Miscellaneous Lessons

It’s been a while since I last posted here. Among my distractions has been the spearheading of a local, non-SCA Italian Rapier HEMA program. Leading this effort has been enormously gratifying and enlightening, and will doubtless feature in much of my future content. In the spirit of warming up to regular posting, here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the past year:

You Should Fight Off-handed

Awhile back I stopped a right-handed student and asked why he was fighting lefty. Was he injured?

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to work on my left hand, in case I lose my right.”

I explained to him that the amount of time required to get his left hand even remotely as good as his right would be considerable, and he might be better served by figuring out why he was losing his right hand and fixing that problem instead. Following that line of logic, fighting off-handed always seemed like a waste of training hours.

Now that I’m leading a structured, HMA-focused teaching environment, I’ve come to some different conclusions.

From an instructor’s perspective, it is absolutely vital that I be able to fight left-handed. Historical techniques almost always assume a righty-righty combat; these can simply be mirrored for lefty-lefty, but righty-lefty stuff requires adjustments to be made, and that gets a little too complicated for beginner students. I need to be able to productively demonstrate and drill fundamental concepts with all my students, lefties included, and that means having some basic competence with the left hand.

Integrating off-handed fighting also serves to make better use of our training time. Novice students find the postures tiring and the rapier heavy, and invariably fatigue quickly. Rather than spend just as much time resting as we do moving, I’ve instructed them to switch hands whenever they get tired. Neurologically, learning a movement pattern on one side reinforces it on the opposite side; training the left hand, after the right fatigues, makes the right hand better! This practice also serves to build strength evenly (which will avoid some long-term problems with strength imbalances) and ensures my students will never be so incompetent with their off-hands as I am, should they one day mature into teachers in their own rights.

Fighting off-handed requires that you concentrate on the basics. For “natural athletes”, this is particularly important; people who can “just do” fencing, without thinking about it, often make excellent fighters but poor teachers – they are not consciously aware of what they’re doing, and so have difficulty communicating these things to others. Switching to the off-hand takes away some of that automaticity, forcing the athlete to think about what he’s doing, possibly finding areas to improve or better ways to communicate with students.

Finally, fighting left-handed has opened my mind to a deeper understanding of line and everything that goes with it (counterguard, oblique steps, etc). One major consequence of this is that, in sparring, I no longer find left-handed fighters nearly as frustrating as I once did.

The Best Pennsic Training Is Not Really Cardio

Back in January, I explored some cross-training options. Since fencing requires that we move our bodies (as opposed to moving a significant weight, as might be required with wrestling or fighting in armor), bodyweight activities that focus on building strength and control like ta’i chi, dance, and gymnastics were high on my list.

The discovery of hot yoga was somewhat accidental, but worked well in at least one regard: spending forty-five minutes moving through challenging postures in artificially high heat and humidity is damn close to the demands of summertime SCA fencing. It took several weeks to adapt, but now that I have, my body has immediate and effective physiological responses to heat, and can sustain activity for quite some time. During a recent event featuring sun-drenched, 90-degree/90% humidity bearpits, I was able to fight two or three times as long as most everyone else.

I hypothesize that the big performance-killer at Pennsic isn’t the running; it’s the heat. Adapt to the heat and you will thrive.

Disciplined Training Works Exactly Like You’d Think

So far, anyway, there have been no surprises. Finding people willing to do the drills and exercises has been difficult. Despite my best attempts to manage expectations, some people have been scared off. But those who are willing to put in the time develop quickly, and look good.

We have a meme in SCA circles that teaching too much greatly hinders one’s own development as a fencer. I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Although teaching doesn’t produce optimal improvement in one’s own fencing, teaching well – rigorously drilling clean basics, constantly looking for small details to fix, exploring new ways of conceptualizing and training fencing – seems to allow for moderate improvement.

The long-term outcomes of this didactic style remain uncertain (not least because I am still learning how to teach), but I have every intention to encourage my students to authorize and fight SCA once they complete the Fundamentals curriculum. Integrating them into the SCA (particularly since our club ruleset is closer to C&T than heavy rapier) will be interesting, but I welcome it as a real test of my abilities as an instructor. Maybe Ymir 2016?

The Way I Think About Fencing Has Fundamentally Changed

Re-reading my posts from previous years is a little painful (particularly when senior fencers try to offer guidance in the comments, and are misinterpreted or ignored). The ways in which my thinking has changed are numerous and subtle enough that I can’t really make a list. I’m sure a pattern will emerge if I have more time to think about it.

Still, these artifacts from the past represent some good reminders of how conceptual understanding may develop, and where it may go wrong. And it’s nice to see that improvement can, and does, happen.

3 comments to Miscellaneous Lessons

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Good post, especially about changing one’s thinking. I have found myself always trying to reexamine my ideas about SCA and rapier.

    Another reason to learn to fight off-handed, especially for newer fighters, is that a superior opponent will often take your hand or arm away, forcing you to fight with your off-hand. It’s nice to surprise the opponent by showing that you’re still a threat with the other hand. I started drilling with both hands a few years ago after Rochelle mentioned that she trained with both hands.

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Good to see you posting again. I agree that revisiting and revising one’s beliefs is essential for continued improvement.

    In regard to training with the off hand, Ilaria says that any problem in technique with the dominant hand and side of the body is magnified with the off hand. Therefore, training with the off hand can make underlying problems more visible to the student and instructor. Ilaria herself was forced to fight left-handed for most of a year after she injured her right hand in another sport.

  • Gawin

    I wanted to add that there’s another reason to drill using the off-hand. Sometimes a fencer will learn a bad habit with their dominant hand, or will be subject to asymmetries that throw things off. You can, as an instructor, have them switch hands to see if the error exists on both sides. Likewise, because the off-hand side is typically less automatic, it serves as a good way to have students work out errors that they have made automatic on their dominant sides or to simply get them to pay more attention to the action itself.

    This was why I had you work lefty a few months back when we were first trying to solve your left shoulder.

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