Five Minute Lessons: Teaching at Events

Motivation:


Last April, I moved to Calontir, a land where, up until just a few years ago, there was no fencing. Calontir’s Steel program (as opposed to rattan) is somewhat unique in the Known World, as it is cut & thrust default. However, because the program is relatively new, most of the fighters are also quite new (at least to fighting with steel weapons). As a result, one of the major challenges that I have experienced as a teacher of historic fencing is,

“How to I teach new(ish) fighters meaningful lessons when I only see them for short periods of time every 3 months?”

At Lilies War last June, I found myself teaching the same 3 or 4 lessons over and over again (to different fighters), and it occurred to me that there are a few key techniques and principles that underlie most of the historic manuals that I have read and that also contribute to good C&T. I initially compiled some of these lessons into a class that I taught at an event in July, however, Tibbie requested that we post more SCA stuff than we have recently, so I thought I’d take a break from Agrippa to post them here. The general idea is that each of these lessons can be explained in about 5 minutes. They are organized roughly into 3 categories: Injury prevention, body mechanics, and fundamental technique.

 

 

Avoiding Injury:


Thigh – Toe Alignment: 

Many fencers have an inward turn to their leg that prevents them from aligning their upper leg with their toe. This is one of the first things that I attempt to fix in new fencers because this misalignment poses a serious hazard to the continuing function of their knees. Correcting this problem usually takes some time, as the fencer will need to improve the strength and innervation of the lateral muscles of their upper leg. I generally show fencers two exercises as follows:

  1.  Fencer Yoga – In order to work on thigh-toe alignment, the fencer should perform the Fencer Yoga drill (described at the end of this post) slowly while focusing on the alignment of their leg as they move forwards and backwards.
  2. Wide-stance Squats – These are just squats but with a wide stance and with the feet angled outwards forming a “V.” Perform the squat slowly and focus on maintaining thigh and toe alignment by having the fencer “push” outwards with their upper leg. If an exercise band is available, it can be placed around both upper legs in order to provide resistance against the upper legs in order to improve the exercise by providing feedback. If the fencer has poor squat form (bending the back, poor balance), this should be performed as a wall squat.

 

Arm Extension: 

While the mechanics of extending the arm may seem like they belong in the body mechanics section, I have placed it here because the mechanics of delivering a thrust are very important for ensuring your opponent’s safety. Thrusts should be delivered with a relaxed arm by simply extending the arm. They should not be delivered as a “punch” and they should not involve any initial retraction of the arm (no winding up). Furthermore, the elbow should not lock.

By extending the arm in this way, the fencer will deliver a controllable, accurate, and “breakable” strike that is both good fencing technique and safer for their opponents. I generally demonstrate these points with the following exercises:

  1. Slow extensions: In this exercise, the fencer simply goes on guard and extends and retracts the arm slowly. First, make sure that the fencer can relax their arm while holding the sword (there may be grip and arm strength issues that must be overcome first). Second, have them perform a few slow extensions and retractions, being sure that they do not lock their elbows. Finally, have them perform extensions and retractions over a 5 and then a 10-count such that the motion is being performed really slowly.
  2. Lumberjack Handshake: You may remember this from elementary school, but the gist of it is that you shake hands and then move your arm back and forth as if you were using a saw. This is a good exercise for getting a fencer to relax their arm. Later, the instructor can add resistance against the fencer’s extension in order to ensure that they are performing a properly controlled extension rather than “flinging” or “punching” with their arm (which would result in a loss of “power” to push against the resistance within some portion of the range of motion).

 

Flinging & Whipping: 

Both “flinging” the body and “whipping” the sword through kinetic linking are hazardous both to the fencer and their opponents. Both of these are bad fencing technique and are unsafe for the same reason; they create a period of time during the motion where the fencer loses control. In the case of “flinging” the center of mass of the body (or sword) is thrown forwards (or backwards) and the rest of the body (or arm) simply follows behind. The latter portion of this action is essentially performed by falling, and during this period of time, the fencer will lose both power and control.
“Whipping” actions are slightly different from “flinging” but pose a similar problem. Within the SCA context, this motion is usually caused by the mechanics of rattan combat. The legs and body are used to initiate the motion, and the body, and then arm are used as levers in order to grant a mechanical advantage that whips the weapon forward with a lot of force. However, because of this, most fighters will find it difficult if not impossible to stop the blow, as the combination of mechanical advantage and large muscle groups must be resisted using the relatively tiny muscles of the wrist.

Exercises for counter-acting these body mechanics generally rely on applying resistance throughout the entire range of motion. Proper technique will create consistent force, while “flinging” and “whipping” actions apply inconsistent force over the range of motion (i.e. there will be points where the fencer cannot press against the resistance). I generally do the following:

  1. The Lumberjack Handshake – as described above, with resistance.
  2. “Fencer Yoga” with resistance – This is simply an extension of both the Lumberjack handshake and the “Fencer Yoga” exercise described above. While before we were focused on arm mechanics, now we are more concerned with the mechanics of moving the body and legs that ultimately lead up to performing a lunge. At all stages, proper technique can be tested by applying resistance (pulling a resistance band fixed behind the fencer or simply an instructor pressing on their hand or chest). The fencer should focus on applying consistent pressure into the resistance. The instructor should allow for enough give for the fencer to perform the motion. The quantity of the resistance is not important, but its consistency is. If the instructor feels the need to make a point (or to increase the difficulty), they can use the tempi created by “gaps” in the fencer’s pressure in order to rapidly increase the resistance. This will provide more obvious feedback and will also point out precisely why flinging and whipping are bad techniques.
  3. The Sled Push – This is the fencing version of sled pushing that is used in football practices. The fencer presses against the instructor’s chest or hand while the instructor provides resistance. The fencer then performs arm extensions, arm extension-leans, arm extension-leans – footwork. Once you build up to having them perform footwork, they should be able to perform that footwork repeatedly against resistance while maintaining the form in their upper body. A simple extension is for the instructor to move off-line while they move backwards while the fencer must still maintain pressure. This is an extension of the Fencer Yoga drill above that focuses on footwork.

 

General Fitness: 

It probably cannot be stated enough that basic fitness is an important aspect of avoiding injury in all martial arts, and SCA rapier/C&T is no exception. With regards to safety, fencers must have sufficient strength in order to hold their sword in a relaxed guard and must have sufficient cardio training in order to be able to avoid heat and cardiac injury while fighting. In the latter case, the most relevant component is in understanding your body’s limits. Frequent, even if low-intensity, exercise will help you to learn how your body operates and help you to learn when you need to take a break, get water, etc.

While there is plenty of exercise advice on the internet, I have found that a lot of it is geared towards people who have already made a habit of exercising. Teaching yourself to exercise later in life is a very different challenge, and I have found that the Couch 2 5K program (and also the pushup, squat, etc version) to be a really good way to get started. The exercises begin with very short periods of jogging and work their way up to having you jog for 30 minutes continually over the course of about 12 weeks. Similarly, the “Scientific 7 minute workout” is also a good place for people to get started. It is a series of body-weight exercises that don’t require much equipment and that only take a few minutes to complete (however they are supposed to be performed at a relatively high intensity).

The key is to build a habit of doing something at least 3 times/week. You can work out the perfect plan later once you’ve done that.

 

 

Body Mechanics:


Proprioception:

While we usually think of the human body as having 5 senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch), there is at least 1 more, proprioception. Proprioception is your ability to feel your own body (e.g. where your limbs are placed, what muscles are engaged, etc). People who exercise regularly also develop their proprioception and it makes them much better at moving their body efficiently in precisely the way that they mean to. This sense is precisely what underlies the notion of kinesthetic sense or thinking of people as “natural athletes” or as “graceful.”

Building your kinesthetic sense is probably the most important thing you can do not only for improving your fencing, but also for improving your general fitness and will pay dividends later in life when your joints don’t fall apart. All of the exercises presented in this posting ultimately are focused on building proprioception. Building your general fitness as described above and working through motions slowly while paying attention to how your body is aligned are the key ways of improving your proprioception.

 

Tailbone Tucking/Core Engagement:

While the involvement of the core and pelvic muscles is subtle, they are actually very important for performing efficient movements, especially in performing footwork.

Tucking the tailbone involves rotating the pelvis slightly forward such that your tailbone points downwards. Initially this will seem like it involves “clenching” your butt muscles, but it is subtly different. In order to “find” this movement, lie flat on your back against a hard surface (like the floor). Bend your knees such that your feet are placed firmly on the floor. Finally, lift your butt off the floor using your abdominal muscles (but not your legs).

As noted above, tucking your tailbone requires that you use abdominal and pelvic muscles, however you need to also engage your core muscles in order to keep your spine straight and to support your body weight as you move. I generally advise fencers to improve these things using the following exercises:

  1. Planks – yep, they suck. Do them anyhow. Having a solid basis for core strength is really important for fencing
  2. Wall Sits – These also suck, but some people prefer them to planks.
  3. Hip Bends – Have the fencer stand with their feet at least shoulder-width apart. Have the fencer place their hands on their hips. Have the fencer bend at the hip forward, backwards, and to either side. Do not allow the fencer to bend their lumbar spine (i.e. bending at the waist). Note that bending too far will cause the lumbar spine to bend, so fencers frequently need to be reminded to bend more conservatively.
    If the fencer is having trouble keeping their back straight, have them place their hands behind their head and have them focus on keeping their elbows back (like you do for crunches/sit-ups) as they perform the bends from the hip. You can also insert a dowel rod or pole between their head and arms, placing the elbows behind the stick such that the fencer cannot bring them forward.
  4. Fencer Yoga – as you work slowly through the “Fencer Yoga” excercise described above, be mindful of your tailbone and core engagement.

 

Push, Don’t Pull:

This point is relatively simple and is mostly related to footwork. Once fencers get beyond flinging themselves forward and backwards, they frequently begin to use their legs to “pull” themselves rather than using them to “push.” For instance, when moving forward, it is best to push off with the rear leg rather than to step forward and pull yourself with your front leg. The principle reason for this is that pulling yourself requires that you shift your body weight somewhat onto the “pulling” leg, which is slow and inefficient. Pushing yourself forward is more efficient, but it relies on maintaining an appropriately rigid frame in the pelvis and abdomen which is achieved by tucking the tailbone and engaging the core muscles as described above (Think of your leg pushing your body. If your body doesn’t provide something firm to push against, there will be some “squish” in the motion, which is inefficient). I generally correct this using variants of the Fencer Yoga exercise:

  1. Fencer Yoga – Perform the fencer Yoga exercise while focusing on pushing forward using the back leg and by pushing backwards using the front leg.
  2. The Sled Push – As described above. When a fencer is pulling themselves forward, they cannot apply consistent force forwards during the time that they step with the front foot. Pulling is also a weaker action, and so it will be more difficult to overcome resistance.

 

 

Fencing Techniques:


Cone of Defense: 

The most important notion that is present in historical manuals is that in order for your opponent to strike you, they must occupy a specific place in physical space (that is dependent somewhat on the type of strike). Ultimately defending yourself simply requires that you 1) occupy that space or 2) move such that the position of that space changes.

The reason that this place exists is that your weapon (and secondary) act as shields and, that due to the nature of lines and angles, these shields protect a conical area that expands behind them. As a result, there are several techniques that follow from this principle. These techniques are useful regardless of whether you are studying any particular historical manual and in my experience, exist within most if not all of those manuals in some form.

  • Arm Extension: First and foremost, because your weapon defends an expanding cone behind the guard, the further away from you it is, the more of you it covers (from the perspective of your opponent). The simplest way to defend yourself is therefore to extend your weapon and likewise, the most efficient way to parry is to extend your guard forward (rather than to chase blows to the left and right or up and down).
  • Join Sword & Secondary: Ultimately a secondary weapon either expands your cone of defense or allows you to create a second one. However, against a single opponent, a second cone is completely unnecessary, because there is only one place that you must occupy with your weapons in order to keep yourself defended. Furthermore, managing two separate weapons is difficult (mentally) and is more likely to result in creating a hole between the weapons than anything else. Therefore, it is generally best to keep the weapon and secondary joined together.
  • Voids: Interestingly, the concept of the cone of defense provides a very intuitive framework for discussing voids. One of the limitations of extending your weapon and secondary forward is that it becomes more difficult to resist powerful blows. This is especially true of cuts that may strike your weapons from the side, which is harder to resist. As a result, a fencer might be tempted to ignore the previous advice about keeping the weapon forward and/or keeping the weapons together. However, a better way to defend oneself is to move the body slightly (or void) such that your cone of defense is oriented such that it aligns with the strike that you are resisting.

For illustrating the above points, I find that sword and buckler works best. The fact that a buckler is, in fact, a shield reinforces its defensive role and keeps the fencer from worrying about having to deal with 2 weapons.

  1. A Matter of Perspective – hold the buckler (or sword guard if you don’t have a buckler) against the body, then ask the fencer how much of your body is covered (they should respond something like, “not much”). Then hold it forward some and ask the same question (the correct answer is “more”). Then hold it at full extension and ask the same question (the correct answer is “almost all of you”).
  2. Mind the Gap – Hold your sword and secondary. First hold them extended in front of you separately and ask the fencer whether they think there’s an opening where they can hit you (center line is probably open). Next, switch roles, having the fencer hold their sword and secondary extended but separate. Extend your sword to their sword side, buckler side, and down the middle. Ask which object they are supposed to defend each blow with and why. The point here is that they will find it easy to answer this question for both the sword and buckler side blows. It’s harder to answer about the center strike. In all cases, the correct answer is “both.”
  3. Standing in the Cone – The last exercise simply involves having the fencer stand in guard with their sword and buckler while the instructor delivers slow cuts to different lines (some high, some low, some to the left, some to the right). Have the fencer defend by extending their sword and buckler together in order to block the cut. Then have them step such that they move their body into the cone of defense behind their weapons.

Counter-Time: 

The next lesson is less closely tied to the cone of defense, however the exercises for learning it follow from the sword and buckler work presented in that section. Simply put, it is better to hit your opponent at the same time that you are defending against their cut than it is to wait.

  1. A Tale of Two Actions: Extend the “Standing in the Cone” drill by having the fencer respond to each strike by delivering a cut. Each time, make sure that they defend themselves first, and then deliver a cut.
  2. Honey I Shrunk the Parry: Extend the “Standing in the Cone” drill by having the fencer defend while keeping their sword pointed at their opponent. Point out that if they do this, then they can form a “wedge” with their sword and buckler. Ask whether this wedge looks like a “cone of defense.”
  3. The Once and Future Action: Expand the last exercise by having the fencer deliver a thrust at the same time that they defend from the cut. Point out that it is easier to resist the cut when their sword is “stuck” in their opponent. Also note that the instructor can include thrusts in all of the forms of this exercise, but it is simpler if they only use cuts.

I hope that this list proves helpful. Obviously some of these lessons are intended to follow from each other (for an individual fencer), however the intention is to keep the lessons somewhat modular such that a fencer can get lesson A, work on that for a while, and then get lesson B at a later time. If you have questions or additional “5-minute lessons,” please comment below. I think it would be useful to have more of these in my “arsenal.”

Fencer Yoga


This exercise has multiple uses, and I will refer back to it. It is similar to “warrior pose” in Yoga and the movements should be performed slowly and purposefully.

First, have the fencer stand with their feet placed as they would be in guard with the right foot forward (for righties) and the left foot placed behind at approximately a 90 degree angle. Have the fencer bend their knees and sink their weight onto one foot or the other. I find that this exercise works best if the fencer allow their weight to press through their heels.
Once they are standing in position, have the fencer slowly shift their weight from one leg to the other. The key features of this exercise are as follows:

  • Thigh and toe are aligned throughout the movement
  • The fencer moves their body by pushing through their legs, not by flinging themselves or pulling themselves
  • The tailbone is tucked and the core is engaged. This provides a rigid frame for their legs to push against as they move.
  • The body is held upright with the spine straight and the shoulders relaxed

The exercise can be extended by incorporating arm extensions, a body lean, footwork, etc until you work all the way through the lunge.

Generally the fencer should only focus on one aspect and should work on that aspect until they can perform it without focusing on it. Then they should focus on the next aspect.

2 comments to Five Minute Lessons: Teaching at Events

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Thank you, Gawin. This is very useful, and I can incorporate some of it into my personal drilling. Now for a dumb question: is a “plank” the same as a “push-up”?

    • Gawin

      No problem. I’d offer to show you these exercises in person, but I’m kinda far away these days. The key thing to keep in mind is that these lesson are meant to be taught 1 or 2 at a time and then the fencer is supposed to go work on those things for a few months (until I would presumably see them again).

      A plank and a pushup involve similar positioning. For a plank, you assume “pushup” position, but rather than pushing yourself up and down, you just hold that position for a set period of time. It’s a fairly common exercise, so there’s lots of info on the internet.

      A quick search turned up this: http://www.mensfitness.com/weight-loss/burn-fat-fast/how-to-do-a-plank-a-single-move-for-stronger-abs
      and: http://30dayfitnesschallenges.com/30-day-plank-challenge/

      The second one gives you an idea of how to “build up” to doing planks for a longer period of time.

      If you were trying to work up to being able to do pushups from not being able to, or only being able to do a few, I’d recommend working on the plank first, and then start with pushup “negatives” where you start in the plank position and then lower yourself to the ground.

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