By guest writer, Cody Skillen.
When discussing the art of swordsmanship there is a question that inevitably arises. “Why bother with that? It’s obsolete.” In many senses this is true. The same can be said for music, dance or art as well. At first glance they don’t serve a strictly utilitarian purpose, and yet we find them throughout all of human history. While it is unlikely you will be using a sword in a real world altercation, people are still drawn to swords because, quite simply, they are cool. There’s something intriguing about them that draws us in and challenges us to learn how they were developed, how they were used, and how those who used them thought. When seriously researched an elegant and deadly system based on a detailed understanding of combat and humans emerges and we begin to recognize that our ancestors weren’t the bumbling idiots it’s become so popular to portray them. For myself this was a way to connect with my cultural heritage while pursuing my interests.
So when confronted with this question of why bother, I usually simply ask “Why not?”
When it comes to learning swordplay and other weapons based combat systems, there are a number of unique aspects to consider. The most important one is the level of lethality involved. While you can cause grievous injury with your bare hands, it usually requires a targeted strike or some other specific action. With swords, a seven year old child can kill a grown man. While this statement may seem trivial, weapons are major force equalizers, meaning that anyone who has one should be considered capable of lethal actions and respected. This is a mentality that is very similar to firearms. Even an untrained person with a weapon can very easily maim or kill a very skilled weapon operator. In training, to avoid the problem of injury we employ training tools, such as wooden swords, commonly called wasters, these too still present the same problem. A thrust to the face or throat with a wooden sword can still have disastrous effects on your physical well-being. To deal with this training obstacle certain aspects of the CLM had to be adjusted to create a safer way to train.
When using a sword there are two main goals that inform every action taken. The first is simple: don’t die. This seems obvious and yet when it comes to several more sportive minded approaches, this simple idea is ignored in favor of ‘score more points’ or ‘win the game’. Since my school focuses specifically on the combat aspect these arts, I take great pains to reinforce the idea of survival at every step of the training.
First, as the CLM discusses, we must break down our goal and strategy in terms of the weapon we are using the outcomes that weapon allows us to have. Then, we look to the physical actions we take in order to achieve our goal. The sword has it’s own challenges in combative fighting, so the methods and tactics we use to achieve the goal are different mechanically than general martial art – but the road map to victory is very similar.
The length and edge of the sword can seduce a student into attempting a strike their opponent, relying on speed and ferocity rather than the use of good art. This can lead very quickly to counter moves by the opponent and develop into a dangerous situation. This must be considered and addressed within the structure of the practice itself…to create a thinking student who focuses on their goals and not the methods, and therefore is strategic in how they fight. The second goal is to eliminate the threat. You must achieve this while also following the first goal as well. We are not discussing the fist or feet…a counter attack with a sword can be devastating. The combined result is learning how to stop yourself from being hurt or killed, and learning to recognize the appropriate tactics and methods to attack your opponent without creating a major opening for them to exploit. If the first goal is ignored while pursuing the second both participants are likely to die, which is far less desirable than if neither is harmed. It’s important to remember that if you live without killing the other, you still survive, and survival is always the ultimate goal.
Fortunately we have a variety of ways to attack safely from the medieval masters. Using the CLM Directed Perceptual Testing method gives us a structure to test and understand the teachings in the manuals through practical application. This is extremely helpful when reviving an art since it grounds the descriptions and techniques in experience and helps to overcome the prejudices of the modern mind such as winding up to ‘hit harder’. In reality this creates an opening that even a moderately skilled opponent will exploit, and often actually decreases the effectiveness of a strike over proper form.
The next question I often get as a teacher is usually “What got you into that specific style?” This brings up the question of what truly defines a style. When viewed through the lens of the Pramek mindset, this becomes a lot easier to answer. Style is defined by the objective of a system. These objectives, or strategies are reflected in the weapon and the movements, and a cohesive system will consistently reflect that strategy. Over the year’s I’ve had the opportunity to experience and observe several styles of swordsmanship, and for a long time none of them really embodied the mentality I was looking for. Then I came across an introductory article on German longsword and immediately recognized a system that was in line with what I wanted to practice. In several other sword styles there is a strong emphasis on avoiding blade contact, and winning with a clean first strike. This always seemed to be a bit optimistic to me. I often asked, ‘What if your opponent knew what you were doing and stopped that initial cut? Then what?’ By contrast, the German masters focus on fighting from the bind, blade on blade contact, and had several ways to interrupt or deflect an incoming attack as you were attacking. They also deal extensively with seizing the initiative and controlling what options your opponent has available to them at any given point.
There is a famous quote about the essence of this style of fighting, where the heart of the system is summed up in five words. Roughly translated they are before, after, string, weak, and simultaneously. Here is what this quote means: Before and after refer to whether you have the initiative and if you are dictating the flow of the fight. I want to emphasize that this this is more about initiative than who moves first. There is a distinction here because when you are in the ‘after’ your main goal is to perform an action that simultaneously seizes the before and allows you to continue attacking your opponent safely. Usually moving from the after to the before is done through the type of counter described previously: attacking as you neutralize their actions. Strong and weak refer to the amount of force used while in the bind, or the part of the fight where you have blade contact, usually in combination with the positioning of your blade on theirs. The positioning allows you to use leverage to eliminate the need for pure physical strength, while the amount of pressure allows you to determine the appropriate course of action through the process of feeling. Simultaneously relates mostly to the timing of an action, and when you should begin a counter. There is a significant amount of variation in this aspect between different strikes your opponent may use, as well as the rhythms of individuals. The structure of the CLM especially helps students build up experience with good feedback to learn this aspect as quickly and easily as possible.
When applying the CLM I had one major goal: Don’t create mimics. Mimics are best described as people who follow a set of actions dogmatically without understanding any of the reasoning behind them. They are often very skilled at reproducing a technique under minimal stress, but once pressure is applied they tend to be so entrenched in execution that they fail to recognize what is happening and as a result make poor decisions. This is where the differentiation phase of the EPL comes into play. As a result everything in my school’s curriculum is focused on ensuring a practical understanding of the principles behind the techniques as well as appropriate context.
I start new students off by going over the principles in what we jokingly call ‘the lecture’. The first class I ask them to come earlier so I don’t interrupt the regular flow of a class with this cursory explanation of the underpinnings of the system. I explain the anatomy of a sword, the concepts of leverage, fighting from the bind, and moving in what we call ‘true time’, or moving your weapon first to control the space in front of you before you step onto what could otherwise be your opponents point. As I talk I also give little demonstrations that allow the student to feel what I’m describing and give them some experience that helps translate the concepts into real world actions. In the language of swordsmanship this is the equivalent of explaining how sounds map to letters, and giving some examples. It’s not meant to be absorbed all at once, just provide some familiarity in the future.
Usually from here we will conduct the warmup which consists of specific bodyweight exercises to build endurance, basic cutting drills to work on gross motor actions, and a couple stretches designed specifically to relax the shoulders. Then we move into what I call the method exposure phase of training, which is roughly comprised of the attention weighting and imprinting parts of training for various techniques. The techniques are taught in groups related to which principles they deal with. I begin by explaining the technique and demonstrating it, and then we begin with the attention weighting. Considering the dangerous nature of the training tools we don’t move immediately into partner training, instead we practice the action solo a few times to get the basics of it. At this point I focus on the largest correction, usually only one at a time until the student become capable of recognizing and adjusting themselves. This solo phase is usually quite short, about 5-10 minutes on average, and then we move on to partner work.
Here one partner, normally one with more experience, provides some attacks for the other to counter. Since nearly the entire art is focused on attacking the opponent, and the most common target is the head or throat, the goal is relatively clear. Most new students have some difficulty ignoring actions used against them and striking directly to their opponent rather than to their blade. To deal with this, the more experienced student works to help their partner build awareness until they are able to recognize this tendency as it occurs, and eventually correct themselves. Much like a child learns to construct words with letters, the student learns to put basic actions together and form a technique.
Usually near the end of the lesson we move into the differentiation phase allowing the teaching partner to vary the stimulus attacks and allow the student partner to learn to differentiate between them and learn to choose the correct variation of a technique and apply it, gradually increasing speed. This pattern is repeated until all the groups of techniques have been taught. That leads into the tactics phase. Here the student has some base experience with all the tools we use and we begin to learn the plays. The primary focus is on the differentiation and conceptualization phases of training, though if there is an issue with any specific technique we simply go back to the imprinting phase and review.
From here we go through all the variations of a play, which include an opening move used either as a counter or as a first strike and then how to deal with the situations that arise from there. This usually follows the pattern of counter cutting our opponent and attacking simultaneously, then if that doesn’t succeed using a safe follow up that will succeed if they aren’t resisting us strongly. If this fails then we won’t create an opening, and we have had a chance to feel what our opponent is doing in the bind, and we can then choose the next correct action from there.
This then becomes a drill, where the teaching partner provokes the student, and then varies what they do in the bind to allow the student to learn how to make good choices under stress. Usually we start out with one or two variations at somewhat slower speeds and work up to the full range at a decent speed. To return to our language metaphor, this is where we start stringing sentences together, and begin to converse with our actions.
At this point we will continue working through the plays and making drills for any area that the student needs to work on until they become fluent in the system, also known as unitization.
It is important to note that we don’t have a belt system because students tend to focus on the achievement of a belt rather than mastery over the system itself. The belt becomes the reward, rather than competence, and it tends to build up the ego and isolate students who should be working together helping each other learn. Our club motto is “Speak with actions” and I consistently try to convey that we are all students, the only difference is we have to play different roles at various points to facilitate learning. Since there isn’t the same pressure to appear worthy of some rank in front of friends, it makes it a lot easier to move freely through the phases as appropriate to the individual at the moment, and that leads to the unitization effect more quickly and easily than any alternatives I’ve experienced.