To suck or to not suck

Spending the morning cruising through the websites of various WMA groups, checking out youtube videos. Painful experience. I know bad video is a thing that can happen to anyone. It’s the rule more than the exception. I do kind of wish people would lose the editing software. When you have to spend half of your frames explaining what people should be seeing, you shouldn’t be using video as a medium. And I stop watching the demonstrations the minute I see any response that requires a static partner…which is…hm…every video? Seems like it, anyway. Harrumph.

There are more groups out there than I imagined, or have heard of. Some of them appear to really suck. The kind of suck that comes from medium-fish-in-tiny-pond instructors. That’s not always a bad thing…it depends on the instructor. But suck rolls downhill. Some people are teaching because they are excited by what they have learned, and realize they know more than anyone in their area, and step up to fill the need. Again…not a bad thing. It makes for problems, but due diligence will overcome them.

The problem comes from the more excitable people. The kind with a background in previous flavour of the week martial arts. They’ve jumped on board whatever trend was supposedly the “best” in the past, and WMA is the current one of the radar. These folk tend to have energy, enthusiasm, and a powerful desire to learn…and no ability to really learn. Sure, they can absorb and parrot the motions. Show them a sequence and they will spit it right back up. And they can have some ability to win fights, too…Aggression and stupidity paired with a trick or two will surprise most people. But they can’t learn the real art. Some of you have taught these people. You show them a technique, explain the principle and how to develop it, they give you an eager nod (with an empty look in their eyes) and go off to practice, doing exactly what they’ve always done, with no change whatsoever. And they proudly jump from teacher to teacher, doing the same thing…When they start teaching, they don’t even teach what they do, they teach what they have heard other people say.

The truth comes out in the students. Swordplay, more than any other martial art, is exacting. Form has to be precise in a unique way. It’ snot enough to merely pose the way your teacher does. You must be able to execute movements with a pure efficiency. Actions have to show at least an attempt at refining the path from guard to line, across measure and with good tempo. You can suck at it, but it should be obvious that you at least know the path, even if you can’t walk it.

Students of poor teachers only know to echo the shape. They mold themselves to fit the image they see. To an experienced eye, the students look awkward…mechanical, clunky and lacking in balance and speed. In tournaments, they look spastic. In their own group, they can enjoy fighting each other and feeling pride in being in a known place in the local pecking order…but meeting other groups leads to confusion and loss. They lack the context to explain why they lost, and bitterness creeps in. Isolation follows, unless they run across a similar group (usually one with an equally empty teacher, but one that’s willing to play the Alpha/Beta male game with the current teacher) and band together. Then the problem can be everyone else. Them. Not Us.

This is a pernicious problem in the SCA rapier community. At the worst end of it, a teacher doesn’t teach at all. He just uses his students for personal punching bags to improve his own game. More common is an inbred group that develops an internal style, and is unable to change it when exposed to the wider game. It’s like having a sword that was never forged, only slowly polished into sword shape, and shatters the first time it meets another blade.

It’s an odd combination of events that can lead to this sort of catastrophe. Honestly, most of us currently teaching started out in tiny local groups, doing our best with misguided ideas. We overcame that. We became really, truly good and knowledgeable. We never let ourselves be lazy or delusional. We took lessons from everyone, even those we bettered. We always compared ourselves, to the best, and to the historical examples. We let ourselves be changed, no matter how it hurt our egos.

I don’t consider myself a teacher of historical swordplay. I’m not interested in exacting redaction of manuals, or lengthy online discourse of what is meant by what. I hold up Capo Ferro and Marozzo as personal models, as ideals to reach for. I know what correct athletic motion should look like, and how it should be performed. I know what is truly martial, beyond competition and show. I filter history through the lens of athleticism and martial requirement. What makes me better than the bad teachers? Lacking lineage, how do I justify my opinions and approach?

Experience counts for a lot. I had twenty years of martial arts training before I picked up a rapier. Twenty years of understanding my own potential, and being humbled and educated by the best in the world. Twenty years of no shortcuts, no easy roads to success. Twenty years of sharing those experiences, and knowing what it was to be part of a community of experts. Experience doesn’t make you better, it gives you a wider vision. And it doesn’t let you close your eyes, no matter how much you dislike the perspective. No false humility to protect from real critique of your methods.

I can look down on the worst schools, but I never think I am that far from them. I never think I can’t learn from them, and I never think of them as being any different at heart than I am. Their mistakes can be my mistakes, and I have to work every day to avoid that. I’m not better than anyone, and I have no advantages. I share in everyone’s suck. I can’t be better, but I can continue to try to be good. I don’t want to be better than anyone.  I just want to be continuing to work towards being the best I can be.



  1. Yes. This is pretty much spot on. The only way that any group can grow is by reaching out and working with other groups, learning from each others mistakes, and working toward individual improvement, not just the ability to beat the people in your small pond.

  2. Well, on the SCA (and if you are going to watch bad videos…sadly the SCA will provide you hours of it…) side of it…the first thing we try to convince new fighters to do is travel….fight people outside your own local practice (otherwise the inbred fighting style will/does happen). But considering we in the SCA are hobbyists, and not “professional” paid teachers…we occasionally turn out some decent fighters, despite ourselves.

    • I can rarely stomach watching SCA rapier videos. I mean…hell. We learned better than that more than ten years ago, and I know we not only spread the news, but kicked a lot of ass…but it’s still the same ole same ole everywhere. Harrumph.

      Of course the WMA guys are making all the same mistakes all over again. It’s easy to learn from history, but even easier to ignore modern lessons I suppose.

  3. Amen.

    Do you video yourself and your students often? Not to show others but as a training tool? It has been one of the most valuable things I have done in the past decade. The fact that I have shared these videos via youtube for others to see is a bonus (as I see it) rather than the purpose.

    It is an interesting experience watching video footage and comparing notes with others. I find I can barely stomach watching martial arts videos of almost any description because I consider what is being shown to be so bad (static participants etc.) but I also know that a lot of people are very underwhelmed by what is featured in my group’s videos while we see much of interest. Is this because I can see things that other’s can’t or because I am believing my own hype? My personal feeling is that I can see more in many people’s movement than they can see in mine (and I can recall what I felt when the video was made as well) but I hope that little voice that asks ‘are you really as good as you think you are?’ keeps speaking in my inner ear as it is far, far too easy to reign supreme in your own small world. (Though going back to your previous post, it is equally easy to underplay your own strengths and skills as well.)

    • I make extensive use of video, to the point of purchasing a camera that does 60fps so I can get real slow mo. My personal training work consists of reviewing and making many minor body corrections with students, plus a few tactical corrections that we work on over months. I love the process, but it’s very involving.

      I think the best thing video does for me personally is showing me how flawed my perception is. I once beat a guy in a tournament with a lovely cut his right side in the middle of an exchange. When I looked at the video right after, I was actually cutting him on the left side…

      In the next few months I’ll be working to put together some video footage of classes.

      Ironically, I am not eager to do so after too many bad experiences with people misinterpreting past videos…sigh.

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