"'The Secrets of Sword Fighting!' (Now they can be yours!)" by Duke Arthur of Lockehaven, MSCA, OL, OP.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
"The Secrets of Sword Fighting!"
(Now they can be yours!)
Arthur of Lockehaven
Yes, now they are revealed for the first time - all the secret "tournament winning" techniques that have been collected from sword fighting experts throughout the ages! Learn the secrets gleaned from massive tomes, dusty files, and aged minds of old Counts, Dukes, (and an assorted Ninja master or two.) This knowledge has previously been available to only a select handful of students (all of whom had to take oaths to keep these secrets . . . well, you know, . . really, really, SECRET); now it can all be yours!
OK, you got me. There are no secret sword fighting techniques passed down by Ninjas warriors, or Dukes in the SCA. There is, however, some very important information that is so often overlooked that it might as well be secret. This secret information is also known as "the basics." We need to learn certain basic concepts in order to develop to our highest potential, in SCA combat. Sadly, sometimes the basics are not only overlooked, but they are also the last thing the new fighter wants to learn.
We have all seen it. A new fighter finds some loaner armor and gets authorized. The next thing they want to do is "learn some shots!" They will ask, "show me a snap", "show me a wrap", "show me your 'secret shots'." They want to learn them because they see people deliver them, and win. These techniques appear to work, and therefore the new fighter wants to learn them all - right away!
There is nothing wrong with learning "the shots," of course, but without a good grounding in the basics you will not be able to perform these shots effectively, especially against more experienced fighters. By concentrating on specific techniques, without first acquiring the basic skills, the new fighter will probably learn more about frustration than they will about sword fighting. Even worse they will develop bad habits that will have to be broken later, if they are to improve.
Why do experts make it look easy?
When you see someone perform a task that they have mastered they make it look easy. Their actions seem to flow without effort. But it only appears to be easy because they have practiced many hours to reach a level where many things happen automatically. The experienced fighter senses and reacts to a fight at an intuitive level. They react without consciously having to attend to each action. The newer fighter may have to "think too much," especially when facing more skilled opponent. If you have to stop and think, the more skilled opponent will likely use that split second to defeat you.
What sets the truly excellent fighter apart from the beginning, or even good fighter, is their ability to perform basic techniques very well. The experienced fighter may throw the same shot as the new fighter, but they always seem to throw it at just the right time. When you throw your "killer shot" at them, they manage to block it and deliver a quick counter that "smacks you up-side the head." The difference, for the most part, is not the "secret shot" they throw, but it is the experienced fighters speed, timing, and balance. In short, the top fighters have a solid grounding in the basics.
The basics are nothing peculiar to SCA sword fighting. Any sport which involves moving the body in time and space, will have many similar basics. You can often acquire an understanding of the basics from other activity and quickly apply that experience to SCA sword fighting. One reason why some people seem to "be a natural" at sword fighting is that they have learned these basics playing other sports, or martial arts. If you have not picked up these basics in another activity, then you can learn them directly from sword fighting- and the sooner the better.
Pre-Basics: Get a teacher
One important aspect of learning to sword fight, before you even get to balance and timing, is finding a good teacher. The most subtle aspects of a game are often its most important. They often make the difference between wining and losing, especially at the highest levels of competition. The difference between timing that is almost right, and timing which is near perfect can be elusive. The good teacher can help you deal with these subtleties. The best teacher is not always the best fighter; the best teacher is the one that is able to pass on needed information and training, in a manner that makes sense to the student. Find a teacher that you can learn from.
Pre-Basics: Be there:
Judo founder, Dr. Jigoro Kano was once asked what the "secret" to Judo was. His reply was simply, "never miss practice." Being there is the most important requirement for improvement. If you want to improve you have to show up, at the fighter practice, with your gear and fight! You also have to fight people who can challenge you, if you are to improve. (If they can beat you, and they can teach you, that's even better.) If you avoid fighting the better fighters you will not advance.
Not only do you have to "be there" you have to be there when you are there. When you are at fighter practice you have to concentrate on fighting. It's fun to talk to people, it's fun to tell stories, and to listen to them, but this is not sword fighting. You can't sword fight very well, while your mind is elsewhere. You have to be there, in the fight, mentally as well as physically.
These are what I call the "pre-basics." Now we can move on to the basics. I'm sure others may wish to add to or in other ways alter what I have present here and that is fine. There is no single right way to learn to sword fight, but there are some basic factors that must be addressed, in some manner, with any approach.
6. the mental game (the most important aspect of all)
Boy, that's pretty silly. What's there to learn about breathing? We do it all the time.
Yea, we breathe all the time (or else we die) but sometimes we stop breathing, or stop breathing correctly, in the middle of a sword fight! Usually this is due to poor concentration (the mental game), and a lack of training. Clearly the worst time to stop breathing, or to breathe short, tight hesitant breaths, is when you're wearing 60 pounds of armor, and a big guy trying to smack you with a stick! It's moments like this that you need all the oxygen you can get. Unfortunately, the stress of fighting can cause us to actually breathe less. Breathing less, or shallowly from the upper chest, tends to produce rigid movements, slow thinking, and poor reactions.
How do you breath correctly?
You could take some Yoga classes, or practice some of the martial arts that deal with this issue in depth. Some of these disciplines do a very good job of teaching us how to breathe, while under stress. In short, you want to make the act of breathing correctly so engrained that you don't have to think about it. You don't want to have to consciously attend to your breathing, but you want to be aware enough of your own body, that you will become aware when you start to tighten-up. With training you will be able to change to deep breathing, without having to consciously attend to it.
Well, "big whoop" you might say, everyone knows when to breath more heavily, it's when you get "short of breath, right?"
No, actually by then it's probably too late. If you do not switch to deep breathing before you get oxygen deprived, you may not be able to bring your oxygen level up enough, fast enough, to continue fighting effectively. [ Remember this "secret formula": a "good fighter" minus enough oxygen = a "bad fighter!" ] Once you become consciously aware of losing focus, you can begin to breath deeply from your stomach, and not tightly from the chest. That may be enough to keep you going, but it is better to not lose focus in the first place.
Becoming more tense physically is a natural response to stress, but it also takes a lot of energy that can be much better put to use fighting. When you breath correctly, you will feel your body loosen up. When your body loosens up you become more efficient. You can strike, and react to your opponents attacks more effectively, and your mind will be more clear.
Practice slow, deep, breathing, especially while under stress. It helps before a confrontation with the boss at work, speaking before a group of people, or anytime you need to calm your mind and body. What you are used to doing is what you will most likely do when your fighting. If you are used to slow breathing, when your body tenses up, you will probably do so when fighting as well.
Certainly another major factor in breathing is conditioning. The more you build up your over all stamina by aerobic exercise (running, biking, walking, swimming) the better your body will be at keeping useful oxygen levels. But it is important to realize that these activities are a means to an end, and not the end in its self. Running, biking, walking, swimming, will help you maintain your energy levels for sword fighting, but they may do very little to improve your sword fighting by themselves.
Another aspect of breathing, and fighting, involves "timing" of your breathing and the best time to attack your opponent. In general, you will get more power when you throw a shot on the exhale. Just as in martial arts, your exhale exerts power and focus. You can exaggerate this into the "Kiai," or loud shout at the moment of exhale. This helps you focus and may startle your opponent, (if they are not used to that sort of thing).
Yeah, balance, OK, I know, I know, that's real simple too, just don't fall over!
Balance may be more complicated than just that (though not falling over is a good start!) Most of us were born with two feet, which, when fighting, are most often in contact the ground. This means that we have two points on which to balance and to keep us from falling over.
With only two points contacting the ground, we are always in danger of falling over. Watch a baby learn to walk. Think of just how tricky this whole process is. Walking is a form of controlled falling. We have to push our limits of balance to the "almost falling" level and then catch ourselves, with our other foot, to ambulate.
If you are off balance you will more easily slip, trip, or fall. Tripping, slipping and falling are seldom wining techniques; so being balanced is generally preferable. But, there are times when you may choose to move off balance, to make a shot. The important thing to consider is whether or not you intended to move off balance or not. You make this decision based upon experience, intuition and your perception of the likely hood of being able to make the shot. There is an element of judgment in the choice to go off balance, but you only do it for a reason.
So, keep your feet shoulder width apart, and never cross your feet, or bring them both together, as you move around. It is usually better to slide your feet an inch or so above the ground, than it is to pick up your feet and plant them back down. If you get a shield rush, or are caught off guard just as you are picking up a foot, you will probably suffer for it. The closer your foot is to the ground the less likely you are to be off balance for your opponents attack, and hopefully for your counter attack.
Good timing is the most critical factor in your attack. No matter how fast, or hard the shot, if it is not timed so that it hits your opponent, it will have no effect. We have all thrown "great shots," that we saw harmlessly smack the other guys shield. Timing is usually what makes the good shot "good."
Timing is also one of the least conscious factors in sword fighting. Some people are born with faster reaction times, but to a great extent, the more you sword fight, the better your timing will become. The more you practice the better your brain is going to be at to programming your muscles to move in the manner you need for success.
Timing also includes your ability to read (guess - based on probabilities calculated from our experience) what the other fighter intends to do, and then to defend (or better yet attack them) before they can do it. Sometimes you can "see," or sense an attack, or a particular type of attack, by the way the fighter shifts their weight, or drops their shoulder. Such signals do not have to be obvious (though sometimes they are very obvious). Sometimes your opponents "telegraphing" of blows is obvious to everyone except them. (You might help them by pointing it out.) You want to avoid as much of this as possible. In sword fighting, as in the game of poker, you don't "show your hand" until you have to. Hopefully by the time you have to show it, it will be too late for your opponent to do anything about it.
A word of warning, the better your opponent is the more likely they will use these subtle telegraphing messages to his advantage. They might just throw a shot slow enough that you see it, and start to counter it, when the initial attack turns into something else and wham, you get it.
With experience you can develop an intuitive sense of movement and expectations. If you time your attack in such a way as to take advantage of this process, you will create opportunities. It is this perception of what's about to happen, that allows your timing to improve. Just as your opponent beings to think about a shot, you have already blocked it in your mind, and moved to a counter shot. If done well your opponent sees the block but doesn't see the counter, until it rings his helmet.
For proper timing to occur you have to be mentally "in the fight" so you can be flexible and open for anything that might occur. By carefully observing your opponent you'll be better able to time your shot. You can often tell a lot about the other fighter by looking into their eyes, but you can't focus on them, as you will lose sight of the rest of the fight. You should work on taking in the whole fight without looking at any single part of it. Speed is very important (and you just can't get "too fast" when it comes to attack) but even great speed is not effective if you don't do it at the right time.
Conditioning is essential. Aerobic and strengthening exercises are important to the sword fighter, but conditioning is not simply strength. Conditioning includes stamina, flexibility and endurance. The sword fighter needs all of these. Anyone looking at the fighting field will see that the best fighters out there are not always biggest or strongest. In fact sometimes a person who in excellent physical shape, has trouble learning the game, because they are lacking other factors (perhaps a certain mental attitude for example).
Being generally fit is important but it's not always the guy who is the most physically fit, who wins the tournament. Some fighters might be fit enough to be able to run a 10K race, but not make it past the second round in the Crown Lists. Others can be out of shape physically, and even be carrying some handicaps, and yet they manage to acquit themselves well each time. The difference is practice and experience. Remember that cross-training activities are great, but they can't provide exactly the same benefits as you achieve by doing more sword fighting.
There are a wide variety of styles of armor available in the SCA. Not every type of armor is best for every fighter. You have to find armor that protects you, and works with your body type. The fact that someone else really likes a particular style does not mean that it is best for you.
In finding the right SCA harness you have many considerations: 1) safety, 2) mobility, 3) price, 4) authenticity, 5) and style. Safety is the most important aspect and it's important to remember that for the armor to protect you it must also fit you correctly. [Check the most current version of the Marshal's Handbook, and your local Knight Marshal, if you have questions regarding fit and safety.]
Secondly, contrary to the "Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz" image, the right armor, a set that fits you, should not be confining. You should have a helmet that you can see, and breathe out of, and legs that won't bind up, or jam your ankles or your hips. You have to be able to move your arms, legs and head in your armor and be able to bend at the waist and get up and down.
Style, authenticity and price is an individual choice when it comes to armor. Once safety and mobility issues are resolved you can decide on appearance. A better appearance might not actually make you a better fighter but it can make you feel more confident, and therefore, potentially a better fighter.
The mental game:
Shakespeare tells us, [Henry V], that "all things be ready if our minds be so." This is very true regarding sword fighting. Have you ever seen someone lose a fight before they even start? I sure have. Why did they enter the Eric already half-way defeated? Perhaps they saw the helmet or coat of arms of a famous fighter and told themselves they couldn't defeat them; perhaps they mentally placed themselves in a category that they are afraid to move up from? Who knows, but they have defeated themselves before even starting.
The mental game is the most difficult to teach. It is intensely personal and exists inside our heads, but without it nothing else works. No secret Ninja wraps, no running ten miles everyday, no amount of conditioning, and no amount of practice will work if you enter the field mentally defeated.
So what attitude should one have when entering the field? I suggest "no attitude at all." Don't think. Don't think about the guy, who he is or what you think is going to happen - because you don't know. Be confident but not over confident to the point of letting your guard down. Be open, flexible and ready to act or react to what ever happens. Don't form preconceived notions about the event; who is going to win and who is not. No one knows what will happen, just observe and react. Expectations and assumptions, about what is supposed to happen in a fight, will get you killed, especially against the more skilled opponent.
Fighting ability is made up of many things, some we can control and some we can't. Some people have a better sense of balance than others, or faster reaction times, just as some others have better eyesight or hearing. But these differences mean little in the long run compared to willingness to put forth the effort necessary to improve. Those who observe carefully, and are willing to put forth the effort, will improve beyond the gifted athlete who is lazy and believes they have nothing to learn. In short, it's not what you were born with but what you do that makes the difference.
Bibliography and Acknowledgements:
There isn't a blessed thing in this paper for which I could claim any originality. These basics were recognized thousands of years ago, in many different cultures, and in many different styles, from around the world. I am continually re-learning them from every fighter I meet on the field.
Copyright 2004 by Mike Cady. e-mail: <mhcady at cox.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.