Thursday, December 29, 2011


If you've been reading this blog awhile now, you know a little bit about what I do, how I do it and why I do it that way.  I could go prattling on indefinitely, hoping that eventually I'd address your specific questions -- the same way enough monkeys at enough typewriters would eventually type up a copy of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

OR, I could just ask you, "What do you want to know?"
So I'm asking.

We've considered making short video-clips of techniques, training drills, and/or lesson exercises -- especially for those of you who, by accident or design, have undertaken an "instructor" role without the benefit of much training on exactly how to do that.

In a perfect world, I'd have you come here and train with me every day for a year or so.
As you may have noticed, the world is not perfect.
Most people can't uproot kit & kin and trek the yellow brick road here to the and of Oz, with no means of support, while they invest 1-3 years learning the swordmasters' craft.
And I think "week-end" workshops, without any on-going follow-up, are a waste of my time and your money.
What can we do?

What can I offer you that would help you become a better fencer, fighter, teacher?
Tell me.
Don't be shy.
What do you want?  What do you think you need?

If I can help you with it, I will.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Heart to Heart

One of the things I find challenging in teaching students who are "intellectually astute," is leading them to grasp there there is more than one way to "know" something. We have such an over-emphasis on the material, on logic, rationality, and analysis that we can come to believe that's all there is.
It isn't.
I quite often advise my students that feeling is more important than thinking. While most of the time I'm referring to tactile sensations, there's more to that.
Much more.

 There are countless ways that swordsmanship and horsemanship overlap or "cross over" to each other. Here's an excerpt from a lovely article by horseman Michael Bevilacqua in which he touches on one of them.


From "The Human Masquerade"
by Michael Bevilacqua
November 2011

At workshops, in my book, on the DVDs, I mention intuition. That comes from being in the moment. That is why most children will have such magic moments with horses. Horses may do more for a child who is not trying to get anything done than for an educated adult with an agenda. Intuition is not something that is easily worked on or developed. However, it can be allowed to come forth depending on our attitude or state of mind about how we feel in our own life. It is by letting go and living the moment.

Everyone has experienced it at some time even when, on the surface, things seem to be really good or as we want them to be. Yet, there is a funny feeling in our gut, fluttering in the chest or sweaty palms or just some fleeting, hidden thought within us that we choose to ignore.

It was always believed that the heart responded to the information sent to it by the brain. Going back to Hippocrates there were those who believed that the heart served a much greater function. Certainly, that stress and different kinds of emotion affect the rest of the body in various ways. Dr. J. Andrew Armour of the University of Montreal discovered in 1991 that the heart has somewhat of a brain of its own. A network of about forty thousand neurons has been discovered within the heart muscle. It has its own memory and can act independently from the central nervous system. These send signals to the brain and can alter the state of the brain in its wave activity. It does this in four ways: neurologically (transmission of nerve impulses), biochemical (hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves) and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions).

What is also intriguing is the continued work at the Institute of HeartMath located in Boulder Creek, California. The body has its own voltage and sends out info in a radius from the chest toward the skin and further that can be measured  (EKG pads that are placed on the torso, for example) The heart can pick up information from the external environment as well and send us signals that can commonly be described as intuition. A situation may appear to our eyes and brain as normal or good, yet, for some reason, there is a funny feeling inside of us that is telling us otherwise.

There were so many times, with horses, that I made a decision or understood something regarding the horse, without being able to explain it. It is important to note that intuition is best described as a sudden, unexplainable awareness rather than a feeling. It is not an emotion that suddenly floods us. If you have a feeling of fear, for example, that is not intuition. Rising emotions in us are linked to our thoughts. If intuition signals danger, that signal, of itself, is just something that suddenly occurs to us. It is then that fear can quickly follow due to our thoughts presenting conjecture based on that danger signal. With intuition, questions come after the answer.
Electromagnetic field from the heart extending about 2-3 feet
What is interesting is that the heart and the brain can tune into each other. Furthermore, the heart creates a magnetic field five thousand times greater than that of the brain that radiates out ‘sensing’ the environment and, likewise, can affect the rhythm and signals of someone else. Alternatively, someone can learn to tune in to someone else where the perception and communication can become much clearer. In other words, the heart rate of one person can have an influence on the brainwaves of another by bringing them into sync with each other. This communication is influenced by emotion and is most prominent when a person has feelings of caring, love and appreciation.

Electroencephalograph (EEG) and Electrocardiogram (ECG) will tend to match each other in rhythm patterns either within one person or between two people if they are in close proximity but more so when they touch. This tuning of rhythm between heart and head also results in improved cognitive performance. This exchange of energy into other living tissue also produces a strong theory about the practice of healing.

Intuition is not a training method, either. However, if you can be observant without any kind of preconceived notions about what your horse may or may not be doing, it could permit you to get a clear message. Or easily allow a solution to how to get one across to the horse in a different manner. Focusing on something that may normally come naturally can sometimes get a person quite confused.
Lao-Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching:
The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hear No Evil, Cyrano Evil...

If I had to pick ONE scene to be my favorite, I think this might have to be it.
For me, Jose Ferrer is the definitive Cyrano.
The fight is brilliant.
And it has utterly NOTHING to do with the rapiers actually in use at that time. It is NOT historically correct.
Who cares?
I find it completely "believable," a requirement of fiction not shared by reality.
And it includes some exquisite fencing, indeed. Cyrano's unshakable poise is as inspirational as his unstoppable point.

Note the pauses and changes in rhythm and tempo.

Definitely one of the all-time great scenes.


Monday, October 31, 2011

What's it all about, Archie...?

One of the things I believe in, because it’s worth believing in, is that there is a balance, symmetry and reciprocity to the universe.
Physicists say, “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction."
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” quoth Christian clerics.
Others call it “karma.”
“What goes around, comes around,” according to Manny, the ex-boxer who sold porn-lite at his news stand on the corner of Bad Luck and Trouble in my old neighborhood.

In the Rob Roy piece, the parties have agreed to “no quarter,” which means, “no mercy,” a duel to the death. 

Rob is highly motivated – Archie has raped Rob’s lady – and completely committed, though not highly confident.
Archie is not as highly motivated emotionally, but is supremely confident, convinced of his own superiority, not only technically, but culturally. Being defeated by a mere “Rob Roy,” is really unthinkable to him. For him it’s a game of cat-and-mouse, and Archie’s the one doing the purring.

Archie is in what would be the “longer/weaker position by virtue of his weapon and his speed/agility.
Rob is in the shorter/stronger position.
Archie’s best chance of victory is “defensive out-fighting.” Rob’s best chance is “offensive in-fighting,”  Archie should wear down his opponent with a “death of a thousand cuts” while staying out of range as much as possible, and moving out of line when he can’t stay out of range.  Rob should “cut off the ring” minimizing Archie’s mobility, and close distance to deliver a decisive blow.
It’s a classic confrontation. Ali-Frazier. Ali-Foreman. Douglas-Tyson.
And this is exactly what Hobbs (MY favorite choreographer, too) has them do.

As the fight progresses, Archie is having it all his own way.
He avoids trading blows with Rob, is continuously changing the angle, retreating immediately to his distance after each foray, and using the point to keep Rob at bay. He inflicts several wounds, each one successively more serious. When engaged, his focus is impeccable. He’s the predator.

Rob is completely frustrated. His blows are powerful, but predictable. He’s unable to close the distance, or corner the wily Archie. His assaults grow weaker and slower, and easier for Archie to deal with --- increasing Archie’s confidence each time.

Then comes the critical moment.
Rob is down.
What Archie should do now, is deliver the coup de grace and kill Rob, as they had agreed in the beginning: no quarter.
But he doesn’t do that.

His arrogance – founded in no small way in the cultural certainty of his superiority, but also alloyed with his personal vanity – allows him to assume he’s invincible and that his unsophisticated opponent is beaten.   
Instead of dispatching Rob quickly and cleanly, Archie pauses to indulge in a bit of unnecessary cruelty, taunting his opponent with a “you asked for it” reminder of their deadly agreement, and also taking the opportunity to posture for his benefactor.

This is the moment when what goes around, finally comes around.

Archie has closed the distance with Rob and stands preening – and immobile – before him. He shifts his focus away from his prey, like a cat now bored with an inert and no-longer-entertaining mouse.

Rob seizes this opportunity – and Archie’s blade. For a moment Archie is bewildered, doesn’t quite comprehend what is happening or what it means. And by the time he does understand it, it’s too late.

That universal reciprocity, that balance, that symmetry that I choose to believe in, finally sends Archie’s karmic pendulum hurtling back in his direction. His rigid conviction in his own class-superiority and personal superiority had caused him to believe he had license to do whatever he willed with complete impunity, but, in the end, the forces he himself set in motion were his undoing.

You might say Archie’s karma ran over his dogma.

It’s a good lesson.

And a timely one, too.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Change for a Quarter

This clip is from ROB ROY.
I find it brilliantly choreographed and acted.
It is a wonderful interplay of strategic positions.

Here's a question I always ask my students about it:
What was it that cost "Archie" (Tim Roth) his life?
What's the lesson there?

Feel free to offer your ideas on it.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


It's a cold, rainy day in Ithaca.
Good day for reflection.

I promised my longsword students I'd post something especially for them. and I never break a promise.
This clip is from the film ROBIN AND MARIAN.
I like it because it's awkward and ugly -- thus, very true to the feel of a fight with those particular weapons -- and perhaps any weapon.
We train to be balanced, precise of line, acute of focus and exact of distance.
We train to the Ideal.
Fight like you train; train like you fight.
But every principle is greater than its manifestation.
The nice thing about film is that you can portray the IDEAL.
Or not.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

One Size Fits...?

One of the most common errors I've seen amongst martial arts teachers -- including fencing instructors" -- is teaching exactly the same thing to everybody who comes in the door.
They try to teach a monkey, an elephant, a giraffe, a snake and a lion all to fight the same way.
That's just foolish.
They don't all have the same tools.
You wouldn't take a part written for the piccolo and give it to the tuba, would you?
I hope not!
And so does the tuba player.

There are certain basics that are almost the same for most everyone. But even those things have to be adapted to the individual student, right from the beginning.  For example, we say there should be approximately 1 1/2 to 2 foot-lengths between the heels in second position (the on guard stance). But when you have a student with exceptionally long legs, or small feet, you might have to change that.

What's important is understanding what you're trying to achieve in balance, line, focus and distance, and knowing that the "1 1/2  to  2"  rule will help get you there most of the time.
But there's nothing sacred about it, in and of itself.
It's a means to an end.

I think part of the problem is that there are three "levels" of a fighter's education: the technical, the tactical, and the strategic.  It takes a tremendous amount of patient, loving practice to excel at the technical level --and most people quit before they get there.
The tactical level is about feeling, letting go of your ego/intellect and learning to trust your intuition.
The strategic level is about the assessment of yourself, your opponent and the environment in order to decide on a course of action (we call that "finding your strategic position") and setting the stage so that your opponent will help you execute the tactics appropriate to your position.

All this pre-supposes impeccable technical precision.
Part of that comes from molding the student to the sword.
Part of it comes from molding the sword to the student.
Too many instructors scarcely do the first.
Be sure you do both.



Friday, October 21, 2011

Muggsy & the Gators: Part II

See any connections?
If so, what do you think they are?


Monday, October 17, 2011

Follow-Up on Fred Cavens

This clip features my spiritual father, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood, his first major film role. The bad guy is Basil Rathbone, once again.
The action is beautiful. Everything they do appears to have reasonable combat-logic, and the final coup de grace is a classic.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Mark of Zorro

This was a film that I loved as a kid, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fight between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Wish I had a dollar for every time I've watched it since then.

This piece was under-cranked to speed up the action, in keeping with the common misconception that faster is better. When I was in film school in the way back when, I got a print of this and ran it on the moviola at about half speed -- a speed that would be realistic for weapons with a little bit of weight to them, instead of the silly fencing "sabres" they're using.

What I find interesting is that the actions hold up very well at a slower speed. The choreographer of this piece knew his swordsmanship very well. Try watching it in slowmo sometime.

Though his character gets the worst of it, Rathbone steals the show for me. He's crisp, precise, balanced -- a study in impeccable form.

I love the footwork of both actors (and their doubles, of course!) Perfectly centered, what I call "collected," every part of the body an element in a coherent whole, nothing flapping, dangling, loose or out of control, and no wasted movement.

That's the way to train.
And that's the way to fight.


Favorite Quote du Jour

"The exercising of weapons putteth away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increaseth strength and sharpeneth the wits, it giveth a perfect judgment, it expelleth melancholy, choleric, and evil conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, in perfect healthe, and long life." 

– George Silver (1599)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Of Cabbages and Kings...

Just started up a new semester at Cornell University and we’re off to a great start. I’ve got about 50 new students, mostly freshmen.
Good kids.

At the first class meeting, I try to “set the stage” for them so that they’ll be able to get the most out of the class. What are we going to do, how are we going to do it, and why are we going to do it that way. A little about history, a LOT about safety.

We also chat about why apparently normally, intelligent human beings would be interested in studying something so archaic and impractical as swordsmanship. Mostly, I get answers like “it’s different,” “looks like fun” and “it’s really cool.”

Hey, what do you want? They’re just kids.

Part of my task is to disabuse them of their false assumptions. I inform them that practically everything they’ve ever seen or heard about sword-fighting – in movies, TV or in the Olympics – is wrong.

They don’t really believe me.

So I ask them to recall their favorite swashbuckling film wherein a couple of guys with rapiers (or even longswords!) go tic-tic-tic-ing at each other at warp speed.
Then I let them heft a rapier.
“Go ahead,” I say. “Tic-tic-tic, if you can.”
Of course, they can’t.
And they learn that I’m not going to lie to them.

They also learn – I hope – something else. Perhaps they will ask, “If everything THEY ever told me about sword-fighting was wrong, is it possible that some of the other things THEY told me were also wrong?”
Confucius said that learning begins when you acknowledge that you don’t know shit.
I’m paraphrasing.

Somebody once said that fencing is a “thinking man’s” game.
I’d like to meet the person who said that so I could give him a good smack.
Fighting is not a prissy, distant, intellectual pursuit.
It is ugly, intimate and visceral.
There’s no thinking in fencing – or any other kind of fighting.
There’s no time to think.
You scarcely have time to breathe.
Think before? Certainly.
Think after? Sure.
But during?
No way. While you’re fighting, you’re busy fighting.
The only “thinking” going on is in your nerves and muscles. That ego-aware, self-conscious, analytical, reflective part of your brain is on coffee break.

In my presentation, I always mention something about why, in the age of nuclear over-kill, anyone should study the sword. Typically, I include the notion that fencing beautifully illustrates the principles of combat, and that one may apply these principles to many conflict situations outside the salle d’armes.
But this year, it dawned on me what it really is that I find so compelling about fencing, what I find unique, challenging, satisfying and profound.

Here’s roughly what I told my new students:

You’ve all made it to Cornell – and a couple of you have made it through or almost through Cornell. I would therefore conclude that somewhere along the way, you’ve learned how to bullshit.**
Maybe you convinced a teacher that the dog really did eat your homework.
Maybe you professed a hardship to get an extension on a deadline.
Maybe you convinced a teacher that he/she was your best teacher EVER, or that his/her subject was the most interesting.
Maybe you’ve passed exams without studying by playing the elimination game with multiple choice questions.
Maybe you filled papers with weasel words or just wrote what you knew your teacher wanted to hear, rather than what you actually thought. You dropped a few names, hit all the required buzzwords, threw in some choice quotes, whether you understood them or not. You included in the bibliography books you’d never actually read.
Maybe you faked whole classes by just skimming the textbook or reading someone else’s notes.
Maybe you learned how to kick that extra point by being “liked.”
Maybe you cut class to spend time with a lover and conned your teacher into believing you had to take care of a sick granny.
If you yourself didn’t do any of these things, you most certainly saw someone who did.
What you learned by it is that rules aren’t really rules, they're just "guidelines" or suggestions. They're only rules for SOME people. Not for the cute or the clever.
You learned that most rules you can bend way out of shape with little in the way of repercussions, and some you can break and get away with it. Some of that is because the rules are stupid and ought to be broken.
But some of it is because nobody says what they mean, means what they say or does what they say they’re going to do.
In short, you’ve learned that a substantial amount of the world is bullshit and if you excel at bullshit management yourself, you’ll do just fine.

But not here.
Not in the salle d’armes.
Not when you cross blades.
Maybe you can play that scene from “The Princess Bride,” to a T, reciting a litany of The Great Masters by heart: Marrozo, Viggiani, Agrippa, Capo Ferro and so on from Day One to Just Now. Maybe you can quote all their theories and ideas. Maybe you’ve even learned the appropriate Italian (or French) term for This ‘n’ That, assuming an accent reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau.
But when you take sword in hand, none of that academic puffery matters.
Not one bit.
You won’t be chatting.
Your opponent won’t be giving you a multiple-choice quiz.
But can you stand on guard, maintain your balance, line focus and distance?
Can you extend your sword arm swiftly, accurately and at the right moment?
Can you lunge – and can you recover in good order after you do?
And, above all, can you parry, small, tight and at the last possible instant?

When you cross blades with someone it will be obvious who you are, what you’re made of, and how well and how hard you’ve trained.
And you If you can do the thing, that will be clear, if you can’t do the thing, that will be clear, too and all the Kings horses and all the kings lawyers with all their impressive bullshit won’t be able to save you.

The real beauty of the fencing is that there’s just absolutely no room for bullshit.
It’s honest.
One of the most honest things you can do.
For many people, the most honest thing they will ever do.

And, of course, there’s no crying, either.

1. Foolish, deceitful, or boastful language.
2. Something worthless, deceptive, or insincere.
3. Insolent talk or behavior.
v. bull·shit also bull·shat (-sht) or bull·shit·ted (-shtd), bull·shit·ting, bull·shits
1. To speak foolishly or insolently.
2. To engage in idle conversation.
To attempt to mislead or deceive by talking nonsense.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What's Your Excuse?

People who get good at making excuses rarely get good at anything else.
The inferior person finds excuses for failure; the superior person finds reasons to succeed.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ya Gotta Have Heart

"Heart" is the thing that heroic legends are made of.
It's the thing that won't let you give in, give up or give out.
It's the thing that you grab on to when you're all used up, the thing that enable you to keep on going long after it's impossible.
It's the thing that says "To hell with the odds; no retreat,no surrender."

I wish I knew how to teach "heart."
Oh, I can tell you, theoretically, how to expose a student to a series of progressively more difficult challenges, encourage them, recognize them, and so on.
And sometimes tat seems to work.
But sometimes it doesn't.

That suggests to me that "heart" is something you bring to the table, yourself.
I think you either have it, or you don't, and I don't know why some do and some don't, or how to change it.

But I can tell you this: give me a student with heart, and I can teach them everything else.
Without it, no matter what mechanics I teach them, it won't matter.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Midsummer Knight's Dream

Hello to All!

We've been away this summer, locking horns in a struggle of good against evil, of truth against lies, freedom versus tyranny, justice against oppression. As a chivalric test, it has been, at once, frustrating, exhilarating, depressing, energizing and exhausting.  And it has been costly in many ways.
At this moment, we have done all that we can do, and must await the decision of the gods.

If we prevail, then some things may change for the better; if we do not, we will have to determine what we must do to continue the fight.  Defeat is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, we have a brief respite.
So I thought it good to post this word just to let you know that, as the sage once said, the reports of our demise have been exaggerated.

We hope to have more articles of interest for you very soon.

In Ferro Veritas,

Adam Adrian Crown, M.d'A.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Becoming Engaged

If I had to choose a favorite exercise, one of the top contenders would be working on engagements.

I love engagements. They are so simple, and yet, so subtle, and so important.
Also, the nature of the engagement, and how to manage it, has obvious parallels to daily life that most students can easily understand and find useful.

This exercise assumes that the student already knows how to make and change an engagement. It is for perfecting the engagement, not introducing it.

There are several elements.

1. Timing, control, and the coordination of the hand and foot.

Begin the exercise by making an engagement on the presentation of the blade, without footwork. Depending on the focus of the exercise, this may be an engagement on either side of the blade, and it may begin on the same side, or on the opposite side. Most often, we'll start with an engagement in 6te, made on the presentation of the blade to the student's inside line, necessitating an engagement going underneath the blade.

When the student is able to do this fluently and smoothly, we'll add footwork, and require the engagement to be made on the front foot on an advance. This is where timing is important. In order for the blade to make contact at the same time as the front foot, it must begin to move BEFORE the foot moves. The student must learn to coordinate beginning the movement of the point, and then the movement of the foot, so that both end at the same time. For this part of the exercise, I'll present the blade for each rep, so that each engagement will be made in the same way.

Further variations include making the engagement on the front foot of a retreat, or on the back foot, either advancing or retreating. The purpose is to foster control of the timing of the movement of the point, independent from, but coordinated with, the feet.

Once the student is able to make an engagement in 6te, on either foot, in either direction, we begin doing the same exercises, but with an engagement in 4te, with the blade presented to the inside.

Eventually, we work on engagements in all guards, made from any other guard, on any footwork, in any direction. Having a very solid foundation making an engagement in 6te makes all the other engagements much easier, since the ability to control the blade is the important part. Once the student has the ability to control the point, it is a fairly simple matter to translate that to any direction of movement. Likewise, once they can coordinate hand and foot movements at all, it is relatively easy to expand that ability to include a wide variety of combinations of handwork and footwork.

2. The coordination and movement of the hand. This includes how we hold the foil, and how we use the fingers.

The development of the hand begins the moment the student first holds a foil, and continues as long as they fence. It begins with larger movements and becomes more refined as the smaller muscles in the hand strengthen and the student improves his coordination. We have a variety of exercises for the student to develop his hand; working on engagements is one of them. I often refer to these as "finding your point muscles." You must be able to manipulate the point as a part of your hand, and in order to do that, you must develop the ability to use the muscles that do that- which starts with figuring out what muscles those are.

It starts with hand position. In the guard of sixte, the hand must be supinated and relaxed, with a straight, relaxed, supple wrist. The foil is cradled in the hand, making contact with the thumb (on the side of the grip, NOT the top) and first phalanx of the forefinger (on the side across from the thumb), and with the fleshy part of the hand at the base of the thumb, with the other three fingers making light contact on the upper edge of the grip. In this position, the blade will be held so that if it had edges, they would be to the sides, making the widest part of the blade parallel to the ground. While making a touch from this position, the blade will bend upwards, not to the side or at any other angle.

I am well aware that this is different from how many people hold the foil, but am not addressing all the reasons for that now, instead, focusing on the engagement exercise. We will post further description and reasoning of this hand position separately, but this brief description is necessary in order for this section of the exercise to make sense.

Engagements and change of engagement are made using the fingers, not the wrist. The wrist remains relaxed, but does not contribute greatly to the blade movement. Using the wrist to raise and lower the point is one of the most common errors, so focusing on correct finger movement is important.

Another early error a student often makes is to allow the point to be moved by gravity, rather than by intent. For the change of engagement, the point must move nearly straight down to begin with, and beginners often simply release the grip and allow gravity to drop the point. This method of movement does not allow sufficient control of the point, either in space or time. Instead, you must use the last two or three fingers to "lift" the grip and lower the point, and then again, to bring the grip back into your hand. This lifting requires significant practice and development of the hand, so a beginner may not be able to do it at first. They should be shown correct movement and encouraged to emulate it, while paying careful attention to not allowing the wrist to move, as they develop the ability to have that level of control of their hand. They need to be able to use their fingers to both lower and raise the point.

Developing sufficient control of the point will also develop the ability to feel with the blade, which will be vital for making and controlling the engagement itself.

3. The movement of the blade from the guard position to the engagement.

Each engagement, and each change of engagement, has a particular, specific pattern in space. The student must know these patterns, and be able to control the blade during the entire path of the movement, not just describe it. They should be demonstrated frequently, and it may also help some students to draw them. Another thing that may help is to use your hand over the student's hand to move the blade through the path. The entire pattern of movement is important, not just where the blade ends up.

This is why each pattern must be practiced- making an engagement in each guard, and making changes of engagement from every guard to every other guard.

An added benefit of this practice is that the more time spent sword in hand, with careful, focused practice of movement, the better the hand will develop. Sentiment du fer is critical, and there is little you could do that would be of greater benefit than to etch these patterns more and more deeply, to incorporate them more fully and completely.

4. The direction and nature of the contact with the blade.

This is another area that deserves more attention than it often gets.
It is also the part that is the most obviously analogous to other parts of a student's life, to any relationship and specifically to any attempt to communicate with another person.

The engagement is what gives you the ability to read your opponent's hand, to feel where they are and where they are going. It allows you to feel the level of tension in your opponent's body, to note any change in that tension, and to feel any change of pressure or direction. This is all critical information to have.

The nature of the engagement also allows you to give information to your opponent- information that you want him to have. This is how you suggest to your opponent what you might be about to do, intentionally giving him misinformation, and how you encourage your opponent to do what you want him to do.

In order to gain or provide this information, your opponent must allow you to engage, and to maintain the engagement. You must be able to do so without superimposing your own tension, while controlling the movement and pressure so that it communicates what you WANT to communicate, rather than giving away information you would prefer that your opponent not have. Communication through the blade is the heart and soul of fencing. It is what separates those who have a connection with the sword from those who are simply playing at swords.

To begin with, in order for your opponent to allow an engagement, you must do so in a way that does not alarm him. You must offer contact in a way in which it will be accepted, just as you would start a verbal conversation. To start a conversation, you might ask a question or offer information. You would not likely begin by yelling or screaming, or slapping the other person.

This means that the engagement should be a small, controlled, soft movement. Contact with the blade should come up along the blade, to enable a gentle contact, rather than a perpendicular, bouncing contact, which rattles your opponent's hand. Your opponent should feel enough presence on the blade to know where you are, and to believe they are gathering information from you- as well they are, since you are providing information to them. If there is too little presence, they are likely to do something else, just as in a verbal conversation, too long a silence will cause the other person to say SOMETHING. You want to control this conversation, so keep it comfortable, with no awkward "silences." If there is too MUCH pressure, there may be alarm and discomfort, and your opponent may again feel like they need to do something, to change something. In fencing, and in conversation, if you press (or pressure) someone, they will disengage. You want them to allow the engagement for as long as you want to stay engaged, so keep them focused and involved in the engagement by controlling the tone of the "conversation."

Learning to control that moment of contact takes a lot of practice. It requires the ability to control the transition from "hard" to "soft," from tense to relaxed. You must be able to control both the movement of, and the cessation of movement of, the blade, with both precision and sensitivity. Plus, you must be able to do so from any guard to any other guard, while moving in any direction, remember? And, as always, while maintaining perfect balance.

5. The nature of the engagement once contact is made.

This, again, is about controlling the conversation. The nature of the engagement once contact is made will depend on what you want to do.

You may want to gain control of your opponent's blade, gradually increasing the pressure while changing the physical relationship of the blades, the angle between them, so that you have a stronger part of your blade on a weaker part of your opponent's blade, in such a way that by the time they realize this is what you are doing, it has already been done. This may be in order to emphasize your domination of the situation, or it may be to immediately facilitate an attack with opposition. Again, you want the optimal amount of pressure, that which facilitates your aims, without eliciting an unwanted reaction from your opponent. Like Goldilocks, not too little, or too much.

You may want to immediately leave the engagement, in order to attack in a different line. In this case, the more accepting of the engagement your opponent is, the greater the contrast will be, and that contrast can be used to your advantage.

You may want to control your opponent's blade while you change distance, keeping the engagement as you get inside, if you are in the shorter/weaker strategic position.

There is a wide variety of different things you may want to accomplish with the nature of the engagement, and each of those different types of contact needs to be practiced. The key is to be able to choose the nature of the contact to suit your needs in the moment. The more confidently and smoothly you can do this, the better. Any hesitation will defeat your purpose- unless, of course, you are using that hesitation itself intentionally.

6. Maintenance of the engagement while moving.

If you make the perfect engagement, with exactly the right blade contact, in the right way, at the right time, with the right amount of pressure, but then, when you move, it all goes to hell in a handbasket, then it isn't going to help you much. You must be able to maintain that engagement through whatever footwork you need to do, and eventually, you must be able to leave the engagement, in whichever way you choose, at the right moment.

This starts with simply engaging, and holding your blade steady as you advance and retreat, with minimal movement of the blades against each other. Once that is mastered, move on to changing the engagement, and then maintaining that contact, both the location and the pressure.

Putting it all together: the Engagement

My favorite exercise, of working on engagements, includes all of the above elements. The student must be able to recognize when to engage, must be able to make blade contact with the appropriate pressure, in the correct direction, on the right part of the blade, on the correct foot, in any guard, in a controlled and balanced way, and must be able to control that engagement while moving, and change the engagement or leave the engagement at will.

This is a lot.
It is not possible for a beginner to work on all of the elements at the same time, so we'll temporarily artificially separate them to focus on each one, and then put them back together, as soon as the student is able to do so.

I like to come back to this exercise often, and to revisit it each time my student makes a conceptual leap. It combines basic footwork with some very subtle fingerplay and is infinitely variable. Once a student is able to perform all of the various combinations of movements with ease, it then becomes an excellent centering exercise, or a good focused warm-up. I often use some variation of this to begin my training when working with a fencing dummy. It is a very effective way to start out and make sure everything is working together, much like tuning a musical instrument.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, Part 5: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

I've been tossing around the terms beginner, intermediate and advanced quite freely, without really defining the criteria distinguishing one from the other. Perhaps now is a good time to do that.

What makes a beginner a beginner?
In the beginner stage, the student must learn many new movement patterns. He will try to draw upon previously learned patterns that can be used to help learn the new ones. This presents a challenge in fencing because most of the fundamental movements are dissimilar- antithetical, in fact- to most of those previously learned patterns.

Swinging a bat, or throwing a ball, javelin, shot-put, discus or a punch are all very similar movements They are movements for generating power by "cracking the whip." For example, throwing a straight right punch begins with the left toe digging in, the rotation through the hips, transmitting power to the final thrust of the right fist.
The thrust and lunge, on the other hand, is an exact opposite type of movement, a "railroad train" type of movement, i.e., the engine (point) is followed by the first car (arm) followed by the second car (foot) followed by the third car (body).

I have found that "non-athletes" who have not spent a lot of time honing the skills of basketball, baseball or football, often learn fencing skills more quickly and easily than "athletes" since they do not experience interference from old, inappropriate movement patterns.

In the beginner stage, the student's attentional focus is narrow and internal as he tries to recall and integrate a seemingly endless list of seemingly unrelated details. Eventually, the student memorizes the list and gradually links together the numerous details into a single coherent pattern, and a shift in attentional focus to broad internal occurs.  "On guard," for example, ceases to be "heels in line, space between the feet, front knee & toe forward, knees bent, body erect, etc., etc..." and becomes instead simply on guard, a whole comprising many parts assembled in a coherent way, and not merely a collection of individual elements.

Learning new movement patterns requires frequent, repetitive practice and that takes time. The process cannot be rushed. Students must be allowed to progress at their own individual pace.
With the shift to broad internal focus the student begins to be capable of self-correcting.  I consider the capacity for self-correction to be the distinguishing feature of an intermediate student.

The Intermediate Level
In the intermediate phase, students begin to get a real "feel" for the moves and are able to evaluate progressively finer elements of their own performance and correct errors by comparing what they just did to the memory of the feeling of doing it “right.” 
It is during the early intermediate stage that the student’s rising expectations can leave them vulnerable to what I call "the frustration gap," the distance between intellectually knowing what to do and your body's ability to do it. Those with the quickest wits are more vulnerable than others since they may well comprehend the theory of a movement long before their body has had time to memorize the pattern of it. The Master must be prepared to counsel patience and to provide extra support and encouragement when this happens.

Gradually, their actions become more accurate and more consistent. The moves become "easier" as the body becomes more efficient, using less energy in executing the new pattern. They will be able to perform at increasingly greater speed, pace and intensity, without sacrificing anything in precision. Sometimes they will find themselves performing "automatically," without thinking about it, almost as if the movement happened all by itself. They will also begin to focus more externally as they learn to recognize and respond to diverse and sundry cues.

Advanced Students
The distinguishing characteristic of the  advanced student is the ability to maintain the integrity of his/her own movement – balance, line, focus and distance – while externally focused. At the advanced level, the student becomes more active and less re-active. He is increasingly able to anticipate or "read" the opponent and predict the flow of the action. Performance becomes highly instinctive, requiring no conscious thought – in fact, “thinking” only gets in the way. The student has high levels of technical competence, confidence, control and commitment. Advanced fencers spend more and more time in external broad attentional focus, performing by feeling the flow and flowing with the feel of the fight. At the same time, they begin to strive for an even greater degree of perfection, measuring their performance against an abstract ideal and not by whether they won or lost. The advanced phase is not the end at all.  Rather, it's a whole new beginning.

Each time the student learns a new skill, the student will go through these three stages of development with regard to that skill.  The process make take a month. Or it may take a minute. The more experience the student has had with making the transition from beginner to advanced, the faster and easier it will be. The student hasn’t just learned. The student has learned how to learn.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Comparison of Lesson Types

Element                      Technical Lesson                    Tactical Lesson                    Strategy Lesson
Goal                            mechanical precision                recognition & response           problem solving
Cues                           single, simple & specific           2 or more as specified             random & unspecified
Speed                         slow                                        slow to fast                             combat  speed
Pace                           slow                                        moderate to fast                      fast
Rest                            long, frequent                         short, frequent                         short, infrequent
Complexity                  low                                          moderate                                high
Intensity                      low                                          moderate                                high
Duration                      moderate-long                         moderate                                moderate-short
Attentional Mode         narrow internal                         narrow external                       broad external
Beginner                      98%                                        1%                                        1%
Intermediate                25%                                         50%                                      25%
Advanced                   5%                                         25%                                       70%

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 4: Lesson Profiles

In this installment, I submit for your consideration, profiles of the three principle lesson types. Keep in mind that there is no "purely" technical, tactical or strategy lesson, but that all three elements exist to varying degrees in every lesson. For example, in the simplest exercise, "On my opening, straight thrust," the student must recognize the cue (distinguish between cue and not-cue) and respond with the correct action for that cue. That's tactics.  Within the the lesson it's quite common to introduce a technique, then place it in a tactical context, and then explore how it may be utilized in various strategic positions.

The Technical Lesson Profile

THE TECHNICAL LESSON is characterized by simple cues requiring simple responses, the cue being stated as a command "On my X, you will X1." For example: "On my opening, thrust in 6te," or "On my pressure, disengage." The cue is specifically defined, and there is only ONE acceptable response.

The SPEED of the lesson is low and the PACE is slow. This is necessary to ensure that the student and the master can both pay careful attention to each rep. The goal of the lesson is to create a neuro-muscular pattern, or "muscle memory" of the action so that it will always be the preferred response to the cue, requiring no cognitive "thinking" to perform.

The student's attentional mode is predominantly narrow internal, flicking briefly to narrow external for the cue.

The master must allow the student ample rest intervals to avoid fatigue until the mechanics have been adequately absorbed and the technique can be performed correctly at least 90% of the time on command. Fatigue will produce gross, imprecise movements when razor sharp acuity is desired, and must be avoided.

BEGINNERS will require 99% technical lessons- and I say that only because of the 1% inherent tactical element. But any time a new technique is introduced, even to an advanced student, employ the Technical Lesson format.

The Tactical Lesson Profile

THE TACTICAL LESSON is characterized by two or more conditional commands, i.e., IF-THEN statements. For example: "If I open the line, thrust in 6te; if I close the line, disengage and thrust in 4te."

The goal of this type of lesson is to teach the student to distinguish between differing cues requiring differing responses. This lesson cultivates both physical and mental agility. There must be AT LEAST two options, with no upper limit for advanced students. However, cues are still specifically defined, and each has its "correct" response.

SPEED and PACE are generally moderate, but may vary considerably depending on the ability of the student. NEVER accelerate either one beyond precision. Neither proceed at a rate the student will not find challenging.

COMPLEXITY can reach appreciable proportions, but as complexity increases, speed and pace generally must decrease.

The attentional mode is predominantly narrow external, shifting to narrow internal on the response.

The tactical lesson is for the intermediate fencer, from 50% technique and 50% tactics to 90% tactics.

The Strategy Lesson Profile

In the strategy or "combat" lesson, the master simulates a hypothetical opponent against whom the student must devise an appropriate PLAN or STRATEGY and then choose tactics and execute techniques in order to carry out that battle plan. The master may present a tactical problem, for example, an opponent who systematically counter-attacks, or closes distance, or opens distance, or uses fine point control, or is left-handed, etc. Or the master may merely assume one of the STRATEGIC POSITIONS (longer/stronger, longer/weaker, shorter/stronger, shorter/weaker) and play it out with tactical variety.

The emphasis of the combat lesson is PROBLEM-SOLVING. The student must immediately apply what he has learned, analyze the situations (from the actions of the opponent), determine the strategy most likely to succeed and then employ appropriate tactics.

The master facilitates this process by asking questions, obliging the student to find the answers with as little assistance as possible from the teacher.

The combat lesson may assume all the speed, pace and complexity of an actual bout, and resemble it in all possible ways. No specific cues or responses are stated (that has been done in preceding technical and tactical lessons).

The combat lesson is for advanced students whose predominant attentional mode is broad external, shifting to narrow external.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 3: Elements of the Lesson

In this installment of The Structure of the Individual Lesson, I want to provide you with some definitions as a starting place for discussing the specific profiles of each type of lesson, which will come in Part IV.

Elements of the Lesson

The lesson is made up of a number of elements used in infinitely variable ways.


Each lesson will have a particular THEME or focus, comprising a series of exercises with a common purpose or objective. For example, a lesson might focus on the beat, on the counter-time, on the coupe, on distance, point control, etc.

Each lesson will also comprise three specific phases: the warm-up, the body of the lesson and the cool-down.

The warm-up phase includes simple actions that the student knows well to stimulate the fingers, hand, eye and legs, preparing the student mentally and physically for more demanding effort.

The body of the lesson includes the focus of the lesson, interspersing periods of work and rest, alternating attack and defense, with peaks and valleys, gradually building in intensity.

The cool-down is a brief anti-climax comprising a very simple action that the student can do well, the purpose being to relax the student and leave him in a positive frame of mind, ie., with an enhanced self-concept and a feeling of competence, confidence, control and committment that leaves him looking forward enthusiastically to the next lesson.

Variable Components of the Lesson


The specific signal used by the master to elicit a specific response from the student is a CUE. Every cue should have ONE SPECIFIC PREFERRED RESPONSE and simulate the context of combat as closely as possible. This recognition/respose is the very foundation of the lesson.


An execution of a given action, ie., a cue and a response done one time.


A given number of reps completed without a rest interval between them.


A brief recovery period which may be inactive (the student relaxes, stretches, takes a couple of deep breaths) or active (the student does a low-intensity set of parry-riposte while recovering from a high-intensity set of balestra-lunges).


The total time of the lessons. On the average, a lesson should be of 20-30 minutes' duration. Remember that there is an inverse relationship between duration and intensity. You can work hard or you can work long, but you cannot work hard AND long. (If you wish, you may test this for yourself by determining your best speed in the 100 yard dash, and then running at that pace for 30 minutes. Good luck.)


The real time required or allowed for the student to perform one repetition of the action.


The rate at which successive reps and sets follow the previous one, relative to the intervening rest.


The level of difficulty created by the number of different cues that the student must recognize and the number and nature of movements involved in the execution of the response.


The relationship between the energy demand and the period of time in which it is expended. The same work done in less time indicates a higher intensity, likewise, more work done in the same period of time. Simply, how "hard" the student is working. Intensity is the sum total of complexity, speed, pace and duration.


Feedback refers to the nature an amount of reinforcement the master provides to the student. Although most people in general respond similarly to similar kinds of feedback, specific individuals may respond well or poorly to specific kinds of feedback. To know what specific words, phrases, images etc to use, you must know your student very well.

One form of feedback is tactile: the touch. When the student performs correctly, he is rewarded by making a touch. Poor performance must result in failure to make the touch, or in receiving a touch from the master.

Reinforcement must also be provided verbally, with either affirmation, correction  or both.  I believe in using 99.99% positive feedback- rarely, if ever, negative feedback, and then only for a bloody good reason. No one likes to be scolded and few respond to it well. I don't. Use humor, if you like, but never ridicule. You must support, encourage and nurture your student as you would an infant learing to walk. Demand a high level of precision, but demand it gently. You must remember the power you have as a teacher and never abuse it.

About the only time I use negative feedback is when I find a student suffering "brain-lock. Something sharp and sudden will frequently be successful in helping the student "re-set" and return to the flow of the lesson.
It's important to remember that 90% of communication is NON-VERBAL and includes such para-verbal elements as volume, pitch, tone and inflection as well as body language and expression. All these communication elements must be employed judiciously for effective feedback.

Further, you must determine that the student has understood the message you sent as you intended it.
Sometimes what a student thought he heard is not what you thought you said.

Likewise, use positive corrections. They get better results than negative ones. For example, it is better to say "Good; now, more opposition," than to say "No, you didn't give enough opposition," or "extend your arm," rather than "don't bend your arm."

Basically, don't say "don't" - correct with advice on what to DO, rather than what NOT to do.

Horsemen sometimes talk about "rewarding the try."  This is the practice of providing positive reinforcement for even the slightest change of behavior in the right direction.
It's very effective in "shaping" behavior and I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 2

I distinguish five types of lessons, three of them fundamental, the other two supplementary.

The Technical Lesson
The Tactical Lesson
The Strategy or Combat Lesson
The Warm-up Lesson
The Maintenance Lesson

I shall address the last two variations first.


The warm-up or pre-event lesson is more of a warm-up than a lesson. The purpose of this type of lesson is to stimulate the nerves and muscles that will be involved in performance, and to bolster the confidence and to arouse the student to the optimum state of relaxed alertness. For most fencers this will probably more often be to ease arousal than to heighten it. Nothing new takes place in a warm-up; just old, familiar "bread and butter" actions the fencer enjoys and does well.


The maintenance lesson is intended to preserve fencing skills during a lay-off or the "off-season," which, for most fencers, would be the summertime.  But there are many reasons why a person might benefit from an occasional lay-off. Sometimes "life" gets hectic and makes demands on your fencing time. Sometimes you just need to take a break, clear your mind, & refresh your body by doing something ELSE.

My own inclination is to advise "active rest" in the off-season, preferably utilizing some complementary activity such as aikido, kendo, boxing or karate along with conditioning.

What little skill is "lost" during a rest period can be quickly re-honed when the student comes back "hungry" after not fencing for a while. Over-training is a more serious error than under-training, since it usually requires a long period of recuperation.


Each of the three main types of lessons has a different emphasis and therefore, a slightly different structure. But you should always remember that technique, tactics and strategy are so closely related as to be inseparable, and all of these elements are always evident in some form, to some degree, in every lesson, even if only on a very rudimentary level. The isolation of one element or another is a purely artificial pedagogical device, and I believe after focusing on some particular point, it is a good idea to integrate it into a more "holistic" context as soon as the student is capable of doing so. Nevertheless, let there be no question that I consider technical precision to be the sine qua non of fencing excellence. Strategy and tactics are important, of course. But it is not possible to employ any strategy if you are not capable of selecting the right tactics at the right time, and you cannot possibly choose a tactic that you do not have the technical ability to execute.

I have met any number of fencers whose "coaches" pushed them into tactics and strategy, or simpy into bouting- if it could be called that- long before they were ready for it and as a result created such a technical cripple that I had an almost irrepressible urge to seek that "teacher" out and introduce them to the sting of a horsewhip. (Such "coaches" are evidence, I suppose, that prostitution is not the only trade that has been ruined by amateurs.) A person who can overcome "bad habits" developed in the beginning is as remarkable as he or she is rare. A Master who patiently cultivates technical precision in the student from the very beginning, makes his own later labor- and the student's- both easier and more fruitful ever after.

Attentional mode, or attentional focus, are terms to describe the direction and scope of the student's concentration and awareness. The direction may be internal (focused on the self) or external (focused on other-than-self). Scope may be either narrow (specifically focused) or broad (generally focused). (SEE: Nideffer. The Inner Athlete. 1979)

The introduction of each new skill requires a progression from narrow internal, to broad internal, to narrow external and finally to broad external focus as it is integrated into the fencer's repertoire of actions. This integration takes a variable amount of time depending on the skill and the level of the student. An advanced fencer may be able to do a new action after only a few tries, but a beginner needs a fair amount of time- weeks or months- before the transition is made. And herein lies the folly of the aforementioned "coaches" on my hit list. They fail to understand this process and interrupt its natural progression by demanding external focus (bouting) before the internal focus has been adequately broadened. This is why we see beginning fencers who can parry well enough under controlled circumstances, flail around wildly in a bout. They have not had sufficient time to incorporate (in the truest sense of the word) their skills.


The principle purpose of the technical lesson is to develop the student's mechanical precision in a given action, almost as if that action were occurring in a vacuum, and without any particular consideration of when to apply the tchnique in question. This admittedly artificial approach assumes that there is one "right" way to do the action and the student's goal is to replicate this "ideal" as closely as possible.

Again, some may claim that the technique lesson is a poor exercise with limited utility, because all fencing technique must be executed within a tactical framework.

I emphatically disagree.

As I have noted, the question of tactical choice can never be wholly absent. If nothing else, the student must be able to determine when, during the lesson, to perform the technique and when not to do so. This decision requires the recognition of a prescribed CUE from the master, and an appropriate response. Thus it provides a foundation for tactical thinking. But the main purpose of the technical lesson is to emphasize mechanical precision.

Aside from mechanical perfection, the technical lesson develops a process-oriented disposition, instead of a product-oriented one, an attitude that is invaluable when facing an opponent. "Fence one touch at a time," is a facile bit of coaching cliche- but just when does the student learn to do this? In the technical lesson.

Technical exercises need not be a drudgery. It is the master's job to make them challenging, enjoyable and satisfying. They are to the swordsman what scales are to the concert pianist. Even "just" playing scales is still making music, and "just" practicing the disengage is still swordsmanship. The best musicians I have ever known enjoyed playing scales, and the best fencers I have ever known also enjoyed playing their scales. Teach your students to enjoy their scales, too.

Always remember that one man's "scales" is another man's "concert" and so, of course, technical exercises must be suited to the expertise of the student. What might be an entire lesson for a beginner would be just a warm-up for an advanced fencer.


The tactical lesson emphasizes decision-making on a simple recognition-response level in which the student must disintinguish between various cues and execute the appropriate response. While this kind of eye-hand thinking begins in the technical lesson, it is fully cultivated in the tactical lesson. If the technical lesson answers the question of "how," the tactical lesson deals with the question of "when."

Although I have referred to tactical "thinking," the soul of the tactical lesson is actually teaching your student NOT to think, at least not the kind of reflective, cognitive, intellectual thinking "about" something that we're used to.  Tactics is about bodythinking, ie psychomotor "thinking." The eye sees, the hand feels and the blade dances, all with as little conscious thought as you use in blinking or breathing.


The strategy, or combat lesson, emphasizes problem-solving on a broad scale. In the combat lesson, the master simulates a hypothetical opponent for the student and the student must determine what strategy to employ and which tactics to use to carry it off, and, of course, execute the techniques to do so flawlessly. It is the most like actually bouting with your student.

I subscribe to the positional theory of combat strategy, and teach the four strategies: longer/stronger, longer/weaker, shorter/stronger, shorter/weaker. In the case of a fifth possibility- being exactly equal in reach and strength- the fight becomes a tactical one. You must teach your student how to fight effectively from each of these different strategic positions.