Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hero Homework #2*

Smile and the world Smiles with You

Your new exercise for this week’s hero workout is:
Smile at 10 strangers.
You can go for more than 10, if you like, but manage at least 10 people. Take note of their reactions, and how it feels to you. Try to select a wide range of people, various ages, colors, etc. For extra credit, smile at people whom you would not normally be inclined to pick.
When you smile, be sure to use your heart, not just your mouth. In fact, smile with your heart, and your mouth will follow (apologies to Malcolm). 
Smiling is one of the six human expressions that appear to be universal, and instinctively understood. (1) 

Review The 7 Habits of Heroes. Which habits do you think his exercise helps to develop?
Continue doing last week’s exercise, too. 
Don’t worry, you won’t over-train. 


*adapted from the Heroic Imagination Project

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hero Homework #1

Strengthening Your Hero Muscles
If you want to get strong enough to lift 500lbs, you don’t start out by trying to lift 500lbs. You start out with, say, 50lbs. And add 1lb every day. Little by little, you grow stronger.
Moral strength works the same way. You start by doing relatively “light” lifting, progressing gradually doing a little more each day.
Here’s your first “hero workout.” It’s simple, easy, and painless. It might even be fun.
1a. Practice greeting people with “good morning” or “good afternoon” or “good evening” and call them by name, if you know their name.  If you don’t know their name, use something like “sir” or “ma’am.” If the person is a friend, you may use their first name. Shake hands whenever possible. Most people in this culture will shake your hand if you offer it.
This exercise cultivates the habit of seeing and acknowledging others, and even making a physical connection with them.

1b . Find as many opportunities as possible to say “please” and “thank you” to as many people as you can. And when people say “thank you” to you, be sure to say “you’re welcome.” Again, whenever you can, shake hands.
This exercise cultivates the habit of appreciating others and expressing that appreciation to them.

Both these exercises cultivate your independence and autonomy.

Concentrate on this for a week. How do people respond to it? 


Saturday, September 6, 2014

The 7 Habits of Heroes

The 7 Habits of Heroes
I don’t  have mountains of impeccable research to back this up. I have only my own experience, observation, and a little bit of research.  But based on that, I would postulate the following:
1.     “Heroism” is a universal human capacity – with the exception of psychopaths, of course.  Heroes are NOT rare, exceptional, anomalous people. They are ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
2.     Heroes have certain psychological characteristics or personality traits in common.
3.     These heroic characteristics or traits can be cultivated. That is, heroism can be LEARNED.
According to researchers Franco and Zimbardo (1),  heroes share these closely inter-related characteristics. You could call these the Seven Habits of Heroes
1. People who become heroes tend to be concerned with the well-being of others.
Heroes have a very high degree of empathy and compassion. They genuinely care about the safety and well being of others.

2. Heroes are good at seeing things from the perspective of others.
Heroes aren't just compassionate and caring; they have a keen ability to see things from the perspective of others, to understand the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of others, to put themselves in another’s plce and see through another’s eyes.

3.Heroes are competent and confident.
A mentor once told me, when I was in knee pants: “There are only two kinds of people who rush in where others dare not tread. The first kind is a person who has confidence in himself, his training, his equipment, his team and his leadership.  The other kind is a complete fucking idiot.”
People who perform heroic acts tend to feel confident in themselves and their abilities. When faced with a crisis, they have an intrinsic belief that they are capable of handling the challenge and achieving success no matter what the odds. Some this confidence might stem from above-average coping skills and abilities to manage stress.
I think that believing in one’s competence comes from having demonstrated one’s competence. Here’s where the process of applied behavioral hoplology comes in handy. Every student builds a history of progressive success that contributes to self-confidence.

4. Heroes have a strong moral compass.
Heroes have two essential qualities that set them apart from non-heroes: they live by their values and they are willing to endure personal risk to protect those values.
In the salle d’armes, we value Truth, honesty and honour. The simple act of declaring a touch against oneself, is an act of adhering to a moral code even at one’s own expense. It’s a small thing, perhaps. But you know that they say about acorns and oak trees.  To me, the saddest part about the devolution of the “sport” of fencing, is the total eradication of this element in favor of unbridled narcissism.

5. Having the right skills and training can make a difference.
There’s no question that having the right training or physical ability to deal with a crisis can also be a major factor in whether or not people act heroically.  In situations where would-be rescuers lack the know-how or sheer physical strength to make a difference, people are less likely to help or are more likely to find less direct ways to take action.  People senselessly rushing into a dangerous situation can make the situation worse instead of better.
Here’s where being physically fit and having a wide range of emergency skills comes into play. It’s why we offer classes like CPR, First Aid, and Self-Defense, in addition to swordsmanship.

6. Heroes persist, even in the face of fear.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the conquest of it.
A person who rushes into a burning building to save another person is not just extraordinarily brave; they also have an ability to overcome fear. Researchers suggest that heroic individuals are positive thinkers by nature, which contributes to their ability to look past the immediate danger of a situation and to imagine, or visualize, a positive outcome. In many cases, these individuals may also have a higher tolerance for risk. Plenty of caring and kind people might shrink back in the face of danger. Those who do leap into action are typically more likely to take greater risks in multiple aspects of their lives.
You conquer fear by doing the thing you fear.
Do that often enough, and fear becomes just a feeling that you can put aside, the way you can put aside hunger when it’s not yet time to eat.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” may be the most astute phrase ever uttered.

7. Heroes keep working on their goals, even after multiple setbacks.
Persistence is another quality commonly shared by heroes. In one 2010 study, researchers found that people identified as heroes were more likely to put a positive spin on negative events. When faced with a potentially life-threatening illness, people with heroic tendencies might focus on the good that might come from the situation such as a renewed appreciation for life or an increased closeness with loved ones.
Fighters learn from mistakes, and use them to achieve victory. They know that getting knocked down doesn’t matter; it’s getting back up that counts.
Maybe the most important element our training is this: We Never, EVER quit. NEVER.

When we say that the sword is the key we use to unlock the hero in your heart, we’re not being poetic.
It’s the sine qua non of our school.


(1) Franco, Z. & Zimbardo, P. (2006). The banality of heroism. The Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from

Monday, September 1, 2014

Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of taking some firearms classes from an excellent marksman and teacher, Mr. Alan E. Gantert. One of those classes was trap and skeet shooting.  I’m not a hunter, and not really interested in “sport” shooting, but I figured that being able to use a shotgun to hit a moving target might be a handy skill to have.
The class was made up of beginners like me. We went to various stations on the course, and took turns shooting, with Mr. Gantert doling out shells. On our command “pull,” he would catapult clay targets into the air, following a variety of  trajectories: from the left, from the right, ascending, descending, and at various angles.  With a 12 gauge,  like the one I was using, you don’t  have to be pinpoint accurate because the pellets spread out some.  As with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is close enough.  I did slightly better than average, I believe, but not much.
One particular station – it may have been on the last day of class – Mr. G. described as the most difficult. You had to stand with your back against a little concrete blockhouse, and the target came from high above and behind you.  We’d all been pretty successful up to this point, and Mr. Gantert told us not to be discouraged if we didn’t do very well on this one.  I volunteered to go first.
“Can I do a dry run before I shoot?” I asked. I just wanted to see what I was going to be up against. I took the position with an empty weapon.
“Pull!” I called.
A tiny dark thing raced across my field of vision and disappeared in the space of a single eye-blink.  I couldn’t help laughing.
“No fucking way,” I said to Mr. G.  This was going to be a pretty pointless exercise.
Then I took my turn shooting.
And I hit every target.
It was ridiculous. I wasn’t aiming. I was scarcely even looking.
“I want you to shoot again after everyone has had a turn,” Mr. G. told me.
No one else hit a single target.  Then it was my turn to shoot again. And I didn’t hit a single target, either.
Subsequently, Mr. Gantert and I discussed this incident more than once. He called it an extraordinary example of “instinctive shooting.”  Giving it a name, however, doesn’t mean we understand it.
I still puzzle over it. Somehow, when I had completely given up all “intention” of success ---because I thought success was impossible – I was able to succeed with perfection. On the contrary, once I knew that success was, in fact, possible and I intended to repeat my earlier performance, I failed utterly.  There’s a lesson here. I’m just not sure what it is. And as a teacher, I damn well want to know.
If I performed better without rehearsal than with rehearsal, why should we ever practice?  I know very well, from playing music, that you get better with practice.
And yet…
Certainly, self-consciousness is a major impediment to skill performance. But how do you account for an excellent performance when you don’t have the skills to begin with? What are we capable of doing “instinctively,” that is beyond our knowledge and skill?  How do we tap into that state of “instinctiveness?” How can I use this to benefit my students?
The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes

On our old website, a couple of "generations" ago, we had a compilation of articles about fencing. The plan is to resurrect these articles and post them here, for anyone who may never have seen them, since they are no longer accessible through the current website.

Here is the first that we will be "reprinting." Originally written and published... some time ago.
Written by Maitre Crown.

Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes

Judging from the inquiries I've received about it recently, "cross-training" seems the hot topic at the moment.
All kinds of athletes are praising the virtues of engaging in some activity other than their specialty in order to complement or enhance their principle sport. Usually, the cross-training activity has some specific transfer value, that is, it develops the same muscles or uses the same or similar movements as the cross-trainer's principle sport. 
This is nothing new. Conditioning programs of all kinds are based on this idea. That's why boxers do roadwork and athletes of all kinds lift weights.

First, cross-training is irrelevant to the beginner. Beginners should concentrate on fencing itself. But advanced fencers who are training at a higher level and are making greater demands on themselves in terms of training volume, duration, frequency and intensity, may find it useful.
In order to be beneficial for fencing, the supplementary activity should do one or more of several things:
  • it should improve the foundational elements of fencing: balance, line, focus and distance
  • it should enhance the appropriate energy system, matching the metabolic demands of fencing
  • it should develop your muscular strength and endurance
  • it should enhance your fencing-specific skills -- or at least, it should not contravene them
  • It should provide you with a "change of pace" from your regular routine in order to avoid over-training and stagnation.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If you want something that transfers precisely to fencing, that's easy: fence! Fencing is a skill-based activity and nothing will make you as skillful at fencing as fencing itself. But I'll share with you a little training and conditioning secret of mine: interval training. This is for advanced fencers only. Here's how it works:
First, warm up thoroughly.
Then, set a timer for a specific period -- let's say 30 seconds. I use an interval timer so that I can set it to sound a signal at specified periods. 30 second intervals and a 3 or 4 minute round. Then a 30-60 second rest period.
Do 30 seconds of, for example, advances, slow, precise and easy.
The next 30 seconds do advances hard and fast as you can -- still as perfectly as possible; don't through skill out the window -- but keep pushing the envelope of speed/intensity.
You can do various kinds of footwork this way, first slow and easy, then hard and fast. You will be improving your conditioning while improving your skill at the same time by using fencing actions instead of, say, going out for a jog.
Jogging, by the way, is almost worthless to a fencer.
It doesn't match the metabolic demands of a fencing bout, it doesn't simulate fencing movements and it pounds your ankles, knees and lower back into trash. If you must run, run intervals. At least you'll build your anaerobic capacity and that's what you need in fencing. 30 seconds easy jog/30 sprint and repeat 3-15 times.
You can do bladework intervals, too.
I alternate handwork alone with handwork and footwork combined. For example: 30 seconds, straight-thrust followed by 30 seconds straight thrust-lunge-recover. 30 seconds parry 6te-straight riposte a pied firme, 30 seconds riposte by lunge.
Depending on how I feel I might rest every second, third or fourth interval.
I've done a tremendous variety of actions this way and it's become one of my favorite practice routines.
HIIT is VERY demanding and if you do it too often you'll probably over-train -- and that's the worst thing you can do. Use it as a spice not as a staple.
Okay, how about some real cross-training activities. Here are my recommendations. It may not be what you expected.
My top choice.
You will learn an incredible amount from your equine mentors. You'll re-define "balance" and have a better understanding of the importance of remaining "centered." You'll develop your sensitivity, enhance the lightness of your hand, increase your self-confidence.
I have found so much of horsemanship to be directly applicable to the sword (and, to be fair, sometimes vice versa) that it's like rediscovering the basic principles new and fresh all over again. Plus you get to spend time with some of the most beautiful beings on the planet. If you don't do anything else, do this one.
Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn it well enough that you can read music and play what's written. And learn it well enough that you can get together with other musicians to play.
This will be a great deal of fun, which is reason enough to do it.
But you will also enhance your ability to focus your concentration, to feel rhythm and tempo, to understand what other people are expressing, to read their emotions. All of which comes in quite handy in a fencing match.
Dancing is fencing without bloodshed. It is about connectedness and intimate communication, feeling not thinking.
The main difference between dancing and fighting is that when you dance with someone you are trying to communicate truthfully and when you fight you are quite often lying.
But whether you tell the truth or a lie, saying it clearly in movement is fundamental to swordplay.
Much of magic is based on misdirection. So is combat. Direct your opponent's attention to one line then hit in another. Presto.
Boxing is fencing with both hands and a few more band-aids. Until you've worked out as hard as a boxer works out, you have no idea what a tough workout is. Boxing will hone your fighting spirit to a razor's edge and teach you more than you ever though you'd know about committment. You will also learn about cherishing your opponent and a lesson or two about the transient nature of victory.
The sword is based on the same natural principles as sailing. It's awe-inspiring to see them at work on a grand scale, a little fencing match between you and the wind. Your boat is your foil, the water the president du combat. Sailing will teach you that the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.
Weight lifting
No doubt about it, stronger is better. The stronger you are, the easier it is to do everything. As an extra added benefit you will improve your health, too. Weight-training also provides you with a great boon to your spirit because you have measurable and undeniable proof of your progress.
Be sure you get some expert guidance planning your program though. Gyms are full of guys with all their brains in their biceps just waiting to hand out worthless advice to the novice -- especially if the novice is a woman.
Give of yourself
Work in a soup kitchen. Plant some trees. Adopt a stray. Teach someone how to read. Visit someone who's alone. Protect someone in danger. Comfort someone in pain.
Remember that strength means nothing unless you use it to help those who are not strong.
The soul of the sword is benevolence. Stand up for truth, justice and mercy.
Be sure those muscles get plenty of exercise.
Be sure to schedule in some time off.
I mean really off. Time to do nothing in particular. Sit in the sun and watch the breeze blow. Stretch out and read a book. Watch an old 3-hanky movie.
Listen. Love. Laugh.
Even if these things didn't improve your fencing one whit, they would still be well worth doing in and of themselves, so you have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. The worst that can happen is that you will inadvertently become a more well-rounded and interesting person and enjoy life more while doing it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

David & Goliath

Periodically re-examine what you think you know. 
Including your most basic assumptions. 
Your core beliefs. 
You might just learn something. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

One Tin Soldier Rides Away

"Billy Jack" is the story of a half-breed Indian, a (Vietnam) “war hero” who turned against the war, and abandoned society to live somewhere on the Indian reservation, studying ancient medicine ways, while defending the wild horses from poachers, and kids at the Freedom School from the violence of some of the townspeople.

Its naturalistic filming in parts, made it seem uncontrived and honest. It has some terrific martial arts action sequences, and a brilliantly poignant scene featuring co-star Dolores Taylor.

When policemen break the law, there is no law – just a struggle for survival.
-- Billy Jack

The film stars Tom Laughlin – who passed into legend this year at the age of 82, a stand-up guy all the way, and an ass-kicker to the very end.  He also wrote, produced, directed and made the coffee in what was clearly a labor of love and an expression of some deeply held beliefs (in that regard, reminiscent of John Wayne’s "The Alamo").

This film made a big impression on me. To start with, I’m a half-breed Indian, too. I was heavily into martial arts at that time, and I was also strongly against the war --- and I had something of a short fuse.  Like Billy Jack, for a time I tried to be a “pacifist” --- and like Billy, I found that it just wasn’t in me.

For young people today, "Billy Jack" provides a window into the late 60”s—early ‘70’s, and a chance to glimpse a small slice of the heart of the anti-war/hippie/generation. 
And the message of "Billy Jack" is just as vital today as it ever was:  that good people must band together against oppression and corruption, and that sometimes it is necessary and proper to use force against violence.