Saturday, 12 December 2015

Training update....

Training is proceeding well. I train at home with calisthenics and weights, as well as Indian clubs and club-bells. I also practice hand-eye coordination by catching a ball bounced off the wall using only my peripheral vision. I hope to be able to blade grab without actually having to look at the blade. Let's see how that pans out. Either way, it's a nice way to get my breath back after doing three minutes of kettlebell.

I have two kettlebells, weighing 8kg and a 16kg. The 8kg one is fun to use but the 16 is a bruiser and I have already pulled/stretched small muscles in my back and sides by not being careful when using it. I certainly do not have to worry if there is enough resistance! I have 1kg wooden Indian clubs, which are great for warm-up and cool-down, they really open up the shoulders and upper back nicely with casts and mills. They are also very good for learning club techniques before grading on to heavier clubs. I have 3kg steel clubs also. which give a really good workout with squats as casts but they become hard to grip for the mills and are not very for giving on the wrists either. Most useful for practicing sword skills indoors is the Swingblade but combined with the steel clubs, my elbow joints have started to complain a bit, needing self-massage and Tiger balm applications. Lastly, after a blogpost by Guy Windsor, I began to do very short (5 minutes) session of sitting meditation. These are fun and more about me being more organised in my daily life than anything to do with fencing per se. I do not have a very organised mind and often try to do about 4 things at once or if doing something, I will break off suddenly and shift my focus to something else for a few minutes. For example, I arrive home from the shops and start unloading the food into the fridge only to (as my mum would say "take a vagary") start messing with a gopro camera. I come back to the kitchen five minutes later and the food is still half unpacked and the fridge door still open! 

I used to run a lot back in the day, when I was 10kgs (!) lighter. I tried to start up again a few times since but never got past the point where I could barely breathe and had that awful copper/blood taste in my mouth. What I have noticed over many years is that I really enjoy walking and hill-walking especially. As I live in Finland, it just seemed natural to get sticks and start doing Nordic walking too. At the start of 2014, I spent 2 fantastic weeks hill-walking in Tenerife and a good pair of sticks were invaluable over rough terrain, particularly while carrying some gear in a backpack. I admit it looks dumb but I don't care. It allows working the arms and shoulders while walking and is a great aerobic exercise, especially as now I am doing interval walking (5 minutes) followed by a period of jogging. Over time, the jogging period has increased and has even become enjoyable!

Classes have been very enjoyable too this autumn/winter season. Last night we trained using thrusts against thrusts (scambiare di punta) or blows to make single time counterattacks from different guards. Compared to how we usually trained it as a due tempi action, this was horribly quick and aggressive! Two key points to remember, regardless of from which guard the thrust comes;
1. Throw your point into their face, using their eyes as your targets.
2. Close the line with your hands to the side and extended so that their mezza spada is on your forte. 
This technique further confirms to me the idea that Fiore's style can also be super aggressive and to my mind, is indicative of a stesso tempo action (an immediate action or one happening at the same time as another) or an action happening in indes. It works beautifully as long as you trust it and your ability to close the line but if you hesitate, there is the possibility that you will miss with your point or that your opponent might have time for a counter. It was great fun to look at the giocco largo plays with others in the group and discuss the pros and cons of say, disengaging from the crossing and cutting at the leg. Not a super clever idea unless your opponent is backing off and you pursue. Also, I always just assumed that all of the the giocco largo plays come from the second crossing of the second master. After it was pointed out to me and I looked at the text and pictures, I had a "aha" moment, they are not.  There may be a crossing, but not necessarily at mezza spada, or as in the case of exchanging thrusts, the crossing can occur almost simultaneously with the counterattack.  How did I miss that?? This shows me that we really need to reinstate the weekly kebab/beer evening meet-up with a treatise, pen and notebook in hand to discuss what we train and just as importantly, why. It's not all about tournaments and fighting, it can also be academic. Either way, more fun than you can shake a stick at. :-) 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Sickness, meditation and outbursts

I have been sick for the past two weeks. It might well be that this is the annual winter flu bug that is doing the rounds and that nowadays, no-one seems to be sick just for a day or two and then recovers. It takes a week. The bloody thing lingers! Then again, it may have been work stress coming out. Now that I have holidays until the end of the year, I have time to be sick and my body somehow senses this, then WHAMMO! I get a really bad dose. First, sore throat, lost voice, general malaise, followed by lots of snot and phlegm (love that word!) and it all goes down onto my lungs and I am racked with coughing for several days. Lovely!

I have seen this delayed reaction to stress manifest itself before when doing my Ph.D. Student colleagues of mine would work insane hours over the final months of writing their theses, often sleeping at their office and eating poorly. Yet, they didn't get sick until the work was done and the pressure was off and then they got a really bad dose of flu which knocked them out for 2-3 weeks. I sort of dodged that bullet in my case because two days after handing in my thesis, I was sitting in the warm September sunshine in southern Finland, watching grasshoppers on the lawn and clouds scudding across the indoan summer sky. And I didn't get sick.

Now that I really know how depression and work stress can negatively affect someone (burnout), as well as environmental stress, i.e. Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD-kaamos/winter blues), I am convinced that stress, like money, can build up a debt. And boy does it need to be paid back, often with interest! Finnish winters can be fantastic IF there is a suitable amount of snow, the weather is below at least minus 5 degrees (dry cold) and most importantly, that there are enough sunny days to maximise the light available. Sadly (pun intended), the last few winters in southern Finland have not seen much snow, the days are short and grey, and the temperatures are around zero most of the time. This is when kaamos or winter blues strike. For some it is the darkening time up to the winter solstice, for others, like me, it is that long painfully drawn out drag through February-March that depresses me. Even with the extra light, there is still no life, everything is brown and dead. While it can be equally grey (and wet!) in Ireland in this period, it is at least green throughout. The first flowers start appearing alreading in February. In Finland nothing happens until May, then within a week, nature goes POP! and suddenly everything is green again. I love it when this happens, I just wish it would happen sooner!

As part of my climb-out from burnout, I need to be able to feel feelings rather than shutting down and trying to suppress or ignore them. This has been difficult because I think I have nice-boy (kilttipoika) syndrome.  I don't like to say or do anything to cause conflict, so I swallow my feelings and feel it afterwards as anger and frustration and shame. There are no good feeings or bad. They are just labels to describe what we feel. And yet those labels are what help us to realise what we feel. Following an interesting blog by Guy Windsor on using meditation to mindfully observe feelings and so better deal with them, I have decided to start meditation again. This decision is timely. I had a temper outburst today, something I don't normally do. I felt the anger bubbling up and just let it come out. It was something I decided to do and it felt good. Afterwards, when I cooled off (after solo training with a sword for a half hour, try it, it helps a LOT!), I felt some shame that I had let myself go. I think it is ok to get angry when boundaries are crossed but it is not so good to pop your top for no good reason and you can be angry without being aggressive. I don't think I handled myself so well, I was aggressive and rather than using my brain to state my case properly and respectfully, I was almost willing to use my fists instead, hence the shame. Anyway, long story short, I apologised, shook hands and drew a line under it. Done. The sooner I start meditating, the better!

New Perspectives

I have been messing around with a quadcopter this last week, trying to get aerial footage that I can turn into spherical panoramas. I have read a lot about it on the net; techniques, fields of view, panorama software, etc. December weather being what it is, I have only managed two separate flights on the hill behind my house. It was sunny on both occasions and the low hanging sun caused exposure problems due to effectively being 'under' the propellers. I have tried three different software programmes to produce the panoramas, with greater or lesser success but it has been fun, if a rather steep learning curve. Above is a 'little earth' projection. Rather pretty!

What I am actually trying to get is this:

Ok, it's not perfect. I am still working out how to get the best angles so that the fields of view overlap and I don't have any holes. It is supposed to be completely spherical, which means if you scroll upwards you should see sky all round. Here, we have more of a cup or a sphere with the top cut off. Getting the sky in is easy to do with a terrestrial panorama, just point straight up to your zenith and shoot. With a quadcopter though, all you will see are the undersides of the arms and the propellers. Some panorama folks like to photoshop in stock images, I don't really see the point. As long as I have some sky and a horizon, it is what is on the ground that holds my interest.

Meanwhile I will play some more with the software and see what I can produce.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Focus, Focus......FOCUS!!!

After much though I have decided to take part in the Helsinki Open tournament (longsword) in January 2016. I have taken part in one competition, Swordfish 2008 (!). God, tempus fugit! Here's how I did (cringe)..

In short, shite! Still, it was a super experience and quite an eye-opener in terms of how to move, how to think tactically, levels of aggression etc. Basically nervousness took over and I just stood there like a lemon and let my opponent bring the fight to me, only reacting after he had attacked. Why? Because we had been taught that we should wait for a committed attack before parrying. Nothing wrong with that in a medieval duel context, not so useful in a modern tournament one. Hmm, back to training!

Fast forward a few years to a sparring camp in Jyvaskyla in 2014 (footage from 11:00 onwards).

Different scenario, much more relaxed and with friendly sparring with fellow THMS member Ikaros A.  I moved a lot better and there is a sort of flow to the exchanges. There was still the tendency to stand too still for too long and to come to too close measure, look at each other and then see what the other would do. We didn't snipe the hands although we could have done so easily. Instead there are some feints in largo and pommel strikes by entering into stretto, including a bit of grappling. Still lots of room for improvement but it looks more like I want to look like when fencing Fiore. And the bout was FUN! I highly recommend attending the sparring camp in Jyvaskyla: good people, nice salle and a really good and useful  way to test your fencing in a not-overly competitive environment. I also attended the camp in 2015 and it was also lots of fun. Such camps offer a brilliant opportunity for fencers of all levels to test their skill sets against other of varying levels. Do not worry if you think you don't know much and are nervous about sparring with someone of a higher skill level/experience. They will happily reduce the speed/intensity to suit you and very often you will get an informal coaching session! And they are also really nice folks!

In January 2015 a few of us got together and rented out the badminton court at a local gym to specifically practice sparring in full gear. It was funny walking through a gym holding swords and sparring gear and we got some funny looks from those people pumping weights! However, the staff at Sali 82 were very friendly and seemed quite happy that their badminton court was being used for something new. We would quickly warm up, gear up and set to. Two of our group were planning on taking part in tournaments and so were quite motivated, while others (including myself) were along for the experience. It was a bit tough adding an extra training evening to but overall a worthwhile exercise and well worth the effort. There was also the added bonus of kettlebells for use in the space we were in. Result!

It's now November and approximately 2 months until the Helsinki Open. I go to regular trainings and have started to do stretches, clubbells and kettlebell workouts most days. I also got a swingblade so I can do all the cutting practice I want without putting holes in the walls or breaking the lampshade. How am I feeling mentally? Good. Focused, but scared, very scared. I am afraid I will look a fool, that it will not even look like Fiore but some mad flailing. Do I expect to win bouts? Honestly, no. I do not expect to do "well" if that means winning points. I hope to hold my own and if I do that I will have done well. So,  you might ask, "why bother?"  It's a fair question. There are 2 reasons. First, it gives me the focus and drive I need to train as well as go to regular training. I enjoy the training too. I want to make it a good habit that will help to anyway keep me stronger, healthier and happier, not just benefit my fencing. The second reason is simply "because it scares me". I have been critical of tournaments before and following my tournament debut at Swordfish in 2008 this has been a background but ever present reason for being critical and not participating more. I need to put myself out of my comfort zone. The funny thing is that it's all in my head! I am pretty sure that I could go to the upcoming tournament and do really badly and actually no-one else will bat an eyelid! They have their own things going on that day and will not think less of me if I am not successful. It really is the taking part that counts. It will be interesting to see how my focus will be affected by the Christmas break!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

It's better to burn out than fade away! No, it bloody well isn't!
I started to wonder about this blog a while back as it feels like I am just sending it out into the void and apart from one soul replying (Thanks Risto!), I may as well have just been talking to myself. So, what is the point???
Since the last post, my shoulder is back to normal but I buggered up my back at work and I was off work for a spell due to burnout. Thankfully, both are now things of the past and I am healthier, fitter and happier. There have been some bumps along the way (my work contract will not be renewed in January, so I am back on the dole fuuu...!) but such is life!
Burnout is a funny thing. As in funny peculiar, not funny haha. You slide into it gradually and when there only then do you realize it and then comes the "oh, SHIT!" reaction. Weirdly enough though, burnout in general doesn't seem to be taken seriously as a disease/sickness. I know I didn't prior to succumbing to it myself. I now realize that even though there may be similar patterns to burnout, each case is individual, thus making it difficult to both diagnose and recognize.
I won't go into the details about the bad time but the realization came that I had to do something when I was using a carpet knife to open a cardboard box and started thinking about using the knife to self-harm. In my job we have to solve problems all the time and what scared me most was not the act but how I coolly and analytically considered the problems of numbing the pain and the mess the blood would cause. Problem solved. I did not follow through with these thoughts but kept the knife in view for a while to remind myself that this was NOT the way I would deal with the issue. I HAD to find another way. Now I write this on the other end of the experience I can say that I have come through it, learned a lot about myself and I am very glad I am still here.
The main thing is that I am a nice person, sometimes too nice. I want to help and please others. Not a bad thing per se, but when I push myself to work harder and longer just so others think I am a good guy then we have a problem. This in large part is the reason for my eventual burnout. It's like the line from the song, "And we don't stop, 'cos we can't stop". Then there is the work itself. Long hours and long days with little or no positive feedback for the work done, combined with deadlines which can shift forwards or pop up out of nowhere and to be told that this is the new priority, get it done! While the work was sometimes really tough and made me feel bad, in actual fact it had more to do with my personality than the work itself. To top it all off, I have SAD (seasonal affected disorder) which means that the dark Finnish winters give me the winter blues. This was one more nail in the coffin.
How did I come out of it? The climb-out? Therapy sessions, rest/exercise and drugs. The first two helped me no end, I think to be able to talk about the fact that I had a problem and that someone was there to listen to me was great. My wife and friends had heard me moaning already for the previous 2 years and were probably sick of hearing it, I was sick of me moaning too! To have someone neutral and who could ask the right questions was great. They could say "yes, your situation is crap, no wonder you feel like this" and I knew I wasn't being unreasonable or going mad. The drugs were less helpful. I got some tablets which were supposed to level off extreme feelings making it easier to cope. Well, after 3 days of wandering around the flat like a zombie with huge dilated and fixed pupils, I decided that wasn't my route to recovery. It also gave some weirdly positive perspective: I was not so bad that I wasn't able to feel the feelings! It felt better to feel bad than feel nothing. This was the start of the climb-out for me. Having time to rest and sleep or walk or look at the sky for half an hour was also very beneficial. I started to see time differently; not how much I have to do and how little time I have to do it, instead, time to enjoy a cup of tea, read a book, look for a geocache, walk around town and look at people. To be IN each moment (livelines), not thinking ahead to a random future moment when stuff must be done (deadlines).
Burnout affecting fencing...
I have put a lot of time, money, sweat and effort (and bruises!) into fencing since beginning in 2004. I guess I have made some progress in that time but when I tested my skills in free sparring sessions, I could see that I wasn't very good. Why not? What have I been doing wrong all this time? What was the solution?
The syllabus we follow is interesting and extensive covering most of Fiore's material. I have done drills in their various iterations since the start and I can do most of them fairly well but when pressure is added to the mix it all goes out the window. It's a familiar question for most martial artists: "Is it better to know all of the techniques or only know 3 but be able to effectively use those 3?". The simple answer is "it depends on the person". What is the goal of training? To interpret and train in that particular style? To fight in tournaments? To get fit? To learn self-defense? All of the above and probably more. There is no "one true way". One's own goals may well change over time too. I was quite content for a while to do cutting practice and sword handling all night, I still am mostly, but now I want to know how it feels to chain attacks against a training partner at varying levels of cooperation. I see the syllabus as the numbered dots which you need to join to see the picture of what Fiore's (or any other) system is.
Much like work, there is an amount of effort expended followed by an expected result. I have felt like I am busting my ass and getting nowhere leading to feelings of disillusionment, frustration, indifference and disappointment.  I am not a very confident person and quite self-critical and these have also been impediments in my development. One mantra I have learned since my climb-out is "Be more kind to yourself". If I don't do well in fencing or indeed anything, if I have made a good effort then that is good enough. It has to be. Burnout tends to make you negative all the time about yourself, about everything. With my burnout I could point at my work situation and say it is the work that is the problem and surprise, surprise, I did exactly the same thing with training. It was lazy thinking to just complain about the training and not do anything else, yet somehow expect myself to magically improve. Embarrassing to admit, but true.
In the last few months, I finally feel like I have been joining the dots. At the beginning of 2015 with a few others we stopped complaining and organized our own sparring group once or twice a week (in addition to regular training) to go through sparring and more intense training than we normally do, thanks to all of us having full sparring gear. This sparring and dynamic training left me coming away happy from training, not feeling like I was just going through the motions and learning nothing new. Then burnout struck. I dropped fencing and almost everything for the whole summer and didn't even touch a sword. I needed that break to concentrate on my own health. Thanks to my burnout though, I have also come to look at regular training differently. Each session, regardless of content, can teach something new. If your headspace is correct then you are much more open to see things you didn't notice before. It also make you (I feel) a lot better training partner.
  • Everyone has worth: this is not measured by how many hours you work
  • If 8 hours of work are not enough to get finished, tomorrow is another day, the world will not end
  • Be kinder to yourself and others (you have no idea what they're going through)
  • Know when to say "Enough!": If you have put in good effort, this HAS to be good enough
  • Let stuff go. I call it my "Ah, fuck it!" philosophy. Life is too short and there's always more fun stuff to do
  • If you have suicidal thoughts or think of self-harm, talk to someone and get help
  • Live in the moment and ENJOY stuff!
  • Get your ass to training!