Progressive Structure and the Art of Teaching

Scattered about me on the floor are printouts of Marozzo’s progression. A copy of Talhoffer propped in a little tent on a page I’d noted to follow up later. A translation of Fiore sneaks out from under “Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship” which is held down by Aldo Nadi’s “On Fencing.” The wall has a reprint of a large poster detailing drills from a manual of 19th century french fleuret, epee, sabre and bayonet technique. 1900’s La Canne drill pages are mixed in with Petter’s dutch self-defense superhero comics from the 1600’s. Left over from the last visit by students are I.33, Viggiani and Capo Ferro. I’ve lent out Lovino, and Giganti was left in the trunk of a car years ago and never missed. Marozzo and Agrippa live on my cel phone and the bookshelf. My notes are scrawled over everything, and every room in the house has at least one notebook half-full.

Every single day for the last good many years, I’ve picked up, perused, studied, worked through, rephrased or drilled something from one of these books and others. I don’t watch TV or play games on the computer, so when I have a moment to kill I’ll randomly grab something and flip through it. When I seriously have time to devote, I’m prone to grabbing a fencing manual and re-writing parts of it into different systems to represent what I see. I try to find structures that allow me to parse chunks of the book into memory spaces in my brain. Sometimes they fit well, sometimes they don’t. I made a good job once of memorizing most of Capo Ferro by super-imposing the whole book into an imaginary four-floor tower, with differently shaped windows on each level. It was a good try, but too unwieldy.

As a teacher, it’s my job to know every possible thing I can about my chosen martial art. It has to be internalized to a point where I don’t even know it as separate from my own thoughts. When I watch a student fight, I need to understand them the same way I understand the words of the old masters. I have to see and feel their approach as a complete structure, a shape and rhythm. Mostly it’s a conscious process, but it works better when it’s subconscious. The works that float in my head revolve around the students structure, each trying to be the perfect fit. I superimpose them into an amalgam that fits best, and then I see where the fit is poor. Does the model need to change, or does the student? If change is needed, is the student already on the path to making the change themselves and only needs encouragement to tough it out until they make the leap, or do I need to phrase the complex puzzle into a simple suggestion, a few words of  “try to think about reaching before stepping…just keep that thought in mind and see what happens.” or “move your elbow out by two inches, and rotate your hand just to here. Feel the difference?”

It’s the teachers job to know everything. It’s not the teachers job to teach everything…unless you are creating new teachers. Teachers-to-be are rarer than competitors, and most classes will have only one or two real sport competitors, people that live for the affirmation that victory brings. Possibly two or three dilettantes, people training just because it’s a thing that seems fun. Most of the students will be fighters, people who want to learn a life or death martial arts skill, and for whatever reason have chosen your class. The competitors need to be honed to a fine edge with one or two techniques, the dilettantes need to feel like they are getting some real benefit for each dollar spent. The fighters need constant challenge…lessons that are always just one step beyond them, but never more. Teachers in training need to be fighters first, but need extra time to learn deeper content.

The teacher has to constantly distill his knowledge to deliver the appropriate lesson. Ideally, each student can have a unique lesson, but realistically you have to teach to the gestalt of the class. You need to understand that group mind, and pay attention to it’s focus and whimsy during class. Deliver the whip when needed, goad or encourage or laugh when needed…and always lead. Steal every moment you can to whisper a word in the ear of a student. Give them a personal slant on the drill, or just let them know what they are doing right. Steal the chance to shape them into that hidden, platonic structure only you can see.


  1. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how to teach students pieces from various systems that are in various languages, all without confusing the students.

    • You have to decide if you are teaching a martial art or a history lesson, basically. If it’s a martial art, then it’s up to you as a teacher to swallow the original lessons whole and completely absorb them. What you teach should be an amalgam of what you digested, and you should feel free to use your own language once you have a coherent system to present.

      Which, of course, can take a lifetime. Mostly you start by making a shitload of errors and hoping you have good students who can correct you with a smile!

      My personal teaching method is usually just done by demonstrating a drill, briefly discussing the concept behind it, and then letting them work it out amongst themselves. If students seem interested, I will mention the source material…but all talking about that will take place at the pub after class.

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