Recently I attended the Raleigh Open Longsword Tournament, hosted by Triangle Sword Guild. I had a blast. The format allowed everyone to get in many fights with a large amount of people, which I loved.
I was pretty satisfied with my performance except for one problem I repeatedly encountered:
I kept missing targets…
My thrust missed it’s mark, my cuts did not land where I intended, I failed attempts to grapple. One after another, many of my attempts fell short.
I was surprised. This wasn’t a problem I was used to having, and it told me something important. The level of competition is skyrocketing. This is not a bad thing, but means we must dedicate more to our art.
So I came home and set out to improve how I practice.
We all know we need to practice. Some of us think showing up and putting in the reps is going to get us where we want to be.
“But Zach! Ten thousand hours! Blah, blah, blah…”
Sure, with that much practice, it’s hard not to be good. But tell me something, do you think you have any hope of achieving ten thousand hours if you are just punching the clock every time you pick up a sword?
I sure don’t.
So how do we get interesting, engaging, worthwhile practice that maximizes our chance of actually having a decent time?
Fractionalization and Simplification
Most of what we do in HEMA isn’t what I would call single joint movements. Just about everything we do demands simultaneous coordination of a lot of body parts. Can you imagine just practicing the elbow extension component of a good cut? Probably wouldn’t help you get through all that tatami.
What we can do is “fractionalize” the movements. Sure, I need to transition from breve to bicorno to build structure and displace for the thrust, but what are my feet doing? My hips? My back musculature?
Break down the action into exactly what you want to do, then practice that all at once.
And when you start to practice, don’t go full speed. Don’t go unnecessarily slowly either. We should be practicing as quickly as we can successfully accomplish the technique. To make that easier, you can lower the resistance of your partner and simplify the movement.
We see this in cutting competitions already. Many of the great competitors position their feet as though they have already stepped for the cut, leaving them one less thing they have to worry about.
Randomization and Variation
This was a game changer for me.
Most of how we practiced in my club was totally inefficient, but gave the appearance of efficiency. Of course we kept doing it.
Not anymore, though.
It turns out, the old-school block style of practice isn’t the best way. That’s where you have a single technique you want to practice, do it a bunch, and then move on to the next technique whenever you think you have the first one figured out.
With this style you will see an improvement over the time you are practicing. You will appear to have gotten better. You did, but there is a way to get better, faster.
Randomize your practice. Pick 3-4 techniques, introduce them, and then practice them in a setting that randomizes which one you will be using. An example would be if we were teaching Fiore’s first few largo plays. We would teach the three turns of the sword and when to use them by teaching a few of the zhogo largo remedies. From there we would begin a random and varied practice where each of the remedies may be used, depending on the situation.
Even more variation can be added by changing the posta and angles from which we attack and defend.
When you practice this way, don’t be surprised if you see a drop in performance. That is normal. What matters is what is being encoded into your memory, and in that regard, this format of practice is superior.
Observation and Contemplation
Simply watching someone try to apply the techniques that you are practicing can accelerate your mastery.
“But Zach! Does that mean I should just tape my eyes open and watch Longpoint and Swordfish videos?”
I ought to pound the earth with the top of your head.
You have to actively watch, really think about what is going on, and then apply what you noticed to your practice. Notice something from what you’re watching. Think about how they are doing it differently, and what that means.
In a class setting, a good way to include this style of practice is to practice in triads. Have one person watch while the other two practice, then rotate the players. Even better is if you make a habit of discussing what you noticed afterwards. This will help those who didn’t pay as much attention to still get a little extra out of it.
Information and Revelation
A good coach can change the game. An instructor can guide the student to discover how to accomplish the techniques themselves, improve skill acquisition, and increase their self efficacy (look it up). This is not only satisfying for the coach when they see it “click,” but it helps the student cope in more stressful environments like competition.
Just about every time I compete I’m out there alone. I come from a relatively small club, so most of my folks are either in other pools, or just enjoying the competition. Sometimes I just can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong until after I lost the match. Raleigh was a great example of this. Maybe if I had developed in HEMA with this guided discovery more prominent in my practice I would have been able to figure out what went wrong sooner.
Coaches don’t have to be instructors, either. Let’s say you decide to use the triad idea from the previous section. That observer can easily help the other students to discover what they might be doing right or wrong. They don’t have to know the exact answer, just have an idea that the others may not have thought about. That one instruction could be the key to helping someone improve. Plus, if you develop this culture in your club, it ensures that everyone gets the most from each practice session.
In the end, there is not a more random and varied practice than sparring unfamiliar opponents in uncooperative environments. Attempting the skills you have been practicing in a more stressful setting is the paramount of good practice, and more quickly develops the reactions necessary to excel than most other forms of club practice.
That doesn’t mean you have to go to Longpoint (but you should, because it’s awesome). That might not be your scene, and that’s fine. That variation is one reason HEMA is so great, but all those hours of drilling and instruction are useless if you can’t apply the techniques in whatever context you are practicing for.
Applying these five practice techniques can help you get more out of your practice, and enjoy it more. They are force multipliers, allowing more confident transition into the ring, and a better mindset whenever your weapon is in your hand.