Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Golden rules and metaphors

How often have we heard them while training in the salle, whether in Turku or Helsinki? Those three word golden rules which encapsulate all that is good about italian swordsmanship a la Fiore.
  • Bend your knees!
  • Sink and relax!
  • See an elbow, hit an elbow! (ok, this is six)
  • step the drill

There are no doubt more. Simple directives which allow the message to sink in and let us learn it in a positive fashion. They are positive because they tell you what to do without including a "don't!". From experience, I've found that when you hear a command, the brain tends to focus on the verb. So, if the class leader says, "Don't lean forward!", the student's brain really only hears "lean forward!" and does the opposite of what is required. Interestingly, the student is then confused why the class leader is STILL yelling at them to do a particular thing, when as far as they are concerned, they've been following orders exactly since they were first told. As a class leader, I have also had this experience because I used a negative in the order as opposed to reinforcing my request with a positive instead. If I do not make myself clear, how can I expect anyone to follow my directives? Worse again, if I'm not clear and they continue to do the "wrong" thing, I get mad and just start yelling. To be honest, I have done this a couple of times. I'm not proud of it. Perhaps though, in learning how to teach, I have had to make such mistakes so I can improve my teaching technique (such as it is).

If I can be concise and clear (verbal cues), as well as giving the students a visual cue by demonstrating the technique once or twice, I can let them get on with it (physical cues). This has several advantages:

  • Less bla-bla from me.
  • More training time.
  • I can also get a chance to train.
  • Better value for money

Of course, this is an ideal situation and applies more to advanced students who already have a good base in how to train. Some modification is necessary for beginners.

I was leading the beginners last night in the 5 things to do against the dagger. We've covered most of the techniques at least once by now. They particularly liked the takedown from a sotto thrust, at least the ladies did, for some reason. For those who don't know it, it's the Ninth Master (7th play in the Getty MS). Anyhow, we were also working on the ligadura mezzana from a sotto thrust. The students were having a little difficulty with it because they were all stepping to the outside of the attacker's arm and then turning to face the attacker. In effect, they were shutting off the space through which they could do a chingiale move and hook up the attacker's bent arm, followed by a pivot on the front foot to the ligadura mezzana, as in done on the other side in the 3rd longsword drill.

So, the only metaphor I could think of was "threading a needle". Here, the defender first makes an accressere fora di strada, combined with his right hand going to the attacker's elbow and the left hand to the wrist. This makes the attacking arm bend and forms the "eye" of the needle at the inside of their elbow. Once formed, the defender's left hand threads through this hole with a chingiale, as described above. In effect, the defender could be said to apply two chingiale moves, first with the right hand then with the left. Initially, the students looked at me as if I was describing the technique in swahili, but when I repeated it a few times very slowly, so they could see the "eye" followed by the threading move, they started to understand and best of all could do it by the end of class. Obviously we'll have to practice it a lot more but it was very satisfying to watch them progress from getting themselves tied up and totally confused, to being able to perform the technique, so that at least their basic form was correct. As with anything, once you know how to do something, it's easy.

It's really great to have the correct language to describe what we do, which allows us to communicate more efficiently with each other. Whatever about the beginners, I'm quite sure that I haven't really internalised what it means to perform a chingiale, or any other technique for that matter. I understand intellectually what it is and how it's supposed to look, but I dont really have a similar "feel" for what this posta is. The Finns say that when they really know something, it "goes to the spine". This describes internalisation wonderfully. So, in the above case, I used a simpler metaphor or word-picture to help describe an action. Later and with practice, the beginners may also begin to recognise the abrazare guards in their actions and plays and will be encouraged to use the historically correct terminology. Until then, one more three word "rule" to add to the list:

  • Thread the needle!

Not as dramatic as the rising attack of a wild boar, but it seemed to work!


  1. I remember one golden rule more: keep the hands forward! :)

    I like your approach of "less blah-blah". That's mainly because I need lots of reps to get to grips with any technique. I find that if I'm having difficulty with a technique, the worst thing to do is to stop and talk about it. What works best is to shut up and just DO the technique 5-10 times; by the 5th or 6th rep, I've usually got the hang of it, a.k.a. learned it.

  2. Ok, so "push hands forward" will be added to my list. Although the approach is less talk, doing this in practice is not so easy. As an irishman, I do have the gift of the gab and I like very much to make a simple thing into an anecdote, which sometimes extends well beyond the need of telling, or the patience of the listener. See?! I did it again!
    Should have written: It's not easy, I talk too much. Period.

    Hmm. then again, blogs at least,would be bloody boring if we all took the "less is more" approach.

  3. If you want to stick to things exactly as frequently heard at the salle, then it's specifically "keep the hands forward". That's what we're told. Over and over. I wonder why we hear it so often. Could it possibly have something to do with the way we _keep not doing it_? :D