First, a note: If you submit a comment and it does not post, please email me at otownes AT gmail DOT com and let me know.
About the blog:
This blog began as a series of e-mails to help train my local SCA rapier practice in melee. In 2008 I decided to start maintaining it as a blog instead, hopefully to reach a wider audience but mostly to have a readily accessible archive for new members of the practice. I foolishly called it Wistric’s Weekly Warfare and thereby made a certain commitment regarding posting frequency (which, statistically speaking, we maintain to this day).
It morphed over time as my rapier pursuits developed into a place to document my thoughts on melee, as well as my experience as a fencer trying to improve and a student of historic martial arts.
In 2011 I received my White Scarf and I decided to open up this platform to others, especially my students. I have no doubt it helped me earn that Scarf, possibly through self-promotion, mostly through forcing myself to think more about what I was doing as a fencer and the feedback I received. At that point it became the Weekly Warfare.
Our contributor list has expanded since then and with it the range of topics and depth and breadth of knowledge. New contributors are always welcome – even the neophyte has a perspective and personal experience that will inform fencers and teachers of all experience levels. Academic writing skills and knowledge are not required – if they were the Warfare would be better off without me as a contributor.
If you’re reading this, please give feedback. “I agree” is fine. “I disagree” is better. “I disagree and this is why” is even better. This is a crucible in which to refine ideas and pick the brains of the audience for how to better understand the Art we do.
If you’d like to know more about a topic, just ask. We’ll see if somebody wants to take a swing at writing about it, or even help you do so.
Teaching is a profession that a lot of people think they understand because they went to school and saw teachers do their jobs every day for years. Maybe they showed a young relative how to tie their shoes, or finger paint, or make a sandwich.
Those people are wrong. Very wrong, to the degree that once you free yourself from the Dunning-Kruger Effect of pedagogy, people who think they can efficiently and effectively teach complex skills without considerable experience in teaching itself are laughable. We’re talking about a career where the first 1-2 years are sometimes known as the “fantasy” stage because a novice can’t tell how ineffectual they are (or hasn’t yet actually run a classroom!)– a stage quickly followed by “survival,” wherein the teacher mostly struggles and remains in a constant, hopeless, uphill struggle. Eventually, the teacher becomes a “master” teacher, characterized by effectiveness and improvement through development. Those few who pass by this stage become “impact” teachers, who have the ability to alter the path of young lives in profound ways.
I write now as someone who reached the impact stage during my 11 year career as a teacher and as someone whose professional career since has been in curriculum design. The year before I left teaching, I maxed out our performance evaluation system and 50% of my AP students scored in the top quartile nationally; 75% of them outperformed the 50th percentile of the nation, and we were a school where almost half the students were classified as economically disadvantaged. I have thank you notes saved that tell me I made children believe in themselves, and a few that outright tell me I saved their lives. I am happy to debate any of the points I make herein, but bear in mind that ethos has been around a lot longer than either of us.
My first main point: SCA combat teaching is usually very poor by any credible measurement of instruction, and it’s usually because many of our teachers overestimate themselves and their outcomes. Bear in mind, I am not talking about someone who is doing the best they can and acknowledges that they’re flying by the seat of their pants and trying. We should all show due respect to the “survival” teacher, especially if they are putting energy into climbing out of that hole.
Before we can get into effective teaching practices, it is important to understand some concepts that are often misused, conflated, or misunderstood. Or, most likely, merely unknown.
A learning objective is the skill that you expect your students to have after the lesson. These are typically best framed as, “Upon completion of the lesson, the student will be able to [action verb + direct object].” For example, “the student will be able to perform a strike via a cavazione in quarta, maintaining opposition.” Any skill learned must be revisited and reinforced in future lessons so that it can become a permanent part of the student’s knowledge base.
Content is made up of the facts, theories, concepts, and other principles that make up a discipline. In our above example, the student must know how to perform a cavazione, what quarta and opposition mean, how to lunge and recover, and forming a guardia. There may be more, depending on the level of detail involved, but never forget that people can be overwhelmed.
Assessments are how to determine if a lesson has been learned, or to what degree. These assessments, for our purposes, are all formative and should guide later lessons. Formative assessments are the means by which an instructor determines how well progress is being made with the skills being taught, as well as how to judge what adjustments need to be made or what concepts need reteaching. Formative assessments are representative of skill development at that moment in time.
Guided practice of the skill being taught is part of formative assessment. This is, very simply, where we ask, “are you doing it right?” We don’t really have a summative assessment, though tournament performance (i.e. demonstrating skills under pressure against a genuinely resisting opponent) could be thought of as summative assessment. This is imperfect, however, as a summative assessment assumes that a learning program has come to a conclusion, and ours need not ever.
These elements combine to make up the lesson plan, which is what anyone teaching a skill puts together whether they realize it or not. A series of lesson plans that culminate in a set of connected skills make up a unit plan (“attacking,” in this example), and unit plans that form a coherent whole create a curriculum (historical Italian rapier).
One remaining element, which I intentionally separated, is the use of engagement strategies. Engagement strategies are whatever you do to keep your students interested in the material. There is no right or wrong way to engage interest; there is only whether or not something is effective. One student may be enthralled with 200 cycles of the same drilled action, whereas another might need a tennis ball hung from the ceiling. Neither is wrong, but neither is automatically right, either.
Where we frequently run into “fantasy,” however, is in thinking that engagement is the same as learning. It is not. An engaged learner might be deeply focused and developing nothing, and a bored learner might be receiving perfect content and remembering none of it. Simply saying that a lesson is “fun” is a good way to get fired in education; without a learning objective and a rationale for where it fits into your unit and curriculum, you are not teaching. You may even be actively harmful to your student through your own ignorance.
One of the most successful engagement strategies I know of is fairly simple: students stay engaged when they are taking action or interacting, when they are challenged just beyond their ability (in fact, they learn best when they try, FAIL, and succeed after correction), and when they see that they are improving. How this manifests is immaterial, but it requires constant planning and monitoring to achieve.
So, I shall say this clearly: good teachers have long and short term plans for what they are teaching, and do so in a way that keeps the student interested.
There are no doubt many of my readers saying here, “I was handed a sword and it was fun and I stuck around and now I’m (some level of skilled)!” Of course you did– you’re one of the relatively small percentage of people who can muddle through the non-curriculum of an SCA practice and achieve relative success, and so that method “worked” and you stayed.
How many are lost because they don’t improve and become frustrated? How many hit a skill cap early and never break past that plateau? Why do dedicated people who attend practice regularly go years without growth?
This leads us to my second point: it is important to know what your limitations are insofar as what skills you possess, and what skills you can teach. Effective, qualified teachers are content area experts who are also pedagogical experts. These two skills are chiefly unrelated: an expert fencer may be a terrible coach, and an expert coach may get tremendous results for skills they do not personally possess the capacity to execute at a competitive level.
I am of the opinion that people can teach effectively to one level below their own knowledge base, and that once two people are approaching equality their relationship is more a partnership than a student/teacher pairing. The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a useful means by which to evaluate skill, but here I want to supplement the discussion by bringing in the knowledge and performance descriptions of Bloom’s Cognitive Domains and Bloom’s Psychomotor Domains. Neither Dreyfus nor Bloom present perfect frameworks, but they are nonetheless useful tools for guidance. Much of what’s involved in teaching relies upon refining practices through experimentation and reflection, and so I acknowledge that these classifications are not entirely rigid at the edges, and that many lessons will involve multiple domains working concurrently. The chief things to remember are that moving too far beyond what the student is capable of becomes detrimental, and that failing to address the lower levels adequately will hinder refined development of the higher skills. No two students are exactly alike, and the best teachers can tailor their lessons accordingly– as lessons are refined, they must be additionally adjusted to meet the needs of the student. The complexity of this cannot be overstated. It takes many years of experience as a full time teacher to develop this skill to a high level, and thus it will be rare to find.
You will notice that the Domains often employ verbs– which are integral to writing a successful learning objective. I’m not including the verb lists that go with these, but further reading will provide considerable examples.
Cognitive Domain / Psychomotor Domain
Domain 1: Remembering / Perception
Remembering entails the ability to repeat the relevant terms and their meanings: facts, methods, and principles, such as measure, tempo, and line. At this level, flashcards or a strong memory are all that is needed. This is a vocabulary test. You must know the lexicon if you are to hope to have a conversation about a specialized topic.
Perception is awareness of sensory stimulation: what you see and feel, like open lines and the pressure of blade contact.
Anyone can instruct at this level, as performing well here is mostly indicative of modest effort to learn its content. According to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, this is the Novice level of skill, characterized by rigid adherence to instruction and the absence of judgment.
Domain 2: Comprehending / Set
Comprehending concepts is demonstrated through actions like organizing, describing, or comparing the vocabulary learned in the remembering stage. This would be the ability to combine the concepts of lunge, recovery, opposition, and tempo together under the broader heading “attack,” several attacks being compiled into “offense” later on, which in turn can be connected to other concepts until eventually the word “fencing” contains a lifetime of information.
Set entails the readiness to act, as in an “if, then” statement. Set includes the awareness of one’s own capacities, including not only physical capacity, but motivations and emotions as well.
Most basic drills function at this level, and are absolutely necessary parts of later learning. Failure to address this level appropriately and adequately is harmful to the learner as they will integrate incomplete or inaccurate information into their later knowledge systems and fall behind their potential– possibly never to recover. Knowing this, as you now do, and ignoring it is negligent.
Anyone who can execute single actions successfully can potentially teach at this level. This Domain is within the Novice’s skill development.
Domain 3: Applying / Guided Practice
Applying information is done by taking what is known and using it to solve familiar problems.
Guided practice involves imitation coupled with trial and error.
This is where failure becomes especially important as a learning tool, but “trial and error” is a metacognitive process that needs to be understood to be done effectively. Wandering into a learning environment without a sense of how to evaluate results leads to an incoherent assortment of ideas, which will have varying degrees of value depending on how fortunate you happen to be– an educational roll of the dice.
In order to effectively judge an imitation, there must be a trusted ideal with which to compare.
Without an agreed upon lexicon, without concepts, without forms, there is no basis for imitation and no means for comparison between the ideal and the actual. Moreover, there is no means by which to develop an understanding of martial principles, as comprehension is inherently dependent on the ability to articulate relevant ideas.
This ability to compare the actual with the ideal is the basis for taking a scientific approach to learning methodology: hypothesizing, testing, evaluating, and repeating the process again and again serves to slowly chip away at every piece of marble until the statue is freed. We have the advantage of several centuries of cumulative learning already present to show us the way; no individual need recreate this wheel.
Successful instruction will instill fundamental actions early on and reinforce them thereafter; correcting bad habits or errors after they have become ingrained can be tremendously difficult. Failing to teach fundamentals is negligent.
At this level, we see the practical manifestation of abstract concepts, that is, we link the principles of combat the physical actions. This takes the form of more complex drills, though typically these drills are still limited to a single intention.
At this point, the student’s Dreyfus level is best described as an Advanced Beginner, with limited situational perception and an inability to integrate or prioritize information.
Domain 4: Applying / Mechanism
At this level, Applying still refers to linking principles to the physical actions.
However, mechanism requires habitual, learned responses to certain situations and that the fencer performs them appropriately and successfully.
At this level, the teacher must have skills beyond the drill being employed, which may now include multiple steps and/or a decision tree.
This Domain level is where Advanced Beginners first show signs of what Dreyfus calls Competence, meaning they can form limited plans and execute them effectively, are less readily overwhelmed by stimuli, and begins to see how their actions relate to broader goals.
Limited sparring is an example of this domain, and this is the level that many poor SCA teachers desire to start their students on. By starting at this level, every level that precedes it is undermined, and every level that follows it is stunted.
Don’t be a bad teacher. Now you know.
Domain 5: Analyzing / Complex Overt Response
Analyzing involves taking the elements of fencing (the terms as they work in conjunction with one another) and seeing how they relate to each other. Analyzing allows the student to organize the principles so that they can understand how they fit together in a meaningful and useful way.
This allows for a complex overt response: the coordination of many mechanical components in a way that is observable. For example, a habitual, learned response to lunge partnered with a habitual, learned response to perform girata of the left foot can result in a very artful sequence of attack.
This level of understanding is where sparring becomes useful, and at this level, students will sometimes put things together in ways that make them impress themselves. Dreyfus would refer to them as soundly within the Competent stage.
Failure again plays a prominent role in the learning process here. Fundamental actions should be at low risk for significant errors, but errors in timing and judgment will abound.
It is important to understand that failure can be productive, if the cause for failure is examined, understood, and resolved. Failure also provides lessons in what does not function, which helps guide a learner toward what does. If a particular technique proves challenging for a learner such that they initially fail at it 1,000 times to garner only 50 successes, those failures have incredible utility. That learner now knows 1,000 instances where their technique did not work, and can avoid repeating those mistakes. They also have 50 instances of success, which likely possess overlapping characteristics, to repeat by working to recreate the conditions for success in their fights. By repeating their successes, the broader principles involved become more clear.
Again, this is only fully realized if the initial knowledge base is present. There can be no systematic analysis if there is no system to analyze.
Everyone can participate at this level if they are beyond the Novice stage of Dreyfus, but to teach at this level likely requires Proficiency on that same continuum. In general, I have equated Proficiency with the Orders of High Merit, though obviously that is a good shorthand at best. Remember that people can generally only teach beneath their actual cognitive level and skill. It is once again worth noting that performance capacity is not strictly necessary to instruct, but it is obviously a substantial benefit that should not be discounted.
Domain 6: Synthesizing / Adaptation
With enough analysis and complex overt responses, a fencer begins to synthesize information, taking what is known and creating new patterns of movement, or seeing patterns form from diverse elements. For example, understanding opponent habits broadly enough to use feints and invitations effectively– or to see them for what they are.
Adaptation involves modifying known movement patterns to fit the requirements of special situations. This could mean successfully defeating an opponent using a previously unknown style or weapon by applying existing techniques in new ways.
Teaching at this level is extremely difficult and will likely only be successful when done by a Dreyfus Expert, though a Proficient will be able to perform at this level. Proficient performance is marked by a holistic view of a situation and the ability to prioritize effectively and adapt existing maxims to the present moment. Someone teaching this must be either intimately familiar with the learning levels and capacities of the student to the degree that they can tailor their instruction to meet that student’s needs almost exactly, or they must be able to assess the student to that level in a short time. This latter case is exceptionally unlikely; I could certainly accomplish this as an English teacher after 800 students or so, but that is far more experience than I hope to ever achieve in the SCA.
Do not confuse knowledge or skill with capacity, however– a very strong, very tall, very fast, very young fencer may have little knowledge or skill, but great capacity.
Domain 7: Evaluating / Origination
Evaluating deals primarily with judgment, using both internal evidence and external criteria. Does a technique meet the requirements of martial principles? Can an assertion be generalized to other situations? Is it effective? Is it effective against a skilled opponent? How skilled? Is it working because it’s legitimately artful, or is something else factoring in? Here, we get into advanced critical thinking, an entirely separate set of skills that is its own mountain to climb.
Origination happens when someone is able to create new patterns of movement to fit an unfamiliar or even familiar situation: at this highest level, an expert may invent a solution in an instant, without conscious consideration. They simply know what to do and make it work.
People who have been learning an amalgamation of tricks that are not part of a coherent system struggle severely to achieve this level, as their perception of their technique may require a total overhaul and reordering. The Expert level of the Dreyfus Model is not within their capacity, as it requires the ability to accurately and intuitively grasp a situation based on a deep understanding of all elements involved– this cannot be accomplished without knowing those elements thoroughly. The Expert can see what is possible, and as such not only knows what the rules are, but when and how to break them. To paraphrase a friend, you can only be Picasso if you first learn how to paint.
Realistically, this requires so much effort on the part of the learner that it needs to be at least as much self-directed as instructed. I would say that while a teacher might be able to help at this point, the student should already be taking on students of their own. The teacher and the now former student become partners in their mutual edification. I hope that some of you are able to achieve this even once.
My final point is that this is merely scratching the surface of what is necessary to teach well– you will note that it does not even talk about what to teach much at all, or how to read and work a roomful of students to monitor for attention and understanding. That is because being a skillful fencer and a skillful teacher are separate and unrelated characteristics, and to do both well requires equal effort spent on each– and most of us supplement our fencing with lifetimes of building proprioception and fitness.
Teaching is hard. I hope that I have provided some useful direction here to aid you in developing that incredibly valuable and necessary skill.
As far as what to teach, the content? Pick a system. They’re not all equally good, but none of them are bad. Pick one.
One of the more difficult tactical situations that arises during SCA rapier melees is the limited front. These typically take the form of doorways that must be breached in order to capture objectives and they are often the source of frustration, especially in larger melees such as the Siege of LaRochelle at Pennsic. The conventional wisdom for how to fight over limited fronts is as follows:
The typical defense of a limited front involves the creation of a “killing cup” inside the door-way that forces attacking fighters to pass into the threshold of the doorway in order to engage the defenders.
A killing cup inside a doorway. All of the defenders weapons threaten the entryway (shown in yellow).
The typical method for assaulting a limited front borrows heavily from the military and is frequently set up to mimic a door breach situation. In its simplest form, the conventional SCA wisdom for assaulting a killing cup consists of performing a “column charge” against one of the flanks of the defender’s killing cup.
A column charge against the edges of the killing cup. Typically one side moves forward while the other screens their advance.
This Approach to Attacking Doesn’t Work:
I would contest that the conventional wisdom of using a column charge to attack a killing cup is completely wrong. Succeeding at such an attack requires a significant degree of coordination and training that is simply lacking in SCA melee units. Professional militaries and police forces are able to perform such actions because they’re professionally trained to do so. Even then, we see that militaries and police forces make use of substantial force multipliers such as body armor, flash bang grenades, and surprise, which are not available to SCA combattants (rhino-hiding doesn’t count). Furthermore, each individual fighter must trust that the other members of their unit also know how to perform the column charge. If even a single member of the unit lacks this knowledge, the attack isn’t possible. When we consider the melee skill level of the typical SCA rapier fighter, we can see how these criteria are difficult if not impossible to meet outside of certain specific melee units. These problems are compounded when we are considering the skill level of kingdom armies at inter-kingdom wars such as Pennsic and Gulf Wars where many of the fighters on the field only put on their mask once a year at those events.
Practical limitations aside, I would also argue that tactically the column charge method for attacking a killing cup is a bad plan. In a limited front engagement, the defender is placed at a (sometimes significant) advantage by the terrain and so in order for the attacker to win, they must either mitigate this advantage or must have an overwhelming advantage in some other way (usually numbers but sometimes skill). The column charge approach does not mitigate the terrain advantage of the defender. Notably, when fighters are killed during the column charge, they further limit the size of the opening, increasing the defenders’ advantage. Instead, making the column charge works only if the attacking force has greater numbers or greater skill, which ultimately suggests that it is tactically unsound.
Therefore an ideal method for attacking a killing cup must:
Be simple enough for melee novices to perform with minimal training
Eliminate the terrain advantage of the defenders
A Better Method for Attacking The Killing Cup:
To that end I propose that the best method for attacking a killing cup is to treat the limited front as a short line engagement at light engagement.
In this model, the attacking force approaches the doorway in as long a line as will fit through the doorway (Often no more than 2-3). Extra fighters should remain in reserve to replace losses and follow through on the attack. However, rather than charging aggressively into the killing cup, these fighters should approach only up until they reach the point where they are in light engagement with the fighters forming the flanks of the killing cup. This prevents the defenders who are deeper into the cup from being able to attack and helps to alleviate the numerical advantage provided by the killing cup. The attackers should then work on killing the fighters on the flanks and once a sufficient advantage is achieved, should press through the doorway decisively.
By refusing to enter the “kill zone” (in yellow), the attacking force removes the defenders in the center of the cup from the engagement. In this example, this eliminates the numeric advantage held by the defenders.
The key advantages to this approach are:
It requires no special training. The methods used for attacking the killing cup are the same as the methods used in an open field line fight.
It mitigates the terrain advantage provided by the “walls” surrounding the limited front by treating them as a continuation of a line fight infinitely in either direction (as is common to assume when trying to teach small numbers of fighters to perform a line fight in the first place).
Limited front engagements benefit the unit with fewer fighters. In certain circumstances, this approach can mitigate a numeric advantage in favor of the defenders because it keeps the defenders at the center of the killing cup from being involved in the fight.
In a battle with limited resurrections or limited numbers, this attrition method should result in fewer losses for the attacker.
The main disadvantage to this approach is that it is relatively slow and if the defenders can reinforce at the same rate (or faster) than the attackers can kill them, they can prevent the attackers from making any progress.
Bonus Material – Defending with Melee Novices:
For the most part, the current approach to defending a limited front is correct. The “killing cup” is the best strategy. However, putting this into practice for less-skilled fighters can be tricky and requires that you optimize your usage of the defensive terrain (i.e. the wall). The key details of doing so are as follows:
The defenders weapons should meet in the middle of the inside of the doorway. This creates a place where attackers must deal with multiple weapon points.
The defenders’ weapons meet on the inside of the doorway creating a “kill zone” (in yellow).
The defenders should be further away from the doorway than they think they should be. By standing further away, the defenders make themselves harder to kill and can rely on greater protection from the “wall” that forms the limited front. Attackers should need to enter the doorway in order to hit any of the defenders.
Here we can see that the defenders are standing too close to the doorway. This prevents the fighters on the ends from using the “wall” as a shield to protect themselves and places them at greater risk of being struck by the attackers.
The cup should be formed from as few fighters as possible. Taking a doorway is difficult and the attacker’s numbers are limited by the width of the doorway. Forming a cup inside the doorway will always require more fighters than can fit through the door, so the minimum number required to create a cup will always have a numeric advantage. For example, a doorway that can fit 2 fighters at once will require ~4 defenders to form a decent cup providing a 2:1 advantage. Using more defenders than this is wasteful if they can be used more effectively elsewhere on the field.
Here the defenders are using too many fighters to defend this doorway. Not only might this cause the defenders to obstruct each other, but it is also a waste of fighters. In this example, we can see a 9v2 numerical advantage on the part of the defenders where 3 or 4 v. 2 would be sufficient. Those fighters could be used elsewhere
If they cannot be used elsewhere, it is generally better to place them in reserve to fill holes in the cup rather than on the front line because this keeps them safe from “lucky” shots by attackers and keeps the defenders from getting packed too tightly to be effective.
Rather than placing extra defenders in the cup directly, here we can see a way to build a second, reserve rank that can be used to replenish the cup as well as defend against more aggressive pushes that may bind the weapons of the front rank. This is a good option if those extra fighters cannot be used elsewhere on the field or when defending a particular doorway is absolutely essential.
There a couple of additional “optimizations” to consider. Good tactics shouldn’t rely on the characteristics of individual fighters, however certain arrangements of these characteristics can be beneficial. These details are secondary to the list above and can be ignored entirely in some circumstances (e.g. insufficient time to put into practice).
The defenders closest to the wall should keep their off-hand side towards the wall if handedness allows. In other words, if you have a lefty, they should form the right flank of the defenders and a righty should be on the left flank. This will allow them more freedom to use their weapon.
Here you can see how placing fighters with their off-hands towards the wall helps to keep their blade free.
The flanking positions should be your most defensive fighters because the ends are the weakest points in the cup. In the cup format, the fighters on the flanks are in most danger of being struck because they’re closest to the attackers. They should expect to have their weapons bound up, smacked around, etc and that is okay. You may also consider placing fighters with long range and high offensive output in the center of the cup because they are least likely to have their weapons bound up, which will leave them more free to land attacks.
Finally, please note that an experienced and skilled unit that is working to defend a door-way will be more successful by taking a more offensive stance than what is recommended here. These recommendations are meant to allow a group of novices to use as much of the defensive advantage provided by the doorway as possible.
The sun was in my eyes, my opponent was tall, their blade was longer, my sleeve snagged on something, I slipped, they were a MOD. One of my biggest pet peeves in fencing is when someone loses and then attempts to blame something/someone that deflects all fault from themselves. I have made similar excuses in the past, and every time I do it, I inevitably kick myself for it later for multiple reasons.
One reason is that every time you try to shift the blame away from yourself, you lose a chance to learn, to better yourself and to improve. The sun may have been in your eyes, but why were you in critical measure and staring at a giant ball of flaming gas? You may have slipped, but you know it rained last night. Your opponent was 6’6”, how did you change your tactics, and what could you do better next time? Every deflection deters your progress as a fencer. It is important to remember that there is always something you could have done to change the outcome of the fight. When looking back on your losses – as well as your wins – you should explore what you could have done to improve your chances, it could be anything from better timing, blade positioning, or a different technique. Every pass can always be better.
Deflection of blame also takes away from the glory of your opponent. When you blame your loss on external forces, you are discrediting the skill and choices that led to their victory. Since you lost, their choice was objectively correct. It does not matter if you can beat them 99% of the time. In that bout, they proved themselves the better fencer of that moment, and you can learn from that and from them. Also, you just witnessed a winning choice from the closest seat. Use this information to discover new ways to win. Are your opponents all hitting you in the same area? Defensively, you can work to correct that behavior in yourself and shore up that weakness. Offensively, you can be on the lookout for others who make the same mistake then you can abuse it and this time you walk away with the win.
Losing sucks, but it is important to think about your loss in a productive way. Do not get discouraged, and certainly do not consider your defeat as predetermined. For example, the mindset, “Of course I lost, s/he was a MOD” is entirely unhelpful and sets you up to lose in the future. Think positively! If you lost you can analyze the fight and find things to improve. You can ask mentors and friends if they have good drills for a specific problem. You can ask the opponent who beat you for help or more fights later. You can even have a friend watch or film your fights (though this isn’t always possible) so you can focus on the fight, and know that you will have good information in the aftermath regardless.
From a social perspective you should not deflect blame when you lose a fight because it can really ruin someone’s day. If you credit their victory to your shoelaces being untied, and not to the prowess they have put hours into gaining they can be very easily discouraged. One of my worst tournament experiences was when I, a scholar at the time, beat someone I really looked up to, only to have them brush it away as a fluke. On the other hand, one of my tournament highlights was when I defeated a different mentor and they simply said, “you got me, this time you were better.” This advice is especially important if you are a MOD or White Scarf. I am almost certain that if you lose to a newer or less skilled fencer, your loss means less to you than their win means to them. Accept loss with grace, give credit to the fencer that bested you, and then go learn from it.
(Ed. This is part 5 of a multi-part series. Comments that indicate a failure to read previous entries shall be mocked and, possibly, moderated with extreme prejudice. The author took the time to do the research, you can take the time to read it)
(Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4)
What Causes Concussions:
As we discussed in article 1, the primary cause of concussions in SCA combat and in HEMA is high levels of acceleration of the head. However, the way that many fighters envision concussions– that they occur because the brain sloshes around and strikes the inside of the skull– is generally incorrect, as this kind of concussion requires far more force than we are using (these require vehicular accident-level forces). Instead, we are almost exclusively dealing with concussions that result from diffuse axonal injury.
The location of an axon in a brain cell (neuron). Image from: http://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/glossary/axon/
Diffuse axonal injury is mainly the result of rotational acceleration of the head because this kind of motion creates shearing forces that cut and damage axons throughout the brain. Axons are one of the main parts of brain cells (neurons) and they form long fibers that carry the signal from one brain cell to another. Outside of the brain, axons are what form nerves and most of the spinal cord, and as you can imagine, cutting axons inside the brain is bad. When a neuron has its axon cut or damaged, it can no longer send messages like it is supposed to, which can trigger a neuron to kill itself. Furthermore, this damage creates an inflammatory response that causes other types of damage to the brain and is largely responsible for the symptoms that follow concussions (e.g. tiredness, confusion, memory problems, fuzziness, problems with attention).
Because this is the kind of concussion that we are most likely to receive from SCA combat, we know that any attempt to protect ourselves from concussions must prevent rotational acceleration of the head. In order to see how this works, we must consider what happens when two objects collide.
In physics, when two objects interact, they do so by exerting something called force. Essentially, force is a measurement of the push or pull that one object exerts on the other (or both objects exert on each other). We know from Newton’s First Law of Motion that force must be applied to an object in order to cause it to accelerate. Likewise, we know from Newton’s Second Law of Motion that force is related to acceleration as a consequence of inertia, that is, an object’s tendency to remain stationary or its tendency to continue moving with constant velocity.
To put it another way, inertia is an object’s ability to resist acceleration and force is what causes that acceleration. When we are considering acceleration through space (translational acceleration), an object’s inertia is the same as its mass. However, when we are considering rotational acceleration, we must instead calculate something called a moment of inertia, which takes into account the fact that when an object rotates, not all of its mass is undergoing the same amount of acceleration. Because of this, Newton’s Second Law of Motion provides us with two different equations:
Force = mass * translational acceleration or F = m*a
Torque (τ) = moment of inertia (I) * rotational acceleration (α) or τ = I*α
To put this another way, when a weapon strikes someone’s head, that weapon exerts force on the head and likewise the head resists this force based on its inertia. Since we also know that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction (i.e. Newton’s Third Law of Motion), we know that the head also applies an equal amount of force to the weapon (i.e. in the opposite direction). This means that both the weapon and the head will undergo acceleration relative to their respective inertias following a collision because, importantly, force is not conserved in the same way that energy and momentum are conserved. We can see this in the following figure:
Here, F1 is the amount of force applied by the weapon and F2 is the force of resistance provided by the head. Due to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we know that F2 = -F1, where the negative sign indicates that F2 occurs in the opposite direction from F1. We also know that the acceleration of the head, A2 is the force F1 divided by the mass of the head, m2 due to Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Therefore we know that it is force that causes the head to accelerate.
The blows that cause concussions:
As noted in article 1, the amount of acceleration necessary to cause a concussion is at least 60Gs. This is a fairly high value, so let me be clear, causing a concussion requires you to hit someone with a lot of force.
Because we know that force is dependent on mass and acceleration, we should expect that strikes that place a person’s body mass behind the blow and/or provide a lot of acceleration are the strikes that are most likely to cause concussions. There are a number of techniques that fulfill these requirements, however for the most part, such techniques will fall into one of the following categories:
This is going to have way more than 22lbs of force! Image from: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10208676965068728&set=t.752572217&type=3&theater
Jumping/falling – One of the easiest ways to hit someone hard is to “jump” upwards during your attack such that you are falling when you strike your opponent. These strikes are going to always hit with an amount of force equal to a fighter’s body weight. An extreme example is pictured below. Because Wistric has jumped upwards, if he lands a strike while he is falling, he will hit his opponent with the full ~250lbs of his body weight. This is obviously far more than the 22lb typical blow that Llwyd’s machine recorded (Article 2). Perhaps even more importantly, as long as Wistric’s sword strikes his opponent before his feet hit the ground, there’s absolutely nothing Wistric will be able to do in order to reduce this force. Wistric is also at serious risk of being hit even harder by his opponent, as they may use any of the other techniques here to add their own body mass + muscle strength to the blow. It is also important to keep in mind that this occurs even during far less obvious examples of “jumping.” Any strike where one fighter throws their body forward or upwards, even if it’s only a few inches, runs the exact same risk.
Punching – Professional boxers punch with around 1000 lbs of force, and while the number of us who are professional boxers is near-zero, that doesn’t mean that our punches are anywhere near as gentle as the force levels recorded by Llwyd’s machine. Punching techniques achieve these force levels by engaging core and leg muscles and by coupling the body mass behind the arm by extending it during the strike. As a result, these blows couple the body mass with significant levels of acceleration in order to generate a lot of force.
Kinetic Linking – The kinetic linking used in SCA rattan combat is similar to delivering a punch in many ways, however when these body mechanics are used to perform a cut, they produce a “whipping” action with the sword that can produce extreme levels of acceleration. Swinging a sword is similar in some respects to swinging a baseball bat and adult baseball players frequently have a bat speed in the 70-80 mph range, which is more than 30 m/s. This speed is reached in around a second (if not less), so acceleration of ~30m/s2 is probably a reasonable (if not low) estimate of the acceleration of the weapon. When this is coupled with the mass of a body, it becomes possible to generate an amount of force that is roughly 3x someone’s body weight or more. The key limitation to this ability is that as the point of impact is moved further down the weapon away from the person delivering the strike, it becomes more difficult to place one’s body mass behind the blow (because of the leverage disadvantage). This means that “short stick” strikes are particularly dangerous as they couple a punch with an acceleration advantage provided by the weapon’s leverage.
So, why aren’t we Always getting Concussions?
Once again, we are running into a limitation in the way that we have modelled the impact. In reality, the person receiving the blow is also able to put their body mass into resisting the strike. They do this by engaging their neck muscles (which are stronger than you might expect). If the person receiving the blow does this successfully, then they will dramatically increase the amount of resistance (i.e. the effective mass) of the head against acceleration, which will make it difficultfor a fighter to be concussed by a blow that they were prepared to receive. We can see this play out in other sports. For instance, one of the more interesting findings has been that one of the best methods for reducing concussions has been the introduction of helmet-less tackle drills(Myers et al., 2015), which are thought to train players to avoid head impacts and improve their ability to prepare to take a hit. Being prepared to be struck is also important in other sports like boxing or mixed martial arts. If you watch the following video carefully, you’ll see that the knock-out blows happen when the recipient is unprepared to be struck. More specifically, you’ll see that they occur during moments where the recipient is pulling their head away from the blow, which makes it impossible to actively resist.
A dramatic disparity in body mass/strength is the main limitation to the notion that it is difficult to concuss a fighter who is prepared to receive a blow. Sometimes one fighter is capable of exerting a significantly greater ratio of force than the smaller fighter can resist, but such a blow would clearly be excessive, even on the SCA armored field. However sometimes accidents happen, which is one of the reasons why technique and conditioning are important as discussed in article 4. This is also a large part of why weight classes exist in other combat sports and why neck strength conditioning is considered to be very important in sports like football, boxing, and wrestling.
The ability to resist impacts to the head with your musculature is the primary means of protection against brain injuries.
We should also avoid coming to the conclusion that if a concussion occurs, it is the recipient who was at fault. It isn’t possible for fighters to be ready to take every hit that they are struck by. This ability is improved with skill, practice, etc, but even in the video above, we see professional fighters caught unprepared.
Ultimately, this means that concussion protection largely boils down to not hitting too hard, particularly when your opponent is unaware/unprepared to be struck.
What about a Helmet?
Helmets are relevant to protecting against concussions only when the recipient is unprepared, because,as we have just seen, it is really hard to concuss someone who is prepared to receive a blow. Helmets are therefore a form of passive protection for instances where a fighter is unprepared to be struck. Unfortunately, concussion protection is in its relative infancy. It is only in the last few years that the consequences of concussions have been seen as anything more than a temporary inconvenience and so preventing brain injuries is not something that most protective equipment has been designed to do. Instead of reducing the acceleration of the head, helmets instead are designed to minimize pressure by spreading impacts out over a greater area. This is useful for preventing pain, bruising, pressure cuts, facial bone/skull fracture, eye/ear damage, hearing loss, and other soft-tissue injuries. However, helmets do not generally spread an impact out over a greater portion of the body than the head. This means that they provide nearly zero effective protection against the acceleration of the head. In other words, if something is only attached to the head, it can’t spread an impact out over more than the head. Despite this, the SCA’s traditional wisdom seems to believe that either the mass of the helmet or the padding itself will protect against concussions. However, as will be shown, neither of these provide meaningful protection against concussions.
One of the key ways in which a helmet can provide protection to the head is by being heavy. Newton’s Second Law of Motion tells us that the inertia of the head is crucial in determining the amount of acceleration that either undergoes and so clearly adding mass to the head provides some degree of additional protection. However, the mass of even a very heavy helmet is still a full order of magnitude smaller than the mass of your opponent behind their weapon.
Furthermore, since we expect that rotational acceleration is the key to concussions, we also need to understand that the effects of added mass on the moment of inertia are greatly diminished for relatively small objects such as the human head. For instance, the moment of inertia of a sphere is calculated using the equation:
I = ⅖ * mass * radius2
In this equation, radius is measured in meters, and so for an object such as the human head that has a radius of ~10 cm, the effect of mass is multiplied by 0.01 * 0.4 = 0.004. However, it is also worth noting that when calculating rotational acceleration, the acceleration is measured in terms of radians/s2 rather than in meters/s2, so in order to compare this directly with the acceleration threshold of 60Gs, we must convert our acceleration from radians to meters by multiplying the angular acceleration by the radius (i.e. dividing by 10) and so we know that the effect of mass is essentially multiplied by 0.0004 when we are considering its effect on resisting rotation.
While a sphere might be an acceptable model of moment of inertia, we should keep in mind that the head is not a sphere. Calculating the moment of inertia for an irregularly shaped object like the head can be tricky, but fortunately there are a number of researchers who have figured this out for us. Yoganandan et al. (2009) provides a summary of multiple studies that have calculated the moment of inertia of the human head for rotation around the x (left-right tilt), y (up-down rotation), and z (left-right rotation) axes using human cadavers.
The orientation of the x, y, and z axes of head rotation.
In order to find suitable values, I averaged the values found in tables 19 and 20, resulting in the following mass and moments of inertia:
Mass: 4.17 kg
Ix = 0.0186 kg-m2
Iy = 0.0215 kg-m2
Iz = 0.0168 kg-m2
In order to calculate the amount of resistance against rotation that added mass provides along each of these axes, we must divide by the average mass:
Ix/kg = 0.0186 kg-m2/4.17 kg = 0.0045 I/kg
Iy/kg = 0.0215 kg-m2/4.17 kg = 0.0052 I/kg
Iz/kg = 0.0168 kg-m2/4.17 kg = 0.0040 I/kg
If we were to consider the effect of a very heavy 10kg helmet and 4kg head, we would need to multiply that 14kg by about 0.0045 in order to figure out the amount of resistance this would provide against the force of an impact (0.063kg). However, in order to see how this relates to our 60G threshold, we must also convert from radians to meters as we did before by dividing the mass of the weapon that we used in the calculator by 10 (because the head has a radius of ~10cm). So we have F = 14kg * 0.0045 * 600m/s2 /0.1m = 378 N = 85lbs.
If we compare that against the head by itself, F = 4kg * 0.0045 * 600m/s2/0.1m = 108 N = 24 lbs. That 50 lb difference may seem like quite a bit of protection if we compare against the amounts of force delivered in article 2, however those blows probably underestimate the amount of force in a typical blow and certainly do not reflect the types of blows that lead to concussions. Likewise, 10kg is heavier than almost every helmet on the rattan field. Given that concussions are caused by shots that have your opponent’s body mass behind them, we need to resist several hundreds of pounds of force in order to protect against concussions. Against those numbers, 50lbs is completely insufficient to be relied upon for protection and so we cannot rely on a heavy helm to protect us.
That isn’t to say that there might be a few shots where a heavy helm makes the difference between a concussion and no concussion, which might be enough to cause fighters to choose to wear heavier helmets as a personal choice, but the notion that a heavy helm can be relied on to prevent concussions or that a fighter who receives a concussion received one because their helmet wasn’t heavy enough is patently false.
Padding and Suspension Systems:
Aside from mass, the other aspect of helmets that many focus on as a way of preventing concussions is the padding/suspension system that it provides. Here we will address the reasons why neither padding nor suspension systems protect the head from acceleration.
Please keep in mind that the following discussion is focused solely on the protective effects of padding against concussions (i.e. its ability to prevent acceleration of the head). This article does not make the claim that padding provides no benefit; in fact the opposite is true. However, the benefits of padding are limited to reducing pressure. Pressure can cause several different types of injuries to the head (including skull fracture) and is the only factor that influences pain and discomfort, but do not mistake an absence of pain for an absence of acceleration. The experience of pain is separate from the mechanisms that cause concussions.
Padding and Suspension Systems are the Same Thing:
Before we get started, it is also important to understand that padding and suspension systems are functionally equivalent to each other and are also functionally equivalent to springs. In practice, padding is a compression spring and suspension systems are expansion springs, however all springs are governed by the same mathematical functions. We know that padding/suspension systems are functionally springs because:
Padding, suspension systems, and springs all provide progressive resistance to force based on how far they have been compressed
All three have sufficient elasticity to return to shape after they are released
All three convert kinetic energy to potential energy and and potential energy to kinetic energy
the materials used to construct padding and suspension harnesses are themselves springs (i.e. the fibers that make up cloth and batting and the air bubbles in foam are themselves tiny springs).
Padding/suspension system return to their original shape
Padding does not affect the amount of Force experienced by the head:
Consider the illustration provided above. As before, when the weapon strikes, it applies some amount of force, F1 to the padding. As a result of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we therefore know that F2 = -F1 just like before. If this level of force exceeds the inertia of the padding, then the padding will begin to accelerate towards the head. Now, the reason that it is important that padding functions like a spring is that this allows the front surface (the side closest to the weapon) to accelerate separately from the back surface (the side closest to the head). When this happens, the padding is compressed and the distance between the two surfaces becomes closer by some amount d– the displacement. We also know that according to Hooke’s law, the amount of force required to compress the padding is calculated using the equation F = -k*d where k is the spring constant that describes how stiff the padding is. The materials that are used to pad SCA helmets have relatively low k values, generally speaking, but that’s not particularly important to understanding why padding doesn’t prevent acceleration of the head. When the padding compresses (due to F1), Hooke’s Law tells us that a linearly increasing amount of force is required to compress the padding further. However, for any given moment of time, the padding itself will be attempting to expand by exerting an equal amount of force in both directions. This means that regardless of the amount of compression, the force on the front side of the padding, F2 will always be equal in magnitude (and opposite in direction) to the force on the other side of the padding, F3, or expressed mathematically F2 = -F3.
Given that we know that F1 = -F2 and we know that F2 = -F3, then we know that it is always the case that F1 = F3 and therefore padding has zero effect on the force experienced by the head nor the acceleration of the head.
The Padding Prevent the Head from Moving:
While the above explanation is by itself sufficient to demonstrate that padding has no effect on the force applied to the head from an impact, there will be some who remain unconvinced, and so let me offer an alternative explanation for why padding doesn’t help.
In order for padding to compress, it must have something to push against.
This effect forms the basis of the classic “falling elevator” problem from high school physics. The scenario is as follows: You are standing on a scale on an elevator. When the elevator is stationary, the scale tells you your weight (which is a measurement of force, not mass).
When the elevator goes up, the measurement of your weight will increase because the elevator is applying force upwards that exceeds gravity, causing it to accelerate towards you, which causes the springs to compressed more (which is dependent on the resistance you provide, i.e. your inertia/mass).
When the elevator goes down, the measurement of your weight will decrease because the upwards force applied by the elevator is less than gravity and so the elevator is accelerating away from you. This means that the springs are compressed less, which is what results in the lower weight measurement.
The problem is described in the following video:
So what happens when the elevator is in free-fall? The weight measurement becomes zero.
The falling elevator problem is analogous to the problem posed by adding padding to our helmets. The weapon striking the helmet is the equivalent of gravity in the above scenario while the force applied by the elevator is equivalent to the resistance provided by the head. We can therefore see that when the head is accelerated due to an impact, that the padding doesn’t compress because the head is moving away from it and provides no resistance.
Does Padding “Absorb” the Blow?
There are many who argue that padding reduces force by “absorbing” a blow by compressing. In fact, this argument is incorrect for two reasons: first, it confuses force with energy and second, it fails to understand that the padding won’t compress much during impacts that are likely to cause concussions. Energy and force are certainly related concepts, however energy is defined as the ability to do work and likewise work is defined as the exertion of force over some distance. When you stand on the ground, your body is exerting force (your mass * acceleration due to gravity) but, since you are not moving, you aren’t doing any work and therefore your energy is zero. If you instead stood on a chair, you’d still be exerting the same amount of force (on the chair). You also wouldn’t be doing any work but your position on the chair does represent your ability to do work and therefore you would have an amount of (potential) energy related to your mass, the acceleration due to gravity, and the height of the chair. One of the key aspects of springs is that they convert kinetic energy (KE) into potential energy (PE) when they are compressed. However this conversion is a consequence of displacement. Hooke’s law tells us that the force (F) required to compress a spring is given by the equation F = -k*d, where k tells us how stiff the padding is (i.e. spring constant) and d is the displacement distance. Importantly, this amount of force is also the amount of force applied by padding that is compressed a given distance and this amount of force is exerted in both directions as I pointed out earlier. Determining whether a spring (or our padding) will compress is largely a matter of exerting sufficient force to exceed its resistance at a given amount of displacement. In order for this to be possible, the forces applied to both ends of the spring must exceed this value (or the spring will simply accelerate through space rather than compress). When the padding is compressed, it temporarily stores an amount of energy according to the equation PE = 1/2 k * d2. In practical terms, this means that the padding in our helmets will only compress up until the point where the needed force to continue compressing the spring exceeds the resistance provided by either the head or weapon. This creates a finite set of possibilities:
The padding is stiffer than the resistance provided by the head and does not compress at all before the head accelerates as if the padding were not present.
The padding is soft enough to compress, but compresses to the point where the force to continue compressing the padding exceeds the resistance of the head, at which point he head accelerates as if the padding were not present.
The padding is much softer than the resistance provided by the head and therefore it fully compresses, at which point he head accelerates as if the padding were not present.
If case 1 above is true, then the padding has behaved no differently from a solid object, and so let’s look at cases 2 and 3. As noted above, we specifically need a helmet to protect us is when our head isn’t providing much resistance. Therefore, if case 2 is correct, then we should expect a very small amount of compression, which means that the padding isn’t storing much energy. Likewise, if case 3 is correct, then the k-value of the padding must be very low and so again, the padding isn’t storing much energy. In all three cases, there is a point in the impact where the padding behaves as if it is not present. Furthermore, we can see that the padding’s ability to store energy is directly related to displacement rather than force, and finally, we can see that in all cases, the amount of energy stored by the padding is zero or near zero. That is to say that when we are most at risk for a concussion, the padding doesn’t help.
Does Padding Serve as an Early Warning System?
As mentioned above, the key factor in preventing your head from accelerating is the engagement of your neck musculature. This requires that you either keep your neck engaged at all times (as was suggested by article 4) or be aware of incoming blows and respond accordingly. Ultimately the entire point of a passive protection system is for the times that you fail to do this. In this regard, the fact that padding applies force as soon as it is struck, and that this force is smaller (i.e. only the spring constant of the padding itself), would suggest that ample padding might provide an additional tactile warning system for when vision has failed.
In order for this to work, the padding must allow sufficient time for a response to occur. Human response times to tactile stimuli are in the 150-200 ms range, so that’s how much of an early warning padding would need to give us in order to help us.
It would be nice to have some high-speed camera footage for measuring this; however we can make a good estimate by measuring the length and duration of a fencing lunge. According to Gholipour et al. (2008), a modern fencing lunge covers approximately 1 meter in 1.5 seconds.
Importantly, as noted above, the amount of compression will be negligible and so this won’t really slow down the lunge. While more force is required to compress the padding, blows that can cause concussions already must provide a lot of force, so we shouldn’t expect this to matter. If we assume for the sake of a “best-case” scenario with relatively thick padding that is approximately 5 cm (2”) thick, then we can calculate the amount of time necessary for the lunge to cross this distance as 75 ms. We can also then determine that for padding to provide an early warning system, we would need at least 6” of padding. However, we must also keep in mind that padding, like a spring, cannot compress fully and so there will be some remaining thickness which will cause the head to be struck earlier than if there was not any padding, thus reducing a fencer’s ability to respond to visually seeing that they are about to be struck. However, given that the lunge is several times slower than the ability to respond to visual stimuli (~200-300ms), we likely should expect that this effect is negligible.
The Dangers of Armoring Up:
While the analysis provided above may suggest that we can simply strap large quantities of lead weights to our heads and then hit each other as hard as we like, there are practical and safety limits to the amount of mass that can be added to the head. There is even some evidence in other sports that increased head protection can lead to more concussions. For instance, head gear was eliminated from men’s boxing in 2016 due to the fact that it increased the risk of concussions. This Wired article provides a more detailed explanation. There are ultimately a number of ways that increasing the armor we place on our heads can put us in more danger.
Bigger helmets = more head hits
Perhaps the most important consideration is that by adding mass and padding to our helmets, we make them larger. This creates a larger target, which makes head shots more likely.
Adding too much mass to the helmet puts you at substantial risk for whiplash and can increase your risk of spinal injury
Whiplash is an umbrella term for tears of the ligaments of the spine, tears in neck muscles, and damage to cervical vertebrae that occurs when the neck is hyper-extended (stretched out too much). Adding too much mass to the head puts you at substantial risk of this occurring because it can result in situations where the neck muscles are incapable of stopping the momentum of the combined head and helmet. In extreme cases, this may be sufficient to break your neck. Furthermore, if the purpose of adding mass to the helmet is to prevent concussions when the neck muscles have already failed to engage, then this mass is coming into play precisely when the neck muscles have failed to engage.
Situations that can lead to whiplash injuries include times where the head is moving and the body is not, such as collisions between fencers, falls (especially when falling onto something that stops part of the body and allows the head to continue to move… like a hay bale or another fighter), and in HEMA, grappling/throws.
Increased Mass and/or Padding may lead to Increased Calibration
Increased helmet mass and/or padding will reduce the perception of pain/pressure that result from being struck. This lack of sensitivity may cause fighters to ignore blows that they would have taken if not for their armor, which can cause their opponent to hit them harder. Alternatively given the absence of perceived pain/pressure/motion from hard blows, fencers may be encouraged in their belief that hitting hard is safe because they are wearing armor despite the fact that the sensation of pain and pressure are completely independent of the mechanisms that cause concussions.
Increased Mass and/or padding may Cause you to Fail to Notice that you have been Concussed
The brain does not have any pain/pressure sensors inside of it, so the presence or absence of pain doesn’t tell us whether we have sustained a brain injury, but impacts that can cause a concussion typically hurt. Helmets do a good job of mitigating pain, but as shown above, do not mitigate acceleration to the same extent. As a result of this, heavier and/or more padded helmets can make it harder to tell whether you have been concussed.
It is absolutely vital that fencers who have been concussed be removed from the field as secondary impacts are known to have a major impact on the severity of a concussion and its permanent neurological effects. Furthermore, these secondary impacts do not need to be nearly as hard as the initial injury, so even relatively soft impacts can cause life-altering permanent damage following the initial injury. Because of this, efforts to alleviate the effects of concussions in other sports have focused on improving the ability for coaches, staff, and players to recognize concussions and on building policies that require injured players to be removed from the field. Interfering with a fencer’s ability to recognize a concussion is the worst thing that we can do when attempting to manage concussion risk.
Increased Armor = Increased Mass = Harder Hits:
As noted above, the strikes that are the most risky for causing a concussion are those that combine body mass with acceleration. If fighters increase the amount of armor that they are wearing, they are adding to the mass of their body. If we consider the force that results from a jumping/falling strike, for instance, we can see that adding the mass of a heavy helmet (10 kg as in our earlier example) would increase the force of a blow by around 22 lbs. (10kg * 9.8 m/s2 = 98 N = 22lbs), which nearly halves the effective protection provided by their opponent’s helmet. If we also consider that harder hits will result in fighters wearing additional armor on the rest of their body, the the added mass behind strikes may fully negate the protection provided by the armor in the first place. Therefore, a person who armors up to protect themself, is in fact becoming more of a danger to their opponent. If everyone armors up to the same degree, the equipment becomes progressively more ungainly and expensive to no net benefit.
The Dangers of Misinformation:
Recently the SCA’s marshallate has taken the stance that increased padding will provide protection against concussions. While it is reasonable to expect that helmets (and fencing masks) be sufficiently padded and be in good condition, we have demonstrated here that the padding does not protect against concussions. This kind of misinformation makes us all less safe. Legal Liability:
Participants in SCA combat sign a waiver that indicates that they understand that there are risks associated with participation. However, these waivers rely on the assumption that participants are providing informed consent. When marshals acting on behalf of the organization and more importantly, the society marshals spread misinformation, they are removing participants’ ability to be informed. Furthermore, if it can be demonstrated that these officers should have known otherwise, then it likely exposes the organization to a lawsuit on the basis of negligence if a participant receives a concussion despite the padding in their helmet.
Misinformation, especially misinformation spread by the marshallate’s office may also encourage fighters to feel that hitting harder is safer than it actually is and so it may also be a factor in increasing calibration.
Failure to Recognize Concussions:
Similarly fighters and marshals who are acting on the false belief that increased padding or mass will provide protection against concussions may be less likely to consider that a concussion has occurred and may therefore be less likely to recognize when one does occur. As noted above, failure to remove fighters from the field immediately following a concussion creates a significant danger of permanent brain damage.
Excuses Bad Behavior:
One of the most dangerous effects of the false belief that armor prevents concussions is that it provides an excuse for fighters who are a danger to themselves and others on the field. As we have shown here, helmets cannot be relied upon to protect against concussions and so it is patently false that if a concussion occurs, that it occurred due to armor failure or a lack of padding. In fact, it was precisely this kind of ruling that motivated me to write about concussions in the first place.
In addition to the ways that the false belief that helmets protect us from concussions make SCA combat less safe, there are other problems that this false belief creates.
Unnecessarily Complicated rules:
If fencing masks are going to continue to be legal armor, then creating a separate set of requirements for helmets that cause them to provide a greater level of protection creates a double-standard in the rules and likewise creates an illusion that it is ok to increase calibration when people are wearing helmets.
Acquiring a set of equipment isn’t cheap and adding to the required equipment should not be taken lightly. With 2000 authorized fighters, even the addition of a $50 piece of equipment represents an economic cost of $100,000 for our membership. Furthermore, any increased cost will remove some fighters from being able to participate.
If calibration increases as a result of increased armor, the wear and tear on equipment will represent an additional cost for participation and will also create an increased risk from broken blades, etc.
The requirement or practical necessity for increased armor will exclude participants who are smaller in stature or who have less physical strength.
Helmets do not provide protection from concussions because they do not prevent the head from accelerating. While increased mass does have some protective effect, the effect is not sufficient to eliminate the risk of concussions that occur due to the types of blows that are most likely to produce concussions in the situations where concussions are most likely to occur. Padding or suspension systems cannot reduce the acceleration of the head because they do not alter the amount of force delivered to the head. Increasing the amount of armor in an effort to prevent concussions is likely futile and may increase the risk for concussions and/or other serious injuries.
Most importantly, the marshallate has an important role in preventing concussions. It is vital that marshals understand that armor cannot prevent concussions and that recent statements regarding padding in helmets be revised because this sort of misinformation poses a hazard to the safety of SCA combattants.
Guskiewicz KM, Mihalik JP, Shankar V, et al. (2007). “Measurement of head impacts in collegiate football players: Relationship between head impact biomechanics and acute clinical outcome after concussion”. Neurosurgery 61 (6): 1244–52; discussion 1252–3.doi:10.1227/01.neu.0000306103.68635.1a.
Myers, JL. et al. Early Results of a Helmetless-Tackling Intervention to Decrease Head Impacts in Football Players. Journal of Athletic Training, December 2015 DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-51.1.06
Gholipour, M., Tabrizi, A., and Farahmand, F. Kinematics Analysis of Lunge Fencing Using Stereophotogrametry. World Journal of Sport Sciences(2008), 1(1): 32-37.
Guskiewicz KM, McCrea M, Marshall SW, et al. Cumulative Effects Associated With Recurrent Concussion in Collegiate Football Players: The NCAA Concussion Study.JAMA. 2003;290(19):2549-2555. doi:10.1001/jama.290.19.2549.
R.C. Cantu. Guidelines for return to contact sport after a cerebral concussion. Phys Sports Med, 14 (1986), pp. 75–83
The last six months of my Free Scholar-ness coincided with a very active time on the Atlantian Rapier Net. New fighters had questions, important questions, so I commented as thoroughly and helpfully as I could. Other fighters were having issues, major issues, so I replied helpfully and considerately and with caution to be as reserved as possible. I thought: “Here is a chance for me to be the Provost I want to be” as my peer had instructed me.
Watching all of this, Ella asked Dante “When does Wistric get to be a real person again?” He told me this at some point.He laughed, I laughed, then I grumbled, then I laughed.
All of this afterall was somewhat out of character. I had made a reputation by stomping on White Scarves’ metaphorical “sensitive anatomical features.” I was energetic and enthusiastic and did not always bother to consider if what I was doing was the best way to go about it. But I was trying to be, seeing if it was something I could do without opening a vein.
At my White Scarf prize, after Dante and I fought and were hugging, I said, “I don’t get to be a real person ever again, do I?” “Nope!”
The Atlantian OWS has open archives. The advice upon joining is you start at the beginning, open a bottle of Scotch, and unplug your keyboard (because you will want to reply). I skipped that. I read the previous year or so of replies. I searched for my name and friends’ names. I read the comments about me and most were spot on. There were a couple I itched to reply to, but for the most part people were right. My favorite comment of all was “Wistric always does everything 120%. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing.”
There seems to be a class of SCAdians to whom that description applies. They want to make themselves awesome and make everything around them awesome. They burn to do it and if nobody else is making it happen they will take it and run with it, usually to the annoyance of those who were planning to get around to making it happen some day. They may not make it happen the right way, but, in their minds, it’s the right way because at least it’s happening, which is more than could be said before (a bad plan being better than no plan at all, as the old saying goes). Usually, the thanks they get is silence at best, and at worst it’s people bitching about how they did it wrong.
These 120% people are rare, but I feel they are one of the best assets available to the SCA (though I could just be saying that because I’m one of them). We do kind of a shit job of husbanding them along (see: previous paragraph).
Many of them burn hot and burn out. They either just run out of fucks to give or they get tired of beating their head against a wall of bureaucracy, tradition, and sloth and go find other hobbies. Some of them stick with it because they love and care about the SCA, so the positives outweigh the negatives.
Eventually they come up for consideration for a peerage (In my case it was twice: the first time around was the White Scarf, which was the closest I’d get to a peerage then, the next time around was the MOD). After wading through all of the obstacles and resistance, and while still struggling against it, they start to realize they’re being watched.Now, on top of all the other stress and frustration, they’re dealing with feeling under the microscope. They’re busting ass, they’re feeling unrecognized, and they know everybody’s watching for any tiny screw up or shortcoming.
They start thinking: “Did I do ENOUGH of that thing? Am I marshaling or winning or being courteous to my opponent enough? Or did I do TOO MUCH? Should I marshal less or fight less or, I don’t know, maybe my courtesy looks contrived and shit? Maybe some people feel one way and some people feel another! Who’s right? Who makes up more of the Order from which I so very much want recognition for all that I’m doing for their community?!”
I’ve been there. Mega-been there.Twice now. I’ve seen others there. Here is where the SCA fails them yet again:
The absolute worst thing somebody who they see as having been part of the problem can do at this moment is try to “help”. This helpful minded soul will likely let their “serious concerns” show through. This “helper” will come off as dickish, critical, and unappreciative. They will make themselves a lightning rod for all of the frustration. Sure, the “helper” may be well-meaning, but they don’t stop to think they may do more harm than good. Of course, they do things the Right Way, so that doesn’t fall into the realm of possibilities for them.
I’ve seen 120%ers fuckup big-time under all that frustration. Then, devoid of sympathy, those who were on the fence or in the way say, “See? Not ready.” Under the most stress a person can experience in the SCA, more stress than the non-120%ers are likely to ever experience, sometimes people fuck up. A 120%er who avoids fucking up under these circumstances impresses me more than any other achievement of a candidate.
My peer had a nice work around: she got all the “helpers” to talk to her (or share commentary in the White Scarf list), got their permission to share it with me, packaged it, and said, “So do this stuff.” I did and it worked. That sort of guidance and protection is the primary reason I decided to be a cadet and stay on as an apprentice to the peer who offered it to me. It’s the primary duty I feel towards my Scholars.
Somebody needs to sit the 120%ers down and explain to them they don’t get to be a real person anymore. Somebody needs to talk to them about what they’re doing wrong. You may not be the best person.
Dante has another good line: “The Gold Scarf was joy. The White Scarf only relief.” When you get that intermediate recognition, it feels great! Yeah, recognition, woohoo! I don’t suck! Before you get it, though, you generally aren’t that worried about it because it’s just a step on the path. It’s just an attaboy.
The ultimate award is different. Being recognized by the arbiters of the Right Way, the judges of excellence? For people of a certain personality, that’s a huge source of stress. They look up to those peers, they’re striving to be like those peers (and, probably, striving to surpass them). Some of those peers are their heroes.
If, at this point, you’re smugly dismissing anybody who feels this way as “Just in it for the cookie,” you are part of the problem. The awards aren’t cookies to be chased – that you see them as such means that you think of the awards the wrong way and your criteria for assessing candidates is at least moderately flawed. Our awards are awards, not rewards. Our awards recognize excellence and express gratitude.
One day, hopefully, the 120%er gets that recognition and they stand before their kingdom shoulder to shoulder with their heroes. They wake up the next morning and they no longer think “Am I doing it right? Who’s saying I’m doing it wrong? Am I doing harm to myself or my kingdom right now? What more is it going to take?” For days after I got my white scarf, I giggled and cackled anytime I saw it. That period was only slightly shorter after I got my collar. I laughed out of joy, but also out of sheer lightness of spirit.
Personally, I don’t care if a candidate fucks up. I’m not in a position to throw stones on that count. I care why they fuck up. There are ways to fuck up for the right reasons; ways that make me no less certain that that candidate can and will do the job of a peer, and do it awesomely. Motive matters.
I have a standard vigil talk. For those who fuckup with good intent, there’s additional vigil talk: “You don’t get to do that thing you do anymore.” You don’t get to be a real person. Sorry, sucks. You can still say no. When they wake up the day after their elevation, though, I believe it will be easy for them to never do that thing again because I believe they want to do good and they now know a thing that they do that does ill. If I didn’t believe they wanted to do good, I wouldn’t poll for them and I wouldn’t be at their vigil. Motive matters.
So how do we foster these bright fires? How do we keep them stoked while making sure they don’t burn it all to the ground? We start by listening to them.
If they say “I think we should do X,” we can respond in a number of bad ways:
“That’s not our tradition.”
There’s a right way to disagree with them: “I don’t think that’s the best plan, here’s why (Here are the negative effects it will have on the community and on the kingdom).”
If they say “I think Y is a problem,” there are bad ways to respond to that, too:
“No it’s not”
“That’s the way we’ve always done things”
If you don’t think it’s a problem, explain why. If they point out ways in which it’s causing harm, be able to explain why it’s not actually causing harm, or be willing to discuss other ways to address that harm. If you want them to be able to tuck their ego away, you have to do the same.
If we respond with silence or indifference, we can only blame ourselves when they take action. Frankly, they cared about our community and our kingdom more than we did. That’s our fault.
The more we come down on somebody for taking action to make the community and the kingdom better, the more likely we are to be viewed as malicious and malignant. A person who wants to do good does not care what a malicious person thinks; don’t be surprised if the person you’ve criticized for doing good ignores your future criticism. You definitely can no longer “help.” You are an asshole (I want to add a disclaimer that that’s just the way THEY think about you. But I won’t).
If they fuckup, we need to attempt to be understanding. Moral absolutes are detrimental when the offense is “he hurt my feelings” or “she stepped on my toes.” Motives matter.
We have people in the Society whose motive is to make the Society the best thing it can be. We fail them on a too regular basis. We make our Society worse when we do. That is to our shame. Perhaps we should stop.
When members of the arts community penalize somebody for saying “I want to be a laurel” what they’re saying is “You’re not supposed to aspire to stand with your heroes.” How much more soul crushing can you get?
Physical measure is the largest space between you and your opponent where you can land a single tempo blow. Ex: a lunge
Effective measure is largest space between you and your opponent where you can land a single tempo blow while your opponent is defending themselves.
This distinction is very important. When fencing, there are many times where you can reach your opponent, but they are far enough away to be able to defend themselves, and you put yourself at great risk for a counter attack.
Many considerations go into both physical and effective measure, and those factors carry different weight for each fencer. Some examples include height, wingspan, speed, acceleration, efficiency of motion, positioning, processing time, reaction time, and focus, just to name a few. However, that is an entirely different can of worms that I will not currently get into.
Some of these factors are immutable such as height and wingspan. Other factors can be trained like technique and speed. Finallysome can be fluid within a single moment such as reaction time and focus. When considering effective range, you must be aware of as many factors as possible of both you and your opponent to give you the best chances possible to be successful.
Many people operate well below what their maximum range potential is. As I said many of these things are trainable. Speed and acceleration can be trained through a variety of exercises. I recommend the standing long jump, and leg presses. Technique which I referenced earlier refers to correct and efficient motion. For example, hand before foot when lunging and keeping a relaxed shoulder when extending. Good technique (decision making aside) requires smooth motion. That smoothness eliminates all unnecessary muscle twitches, jumps etc. which slow your movement and decrease your acceleration and in turn your effective measure.
The mental skills of reaction time and focus are much harder to train. The best way to train reaction time that I have found is to expose yourself to all possible motions from specific positions. The more you know of what your opponent is capable of from any given position then you won’t be surprised by anything allowing yourself to calmly react to whichever choice that they made in a much more efficient manner than analyzing their attack on the fly, and making a guess as to what their goal is. Focus is hard to train. The best drill I have found is also the best one to explore physical and effective distance.
This is a single sword drill without use of the off hand. Fencer A starts as the leader, and B as the follower. Fencer A places themselves where they think they can strike B in the torso with no defense from B. This is repeated until A successfully finds the proper range. That range is the extent of their physical measure. The goal then becomes for A to strike with one tempo while B defends. A may move their blade and posture at will, but may only lunge once. B may defend with their blade at will and may retreat once, but retreat admits defeat if A hasn’t lunged. Upon failure A moves 3-6 inches closer. This is repeated until A is successful. Upon Success A moves back 3-6 inches. This repeats for 5 minutes or so and hopefully a small range of less than a foot has been established of A’s effective range. They then switch roles and start the process over again(remember to hydrate). Strategies to employ in this drill are explored below.
There are ways to change effective measure. One way to do this is with an effective feint. By feinting you can either change your measure with a gathering step, threatening a line, provoking an attack, or any combination of those. For simplicity’s sake we will use the example of threatening a line. Starting at physical measure, imagine yourself threatening a line. Your opponent puts herself out of position with a wide parry. At this point you have now changed effective distance, due to her poor positioning and inability to defend a second threat. You are now able to disengage around her blade and strike her in a single tempo. By merely moving your blade into a threatening position you have the ability to change effective measure.
Another simple way to change your effective measure is with your body language. If you present yourself as fully engaged, tensed, and highly reactionary your opponent will naturally feel threatened to a degree and keep their guard up. However, if you look relaxed and lackadaisical they will often follow suit. With this reduced focus it is very possible to slip through their defences with a slow extension that looks like a probe into a quick full lunge. This is not always going to work, but it has the potential to if you know your opponent is weaker mentally, or is taking you lightly.
Gaining a dominant blade position is another way to change effective measure. Imagine yourself lunging straight at your opponent and her being able to parry it successfully. With these factors as givens you are not within your effective measure. Now change the scenario to where you place your blade over theirs and lunge forwards. By lunging in a way that captures their balde in the process you render their parry useless. However, if the opponent chooses to retreat as well as parry often you will still fall short. This is a little bit of a conundrum since if they choose to only blade parry they are within your effective measure, but if they also retreat then you are not within effective measure. In this case your effective measure is directly dependant on the way in which our opponent chooses to defend themselves. The many factors of effective vs. physical measure are complex, fluid and can change mid fight. However, understanding them is crucial to being a successful fencer. Start calculating both the physical measure of yourself and your opponent the moment you know who you are facing. Then when the fight begins try to learn all you can about their reactions, speed, and how they choose to defend themselves. By gaining this knowledge you are better informed to make a good attack, and to stay outside of their effective measure.
Over the past few months I’ve been running a survey of SCA rapier fighters. As the title suggests, it contains mostly random and seemingly un-related questions.
This survey set out to test a series of ad hoc hypotheses encountered in the rapier community and to answer certain questions. As of this writing I’ve received 391 responses. Thank you all for participating and humoring me. Unfortunately, today is the slightly less interesting demographic analysis. In future weeks I’ll discuss what those hypotheses were and the results of testing them.
None of the results should be considered definitive or even particularly well-collected and well-analyzed. I leave such quality collection to the professionals.
If there are any questions that might be answered by the data that you might have, please let me know and I’ll see what’s available.
Gaps in the data collection
In retrospect, I should have captured information regarding age, time in the SCA, and time fencing in the SCA. The lack will be noted in discussion as we go (frequently. So frequently).
As a supplemental data source for the analysis, we have the Society level rapier authorization stats for Q2 2016.
As of this writing I have received a total of 384 responses. Table 1 shows the breakdown by kingdom, what percent of the total each kingdom accounted for (kingdom response/total responses), and what percent of each kingdom’s authorized fighters participated (kingdom response/authorized fighters)
Percent of respondents
Kingdom Participation Rate
To understate the matter, participation rates varied greatly. Nearly 50% of Meridies (the kingdom of the survey author) participated. This rate was 5 times the Society-wide participation rate. On the other hand, other kingdoms participated at a rate only a third that of the Society-wide rate. In some areas of the analysis I may use that ratio to determine weighted responses. Maybe.
Of the respondents, 48 were Masters of Defense. 93 were White Scarf or an equivalent. On the other end of the spectrum, 133 had received no rapier-related award yet.
Table 2: Award Response Rates
Baronial/other regional rapier recognition
Master of Defense
Order of high-merit (White Scarf, OGRe, MOB, Bronze Ring, Queen’s Blade, etc)
Order of Merit (AoA or equivalent)
That is a spectacular amount of participation by our newer fencers, and is greatly appreciated.
Rank by Kingdom
More analysis, this time comparing kingdom responses and rank to determine where that newer fencer participation came from, and where the lower ranks were not as represented (Table 3).
Table 3: Rank by Kingdom
Baronial/other regional rapier recognition
Master of Defense
Order of high-merit (White Scarf, OGRe, MOB, Bronze Ring, Queen’s Blade, etc)
Order of Merit (AoA or equivalent)
Percent AoA or less
A quick look at this notes that there are a couple of kingdoms, especially in the northwestern portion of the United States, where the data is going to be even less accurately representative of the community. Of course
As shown in Table 4, 110 respondents were female, 384 male, 4 non-binary, and 5 did not disclose.
Table 4: Gender response rate
Here is a point where having the age and timeframe criteria would be useful:
Aethelmearc’s survey showed their population to be 30.5% female, 69.5% male. The findings (28.9% female, 69% male, 1% non-binary) are in keeping with this finding so it may be that Aethelmearc’s findings can serve as a reasonable approximation of the Society in some matters, especially those around the relative proportion of new male and female participants, differences in the rate of advancement for male and female fighters, and rate of loss of male and female fencers.
The Aethelmearc survey, for its part, found no significant difference in gender tenure until after 7 year mark (34.8-36.2% female for 0-6 years, 20% female after). Whether this drop-off is society wide or a result of sampling number and whether it has continued in the past four years are, I believe, data points that would help our community continue in its development to serve all fencers better.
Gender vs. Rank
The Aethelmearc survey seems to also have not calculated the gender vs. rank rates. As noted above, having this information (and the rate of advancement by gender) would be useful knowledge. Table 5 shows the current state of the Society, but only a snapshot that is not on its own definitive.
Table 5 Gender vs. Rank
Master of Defense
Order of high-merit (White Scarf, OGRe, MOB, Bronze Ring, Queen’s Blade, etc)
Order of Merit (AoA or equivalent)
Baronial/other regional rapier recognition
As has been discussed in many fora, the proportion of female MODs is much lower than the proportion of female fencers. This topic could, and possibly should, be the topic of its own survey (one conducted in a more serious manner than this).
Thus ends the demographics discussion. Future installments will cover the the actual assumptions challenged, hypotheses tested, and questions… questioned, and what the data revealed.
(Ed. This is part 4 of a multi-part series. Comments that indicate a failure to read previous entries shall be mocked and, possibly, moderated with extreme prejudice. The author took the time to do the research, you can take the time to read it)
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
In the previous articles, I described the amount of force necessary to cause a concussion (Part 1), the force levels from a typical blow (Part 2), and other sources of force that can contribute to concussions (Part 3). In part 4, I will describe a set of techniques that will help you to both avoid concussing your friends and avoid being concussed yourself. Fortunately many of these techniques are also important aspects of good fencing in general. They will largely focus on the core mechanics of your fencing and will generally require active practice in order to put into regular use.
How not to concuss your friends:
The number one way to prevent concussions is to minimize or eliminate blows that land hard enough to cause a concussion. As the person delivering the blow, the key to keeping yourself from concussing your opponent is having control over your own weapon and body. Maintaining this control is largely a matter of practice; however there are certain techniques that will make it easier to keep control over your motions, and you should focus on using these techniques. First and foremost,Train good technique regularly. It is important to practice such that your technique is good even when you’re tired. Furthermore, consistency is a product of practice. If your lunge varies wildly in its length, how can you possibly have any idea how hard you’re going to hit someone who is standing within that range?
In general, you should hold your body upright and keep your arm and body relaxed and flexed, not tensed. You should also keep your core musculature engaged, tuck your tailbone, and support yourself with your legs planted firmly on the ground.
When you are moving, you should push yourself with your legs. Move forward by extending your rear leg and move backwards by extending your front leg. Your shoulders and hips should remain parallel to the ground and shouldn’t rise or “bounce” when you move. Likewise, don’t “fling” your body weight into the motion and allow the rest of your body to follow. In both of these cases, you are engaging in a motion where you spend a period of time falling and where it is impossible to control the placement of your body weight. Maintaining this safe technique is largely a matter of keeping your tailbone tucked, your core engaged, and taking small steps.
When striking your opponent, you should be certain to extend your arm completely before the rest of your body moves (without locking your elbow). If your arm is still in the process of extending when you strike your opponent, it is impossible for you to adjust or cushion the blow if needed.
As with your footwork, it is also important to push your sword forward rather than punching with it. Your movement should be similar to a waiter extending a tray. Punching and flinging motions are more likely to result in a hard hit because they offer less control over the muscles that are recruited. These motions also strike with a lot of impact force (i.e. with a “pop”), which makes it less likely that the sword will flex. Wistric recently suggested bare-knuckled lunges (with your fist rather than a sword) against a brick wall as a method for testing this mechanic. If this idea gives you pause, then it is likely that you lack control over your technique. If it hurts,then your technique is unsafe (and you’re hitting your opponents that hard over an even smaller cross-section. How do you think that makes them feel?).
Cuts should be delivered from the wrist, shoulder, or a sequential combination of the wrist and shoulder (only one moves at a time), not the elbow. This is better technique for a variety of reasons, however from a safety perspective, this prevents the kinetic linking that is typical of blows from armored combat (but is wholly unnecessary for cutting with a sword). It is important that you avoid using your hips when you cut.
Once the arm is extended, reaching your opponent should be performed by moving the body and/or legs. These motions should also be performed by pushing yourself forward. Do not jump.
If necessary, you should begin cushioning the blow immediately after impact (If you are striking with a technique that causes it to be necessary to cushion before impact so that you don’t hit too hard, you need to re-read the section on how to strike). As noted above, this will be impossible if you are tensed or if the arm is still in the process of extending.
It is best to cushion thrusts by withdrawing the arm in a straight line past your body (i.e. by reversing the motion of the extension). This method will provide the greatest range of motion for cushioning the thrust and removes the weapon from its position between you and your opponent where it can become grounded on your body. Other methods of breaking the force of a thrust such as releasing the ring and pinky fingers and breaking at the wrist in order to carry the weapon down or to the sides can cause the pommel to land ground itself onto your leg or chest which can result in an extraordinarily hard hit if your opponent is falling, slipping, or completely fails to control their body movement. While these situations may not arise due to your actions, you still have the ability to prevent their injury and should do so if possible.
Cushioning cuts is simply a matter of breaking the motion at a joint. The best ways to break a shot are by releasing your pinky and ring finger or by breaking at the wrist. These this will limit the mass behind the impact to only that of the sword and hand. This smaller mass should be less than the mass of the head and so due to the relative difference in inertia, it is the weapon rather than your opponent’s head that will undergo acceleration due to the force of the blow. In situations where breaking at the wrist is not possible, breaking the impact at the elbow or shoulder should be sufficient.
As fighters, it is also worth considering that there are sometimes blows that you shouldn’t throw even though it would be legal to do so. This is largely a matter of judgement and it is worth considering that it will sometimes be very hard to override your competitiveness in order to protect your opponent’s safety. These situations may occur for a variety of reasons. For instance, if the ground is slippery, you may need to refrain from lunging because you can’t be certain of how you will land. It may also be prudent to change how you target your blows such that you avoid hitting people in the “danger zones” for causing a concussion or to be gentler when striking these areas. For instance, in melees, it might be best to avoid blindsiding someone with a thrust to the temple, even though it isn’t against the rules.
The above list is somewhat convoluted, and not all of the techniques can or should be enforced by the marshallate. However, there are a couple key mechanics that marshals should keep an eye out for. Ultimately fighters who routinely:
1) Punch with the sword 2) Fail to extend their arm completely before moving the rest of their body 3) Throw themselves forward or jump at their opponent 4) Fall down or slip 5) Use their hips to generate force on a cut
Should be targeted for correction. These fighters are a danger to others and, if they refuse to alter their mechanics to correct these problems, they should be removed from the field.
How not to get concussed:
While it is important to understand that the blame for a hard shot generally lies with the person who is delivering the blow, there are a number of techniques that allow the recipient of a blow to do so more safely. Because of this, it is worth considering that a fencer who consistently fails to perform these techniques is a danger to themself.
Awareness – Fencers should be aware of when they’re about to be hit, especially in melees. Fighters who can’t see shots coming cannot protect themselves from injury and should be removed from the field.
Brace for impact – When a fencer knows that they are about to be struck in one of the danger zones, it is possible to brace for impact. This can be done by pushing their head into the blow with their neck muscles and by tucking their chin. Importantly, this is an active use of the neck muscles: Do not tense.
Keep your eyes open – Train to keep yourself from uncontrolled “flinching” at moment of impact and keep your body relaxed. Never turn away from a strike, as this exposes parts of the mask not designed to take a shot.
Maintain good muscular tone in your neck – Your neck muscles are the primary method of resisting impacts. When you are fighting, you should maintain good muscular tone in these muscles so that you can resist impacts even when you are surprised. This is difficult to accomplish, as those who lack body awareness will be incapable of even feeling what this is like. Fighters should engage in routine exercise and practice until they are capable of this. Fighters who are frequently “bobble-headed” are generally failing to do this.
Defend yourself – Don’t rush your opponent without defending yourself. Carefully evaluate how you are performing your “heroic sacrifice to take out the MoD” in melees.
Avoid “bouncing” footwork, “flinging” your body forward, and “jumping” when you lunge. You will be unable to control your body during the falling portion of these actions and if your opponent strikes you during these motions, your body weight will add significantly to the impact force.
Wear a mask that fits – Many fencers have masks that are too large. A correctly fitting fencing mask should result in a slight change of voice pitch. A mask that is too large may in some circumstances, act as an additional lever and make a concussion more likely.
Improve your level of Fitness – There are numerous risk factors for concussions that are related to general health and well-being. Smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, unmanaged diabetes, stress, dehydration, and age all place you at an increased risk for receiving a concussion (Because these result in your brain shrinking slightly such that it has more space to bounce around inside your skull). Some of these can’t be helped (you’re not getting any younger), but if you’re worried, you should take care of your health, stop smoking, engage in routine exercise, practice hydrating, etc.
Wear a mouthguard – There is some evidence that mouth guards may provide a slight protective effect against concussions for football players. Mouth guards are cheap and might not be a bad idea if you are particularly prone to concussions or getting hit in the face.
Do not tolerate dangerous technique – Leave a paper trail when bad things happen. If a same fighter is consistently a problem, deal with them mercilessly. Be aware of your kingdom’s marshallate procedures and policies. If you diverge from procedure, your KRM may be unable to take action.
Recognizing fighters who are placing themselves in danger is perhaps even trickier than identifying fighters who pose a hazard to others. In general, marshals should look out for and attempt to correct fighters who frequently: 1) Charge without defending 2) Throw themselves towards their opponent 3) Are surprised by being hit 4) Freeze, Flinch, or otherwise tense their body before impact 5) Receive hits like a sack of potatoes (i.e. fail to actively resist hits) 6) Are “bobble-headed” by face and chin shots
This past Saturday I taught a class on drills (and other ways to improve) on your own and with a partner. My notes are below, and the drills covered are linked here. One day I should get video of these.
First, GOOD DRILL PRACTICE:
Don’t try to win the drill (ffs!). If your job is to get hit, you get hit. Practice the action.
Start slow and large, train up to small and precise. 80% success rate (4 out of 5). If it’s below that, go slower and larger. If it’s above that, smaller and faster.
Targets should be small (hand, not chest)
Add footwork when it gets too easy.
Drill for 15-30 minutes at practice. If you have a two hour practice, this still leaves an hour and a half for fighting. Fighters will just get bored after 5 minutes or so, so alternate drilling different actions (feel free to cycle back to the first drill). Add time for conditioning on top of the drill time.
Execute an action until it can be done consistently before moving on to the next.
If you’re the coach, take this time to work on your form. Make sure your en garde stance is solid and your footwork and sword-work are clean.
Go slow to go fast. Train at Tai Chi speed to develop the muscle memory. Don’t train going as fast as you can. Train doing it right.
If you’re missing, your hand is going after your foot (point control is a myth).
I use a target of four small pieces of duct tape. One for each shoulder, the face, and the torso at “en garde” height. Start with just hitting one, then just hitting the next, and so on. Once consistent, start rotating through the targets or randomizing them.
Break it down into separate pieces: Start with the extension to strike. Step back half a step to add in the extension and shoulder rotation. Step back another half step to add in the torso lean. Step back another half step to add in a small lunge step. Step back another half step to go train the full lunge. Again, repeat each step until it can be done consistently before moving onto the next. Start over from the beginning each day.
Falling into a rhythm of lunge/recover/lunge/recover is bad. Don’t do it. I recommend using the Random Timer app for your smart phone if you have one. Set the interval to beep between, say, 3 and 6 seconds. Lunge when it beeps. Recover when it beeps again.
The next best use of your solo time is working on your conditioning: Develop the fast twitch muscles of your arms and legs (the ones responsible for bursts of energy), work on your core strength so you can stay in guard a long time, and cardio. These can be worked with mostly bodyweight exercises, no gym needed. Look around for examples (or maybe Dominyk can post some links here).
Also, Hell Drills. Misery loves company, so try getting your whole practice to do these.
Dead time training:
We have a lot of dead time in our lives. Use it to train.
Do footwork around the house instead of normal walking.
Practice standing in guard in line, waiting for the shower to warm up, on telecons, whatever
Hold your sword extended out to the side at shoulder level while watching TV.
“I want to be able to do a thing.” Drill doing that thing. Literally, “My dagger parries to the high inside line don’t work.” Have somebody lunge at your left eyeball until you can parry it effectively. Then add footwork (you or them leading the footwork). Have them add a setup (feint to the low-line, sword beat, whatever).
If you can’t find anybody to drill with you, do directed sparring: Drill doing a thing against an opponent who’s actively resisting (because they don’t know what you’re working on). You will eat a lot of sword until you get it right. Ego impedes improvement.
(Ed. This is part 3 of a 5 part series. Comments that indicate a failure to read previous entries shall be mocked and, possibly, moderated with extreme prejudice. The author took the time to do the research, you can take the time to read it)
In the previous two articles, I demonstrated how the typical amount of force delivered by SCA rapier thrusts relates to the force required to cause a concussion. Importantly, the levels of force delivered against Llwyd’s machine (~15-28lbs) were significantly lower than this threshold (~100lbs). However, we know that concussions do occur from blows delivered in SCA fencing. Consequently, we must therefore conclude that these blows are either delivered with an atypically high level of force, that Llwyd’s machine is not measuring typical blows, or that there are other factors that add to the amount of force delivered in order to reach this threshold. Here we discuss those other factors which include the angle and location of impact, the body movements of the fencers, and the technique used to deliver the blow.
Impact Location and Direction:
The largest factor that determines whether a blow can cause a concussion is where and how it lands. Obviously a blow that doesn’t strike the head won’t cause a concussion, but where a blow lands on the head is also important for determining whether the head undergoes linear or rotational acceleration. As we showed in the first article, far more force is required to cause a concussion due to linear acceleration (~750 lbs) whereas rotation can cause a concussion with far less (~100lbs).
As shown in Figure 1, the blows that are most likely to cause rotational acceleration of the head include rising blows landing under the chin, rising blows to the top of the forehead, and cross-wise shots landing on the cheeks or temples. These blows are more likely to cause rotation of the head due to the asymmetrical shape of the head and the placement and shape of the neck muscles that resist this kind of motion.Specifically, the shape of the head means that the face is further from the axis of rotation than the rest of the head, which provides a longer lever arm for blows to act upon. Likewise, the muscles that resist this kind of motion are the sternocleidomastoid which is relatively small and is not directly aligned to oppose this kind of motion.
Figure 2: Location of sternocleidomastoid muscle. Image from Wikipedia.
The second biggest factor is likely the body movement of the fencers. The blows discussed in the second article were measured against a stationary machine under relatively “perfect” conditions. During a bout, fencers are typically moving and they may accidentally put their body behind blows by using poor technique for delivering a blow such as kinetic linking (i.e. throwing a rattan blow), flinging their body forward in their footwork, jumping, or falling (See Figure 3). Importantly it is possible for either fencer (the blow deliverer or the blow recipient) to add force through body movement.
Figure 3: By throwing his body into the air, Wistric is adding a lot of force to the impact he’s about to receive when he lands on David’s sword. Image from Wistric’s Facebook.
The relative contribution of body movement should not be underestimated. Consider how much force is generated by a person walking into a wall. If that person’s mass is 100kg and they were walking forward at a pace of 1m/s (a moderate walk), then we can calculate this amount of force as long as we know how long it takes their body to stop (i.e. the amount of force is reliant on the rate of deceleration). Due to Newton’s third law of motion (When one body exerts force on another, the second body simultaneously exerts an equal and opposite force on the first), when you collide with the wall, it exerts an equal and opposing amount of force on you, which causes you to stop (i.e. decelerate). Therefore, the faster you stop, the harder you hit the wall (Assuming the wall doesn’t move). Consider a relatively slow stop, taking 0.5 seconds; we can calculate the force as F = 100 kg * 1m/s/0.5s = 200N ~50 lbs. In contrast, a relatively fast stop, taking 0.1 seconds, would result results in F = 100kg * 1m/s/0.1s = 1000 N ~250lbs. Based on this, it is easy to see how movements of the body can dramatically increase the force of impact that can occur well beyond the forces measured by Llwyd’s machine.
Punch vs. Push:
Another factor is the temporal characteristics of the impact. The muscles of the neck provide a significant level of protection against concussions because they are able to resist rotational movement of the head. However, these muscles need to constrict in response to an impact, which takes time. Because of this, impacts that cause force to be applied faster are more dangerous than impacts that spread that force over time, regardless of whether the total force or the maximum force is higher in the slower impact. For instance, a “punching strike”, which maximizes impact force is more dangerous with a blunted weapon than a forceful push because the push provides time for the neck muscles to resist the motion.
That being said, pushing through your target is better technique when using a sword. Swords do not rely on their impact in order to cause damage, rather they do their damage as a result of continuing to cut through a target after the impact. Maximizing impact force, as we might do in boxing, is therefore detrimental because it is more likely to cause the blade to bounce off of the target following the impact and it prevents continued penetration with the blade. This boxing video does a decent job of describing the difference between punching and pushing and the reasons that he gives for why a “snapping” is best for boxing and are the precise reasons why they aren’t good for when you’re using a sword.
This test cutting video, while a bit long-winded, provides an example of how this works with a sharp sword. The rest of the video tests out a couple different ways of delivering blows and is worth a watch, but for our purposes, you can skip ahead to the 20:34 mark.
If we look at the list of other factors listed above, the key take-away is that the person delivering the blow is largely responsible for causing concussions. While they do not have control over whether their opponent steps into the blow, they are in control over:
How hard they strike
The placement of their blows
The technique used to deliver their strike
Throwing their body-weight into the blow and
Their own body movement towards their opponent.
We should therefore consider it the responsibility of the person delivering the blow to control their weapon such that they are not likely to injure their opponent. Importantly, punching and flinging techniques, slipping on the ground resulting in hard hits, failure to control distance, failure to cushion blows, throwing cuts as punches, etc are a form of negligence and as fighters and as marshals, we should be proactive in eliminating these from the field.
Fighters who do these things may be quite capable of delivering blows within the typical force range most of the time, however, these techniques make hard, injurious hits more likely because they remove the fighter’s ability to control their weapon and body. When such blows occur, they are not accidents; they are the result of malice, ignorance, or negligence and should be treated as such.
We should also keep in mind that the recipient of a blow has some control over whether or not they will be injured. The recipient has control over whether they step forward without protecting themselves (i.e. closing the line/parrying, etc) and certainly should avoid footwork that involves flinging themselves forward. Recipients can also control how they receive a blow, but it is not strictly their fault if they receive a hard blow wrong. We should actively train fencers to receive hits correctly and fighters who routinely fail to actively receive blows are a danger to themselves.
The next article will address specific techniques for both the deliverers and recipients of blows to reduce the likelihood of concussions in SCA rapier.