Learning Without A Teacher   Leave a comment

Get a copy of the Thibault manual. It was written specifically for someone with no instructor. The end.

Of course, that may not be an option for you; perhaps you have your heart set on some other style, or perhaps you’re vehemently opposed to right angles. For whatever reason, you want to study something else, and you don’t have anyone around who can teach you directly; hopefully, you have at least one practice partner who is willing to work with you on the same material, or who is at least willing to hit you a lot while you try to figure it out on your own.

I’ve already touched upon some of the major issues here, so the key thing to focus our discussion on here seems to be how to avoid those common issues. As someone who found himself learning and interpreting by himself, but at a practice with very skilled opponents, I can speak from experience that it is absolutely possible to learn these things more or less on your own. Moreover, it is possible to learn a system well enough to be able to use it against an uncooperative opponent who might be exceptionally brave, but not exceptionally skilled, the reverse, and anywhere in between in any combination thereof.

Please note that these stages exist on a continuum, and that not even all experts are equally so.

First, as the NOVICE:

At this stage, you really need to learn the lexicon of the system and its underlying theory. I do not mean that you need to have a deep comprehension; I instead mean that you must spend time reading and rereading from your chosen system (and from derivative works) for the purposes of memorizing what all the terms mean. What is sentiment? What is finding the sword? What is prima, and what is it good for? How is tempo defined? Everyone working within a system should have nearly identical answers to any and all of these questions. For example, see this: everyone studying Fabris should respond to that in more or less the same way, with very little divergence. Do not impose your beliefs or ideas on the system you have before you. Learn it by rote.


Here, begin executing the motions of the system, especially the very basic, fundamental ones. Continually refer back to the source material and derivatives (prioritizing the original, of course, as not all derivative work are equal) to check if what you are doing matches with what should be happening. This is the time to practice lunging, slowly, methodically, and until it functions as described in Giganti, for example. If you have a training partner, this is the time for cooperative drills, with emphasis on completing the actions smoothly and effectively. Work through the plates carefully, and increase the speed until your actions match what the plate describes. If something does not work as it does in the manual, assume that the fault is yours and re-examine your actions or interpretation. Leave your ego at the door: do not try to win the drill if it is your turn to lose, and do not go down the rabbit hole of, “But if you did that, I would….” You would not.

At this time, the terms of the lexicon will start to have genuine meaning, as you develop not only an academic sense of wide measure, but a practical sense of where wide measure exists for you.

Third, as the INTERMEDIATE fencer:

By this time, you will be finding some degree of comfort and success when sparring within your system. You may even reach a point where you can do quite well against people using similar styles, but still struggle against opponents who do things which are unexpected for you. You should still try to limit yourself to what is contained within your system here, but to do it against actively resisting opponents in an unrehearsed environment. The key lessons to take away from this stage are those of consistency and judgment: in short, you want to be able to perform the actions of your system correctly and reliably, and you can only develop a true sense of when to do what against opponents who are actively trying to defeat you. This stage is where you learn not what a cavazione is, or how to perform one, but the correct function of the action: when does it work? You should be able to help a novice become an advanced beginner, and maybe a fellow intermediate. You will have moments of brilliance, but they will be inconsistent and unreliable.

Fourth, as the PROFICIENT fencer:

As someone who is proficient in the system, you should be able to perform the manual in its entirety against an actively resisting opponent of equal skill (given the right circumstances!). A proficient fencer can explain the whys of the system he or she is using, and sees how the actions in the plates are all connected to the underlying theory present. A proficient fencer can potentially train someone else from novice to proficiency themselves. Most people reach this stage and go no further, and there is no shame in that. A fencer in this stage can be “in the zone” from time to time, but not on demand.

Fifth, the EXPERT:

A person who is an expert in their system is a proficient fencer who can also take what is present in the system and extrapolate new things from what is extant. This is someone, for example, who can make a reasonable argument for how to use a dagger in Thibault’s system, despite having little to work with, or was already performing most of the actions from Giganti’s second book based exclusively on having seen Giganti’s first book. An expert can frequently, even regularly, enter “the zone,” and will outperform even proficient fencers despite having a bad day.

So, how does one move through these stages? For my own journey to be successful, I made use of these guiding lights:

1) Learn the lexicon.

2) Read the theory, over and over, until you can see how it all fits together. Then come back to in every so often. Try this to help you decode the text.

3) Plates are examples of the system at work, but are ultimately not the full system.

4) Study other martial arts, as they may inform something otherwise obscured.

5) The system works. If it doesn’t, blame yourself and try again.

6) Fight everyone. No small ponds. Travel if you have to (you have to).

7) Dedication matters.

8) Hypothesize, test, conclude, repeat.

9) You are never done.
Stay diligent, and good luck. This is no different from learning anything else. Knowing what the end goals are makes finding your way there far, far easier.

Posted February 21, 2014 by Dante di Pietro in Musings

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