Monday, April 23, 2012

Teacher or Coach?

Maitre Charles Selberg is, I think, about as good a fencing master as you’re likely to find. His 1976 book, FOIL, is one of my favorites, and he wrote it back when the “sport” of fencing still had some relationship to the use of a sword. He has a video-clip in which he defines the difference between a teacher and a coach, and I strongly recommend that, if you have an intention of being either one, you watch this little video. More than once.
Probably more than twice.

When you try to be all things to all people, you generally wind up being nothing to anyone.  Being a good coach requires a certain philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge. Being a good teacher also requires a certain philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge
They are not, however, the same philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge.
In many ways, those two philosophies, skill sets and bodies of knowledge are contradictory.

Never try to ride more than one horse at a time.
You can be a good coach or you can be a good teacher.
Very few people can do both.
Most of the people who think they can do both are really not doing either one very well.
Of those few people who actually can do both, almost none can do both at the same time, and almost certainly not with the same student. I say “almost” because it is possible. But  I’ve only personally seen it done successfully once.

I never had much interest in being a “coach.”
And that interest was limited to demonstrating that a properly designed training program, once established and religiously followed, would unavoidably result in self-perpetuating excellence.
But the actually winning of athletic contests?
Meh, not so much.
Victory over others is transient; victory over oneself is permanent.

It’s always been hard for me to take “sports” very seriously, and this was the cause of no small amount of consternation when I was a kid and was playing them. I did the training, did my best, because that’s what I do, and I knew the other kids on the team were counting on me to do my part.
Playing was fun. It meant I didn’t have to go home. It meant I often got to skip last period. It meant I had a little advantage when it came to picking up chicks.
But that was about it.
I tried to fake it, just to get along, but I couldn’t summon up the life-or-death feeling for it that makes you tear you hair out, wail, and gnash your teeth if you lose. I just never could get excited about any activity that requires a ball. My dog could catch a ball.  To me it always seemed like if you need a ball, it’s because you don’t have any of your own.

Anyway, “coach” was a title that never appealed to me. Maybe I just never had an inspirational coach as a role model.

But I did have one terrific teacher.
An English teacher.
She profoundly influenced my life.
She treated me with respect, when I wasn’t respected by anyone else.
She treated me as if I were worth something, when everyone else was telling me I wasn’t. She acted like I mattered, when everyone else acted like I didn’t.
She talked to me. More, she listened to me.
And she knew how to listen between the lines, too.

One day, when things had been particularly bad for me at home, she asked me to stay after class a moment. When everyone else had gone, she hugged me, and said, “Don’t give up. Don’t you give up.”  I thought I was going to shatter into a zillion tiny shards.  She was the glue that held me together.  I suppose today if a teacher hugged a student, they’d throw her in jail.
She encouraged me – and she also challenged me. She would cross-examine me in class, put me on the spot in a way she didn’t with anyone else, and some kids thought she was picking on me.
She wasn’t.
She was teaching me how to dance. The dance is called excellence.
It’s not exaggerating one little bit to say she saved my life.

So I have a debt of honor to pay. And I know just how she’d like me to pay it, too.
Maybe I can do for somebody else a little bit of what she did for me.
Maybe I can’t.
But I’d sure like to try.

That’s my personal reason for being a teacher.

I also have a philosophical reason for teaching.
I teach because I don’t know how to build bombs.
(You guys from Homeland Security who are unconstitutionally eaves-dropping can just relax and stand down. I’m only using exaggeration to make a point.)

I believe that ignorant, weak, cowardly, greedy people are easy to enslave -- and they make good slaves, too. Unquestioningly obedient.  Hell, some even like being slaves. No decisions to make, and no personal responsibility to take for any of the hurt or harm you may do. You just do what you’re told to do, in mindless bliss. Just “doing your job. Just “following orders.”

On the other hand, people who value Truth and know how to find it, people who are
physically and morally courageous, people who care about others as much as they care about themselves – those people don’t make very good slaves at all. In fact, they are almost impossible to enslave -- and it’s a real chore to keep them enslaved, if you do.

You can’t get unquestioning obedience from them.
Sometimes you can’t get obedience at all.
All you can do is kill them.
And that may not prove to be such an easy task, either.

You could say I teach as a “subversive activity.”
Good teaching challenges students to think critically, to question the way things are and why they’re that way, to imagine and consider other possibilities. It encourages students to think beyond the conventional wisdom of popular culture, and to critically examine the “official story,” the mythologized version of history that they are spoon-fed by the mainstream media that is owned and controlled by the power elite to serve their own ends.
That’s about as subversive as you can get, daddy-o.

When I teach, I’m interested not only in enabling you to hold your sword up, but also to hold your head up. I want you explore and embrace excellence, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence because those things are the roots of freedom and justice.

Freedom and justice.
It doesn’t get much better than that.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'

If there’s one way that my teaching differs from others’ it’s that our practice is integrative.  We don’t study fencing and nothing else. We study fencing and everything else. We explore the connections between the sword and diverse other arts, sciences and disciplines, and the ways in which foundational principles and lessons learned from sword practice, manifest in a wide variety of other fields. 
In my opinion, it is only the ability to apply what you have learned from fencing to non-fencing situations that gives fencing relevance, even importance. 
After all, we don’t fight duels anymore, do we?

Back in around 1964, Bill Medley & Bobby Hatfield (The Righteous Brothers) had a huge hit with a song, penned by the team of Barry Mann, Phil Spector and Cynthia Weil, called “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.”  Here are some lines from the lyrics:

You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.
And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips….

Now there's no welcome look in your eyes when I reach for you.
And now you're starting to criticize little things I do.
It makes me just feel like crying, (baby).
'Cause baby, something in you is dying…..

As you can tell, this is a plaintive and poignant song about love and heartbreak.
It’s also a song about Early Pattern Recognition.

As I’ve noted elsewhere Early Pattern Recognition – EPR, for short – is the fighter’s stock in trade.  Let’s define those terms.

For our purposes, a “pattern” is an inextricably-linked sequence of events which must occur in a particular – and therefore predictable – order.  There may be many events in the sequence, or there may be only a few. There must be at least two.
To “recognize” the pattern means to know what the individual events are that make up the sequence and in what order they occur.
By “early,” we mean being able to accurately predict the final event in the sequence from recognizing the preceding ones. How early is early? It depends. If there are 10 events in a sequence, recognizing the pattern after event number 5 is earlier than recognizing the pattern at event 9, but later than recognizing the pattern at event 3.

Ideally, the pattern includes a sine qua non event. That is, some event that indicates the nature of the pattern, always indicates the nature of the pattern and never indicates anything else. If X, then Y and always Y; and if Y, then X and always X.  In practice, all patterns are not perfectly clear or perfectly reliable. Nor is the race always to the swift or the battle to the strong, as Damon Runyon noted, but that’s the way to bet.

The earlier you recognize the pattern, the more time you have to respond. That is, with “advance warning,” you can select, prepare and execute your preferred response from among a wide range of possible responses, and act appropriately and adequately.
Without advance warning, you are re-acting to your opponent’s action, always playing “catch-up,”and forever allowing your opponent to be the locus of control of your behavior, rather than the other way around.  “Catch-up” means relying on the speed of your startle reflex.
If one runner starts the race before a second runner, that second runner will have to be much faster than the first in order to compensate for the first runner’s head-start and get to the finish line before him.  It isn’t impossible. Drawing one card to fill and inside straight isn’t impossible, either. It’s just not something you bet the ranch on.

Early pattern recognition is a specific type of  situational awareness which M.R. Endsley defines as "the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future."  EPR simply means that the perception, comprehension and projection occur at or near the beginning of a sequence of environmental changes. Or you might say that situational awareness is what allows early pattern recognition.

Here’s an example from music:
I bring in a new song for the band to play.
The first guy I show it to looks at, walking through it as he talks through it. “Let’s see…,” he says, “The first measure is C;  second measure is C, too; third measure is C; and then the fourth measure, that’s also C; fifth measure is an F; sixth measure is F; then the seventh measure is a C and the eighth measure, that’s C; the ninth measure goes to G; the tenth measure is F; the eleventh measure is C again and the twelfth measure goes d minor to G.”
He’s absolutely right. He plays it through correctly playing concentrating on each measure in turn, eyes on the page.

The second cat I show it to says, “Four measures of C, two measures of F, 2 measures of C; one measure of G; one measure of F; one measure of C and one measure two beats of d minor and 2 beats of G.”
He’s absolutely right, too. He plays the tune through only occasionally glancing at the page for reference.

The third player I show it to says, “Standard 12-bar blues in C with a II-V-I turn around. Cool.”  After that he plays the piece flawlessly without referring to the page at all, concentrating instead on the more important issue of getting the brunette seated at the bar to buy him a drink.

All these musicians had pattern recognition. But only the last player had the early pattern recognition that I’m talking about.  And you can see the obvious benefit in this context.

I suppose I should use a fencing example next.
Every sword cut has two phases: the preparation phase and the execution phase. A cut cannot be executed without a preparation phase. The preparation phase must precede the execution phase. By recognizing the first event in the pattern (the preparation) you can accurately predict the second event in the pattern (the execution) and thereby select an adequate and appropriate response.
But there’s more.
Perhaps, in order to prepare and execute the cut, your opponent must adopt a particular posture or position. To the extent that this posture or position is inextricably linked to the preparation and cut to follow, it also becomes a part of the pattern, an event which you can recognize and from which you can accurately predict the subsequent events in the pattern.

Here’s an example dedicated to the guys in my old neighborhood, in my ex-hometown.
1. A man faces you on the street, his brow knitted, mouth down-curled in a scowl. Teeth set. There is a bulge under his jacket just to the right of center of the waistband of his trousers.
2. He suddenly assumes a crouched stance with his left hand grabbing and lifting up the bottom edge of his jacket.
3. With his right hand, he reaches under his jacket and grasps the grip of a handgun that is tucked into the waistband of his trousers.
4. He pulls the handgun free.
5. He aims it at you.
6. He pulls the trigger.
7. The bullet hits you.

Where in this chain of events might you like to respond adequately and appropriately?
Is it necessary to wait until the bullet hits you before you understand what’s happening?
That’s possible.
There are people who have been shot while standing frozen in fear or disbelief while it happened (deer-in-the-headlights response). To be sure the “this can’t possibly be happening” response is not at all uncommon.

But an alert, well-trained person would respond by event number 2 in the sequence.
The sudden crouch of a man drawing a gun is a very reliable predictor of subsequent events. No one goes for a wallet that way, or a comb, or parking change. Not everyone going for a gun crouches that way, but everyone who crouches that way is going for a gun. 
An even better-trained person might respond at event number 1 in the sequence, recognizing the emotional arousal, aggressive expression and tell-tale bulge above the waistband that means, no, he’s not just happy to see you.

Here’s an example from another kind of fighting: fire-fighting.
A backdraft is very dangerous event which has injured or even killed firefighters.
It’s an explosion which occurs when oxygen-starved combustible gasses, heated to above the ignition point,  are suddenly provided with oxygen – usually by someone opening a door or breaking a window.
There are characteristic signs that backdraft conditions exist: Yellow or brown smoke, and especially smoke which exits small holes in puffs which are drawn back in again giving the appearance of “breathing;” and windows which appear brown or black from the outside. 
A well-trained firefighter constantly monitors the changes in the environment so that when the first tiny “puffs” of smoke appear at the edges of a door or window, that firefighter immediately recognizes the backdraft pattern and responds with adequate and appropriate action.

Now allow me to get the dramatic conclusion of this little discourse with one more example of early pattern recognition, and, in my opinion, a critical one. It’s an example that some of my students find very disturbing, and so they should.

Dr. Lawrence Britt compared the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), and found that they had 14 elements in common. Among these are:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

Using Dr. Britt’s checklist it’s possible to compare and contrast a given country – let’s say, the United States of America – with one of the fascist models, such as Hitler’s Germany.

Some Americans might bristle at such a comparison. “But we’re not herding thousands of citizens into cattle cars to take them off to concentration camps!” they protest.
No. Indeed, we’re not.
At least, not yet.
And neither was Adolf Hitler  --  in 1938.
We are, at the moment, at an earlier point in the event sequence. Hitler’s death camps were the final event in the sequence.

It isn’t necessary to wait until the bullet strikes you to recognize the pattern of a threat and take appropriate action to prevent it, and neither is it necessary to wait until mass imprisonments and/or mass “extrajudicial killings” are occurring in America before taking adequate and appropriate action to prevent it.
“Absolute proof” that your pattern recognition is 100% accurate can only come with the unfolding of the final event in the sequence – and then it’s too late to act.
It isn’t just “pattern recognition” that we’re interested in, but early pattern recognition.
The earlier, the better.
History teaches us that early pattern recognition could have saved many millions of innocent lives from the predations of psychopathic tyrants, had the populace responded adequately and appropriately at the first sign of trouble.

I submit that one of the most valuable things about the sword is that it cultivates your sensitivity to patterns, thereby enhancing your capacity for early pattern recognition. It also, I hope, promotes early pattern recognition as a general “habit.”

You never know when that may save your life.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Not To Abandon Yourself....

Compare the perfect balance and composure exemplified here to the wild antics depicted in photos of "olympic fencing."


Tuesday, April 3, 2012



You could say that I have a teaching persona.

That persona isn't a false face.

It's my face.

My persona comprises all the aspects of myself  that I reveal, and how I reveal them. It also includes my repertoire of stories. And it includes my relationship with my students.

I see my job as creating a situation in which my student will learn by direct experience.

Their experience will validate what I have described to them from my own experience. Once they experience the truth, it belongs to them. They own it. That’s much better than them just taking my word for it. I could be wrong.

But once they know the truth, though they can choose to discard it, no one can ever take it away from them.

Sometimes I have to jar my student out of the person he is, so that he can be the person he can be. Each person is a unique individual, so each one requires a different  kind of jolt.

Sometimes it’s slow and gentle like erosion. We gradually wear away the previous person, until only the new person remains. Other times it’s like lightning, an abrupt faceslap of reality.  The more resistant to change a student is, the more tightly they hold on to their old self, the more strongly they argue for their limitations -- faults and weaknesses and inabilities – the sharper may delivery has to be.

I have to take my students out of their “comfort zone.”

Way out.

But usually a little at a time.

Desensitizing to old fears, sensitizing to new perceptions and understandings.

Sometimes they won’t like it much.

Sometimes they won’t like it at all.

There's no growth without pain.

But that’s what they’re paying me for.

I rarely have a “personal” relationship with a student, because it interferes with my ability to do the job I’ve promised to do – and I NEVER break a promise.

It’s an exceptional person who can have a “friendship” with someone and at the same time have a separate and equal “business” relationship with them, and maintain the distinction between and integrity of both those relationships.

There’s an old saying that if you lend money to a friend you either lose your money or you lose your friend. It’s something like that.

(In fencing, we learn to officiate impartially. And yet, I would never preside over a bout between one my my students against someone who isn't. Not that I think that I would cheat to favor my student. But I might have an unconscious bias in my student's favor -- or possibly be so alert to that bias, that I would be unconsciously biased against my student. Either way, it would be unfair to both parties. A wise man gives the tiger no place to put his claws.)

Most people seem to think that having a “personal” relationship with a teacher means that the normal rules of the teacher-student relationship no longer apply, but they do.

People use “friendship” to avoid having to leave their comfort zone.

You can be a teacher or you can be a friend – at least, the way most people define “friend.”

You can't be both.

As a teacher, you have responsibilities that a friend doesn’t have.

Safety, for example.

As your teacher it’s my responsibility to do everything I reasonably can to keep you as safe as possible while you learn. That means I will set down safety rules when I need them and I will enforce them without exception.

In my classical fencing classes I have a rule that NO ONE may aim a weapon at anyone who is not wearing a mask. If you violate that rule, you’re out of the class. Period. No exceptions.

Even if you’re my “friend.”

So teaching is an instance of rational authority that includes a disciplinary function. This element is not normally a part of a “friendship.”

Teaching, like acting, is about communication --- communication that involves much more than just telling your students the right terms or showing them the correct execution of a technique.

The smart money says that 90% of communication is not VERBAL. The actual words you say --  the “text” an actor would call it – is the least important part of the communication. The meaning of the words does not come from the words alone.

The para-verbal element includes such thing as pitch, volume, pace, rhythm and inflection.  The non-verbal element includes body language such as posture and gestures, facial expressions, and proximity.

How do you become adept at using these various elements to be an effective story-teller/teacher?

Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, man, practice.

Actors rehearse scenes numerous times digging into the “sub-text” which is what the character is actually saying but not saying, while he’s saying what he is saying. They delve into “motivation” – why is my character saying that? What does he want?  All of this is because the actor’s job, too, is to elicit an emotion response from the audience.

Actors will rehearse every step, every pause every gesture.  And good actors can do the same show – tell the same story --- many times and still make each performance seem like it’s new, fresh and original. That's because they find the emotional truth that makes each performance feel new, fresh and original.

If you want to act like a teacher, teach like an actor.