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Teaching swordfighting effectively

Introduction

Swords are fun, and knowing how to wield one will, without fail, bring you glory, money, improve your looks and make you a better lover. After all, that’s why so many of us do it. Right? Right? Well… Maybe not quite. It does make us look better, simply because HEMA black is sexy, and exercise is good for our bodies, but the motivation on why to learn fighting with a sword are many and varied. However, ours is still a young sport, or martial art, or whatever you want to call it – up to, and including The Art. As such, our methodolgies aren’t yet developed to fully fit us, and it’s not been that long since our community has at least mostly agreed on technique interpretations. Professional trainers and coaches are few and far between, and professional HEMA fighters rarer still. None of this is a bad thing – in fact, we have a ton of resources to turn to, from general sport sciences to things that are tangential, such as Olympic fencing, kendo and other sports/martial arts with a longer tradition. All of this allows us to take a more measured, theoretically supported approach to teaching and sequencing swordfighting skills. So, in case you want to learn or improve by yourself in this trying time of Coronavirus and lockdowns, here are a few pointers to keep in mind.

Don’t skip the basics!

Every training has a structure. Make sure you don’t skip the important bits! This is meant for group trainings, but is also useful for organizing solo trainings.

  1. Warm-up: you just gotta do it. It helps prevent injuries, as well as prepare us for the task at hand. Keep in mind, warm-up is meant to get the blood flowing and warm up your muscles, and isn’t supposed to be strength training by itself.
  2. New skill acquisition: if you are learning something new, it’s best done towards the beginning of the session, while the mental capacities are still full
  3. Old skill consolidation: best done after presenting the new skills, since athletes are already familiar with the skills and only need to brush up on them – and might find a nugget of wisdom in the new skills done just before that
  4. Sparring: this is optional, and depends on the level of the group, but it is warmly advised with everyone but complete beginners. Even if you have complete beginners, some sort of free movement games, such as slapping each other with soft gloves (with the head as a non-valid target, of course) will do a lot both for general movement as well as the fun of the session. If you’re doing a solo training, don’t worry, not all is lost: do some shadow sparring. Shadow sparring is simply imagining you have an opponent that is fighting you, and reacting appropriately.
  5. Strength training: every sport is based on physical characteristics. Some, you can have an impact on – others, not so much. Strength is one of those that you can affect, and that will bring improvement to the skill level, so do it regularly and encourage your students to do it by themselves as well! This does not need to be in every training, but at least once a week is recommended.
  6. Stretching: same philosophy as with strength training. It makes you more physically capable, and therefore better at physical sports. Go figure!

How to teach skills

Most of HEMA trainers have little to no formal education in sports sciences (myself included), which is a shame. However, we’re also motivated, and, thanks to the age of Internet Almighty, have access to high-quality information that allows us to base our teachings on scientifically backed hypotheses. Here are the very basics:

  1. Sequence of teaching (Preto, 2011):
    1. Strikes: by this I mean upper body. Students will move their lower body as well, but we can leave that alone for the moment, while we make sure the strike is technically sound.
    2. Parries: again, only the upper body is the important bit. Make sure the parries are solid and not too wide, then we can move on.
    3. Footwork: now comes the footwork associated with the strikes and/or parries. You can teach footwork with strikes or parries as well, but chunking them into separate categories is often more effective. Why teach footwork after strikes and parries? Footwork is distance management. To do distance management effectively, you must first understand the basic techniques and their distance, which is what you will be managing – the techniques being strikes and parries.
    4. Keep in mind, this sequencing is meant for beginners. They should be done together as soon as possible – that is, as soon as the trainee is able to perform them
  2. Blocked vs. random practice (Afsanepurak, 2012)
    1. Blocked practice: blocked practice simply means doing a number of repetitions of the same thing over and over again. It is very useful to start off with to get the basic motor patterns in. This means that when just starting teaching something new, block practice will be better to get a good grip on the subject. After the basics are attained, however, the more effective method of teaching motor skills is…
    2. Random practice: instead of doing the same thing over and over, putting an element of uncertainty in will help with better, longer-lasting skill acquisition. So, to give a concrete example from German longsword: instead of doing blocked practice of 10 of each of the basic strikes, the target will give random openings, and the trainee will attack those openings. For more complex exercises, make the target have a choice of what to do – a choice the trainee has to react to appropriately. For example, the follow-up strikes could be different if the target defends with a normal parry than if they do with a hanging parry.
  3.  Feedback (based on Anderson, 2001)
    1. Beginners: beginners and lower-level intermediates have a few tendencies to watch out for:
      1. No intrinsic feedback: this is especially true for people that took up HEMA as their first sport. Intrisic feedback simply means feedback for your own body – how your hands are positioned, how your feet are placed, is your back straight etc. Beginners need a good few sessions to start even understanding what the proper form should be like, and until they do that, they do not have the tools to correct themselves. This is why I personally advise against solo drills without external feedback for beginners – there is a chance that they will ingrain mistakes made due to their lack of valid intrinsic feedback
      2. Dunning-Krueger effect: “but what if I do this?” and “but he can’t defend if I just do this” are two things every coach has heard their students say. The enthusiasm is welcome, but the distractions it brings isn’t. Learn to shut this down by saying that’s not the focus of the exercise and to do what is being practiced. Likewise, some beginners will see the need to correct other beginners and sometimes even advanced students. Be on the lookout for this and warn them.
      3. Cooperation in exercises: humans love competition, and we love to help. Both of those are great, but not when we want to simulate a scenario in order to learn a new skill. Very often, when performing an exercise, the defending party will unknowingly sabotage the trainee’s attack by countering it, often in a way that leaves them horribly exposed. Make sure that when describing your exercise, you describe what you need the defender to do as well, and what you don’t want them to do. On the other side, we have students who are very nice, and will move their sword away at the slightest touch to help their partner perform the technique. This is also detrimental, and should be warned against.
      4. One thing at a time: beginners will have a lot of mistakes in their technique. Make sure you hold yourself back and focus on a single mistake at one time, starting with those that might result in long-term use injuries. If someone keeps collapsing their knee inward, that needs addressing before having his point lag behind his body in strikes.
      5. Give them time: do not correct them after every repetition. Give them time to work in their own pace. This doesn’t mean only correct them once, either, only give them time between corrections to process them.
      6. Positivity: this one is true for all levels. Give positive feedback as well, especially when improvement is made. Motivation is a huge part of skill acquisition, and positive motivation is more effective than negative.
    2. Intermediates:
      1. Intrinsic feedback in the making: they have their basic techniques down, which means that we can start to point out things to them in a way that will activate their intrinsic feedback. Instead of warning them that, for example, their form is leaving them exposed, we can ask them to examine themselves and tell us if they find anything to improve. They will still need guidance, of course.
      2. Two types of extrinsic feedback: when providing feedback, there are two things we can focus on: performance and results. Performance means form and technique, while results are typically points scored in a match. Avoid feedback on results when possible, and focus on performance instead.
      3. The start of tactical thinking: once the base skill have been acquired, it is time to start presenting tactics to your trainees. When should they use a certain technique and why? How do you bait a certain type of opponent? How do you create an opening?
      4. Solo drills: since they have the basic skill acquired, and some intrinsic feedback, this is the place where solo drills start making sense.
    3. Advanced:
      1. Details & intrinsic feedback: with advanced students, it’s fair to say that they will have mastered the strikes, and will only have specific issues that need to be addressed that will improve their effectiveness. However, there might also be persistent issues that need more attention.
      2. Tactics: knowledge of tactics becomes very important here. They should have gained some already, but now is the time to focus on it. After-sparring debates, video analyses and the like will be of great help.
  4. Speed of practice (Adkins, 2006))
    1. Do it fast: there is a contingent of HEMA practitioners that are adamant that slow practice is the way to go. Sadly, the science does not support this. When performing a skill, our neurons will form new connections. While they are forming, they’ll be all over the place, accounting for our mistakes. But, once the skill has been acquired, and is smooth, it doesn’t mean that the shortest connection was formed – simply the shortest adequate connection. Upping the speed will shorten this connection further.
    2. …but incrementally: however, don’t just go as fast as you possibly can, and don’t encourage your students to do that except for specific purposes. Encourage them to up their speed, but also give them time to get accustomed to the speed. Whenever upping the speed, form will of course suffer as new, shorter neural pathways are formed. Give the students time to get accustomed to it, and for a while, do not point out the drop of proper form.

Conclusion

There’s a good chance the article hasn’t told you anything new. That’s excellent! Hopefully, it has served as a reminder, and perhaps given you a nugget of an idea to chew on. If you know someone who is new to teaching HEMA, and find this article to be good, please feel free to share it to them.

SOURCES

Luis Preto, (2011). Fencing Martial Arts: How to sequence the teaching of technique and tactics

Seyed A. Afsanepurak, N. K. (2012). The Effect of Blocked, Random, and Systematically Increasing Practice on. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 2397-2402. Retrieved from http://pelagiaresearchlibrary.com/european-journal-of-experimental-biology/vol2-iss6/EJEB-2012-2-6-2397-2402.pdf

Deanna L. Adkins, J. B. (2006). Motor training induces experience specific patterns of plasticity across motor cortex and spinal cord. Journal of Applied Physiology 101, pp. 1776-1782. Retrieved from http://jap.physiology.org/content/101/6/1776.long

David I Anderson; Richard A Magill; Hiroshi Sekiya, (2001). Motor learning as a function of KR schedule and characteristics of task-intrinsic feedback. Journal of Motor Behavior mar 2001, p.59. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/361e/fdc7f1d4730bdcf668f28763a8a89b1b6fda.pdf

 

 

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