Had one of those nice embarrassing teacher moments last class. I scolded a student for doing something a few of the students are prone to do…speeding up a shot to take advantage of a random opening. In this case, the scolding was because it resulted in a blistering shot to the top of my mask. Way above the level of acceptable impact. Being an experienced martial artist, the student apologized. I had no more worries, I knew he would be able to recalibrate with no issues…he just needed some feedback on force.

So two passes later, I’m facing the same student. This time I’m working with cloak and rapier. I spoil his shot by dropping my cloak on his blade mid thrust, the weight of it pulling his tip just below his intended target and resulting in a clean miss. I counter with a sneaky quick little shot up into his blindspot…but the cloak catches my blade as well, and the light body shot becomes a stiff shot to the hip with an unbending blade. Oops. My turn to apologize. Ah, humility.

Some fights later, and I’m up against Worf, a left-handed fighter who can throw a brutal hard shot at whip speed when he wants to. By this point, I’m starting to warm up. I’ve won a few fights in a row, and am relaxing into my best open game. My rapier is very extended, and I’m well covered behind it. With good cover, I’m able to use fast movement and feints to open up positions in my opponent that I can exploit. I don’t have to reach to hit my targets, but can simply move the blade a few inches and place it on incoming openings. It’s a game I love, but only clicks for me once in a while. Tonight it was on in fine form.

Worf threw his best whip shot, but it was easy to dodge back and under it using a variation of a wrestling split level change…sort of a reverse lunge. It’s one of the big openings you can achieve against an off-handed fighter, turning their strength into a weakness, allowing you access to their inside right. Wanting to fight with maximum safety, I chose the closest target to me as a counter-attack…Worf’s right forearm. It was held forward, dagger in hand, to ward off any follow-up attacks. It’s usually the right thing to do, but since I was inside and behind the lines, it not a defense, but a target. I could hit it while taking an angled step back outside to safety, so I did.

It was an almost-straight arm false edge cut, with my body momentum behind it. I hardly moved my arm at all…just straightening it a little so that my blade would be in place to catch any chasing attacks. Hardly any motion. It still hit Worf hard enough to take him out of the fights for the night. He had a nice twice-blade-width contusion on his hand. Would have been a hefty blood blister, except that I had managed to scrape some of his skin off, even through his leather gloves. Oops. Two hard hits in night, my fault or no, the rule is you are out of the fights for the night. Sigh.

One of my favourite shots, but because of the false-edge lead, there is not a lot of flex when it hits. If I’m going to keep using it in sparring, I’m going to have to modify it to hit lighter. I may have to start hitting with the flat to make it softer. I could turn it into a thrust with a flick of the wrist, but then I would be open to counter attacks.

The hard shots I scold the students for mostly fall under the category of bad fencing. They happen when a student sees an “unearned” opening and effectively panics, flailing out to hit the opening in the brief second it’s open. Nine times out of ten, this is the cause of double-kills. Some people fence for years doing this. Some people become successful competitors doing this. When they plateau, they can’t understand why the wins stop happening. The early wins they get also teach them that what they learn in class has less value then what they “naturally” do in sparring, so they wind up conditioning themselves to not learn. They start to find value only in being faster…and start to blame other people’s poor defense for the hard hits they start to be known for.

This conditioning can start early, and really get its hooks into a student. It’s very common to see a student do this even in slow work, extending and hitting any opening they see…while practically pushing their face onto the opposing sword. It’s fairly easy to see why so many teaching systems rely on Pavlovian drills and artificial tournament conditions to try and “trick” students out of this behavior. It can be a real bear to try and teach students to look to survival first, not victory.

One on one slow work, teacher to student, is the best way to correct this problem. Next best is closely monitored slow work. Intermittent drills can also work, but it’s best if you explain to students why they are doing them. It’s also useful to explain period work from manuals, when teaching them, in priority of defense and safety first. Show first why the selected technique keeps you safe, through the whole range of the technique. Show where the escape points are if things go wrong. Teach it right, and the “finish” becomes not the cool and interesting part of the technique, but the boring part students want to skip past…just the way it should be in a fight.

Fight first to survive. Self-defense is the goal. Defense is the first priority of any good martial art.