Balancing Skill


Conlan, who is going to be running what looks like another fantastic workshop at Valkyrie weekend after next, asked me a question on facebook today.

I’d posted one of my favourite handstand progression videos to my wall and Conlan asked about what my interest was in handbalancing. What was the benefit to working on it for us? He commented that handbalancing is very skill-specific, just like martial arts, and wondered how I would balance training in both.

Which is a great question, and gives me an opportunity to talk about some of the things that make our training at Valkyrie unique.

For a little bit of clarity, and to answer the obvious question, handbalancing skill is not very important to us. If it was, we’d spend far more time working on it in class. I posted the video because I believe students should pursue training opportunities outside of class as often as possible. Handstands are great for that because not only are they good strength building exercises for the shoulders that are very vulnerable in students of sword arts, but also because handstands make you go upside down.

Being upside down a lot is one of the core drivers of the Valkryie method. Mostly because being upside down goes against almost everything other martial arts train for. And also because it goes against almost everything we as adult humans consider normal. I’m not a fan of normal. Disrupting normal is martial arts tactic number one, so I want dis-normal to be a comfortable place for my students. Additionally, I have a pet theory that proprioceptors in the inner ear can have a positive effect on overall athleticism when activated.

Handstands and cartwheels are convenient things that people can work on that push these buttons. Other balance activities can work, and we use them at later stages. We could do a simple teddy bear stand to start that would give us a gentle and safe introduction and let us gradually build up skill in balance…but that has no value to me as a teacher. Challenge and possibility are important things.

When you are being crushed or beaten by a bigger, stronger, more violent  and better trained human being…comfort, normalcy, and working only with what you believe is possible can be a death sentence. You must be able to push yourself into the impossible. You must believe you can do things you can’t imagine. I’m not talking about superhuman powers, but rather about breaking out of a freeze state, or the goofy loop of “give up” that the head can get stuck in. You need to be comfortable moving with no balance, embracing the fall and absolute chaos and using it, not trying to get back to equilibrium.

So, yes. Handbalancing practice is of benefit to us, but skill is also of benefit as far as it allows us to pursue greater challenges and discomforts.

Of course I have to balance this out a little by also stating that the martial arts skillset is also not very important to us. Manipulating chaos and understanding it’s parameters in the current engagement is our primary skillset goal. Obviously we train in physical skills that give us better channels to express our understanding, but it’s not very important that we be good at any particular skill or skillset.

For example, we train in groundwork, but our goal is not to have students polish and learn a set of skills to use in that arena, but rather to have students understand how to create an exploit for the situation on the fly. In any given arena of skill, we will always have less skill than a specialist. Odds are we are never going to produce a champion grappler! It’s not our goal. That said I still want students to compete in grappling because it’s more exposure for them, and some may choose to develop specific skills. But our goal in this case is to produce a student who can find themselves on the ground and think outside the box for a solution suited to the exact circumstance.

Similarly with swordwork we look for students to grow skill in movement and finding a way to make more chaos for the opponent, more than having students who come into a bout feeling like they have all the answers to all of the problems that can occur. We want to be the source of new and unexpected problems for our opponents.

Training to be this way is going to be extremely difficult and I expect I won’t really see the results I want until the 3rd or even 4th generation students have put some serious time in. The first two generations are shaping up remarkably well but life is no fun if you don’t dream big.

So our approach is physical discomfort like we find in basic handbalancing, and psychological discomfort like we found in John’s remarkable knife workshop from last weekend. Layered on top of that is a solid training program we have built to guide students through all of this towards our goal for them.

We try to take the benefits from learning skills without necessarily working to improve the skill. I do believe that a competent martial artist should be able to see nearly any physical skill performed and make a fair go at attempting it. If you see something done and immediately think that it’s impossible to do, you are not a martial artist the way I think of one. A technician most likely, but anything the human body can do should be something a martial artist sees as a possibility if enough practice is put in. That awareness should come from constantly pushing our boundaries of our own performance, and learning from the inside how the body works.

Stripping Down To The Real Basics


I was looking over an old notebook about a month ago, from back when I started rapier fencing. One day I had taken a bunch of notes after talking to a bunch of the really senior fencers, and watching them bout against younger and newer fighters. One of the things I wrote down stuck in my head, and this weekend I saw even more examples of it. We just wrapped a lovely weekend workshop run by Cst. John Irving on knife fighting. It was a good opportunity to expose some of our newer students to shock knife work, and a chance for everyone to get exposed to John’s finely tuned stress environment training. The thing I had written down in my notebook years ago, was that experienced fighter tend to be very still, while new fighters are all over the place. At first I thought that must have been a…

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Fixes and Changes


We’re coming to the end of another cycle of teaching at Valkyrie, and we’ve already started rolling out a new curriculum. For the coaches, it offers less strict guidelines on what to teach, but more strict goals of what students should achieve. So less direction on what specific drills to do, and more emphasis on working through a given topic in a way that makes sense to particular group of students we see on any given night. To make sure we are all together on how this will be done, I’m returning to being head coach for every single night of instruction. I’m taking Saturday mornings off in exchange, and letting the other coaches have a chance to play in Power class. I’m loving how it’s working out. Getting a chance to personalize classes a little bit is letting me really reach down into the deeps of my knowledge in…

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Change and Mutation


Hopping into the shower this morning, I saw a nice big long-legged spider sitting in the tub. As a life-long arachnophobe, this presented me with a bit of a dilemma. My past response would vary between chucking a number of objects into the tub to try and kill it, gathering my courage and choosing a large object to squish it with, deciding I didn’t need a shower for another week or so, or waiting for my wife to come home and kill it for me. In an effort to overcome my fear, I’ve been learning about spiders. As a result of that learning, I’ve come to appreciate the function they play in keeping a balanced ecosystem within and without the home. This type of spider feasts on black widows and other spiders that are not so nice to have inside, and also eats silverfish and clothes moths. So…the only real…

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500 Blows


I’m reminded today that it was eight years ago that I fought 500 passes in two hours. I didn’t do it as a personal challenge. I didn’t do it to prove a point. I did it because my best friend had just died, and I needed to process my feelings. You can sob your eyes out behind a fencing mask, wrench all the grief out of your heart, and pretend no one notices. And despite all that rage, tears, and sorrow…you can still fight with all your heart. And that’s why I chose to fight all those passes against everyone I could convince to show up and fight me. The lesson Yvonne taught me was that you always fight with all your heart in life. No matter how bleak and hard and pointless things seem…you fight. Because fighting is joy. It’s happiness. It’s a dance we get to share with…

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Devil On Your Back


I read an article about a week or so ago that really bugged me.  It was one of those feel good, overcome your failures sort of articles. It talked about how defining a failure can be, and in this case how it pushed this one person on to succeed better than they ever have before. And that really pissed me off. I read these sort of articles often…it’s a common inspiration tactic. What really set me off on this one was that the flaw that is common in all these articles. It was really clear in this one. The failure that defined this person was singular. He recounted how he’d been successful at everything else in his life, but this one thing. He credited his one failure with teaching him to overcome difficulties, to be a better person, etc. Most importantly he credits the failure with him continuing to succeed…

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