have to feint (and give you a tempo to attack them) or change position to strike a new opening (and give you a tempo to attack them).

    4. Stick your point in their face

    If given the choice of position to hold, choose a point forward position and ensure your point is sticking towards their face. This is because a thrust using just the hand/arm is just about the fastest action you can perform and if you are blocking (as above) and opponent is kind enough to give you measure and a thrusting line, you will hit them. Of course, this doesn't mean leaving your sword hanging out there so they can bind it, you can pull the hand back to your head or knee to make them work to reach it.

    5. Learn body mechanics

    Don't look at the eyes, the hand, the hips, or the shoulders. Look at everything and learn in a fraction of a second what it means. This is largely the point of the postures or guard positions from the sources, to learn a concise summary of what is best/likely to happen from someone holding those positions. Also, learn when body mechanics are important. For example, how that person is holding themselves in long measure (i.e. able to reach you with a step) is huge. Everything prior to this is likely misdirection but this very specific moment will tell you what they intend to do next. While they might be holding a low guard out of measure if they gather into a high guard the second they move into long measure then you don't want to be caught holding a preparation for a low guard.

    6. Know your principles

    Body mechanics, time, measure. Read his intentions from his body mechanics, pick your tempo which determines your where you need to be.

    7. Recognise the True and False Arts

    The True Art is about surviving at all cost in a real fight. You will block your opponents body mechanics, withdraw from any exchange they initiate and only take an opening when you have it for certain using the simplest, fastest and most reliable of actions. Which is kind of boring in a sparring match, let's be honest. The false art is about upping the risk to yourself by trying to encourage your opponent to attack into your prepared positions with openings, trying to turn the initiative against them, deploying fancy multi-stage actions and feinting liberally. This is more fun but more likely to kill yourself. Be able to switch between the two depending on whether you are sparring for fun or for more serious purposes.

    8. Actually hit the other guy

    A key difference I see in new fencers that denotes success are between those that learn to actually hit the other guys and those never actually hit the other person. It's something instilled in most of us from an early age: you don't hit other people. Watch your training. When drilling or completing exercises are you actually hitting the other guy? If not then modify your training to do this. Two things you can do about this I find. Firstly get accurate so that you're always hitting somewhere that your comfortable hitting, i.e. mask, torso etc. Secondly not hitting the other guy often stems from a lack of willingness to step into measure, often people cut at long measure in the hope their opponent will step into measure for them. Practice stepping from long measure, into measure with the cut and then immediately stepping out to long measure again.

    9. Be on the balls of your feet

    Want to ensure your legs are bent? Go on the balls of your feet.
    Want to move more explosively? Go on the balls of your feet.
    Want to move smoothly? Go on the balls of your feet.
    etc etc

    10. Own Long Measure

    This is the place you should live but holding to this position without thought will get you beat up more surely than anything. Many people take this measure position without thinking and this is where they do their thinking. You are one tempo from getting hit at this point. A half tempo if your opponent has noticed your habit and gathers in preparation to you assuming this measure. Often you'll assume the same "thinking" guard position. This means your opponent knows your measure and likely body mechanics. You're practically gifting him a free hit. Break the habit by forming another habit of assuming your normal position then taking a couple of small steps backward. Now you have two tempos to think. If your opponent is the type to automatically step forwards to make long measure then you know they will be stepping forward, which gives you a time to attack.