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 at everything past that failure. I call bullshit on that.

A lifetime of success taught this person that success was his due, and that failure was a weird new thing that didn’t belong in his world. He found a way to new way to continue to be successful, but his lesson was not born of failure, it was born and bred in a lifetime of success. The important lesson was not that this person overcame failure, but that always winning teaches you to always win no matter what.

Sexual assault survivors are frequently (two thirds of survivors in one report of 400+ survivors) survivors of multiple assaults, especially so if they were victims of childhood sexual abuse.

A lifetime of failure teaches you to expect failure. Success feels like a fraud, like a thing stolen from someone more deserving. That’s a lesson that life is most willing to teach you repeatedly.

Hearing some privileged or lucky ignoramus talk about how failure is a good thing you can overcome, and using their own story of affluence to back it up, can be a slap in the face. If you have failed so much, why aren’t you able to learn the lesson of success even more? What’s wrong with you? How stupid are you?

You learn a meaner lesson when you grow up on the wrong side of success.

I have a watched a lot of people in my life never overcome those lessons.  They are never able to escape their “place” in life, even when some measure of success comes their way. The scars and the crippling weight shape them against their will, and almost always against their knowledge. Hard shells make for brittle people, and true resilience is only for those who expect a happy ending. Toughness comes only from time and awareness of the losses in the scale of your own life, and a rugged sense that it’s not likely you have to face worse loss…so you can probably survive the same horrors over and over again if need be.

That is no life. Or at least not a life any of us should have to put up with. There is no potential, no growth, in living that way.

As a martial arts instructor, I see this devil on the back of many, if not most students. And bluntly, there are a lot of martial arts instructors out there who depend on the existence of that devil to keep themselves in the success book.

My only reason for teaching is to remove that devil. In myself and in my students.

I believe that is the true reason we have martial arts, and the enduring meme of the weak overcoming the strong. It’s the last article of faith many of us have left…the belief that we can overcome the oppression of the seemingly-natural rights of others to have more life and potential than we will ever have. If we can find a definitive way to protect our physical self…so often the first thing violated in a life of loss…then perhaps we can start to rebuild our vision of the world into one where we stand on a more even keel with others.

It’s the hidden warrior within that finally snarls with anger about being pushed back into the final corner and then digs in it’s heels that can bring in a new student. Their mouth and minds will have a story of wanting to get more exercise or get more in shape or just have fun, but down deep a forgotten part of themselves is screaming for one last chance at a normal life.

Sometimes when I teach, I see a class of happy people doing one more enjoyable hobby, happy and content that their efforts will…as they always do…return great rewards to them. And amongst that number I see the eyes of angry and fearful warriors fighting a last battle.

My fight is to make my school a place where we all work in co-operation. The happy ones teach the angry ones how to build themselves anew, and the angry ones teach the happy ones that there is a beast at their core that can carry them through the hardest times.

It’s a battle, a war that some of the students bring in every class. With every tentative effort at learning a new skill, they fight to claim a sense of what they might have been had they learned different lessons in life, had they been allowed to grow and prosper to their own will and desire, and not have been shaped by the crushing hand.

It’s a war I fight every time I pick up my sword.

Red Team: Being a Better Bad Guy


The future of martial arts training should lie in scenario work. I think it’s unlikely, though. I think we will see a rise in scenario based training, but it’s likely that it will be done poorly enough that it will be dismissed as a fad once the fresh wears off.

It’s a really easy thing to misunderstand. It seems fairly simple.

“Red Team” work means being the bad guy. It used to refer to a specific kind of military training, where forces in the same army would split and take turns playing war games against each other. The Red Team was the bad guy. The idea (and I’ve never been in the military so my understanding of the history of this sort of thing is second-hand at best) was that one side could act in the role of an expected opposing force and use their tactics, so that a realistic understanding of the armies ability to resist and conquer those tactics could be formed. I believe it later turned into more of the Tiger Team thing I’m familiar with from IT security, where the opposing force doesn’t use conventional tactics, but rather attempts to defeat the good guys with unexpected tactics, and thigns that have been carefully researched to exploit holes in the good guy’s approach. The idea is that a strong Red Team training approach should prepare a force to defeat any eventuality.

For martial artists, the first time I recall seeing anything like scenario work was in the context of self-defense classes for women. In these classes you’d see a dude in a huge suit, padded enough that they looked barely human, lumbering towards a woman who would then deliver a bunch of kicks to the nuts while screaming something empowering.

Now it’s evolved very far beyond that. I’ve never seen any of the scenario work Rory Miller is well known for, but people I respect speak highly of it. I’ve seen snippets of the intense work Ed Calderon does and it’s inspiring and intimidating. Martial arts moves in fad cycles, and it’s not unlikely that people are going to see the same things I’ve seen and want to jump on…or even create…the bandwagon. And that’s going to suck.

In my job as a roleplayer (Red Team guy) for the VPD, I’ve seen how incredibly valuable this kind of training can be. And I know how simple and easy it looks from the outside, or even from shallow exposure. All you have to do is act like a bad guy, and attack your student, right? Wear enough protective gear that you can’t get hurt, and let the learning commence! Maybe shut the lights off or re-arrange the furniture to make it look like a nightclub for extra realism. Do crazy things to screw up the student…surprise knives or guns or something.

Seems like an easy idea. You could do this with your students, and everyone would walk away with a newfound respect for violence and the difficulty in applying your training under stress. That sounds good. Valuable for everyone, right?

The problem is…what’s your goal? If you want to provide a carnival experience for your students, that will work. Do you want them to learn to apply the techniques of your school under stress? Do you want them to reliably apply the correct technique for certain attacks, reliably, under incredible stress, every single time? Do you want them to know how to manage their stress and reactions, how to keep or retain…or even regain…situational awareness? Do you want them to understand the level of threat they are being given and respond correctly every single time? That’s going to take some serious thought and work to achieve.

Bad scenario work is just a novelty and adds no real value to training. It’s far too easy to make a game out of it, and get all self-congratulatory about how realistic and awesome your training is while guiding your students farther and farther from the truth.

There are good instructors out there you can learn to do this from, and hopefully if this becomes more common people will have the sense to get that training.

Sex and Swordplay


Not talking about gender today.

Had a fun class last Saturday. We are into our Mobility phase of exercise, where we work on assimilating a lot of the new muscle that has built up in the last few months. We reconnect with our bodies, find out what works, what new bad habits have crept in, and try to compare where we are now to various baselines of posture. It’s a good feeling to get back in touch with yourself. I usually end such workouts with a fun drill that gets some good gross-body movement going on.

In this class it was working through various stick-fighting drills from different cultures.

At one point I asked everyone if they thought what they were doing was the same thing they would do if they had a club in hand and were trying to fend off a bear or wild dog attack. No, no one thought so.

I’ve seen a lot of different stick fighting arts from around the world, practiced many different ways…but not a lot of them really fit into the “this is what I would do to try and keep a bear off of me” category.

When you think about it a little, killing things with clubs is part of our common genetic heritage. Grasp the heavy thing and smash. That’s right down in the backbone. We don’t need to know how to do it, and it’s one of those things we implicitly trust that we will do, and do well, if it’s ever needed.

But stick fighting? Don’t we just club the other person in the brain-pan as hard as possible and as quickly as possible? That will for sure work. And if you are in the mood to kill someone, I can almost absolutely guarantee that any given person will have no defense against you, even if they have a stick of their own.

So what the hell is stick fighting? If it’s not fighting to kill another human with a weapon?

What is stick fighting in most cultures that still practice it, outside of the more urban hobbyist martial artists? Most often it’s a dominance display. It’s a way of showing that you are a sexually mature adult. It’s a show-off skill. It’s human peacock feathers, and it’s available to both sexes.

So I asked the students (I should be clear here that I know my students pretty well, and when I ask such things of my students they know it’s because I want them to fire up their intellectual curiosity. I wouldn’t necessarily do this with another group of students) to look at their stick fighting in that light. I told them to add in their own dominance display to the movement, to advertise their animal sexual maturity through fighting display.

You bet that caused some questions, and some confusion. I pointed out examples of how some of more accomplished fighters in the school constantly did so when fighting. It was part and parcel of their fighting style, and often part of their tactics. In that context, it made more sense to the students. They could recall many instances of dance, pose or what I will call body flamboyance in other fighters.

Here’s the thing, though. This was mostly a group of people who were on the junior or up and coming fighter list. So when I asked them to demonstrate the same behavior in their own way, they got super uncomfortable.


Because they didn’t feel entitled to dominance display. Didn’t say so, but it was the unspoken answer. We laughed and talked and mimicked and wound up having a great class and a great time, but that moment of lack stuck with me.

Dominance display and sexual maturity display is the right of every adult human being, and it’s a right that is given to us from every cell in our bodies.

You can see a distinction in students when you look. Irregardless of any social standing, some students are privileged to be comfortable with their sexuality at the most basic level. They may have issues layered on top related to their subculture choices and other issues…I lack the education to even begin to speak about such issues, but I acknowledge that there are layers and nuance. I would say that my point is that some students have levels of privilege, and some students have the opposite. They have learned to shutter and hide their display, even in a safe place.

I don’t particularly care about what a student brings to class when they start training with me. I care where they go, how far they make themselves into a better version of themselves.

Wrestling with how you treat yourself as a sexually mature animal is really core to any weapon art, because much of what we do will be flavoured by that human dominance display. This is implicit in the very act of pointing your weapon at your foe, and telling them that they risk death if they approach. Every action that follows is dictated by how the opponent reacts to your display…whether they respect it or not.

I always learned that martial arts is about the weak overcoming the strong. Part of this is making the weak stronger. If we don’t feel like we own the ability, or are allowed to display dominance due us by our status as adult animals, then we are putting ourselves in a position of constantly being bullied by those who have the privilege we lack.

There is a subtle element to our culture these days that seems to imply that only “winners” get to display. Only those with the fancy clothes or cars or social ease or the right body or whatever else are allowed to advertise ownership of their most basic animal state. In nature this is not true. Come mating season, all animals display, win or lose. Losers of one display just keep on trying. Humans are being taught give up.

At the start of this post I said I wasn’t going to talk about gender, and I think that’s important. Trying to meet an ideal standard is the opposite of understanding yourself. To look at an idealized version of whatever gender you choose to display and then try to meet that? It’s not the same as understanding for yourself what makes you yourself, and what your natural method of display is going to be.

And this is critical for swordplay, because we each need to move firstly in a way that is natural to us as individuals. Sexual expression is one of those things we tend to bury a bit, but it’s absolutely an element of any art. I can see the result in students when their shoulders rise, their backs straighten, their steps lighten and their teeth shine behind their masks. It’s those moments when I see them become fighters.


Modern Ancient: Moving Forward with Historical Martial Arts


What’s the point of training with a sword these days? Or, more accurately, what’s the point of training in the use of the sword as a martial art. Opposed to say artistic skill display, stage combat, or sport tournament usage. Why on earth would anyone train swordplay with the intent to use a sword in earnest?

I suppose a further question might be why would we chose to study Historical sword arts in their entirety, with an intent to use them for modern martial art or self defense usage? It makes sense to study them for academic understanding, for accurate re-creation in order to further our understanding of the origins of our modern world. That’s not the same thing as learning to use a sword to survive an actual swordfight.

Modern swordfighters tend to use these justifications to explain the pleasure they take in practicing sword in hand. It’s a valid excuse, and honesty more than enough reason to spend a happy and productive lifetime in study.

The unspoken but here for me and others is that we are first and foremost martial artists. Our intention is violence. Our expectation is violence. Our concern is survival in an encounter where the chief concern is not hurt, but injury…avoiding it, and dealing it out. Where does the sword fit into that? We have guns for war, and no one carries or can carry a sword for civilian self-defense.

It helps to define what we are talking about. The phrase “Martial Art” the way we understand it these days is a very modern phrase. I think that taking it as the literal “arts of mars” is inaccurate. I’m very much inspired by Marco Quarta’s posts on and conversations to embrace in my understand of “Martial Arts” the three-part aspects of Mercury, Mars and Apollo. We should have in our training, or at least be aware of, the dark and underground things, the sometimes uncontrolled violence, and the games and higher expressions of ourselves and our interactions with each other.

For some reason the modern swordplay crowd seems to want to argue over whether they should be doing just one aspect. There is sometimes seen to be a desire to separate sport, self-defense and outright combat (not to mention historical accuracy and faithful reproduction) and keep them separate…as if elements of one will pollute the other. To my mind it is only a Martial Art if all elements are combined. I should be clear that I’m still coming to grips with the right way to think about these elements, never mind put them into understandable words, so forgive any weirdness.

And moving on from the “martial” aspect of things we should also understand Habitus. I’ve been using this word a lot lately and people seem to sort of gloss over it thinking they know what it means but it’s really a fairly complex theory I’ve adopted from sociology. Habitus is the collective embodiment of the often-subconscious postural and movement habits we acquire from our teachers, and pass on to our students. It’s the subtle tactics and methods of observing and seeing our opponents, the triggers and ticks of movement and combat that are never explicitly taught and yet are faithfully passed on from generation to generation. True lineage in a martial tradition comes more from the Habitus than from the technical body or work.

So to me a Martial Art is a Habitus that encodes the dirtiest of dirty fighting techniques, control and less-lethal civil techniques, and a competent and enjoyable sport and display aspect.

It’s those first two aspects that seem the oddest with modern sword work.

Given a zombie apocalypse of some sort, sword work is the dirtiest most winning-est way to go, absolutely. But barring that, what does it do for me in a mythical back-alley scramble for life? If it’s taught the right way, swordwork gives me bright eyes to understand what is happening. It will give me a habitus that requires not just quick decision, but instant commitment to follow up on that decision. It teaches me better than any other art to penetrate or cut another human being with practiced intent using a suitable weapon. I’ll know the lines an opponent will want to use to react to what I do, and I will know how to exploit them. Absolutely I’ll need to practice at closer ranges with shorter weapons and without, but that should be part of any martial art as well.

For the civil techniques, I’m not going to use a sword on someone in a less-lethal circumstance. But I understand how to maintain measure, I understand how to dominant and deceive through presence, posture and pressure. And with any suitable object in hand, I am untouchable and capable of putting anyone down. Within reason…I’m getting old and slow. But I have eye and ability and my learned Habitus to carry me through. Any good and well trained martial artist should feel the same.

So when I train with the sword, I am training to develop all of these aspects. I can train them as well in other martial arts, but I certainly lose nothing training with blade in hand. To my mind, I only gain. I can’t see why anyone would train martial arts without a sword in hand, at least some of the time. Every art has it’s own Habitus and technical specializations, but if the elements are all in balance, it will be a good art.

Swordplay is a martial art like any other. And it should be trained as such, and seen as such.

Protection and Pain: Finding the Balance


In the picture above you can see two Valkyrie coaches going at with Cold Steel plastic Bowie trainers, and wearing partial High Gear body armour suits. High Gear suits are awesome. We are incredibly lucky to have a pair of these suits at the school. Each suit provides a set of wrist-to-instep protection that is guaranteed to keep you safe from injury while sparring with full intent. So why are we wearing only partial suits in this photo?

What makes the High Gear suits valuable, as explained on their website, is that they prevent injury but they don’t prevent pain. So if I punch you in the face while you are wearing the helm, you won’t get a broken nose. But your head will rock back and you will feel like you just got punched in the face. You will not enjoy it. But you won’t be injured.

Why is this a useful thing? For a martial artist, it’s the perfect balance between protection and realism. When I hit my sparring partner in the face, I get excellent feedback about what happens when I hit someone. I can see how the head snaps back, and about how the body curls up and instinctively turns away a little bit. I get a great sense of how I need to follow up my attacks, and I would not get that if we did non-contact sparring. The timing and tempo would be all wrong. At the same time, I have a hugely vested interest in not getting punched back, because it really, really hurts. But at the end of the session neither of us in any worse for the wear.

We are wearing partial suits because even though the pain is transmitted fairly well, you can eventually get used to it and start ignoring it. And the mass of the suits, as light as they are, still affects your fight and your body mechanics. It’s an artificial thing, and as such can add artifacts to your fight game that you might not want showing up in the event of a real altercation. In the above drill, we’ve added slaps to the face and knees to the body as counters we want to work on, so for this drill we have added just enough armour to protect the parts we expect to be hit, to allow realistic strikes.

When I started in the SCA doing rapier, the armour standards were pretty stringent. You had to be covered head-to-toe in tear resistant clothing. Your torso, inner thighs and biceps down to the extent of the exposure of the femoral and brachial artery, had to covered with puncture resistant clothing. There was even a test for this, using a device that had to be constructed to exact standards. I just accepted that as the way things were and all was good.

But then as I got more exposure to the wider world of the SCA and learned about it’s history and how it was being practiced outside of my little corner, things got clearer. When SCA rapier had started, people were using modern olympic foils and epee blades to fight with. Since the whole point of the organization was to at least try to look non-modern in your clothing, no one wanted to wear proper fencing jackets. Now, this is a truly risky thing because part of the game was using foils and epee’s to throw cuts, which was something they were never designed to do. If you don’t know, a broken foil or epee is truly a lethal weapon. It’s killed people. So yes, stringent requirements were made for clothing that would provide equivalent protection to proper fencing jackets.

Now the fun thing for me, is that in my little area, we never used foils or epees to fence with. Early on someone had discovered schlager blades could be purchased, and later a fantastic sparring blade from Del Tin was introduced and widely accepted. On the cheap, for a while people made do with fiberglass blades covered in duct tape. Horrible, but that was how things were. Nary an epee to be seen.

So why the hell were we (and still are) forced to wear armour intended to protect us against broken foil blades? Modern rapier simulators don’t break into jagged slivers of steel, they break into a flat, blunt screwdriver shape. It will still penetrate a body, but requires significantly more force. And much less protection is required to stop it.

The full body, no skin exposed coverage? It’s not durable enough to protect against a puncture by broken foil. I can only imagine the intent is to stop scratched and superficial cuts. I’m sure many people care about cuts and scratches while fencing, but…some of us don’t. We also don’t mind bruises. Absolutely we mind dying, or going blind! But yes, it did irritate me to no end to be told I couldn’t fight because the sleeve of my shirt could be pulled up enough past my gauntlets to expose a little bit of forearm flesh to the ravages of a blunt blade.

Which leads me to what I consider appropriate protective gear for rapier fencing.

And I would have to say, it not only depends on context, but that it should also vary.

When I’m coaching one-on-one, my preference would be a heavy leather welding jacket, leather apron, and good rigid martial arts body protection pad. I want my students hitting me with speed and intention, hundreds if not thousands of time during a coaching session. And I might be running many sessions during the day. If I’m working on drilling a specific entry with a student, I will also not be doing the normal defensive fade and shuffle I habitually do that reduces the oomph of incoming blows. I want to survive that, so…yeah. As armoured as I can be. I’m mostly a punching bag for this sort of training, anyway.

When I’m bouting friends? If we are working on things, or trying each other out…mask and gorget will do. Generally we wear clothes but whatever. I know I’m going to get bruises and maybe some blood, but I’m okay with that. If I get hit I will feel pain. I am seriously unlikely to get injured. If we are pushing our limits a little, we are also working on our defense as much as our offense and bluntly you need some fear to do that.

Drills in class? Depends on the lesson. If we are working finicky technical things, no protective gear. I want the students paying attention and never neglecting that they are at risk. I also want them constantly thinking of how even a blunt rapier can hurt their friend. Awareness of wounding and risk is important, and is never supposed to be a one-sided thing. If I want students to pay attention to a particular thing, and not be distracted by awareness of risk as much, I will have them put on masks. If we are doing speed drills, full gear. Competition drills? Extra padding because everyone is going to take repetitive hits and I want them working on a thing and not feeling fear for these techniques.

Tournament? Do I know and have fought everyone? Are the stakes low? Gorget and Mask. Buncha people I don’t know, high stakes, possible bad blood? Gorget, mask, fencing jacket or equivalent…for students I might reccomend additional padding. And honestly don’t fight if there is bad blood or potential temper eruptions. Tournaments are sport, no sport is worth dealing with situations or people like that.

Multiple hits/afterblow/other stuff tournament? Fencing jacket, extra padding, and some rigid protection where bone is close to skin. With less fear, people commit more and with a compound pace there will a commiserate change in control. Chaos will happen, and stupid also has a higher chance of happening.

I think to make a good fencer, the fencer should be well versed in the full continuum of fear. They should bout when they dread a slight touch, and they should bout when they blow off a shot or two in order to complete the technique/s they intend to land.

My context of training fencers is to prepare them for an actual fight with sharps, and in that context it makes no sense to let them specialize in any one format.

On top of all that you must think about weapon selection and alterations for safety, but that will another post for another day.



April 9 Tournament Wrap-up


Valkyrie had it’s first tournament just a little less than two weeks ago. Results can be found on our facebook page, and I talked about the format in a previous blog post. It’s been enough time that I’m able to put together some thoughts about how it went, and what we will change with the next one.

We had 214 or so fights, and no injuries beyond the usual colourful bruises, scrapes and occasional bit of blood from a scratch. There was no conflict or bad feelings to be noted in the entire tournament. We only had three problems surface around the bouts themselves. Two where resolved on the spot to the satisfaction of both the fighters and the audience, and the third caused some mumbles afterwards but didn’t affect the fight at the time. One fight missed being tallied and included in the fighters totals at the end, and unfortunately meant they missed an opportunity to have a playoff for the championship of their category.

Moving forward as organizers, we will make some changes.

Tallying the fights will be done in a quiet room away from the fighters. Apparently people wanted to check the results can make the person counting the fights feel like they are under a bit of pressure, and that can result in making mistakes.

Now that we have a better sense of how long the fights will last, we will slow the pace down a little to allow for smoother reporting and a little more time for announcements of winners online and to the audience.

We’ll also be changing the wording of our rules, and how we explain them ahead of time. The rules were close enough to how some schools normally do things that some of the fighters didn’t pick up on an essential difference, and because of that we wound up reversing the decision of one fight after video review. I don’t know if we were lucky it only happened once, or unlucky that it didn’t happen more frequently which might have given us an opportunity to clarify things on the day.

Things that really worked?

Fight cards. Having each fighter have a printed “dance card” at the records table, and having each fighter initial the results of their bouts immediately after helped immensely in cutting down on errors. Going over the cards the next day and seeing the crossings out and rewrites made me smile, as I’ve suffered before from a list person miss-reporting a number of my fights in a tournament. It’s a sucky way to lose.

Calling on the fighters at the beginning of the tournament to behave like mature adults, call their own shots received, re-fight at the slightest doubt around the outcome, and call back bad blows worked extremely well. Having the top competitors being very experienced SCA fighters made a big difference, as they were able to provide excellent examples of the behavior I wanted to see. The referees and single judge (me) were able to swiftly answer and doubts the fighters had about what had happened…which mostly meant a swift answer of “Re-fight!”

Splitting fighters into categories based on tournament experience, not on technical ability. Because tournament fighting is a skill. This worked really well. There were no real blowouts or people getting stomped. Each category showed tight clustering of wins/losses, and it was very apparent watching the bouts that the fighters were all universally well matched to each other. This made for interesting bouts and lots of involvement in the bout itself. It was also really fun to match lower categories against upper categories for some of the bouts, because when the surprise upset came…as it did on occasion…it was a really cool thing that people enjoyed.

Not punishing double kills. Without punishment, the double-kills ceased to have any effect on the tournament, and as such stopped being any sort of tactic or back-handed reward. By not putting much attention on the double kill, fighters seemed to be better able to get their game in order after and work to put in a clean shot.

Single pass, single touch to win. I don’t believe any tournament can replicate all the facets of a real duel, so it’s worthwhile having formats that specialize in different aspects. Single pass, single touch puts an immense amount of pressure on the fighter to not get touched, no matter what. You don’t have a pass or two to throw away in order to get a sense of your opponent, either. You have to judge what you see in front of, make a decision with haste, and then decisively act on that decision. In this case, it made for very clean fights with very clear winners.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. We will definitely be running these tournaments regularly, and keeping an updated an ongoing roster of fighters, results, and videos. And a few other fun related things will be announced in the next month or two.