April 9 Tournament Wrap-up

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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.

 

Habitus: Or Why SCA Rapier Is Awesome…And Why SCA Rapier Sucks.

Sparring with Henry

Clearly I’m a little proud of my SCA rapier background. I had access to a number of seriously talented fencing teachers and dedicated historians, and came from an area with a history of turning out some of the best rapier fighters in the world. That said, I’ve also seen some horrible rapier fencers in the SCA.

For the majority of the training time, the training is identical between the great fighters and the shit fighters. Training consists of armour up and fight whoever is there to train with you. Period.

On the surface, we are seeing pure Darwinian evolution at work. The naturally good fighters rise to the top, and everyone else either drops out or reaches a certain stable point of usually very low skill and stays there. If an area has good fighters, it’s because random chance caused a pocket of genetic freaks to collect in that spot. If an area produces bad fighters, bad genetics are to blame.

And maybe that is what is going on. I think there is something else happening, and it has interesting implications for teaching rapier outside of the SCA.

I think the secret has to do with the difference between how children learn and how adults learn, and something called Habitus.

Kids learn from doing the right thing and being praised for it at the right time. Adults learn from trying to do things that are way beyond their comfort level. BTW, if you want cites for that, too damn bad. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, so go do your own research.

SCA rapier practice is excellent at adult instruction. Routinely, you are given a few brief lessons on how to hold a sword and how to stand, taught the safety rules…maybe a rudimentary footwork drill and some parries. And then you are out on the fighting floor. Right away you have to try and put all those pieces together and try to hit some other guy. All they while trying not to get hit. And the guy you are fighting might be either a current inter-kingdom champion, or someone as new as you.

The brain works really hard under those circumstances. It’s an immersion learning process coupled with the swift darwinian filter of being hit with a sword. With the right stimulus…damn straight you can make an excellent fighter.

Quality of opponent certainly effects the training outcome, but with nothing a more thoroughly taught rapier fighter would consider training, never mind drilling, happening, how is it that some fighter develop notable styles? And those styles are easily seen to be not only transmissible, but effective in bouting. With the huge variety of opponents fought, each fighter should exhibit unique styles. They don’t. Experienced fighters can tell in a heartbeat where someone is from, when they started training and often who trained them. How?

Imagine three people standing side by side. Let’s make them clones. Identical musculature for our purpose. Identical builds (their training has not affected their muscle development different from one another) and length of training. One clone is a boxer. One is a wrestler. One is a ballet dancer.

Do you imagine all three of our clones standing the same? Walking the same? Lounging on the couch or arguing with a drunk the same? We don’t, and in reality we would not see them do these things the same, because they will have incorporated the Habitus, the physical mannerisms of not only their practice, but of those they practice with and are inspired to imitate. We feel a physical camaraderie with the people we train with because we all share some postural habits in common. In our movements and in our fighting we echo each other. This is rarely directly trained.

The habitus you incarnate has a powerful effect on your style. This is hugely important in rapier, where small ticks or habits can result in large openings in your game. When you train with the same partners all the time habitus can be detrimental if it is not effective for a style, because the bad habits become ingrained. This happens because the habitus is subconscious, and because it is a group marker, we ignore it. We tend to not exploit what we see as a signal of pack-membership. But fighting outside of our local pack, everything is fair game.

Tempers often flair in cross-group bouting, because people are being struck in ways that they are unused to. It’s outside of their experience and may feel unfair. Some fighters get angry, some tend to dismiss the blows. If someone has a habitus that naturally exploits the habitus of others, they may gain an inflated sense of ability while lacking a technical foundation to back it up.

Some SCA habitus is excellent, and some is quite poor. The HEMA world considers it’s technical training superior, but it lacks the inherent understanding of habitus as a powerful tool of transmission of skill. The downside of recreating an art from historical manuals is that there is no habitus to re-create, and it must be assumed from training partners. If the practitioners comes from a sport or classical fencing background, or Asian martial art style, we might see this habitus carry over. Lacking the deep immersion shock learning method of the SCA, it’s entirely possible to inculcate a habitus that has no real applicability to martial application.

Moving forward, SCA rapier can certainly benefit from picking up training habits from their HEMA/WMA fellows. And the HEMA/WMA world should be looking to the multi-decades experience of the SCA fighters to find varied habitus that might be of great value to keeping their art viable in future.

Blow Calling and Context

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When I started in the SCA, lo those many years ago, things were great. We had what felt like a unified approach to dealing with how to acknowledge hits from rapiers, and it had been tested out over time and found to be good.

The context was first blood duel, assumed light shirts/clothing worn, and a sword pointed and sharp on both edges. You call the shot landed on you if you felt it, regardless if you thought it was good or not, and the other guy would tell you if it was actually good or not. Honourable and adult conduct was to be assumed at all times.

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The idea behind this is that you can’t always tell how you’ve been hit, especially with a sharp. People who have been stabbed for real can back this up, as they mostly think they’ve been hit with a very light punch or two. You can see lots of video where someone gets stabbed, wanders around for a bit all confused, and then collapses. The person attacking you in the SCA context should have, if anything, a better idea of how their shot landed than you will. They know their own edge alignment and intent.

If we assume honourable conduct, this works pretty well. There was a strong social structure in place to indoctrinate people into this habit, and scold/correct bad behaviour.

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About the time I started, a lot of other people did as well. SCA rapier was growing by leaps and bounds, and the prevalence of actual steel rapiers, as opposed to fiberglass simulators or modern epee’s helped tremendously. With growth came inevitable problems.

Down South, they had problems with people flailing about. The problem folk were happy to land any kind of slop, and reluctant to call it back.

Up North, we had problems with people ignoring shots. Problem folk seemed happy to ignore any shot they could get away with ignoring.

In time, North and South dealt with the problem folk. As a consequence of how they dealt with the issue, South developed a habit of ignoring sloppy shots, or actively calling out anything they received that they thought was sloppy. North got into a habit of calling absolutely anything, even things they thought may have touched, but didn’t feel. All worked fine and well.

Until North met South. North was very proud of it’s skill in cutting attacks, and had made them a core of it’s fighting style. South was wary after their run in with problem folk. So…South started to ignore cuts from North, and questioned every blow. North saw this as the South being just another one of it’s problems, and responded by throwing more cuts to make the attacks clearer.

Tempers flared. At one point, I swore to never cross the border south and fence ever again. I had too many run ins with rhino-skinned fighters, some who would take injuries and still tell you your blow was invalid. North complained about South never taking shots, and South complained about North hitting to hard…and both sides accused the other of not following the rules, nor understanding there intent.

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To be clear here, the good and the exceptional fighters in both North and South had no problem with fighting with each other. We understood the context and had experience with each other, and our bouts with each other were fought with mutual understanding. But when we fought the new or problem fighters, problems occured. Serious problems. When we got together to discuss and change rules and how to implement them, fighters that were in agreement in bouts got in heated arguments about interpretation, each side defending it’s unspoken worry about it’s own problem children. Each side started to see the other side as promoting the worst of bad behaviour, and couldn’t understand why the other side was being so dense about it.

The problem between North and South was caused by issues within their own sides, and each side’s effort to correct it’s own problems caused a clash when the two sides met. Instead of explaining their reasoning, and the issues that had caused them to come up with the solutions they did, each side dug in it’s heels about being right. Without context, there was pointless conflict.

When you move to defend your own position, it’s very easy to see the other side as being the worst example. Two good fighters from either camp can fight and see no difference in how each interprets blows, but once the spoken positions are out in the open, might find themselves in violent opposition, and accusing the other of making a farce out of their noble game.

I’m pretty sure I could fence any rapier fighter in the world (who isn’t a jackass, and yes I know there are some) for an afternoon, and we’d have a good time and have no issues disagreeing about who killed each other with what shot. Weapons dictate use, and in many ways dictate the social habits we incarnate as we bout. I’ve fought martial artists from all over the world, armed and unarmed, many style and weapons, and disagreement is rare. Not extremely rare, but rare. The more in common our weapons are, the rarer disagreement.

But online? I fear we aren’t too far away in the HEMA/WMA rapier world from calling one side thugs with shit control and no sense of how to use a real sword, and the other side a bunch of pansies afraid of getting hit and having no idea of how to attack with commitment. Which is complete and utter bullshit. And if we don’t stomp on it now, we are going to breed disdain and hatred between groups. Most especially when those groups are thousands of kilometers apart, and will only rarely get the chance to cross blades and really understand each other.

So you can make assumptions about what other people do, and have one side see you as an unredeemable ass while your side might cheer you on, or you can try to understand that even though someone else might do something that seems different from what you do, it might have a very sound reasoning for being that way…and if you had the chance to meet and bout, you might find those differences insignificant in reality.

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Tourney Time

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The bulk of my rapier training, before moving into full-time teaching, was for tournament fighting. At my peak, I think in a two year period I hit about 70 tournaments. Never won one, but towards the end I had a consistent habit of second place or at least in the finals. The preceding years saw greater and greater participation. My life was focused around competing and training for competing, and my marriage(s) and work history do reflect that. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time to make a five hour round trip to Seattle for a chance to spend half an hour sparring new people, and then head to Oregon that weekend for what amounted to about two minutes of sword time in a tournament.

I admit to getting a little burned out on tournaments. I no longer have the fire to compete, and have found new challenges to keep me focused on improving. My interest in rapier competition cost me a lot, but I also clearly recall the benefits. They’ve carried me firmly forward in life with no regrets on that score.

Vancouver is an interesting city. We have a deep history of Western Martial Arts practice, with many exceptional practitioners. But the tourney scene has sort of died stillborn each time something was tried. Part of it is a sense of wariness about other schools and reputations, same as in any martial art. Another aspect is a sense of sameness. The community feels small and there is no fun or adventure in competing against the same people all the time.

The problem is competitions are, and always have been, the best way for schools to meet each other. It’s the best way to share what we know, without the ego of arguing who knows better. We fight, and win or lose, we adapt to each other. We are changed by the experience and we walk away a different person, carrying some part of the others style with us. Without this exposure, each school becomes more and more of an isolated and entrenched island, and protectionism becomes an insidious aspect of teaching.

It’s time for Valkyrie to host a tournament, and I hope we can get the tourney scene in Vancouver kicked back into life. I want for my students all the benefits that competition taught me. Our first tournament is tomorrow.

Choosing a format took some thinking. I’ve fought in almost every tournament format imaginable, as have most SCA fighters. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. For our tournament, I wanted to try something new.

The tournament rules are built around the fighters having the best possible experience. The initial assumption is that all fighters are either mature adults, or willing to act as such. The adjudication in bouts is intended to support this, not overrule.

A bout is won when a blow is landed to the satisfaction of both fighters. Both fighters must feel that the telling blow was one they were happy to win with or lose to. Fighters will call blows that landed on them, and the fighter that landed the blow is responsible for declaring misaligned cuts or other invalid attacks. Fights will be to assumed first blood, and the blow calling standard will be assumed to sharp swords against light cloth. Fighters that have not had a chance to try using a sharp against an appropriate carcass will be calibrated before the bouts begin.

Ignoring shots landed, refusing to call back bad shots, excessive force, and other bad behaviour will result in ejection from the tournament. There may or may not be a warning issued first.

The referee/judges exist to provide necessary feedback to the fighters, and to ensure a smooth flow of action. If the fighters are unsure of what happened, or have different opinions of what happened, they will either receive clarification or direction to re-fight. The gold standard for a good blow is that a spectator from across the room should immediately know who won and who lost.

Fighters will be fighting with their best weapon combination, or single sword as preferred.

Aside from the conventions of the fight, the tournament format is designed to showcase not just the fighters, but there struggles and accomplishments over their fight career. It’s my hope to have quarterly tournaments under the same format, and the results of the previous tournament determine initial ranking in the current tournament. I want to create fans of rapier fighting, so I hope to give them the tools that fans of other sports have…anticipation of good match ups, win/loss statistics to track, ability to recognize when someone is on a tear, or when a major upset has happened and when to cheer for an underdog. I’m heavily inspired by the Sumo Basho’s for this.

Fighters have been sorted into categories based on their tournament experience rather than their technical ability. Each category of fighter will fight amongst themselves. Fighters with majority wins will be promoted up the ranks in their category, and majority losses will be demoted. Exceptional performance will be rewarded with promotion up a category, and a poor showing may result in a fighter being demoted a category. New categories will be added as more fighters join the tournament series. There will be a winner for each category as well as an overall winner.

The first pairings have already been announced on Facebook:

Round One
Category One:
1. Holmfeld vs. Olmedo
2. Nelson vs. Kittel

Category Two:
1. Persad vs. Chiu
2. Ring vs. Both
3. Van Humbeck vs. Sadowski
4. Fernandes vs. Rice*

Category Three:
1. Chan vs. Grassick
2. Smit vs. Wemyss
3. Litchfield vs. Hoffman

Round Two
Category One:
1. Nelson vs. Cat2Winner1
2. Kittel vs. Cat2Winner2
3. Olmedo vs. Cat2Winner3
4. Holmfeld vs. Fernandes*

Category Two:
1. Loser1 vs. Loser2
2. Loser3 vs. Chan*

Category Three:
No fights this round.

Pairings will continue this fashion for a total of 15 rounds. Category One and Two fighters will fight 15 fights, Category Three fighters will fight 8. There will be a winner in each category, the fighter with the most victories, and if need be there will be playoffs.

Winners and next round pairings will be announced on social media as they happen, and I’ll post the full results here afterwards.

On Making My Martial Arts School a “Safe Space”

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Kaja(s)words. Kaja Sadowski is an instructor and co-owner at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly.

A rainbow of boxing wraps at VWMAA

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “safe spaces”. Between constant articles about coddled university students who want to be protected at all costs from the real world, a recent blowup in the online HEMA community about letting Neo-Nazis air their views in martial arts forums, and the needs I’ve seen brought up in my local community in the wake of a disastrous Women’s Self-Defense news segment, there’s been ample opportunity to reflect on how we’ve chosen to mold our own space at Valkyrie WMAA. From the start, we’ve taken a pretty hard line on diversity and discrimination: we’ve got a clear and strict anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy; actively shut down unwelcoming behaviour among students and visitors; and have made serious efforts to make the space accessible and welcoming to everyone, from gender-neutral bathrooms and changerooms, to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and training areas, to the prominently-placed pride flag in our front window.

It’s easy to ascribe our stance to the fact that co-owner Courtney and I are both women (and one of us a queer woman), or to leftist politics. I mean, we put out faux “feminist propaganda” posters for International Women’s Day, and have been quite vocal in our support of LGBT rights and anti-discrimination initiatives within our community. I’m not going to deny that those things factor into my business choices, but the main reason for wanting to run Valkyrie WMAA the way we do is a simple, pragmatic, and apolitical one: I want my students to learn.

It’s really very straightforward. I’m a martial arts instructor. My job – my calling – is to train my students in my chosen arts. I aim to impart a complex range of technical knowledge that extends from precise motions of the body and blade, to global movements and body awareness, to high-speed tactical decision-making. It’s physically challenging, and mastery demands a lot of the human body. It’s also often psychologically challenging, as it pushes students to deal with their reluctance to harm others, and to negotiate their relationship with violence. This stuff is hard. Very hard. And, as the owner and operator of a school, an integral part of my job is creating an environment in which my students can best learn all of this very hard stuff.

If a female student is worried about whether the guy she’s partnered with is going to hit on her again, or “accidentally” grab her breast, or refuse to hit her in drills, she can’t focus on her training. If an Asian student feels like he has to prove he’s not a bookish stereotype, or has to put up with constant shitty Kung Fu jokes, he can’t focus on his training. If a queer student is anxious about how their fellow students will react when their partner comes to pick them up after class, or a transgender student is stuck worrying they’ll be called out for using the “wrong” bathroom or misgendered by their training partner, they can’t focus on their training. All of these students end up in a position where their learning suffers, because they can’t put 100% of their energy and effort into their training and instead have to deal with the background noise of harassment and discrimination. If I put them in that position, I have failed them as an instructor.

In martial arts in particular, this matters even more, because the vast majority of our training is partnered. Not only do we work together with our fellow students during drilling, but a substantial portion of that drilling involves hitting and being hit by your partner. If you cannot trust them to use force appropriately, and to both keep you safe and take your training needs seriously, you cannot learn. We place an enormous amount of trust in our training partners, and being paired with someone who doesn’t reward that trust can end in serious injury at worst, and a miserable training experience at best.

By actively and aggressively building my school into a safe space for all students, I’m simply ensuring that they can learn. This, at its core, is what “safe spaces” are really about – they are spaces where everyone can cast aside the weight of everyday life (whether that’s poverty, suffering, and discrimination, or the smaller annoyances of bad traffic and irritating co-workers) and focus entirely on the task at hand. In my school, that task is learning physical and mental skills that may well help my students cope with the very real challenges of life outside their training space. They shouldn’t be forced to bring those challenges inside with them.

Double Death Decisions

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I hate double kills. It annoys me to no end when I see students do it, I hate it when it happens to me, and I find it inexcusable when I see it happen in tournaments.  And yet somehow despite my hate, they continue to happen.

Back in my SCA days, we tried a number of methods to get rid of them. We mucked about with the rules and training. We tried making double kills destructive, removing both participants from a tourney. The bad result of this, especially in single-elim tourneys (one received hit and you are out of the tournament,) was that the “good” fighters were getting knocked out by less experienced fighters…and by each other. It was not a satisfying method of determining who was the best fighter. Made tournament wins seem too much like luck and not enough like skill.

We also tried to change up training. Did the pushups for double-kill thing. Ran mock tournaments with different scorings for different kinds of hits. Tried using hit priority. Tried lots of things. Couldn’t really say anything had any more effect than just making us feel more bad…no, that’s not true.

What it did was make us feel more smug that the problem was always the other guy, not those of us with better training. We grew an ego that said that since we had done some training toward not double-killing, it had to be the other guys fault no matter what.

When I moved into teaching historical fencing outside of the SCA, we had the perfect solution. Good technical training in rigidly analyzed manual oriented fencing would clean the problem up. Obviously the historical masters were perfect, so if we perfectly apply their lessons, there will be no double kills because we will each be perfect. Except when the other guy does the wrong thing and we double kill. Damn it.

The joy in this approach, the practical result in observed fencing, is that as teachers and coaches we started to judge the two fighters when a double kill happens. We wanted one fighter to be more right than the other when we were assessing and giving feedback. So we judge on priority and technical choices to determine who had the better philosophy going into the exchange. Or to put it another way, there was a tendency towards favouritism of the more experienced student. Winning a fight is related to being able to explain yourself better afterwards, right?

After a while I just resigned myself to accepting that double kills happen. I geared my teaching more towards including right-of-way teaching on occasion. Mostly I just tried to move past my own grumpiness.

When I bought Maija Soderholm’sThe Liar the Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play” and got to spend time working with her system I started to pay attention to double kills again. Maija offered a new approach, not based on rigid technique, but on understanding the psychology of the fight itself. I started to re-examine the issue.

Observing two fighters one night, something clicked. A new-to-us fighter with experience in other styles was consistently double killing everyone. I was about to chew her out for not paying attention to her choices. I wanted to chew her out correctly, so I positioned myself behind her to see what she was seeing and try to figure out why she was making the choices she was.

Clarity. It was easy to see from her point of view. There was a clear opening. She’d manoeuvred herself to the right spot, had done all the right things, and there was a perfect opening. It wasn’t a rush to land a shot, to take a chance and get a lucky kill as I had previously thought and corrected other people on, but a logical process. Sadly the priority of awareness didn’t account for threat, but the opening was still a valid one by training.

The double kill pattern I’d been observing in historical fencers, and am still seeing in recent video footage, isn’t a result of risk-taking behaviour, but a result of training in what is right. It’s a logical consequence of the thinking they have been taught to do.

Valkyrie training has changed significantly since that insight. It will take a while till I see the results I want, but it’s happening. We are teaching students not to look for opportunities, not to think of potential techniques to fit into the puzzle the opponent is revealing. We are teaching them instead to be cognizant of all potential threats, and to work first on shutting down the threats. Movement, position, and bladework all fit together to do this.

Instead of just exploiting a transient opportunity, I want my students to put the work in to create a persistent opportunity in the opponent. Only when that persistent opening shows up do I want them to finish the pattern.

The nice thing about the work we’ve started is that it finally put all the pieces together for me to create an exam and ranking system that makes sense to me. I’ve never liked systems that unlock new material as you advance, when the new material does not require more significant skill development than that seen in new students. Ranks should teach and require skills that are unattainable without the work put in at lower levels, and we now have that.

The first rank exam a student takes asks them to demonstrate in sparring that they will not advance into a threat. Simple stuff, but not so easy for those of us who approach every bout with a full bag of tricks to try out. Common sense for new students, but some significant re-wiring for those of us in our second decade of rapier work. I’m seeing the results in my own fight game, and I hope to see results in students soon.