sábado, 8 de agosto de 2015

HEMA: From its identity to its unique challenges

At Historical European Martial Arts' (HEMA) events trainees are given access to a wide range of martial systems, including both unarmed (ringen) and armed combat arts (the latter including both sword and stick systems).

Given this, an analogy that works for me is to see the practice of HEMA's full martial spectrum similar to that of a track and field competitor focusing on the decathlon ... in short, a potentially very adaptable set of martial skills but, at the same time, an extremely demanding multi-discipline training experience.   

However, just like what occurs in track and field, due to many different reasons (from lack of training time, to weapon specific motivational factors) most trainees end up focusing on one discipline. Consequently, here is where marketing usually plays a role, making certain disciplines "cooler" than others.

One of HEMA's lesser sought out disciplines is Jogo do Pau (Portuguese / European stick fighting). Given that I instruct, amongst other things, Jogo do Pau, I would complain about how unfair this is ... if not for the fact that fairness is a human concept and one towards which the energy that governs life is, by definition, a stranger to.

Instead, I would simply like to point out that, unlike HEMA's remaining weapon systems, Jogo do Pau is, not only a living tradition, but a living tradition that preserved the practice of both duelling and outnumbered combat

That being the case, Jogo do Pau's unbroken lineage of several centuries culminated in a fully structured curriculum that carries the potential of being useful to HEMA's research and interpretation of ancient manuals ... a blueprint if you will, similar to what is offered by living grappling systems to ringen.

However, to achieve such benefit, does one need to learn the whole system that makes up Jogo do Pau? Well, it was like that until recently, but no, not any longer.

Through the recently re-released DVD "FROM BATTLEFIELDS TO DUELLING: The evolution of Jogo do Pau" viewers  can access how the art's technique and tactics developed over time, as an adaptation to a variety of combat circumstances, e.g. how outnumbered combat and duelling against opponents of different traits brought about specific adaptations regarding combatants' selection of:

1 - Starting position
2 - Parrying technique
3 - Defensive footwork
4 - Counter attack selection
5 - Striking technique

Additionally, a thorough and straight forward presentation is also shared on how these concepts apply in interpreting historical weapon manuals.

This presentation successfully covers a practical top-down interpretation of the combat tactics that make up German longsword, thus promoting the optimization of fencers' tactical decision making.

Finally, you can check here the recently published review by Alwin Goethals (SWARTA's lead instructor) and, in case you are interested in adding this DVD to your HEMA / martial arts collection of study material, here is a 20% discount offer (valid till next Wednesday). Order here (Discount code ZBB55D9G)

quinta-feira, 16 de julho de 2015


Though "seeing to believe" makes sense, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt ... otherwise it would ultimately mean "seeing to have knowledge" (as in an understanding of things). 

First, if the latter were true, blind people would be incapable of accessing any kind of knowledge, which is certainly not true.

Secondly, our eyes are incapable of seeing everything. There is, for example, a wealth of information such as psychology's concepts of personality, ego, self-esteem, and so forth, that most people perceive to be clear as water to them without, however, having ever seen them. 

Regarding the teaching of motor skills, including those that make up martial arts, our eyes grant us access to the images of movements being performed by others. When these others are top level performers, we naturally go about focusing our teaching around that which is most objective:

The visual imagery of movement being performed.

The performance of a strike, as seen by an external observer

As a result, we teach by demonstrating a given skill, so that students see it being performed and, hence, are capable of adding it to their own repertoire of motor skills. However, this doesn't always work out so well, which immediately brings a bit of doubt into this teaching approach.

Furthermore, upon questioning the above mentioned high level performers about their skills, we come to realize that, in many cases, they are either incapable of describing how they perform (move) or their descriptions differ from that which actually takes place. 

Consequently, and despite the obvious usefulness of our eyes in many different circumstances, what if understanding the performance of motor skills requires a different kind of analysis? 

Case in point, understanding the mental procedures that go on inside performers' heads, and that lead to those wonderful performances we wish to mimic: 

Humans' very own black box!   

Lucky for us that, for several decades now, many researchers of motor control & performance have looked into this. Making a long story short, they came up with a new model known as the ecological perspective of human movement ... and no, it doesn't have anything to do with saving the planet, though that is also an important issue. 

Adapting the parry to fit the strike,
plus footwork to fit the location / countering options
Simply put, this alternative model presents motor skills, not as something we copy from others, but as something that results from performers' ability to adapt to different types of stimuli (physical traits of the stimulus, its speed, etc) using their own personal movement tools (body size, physical abilities, previous skills).

Personally, given that I love teaching, I even find this teaching approach more interesting to analyse, plan and implement.

Nevertheless, teaching is about students achieving their performance goals and, the people whom I've had the pleasure of serving over the years using this ecologic teaching approach come back to me with very positive feedback. 

My two cent then, give it a try ... you'll enjoy it and your students will love it!  

segunda-feira, 13 de julho de 2015


To this day I've mostly seen instructors focusing their teaching around: 

  1. Demonstrating a skill, 
  2. Offering a description of it, 
... and then expecting (hoping) that trainees just perform it.

When confronted with trainees who fail to "simply" perform the skill in question, this teaching approach usually gets instructors to develop the belief that successful learning requires natural talent and, ultimately:

Their method is not to blame for trainees' failures.

Furthermore, instructors also tend to (conveniently) consider that this premise is validated by the trainees who manage to successfully perform the instructor's demonstration / explanation ... even if it is a low percentage of students,  such as one in ten.

There are, however, two situations that I absolutely love that challenge this (instructors' ego protective) natural talent excuse:

  1. Teaching kids,
  2. Teaching people with a disability.

Of course that instructors can always (and very easily) come up with a wealth of excuses so as avoid dealing with such (ego threatening) teaching scenarios. Nevertheless, embracing such challenges gets instructors to face the following scenario: 

Yes, the trainee is not naturally talented ... deal with it!

I love teaching, period ... but these scenarios are the best! 

Here you have to take ownership of the results that your teaching brings about, which forces you to: 

  • Go that extra mile in figuring out what is holding back the trainee, 
  • Stop relying on theoretical explanations of skills,
  • Step outside the box regarding the creation of drills.

It's an amazing process but, as if this wasn't enough by itself, its successful completion ends up giving me additional insight & teaching strategies for dealing with the more typical normal adult trainee ... remember? The one we initially decided to cast aside under the assumption that we were dealing with a lost cause. 

In summary, remember that one thing is to know the contents that make up your art (what to teach), and another completely different beast is to be a proficient teacher of it (how to teach). Regarding the latter, take full ownership of the results and don't accept failure. Bottom line, give your students the same relentless dedication & creativity that you also like to receive.

quinta-feira, 9 de julho de 2015

Searching for martial effectiveness / validity (Part 2)

Previously I shared the following thought (guideline):

When adding a safety net to your martial practice, 
focus on training so as to preserve the art's skills, 
instead of focusing on performing something different 
under a high degree of emotional stress
then, if you so wish, "simply" add risk / stress to it.

In making the transference from theory (concept) to practice (training conditions), how does this play out in terms of gear selection? More specifically, how to go about choosing between the art's original weapons and padded versions?

Well, simply put, combat is made up by a very delicate balance between offense and defense, as shown by the following equation:

Offense (strike opponent) + Defense (protect oneself)
= Being cautiously aggressive 

This means that the greatest danger of sabotaging the martial validity of one's practice resides in feeling safe (as a result of the safety net added to one's practice) and, thus, neglecting defense. This is easily seen when fighters fail to parry themselves and clearly disregard hits to their body, namely to their head (I mean to their helmet / mask) ... as they focus on "out-striking" their opponent. 

Therefore, having a safety net made up by either padded weapons or the original weapons complemented by body armour is exactly the same, in that both scenarios present trainees with the challenge of seeing the fine balance that must exist between offense and defense being disrupted ... and both scenarios call for a training environment where trainees aren't allowed to simply strike through the hits they receive. 

The main difference between using the art's original weapons or padded ones has to do with whether fighters' proprioceptive feel for the weapon and their technique is changed when wielding adapted weapons. This can very easily be the case, but then again, the use of the art's original weapons at maximum speed may sometimes be too dangerous, thus bringing about free-play at sub-maximum speeds ... which is all but realistic.  

Hence, here are a few thoughts you may find useful:
  • Practice while respecting the hits you receive,
  • Choose the gear that allows you to practice at maximum speed.  

Since, usually, the latter also needs to take into account choosing gear that is financially accessible and, ideally, easy to carry around, padded weapons offer many advantages. 

Choosing the art's original weapons is, of course, another valid option ... but do make sure you use them at maximum speed while also respecting the strikes you receive. Otherwise, emotional stress might even be present in your practice, but the skills being learnt are sabotaged through defensive negligence. 

Do so and your combat tactics will be martially sound, meaning that they will work in your art's original combat setting: unprotected sparring. Speaking of combat tactics, here is some food for thought on a specific strategy defended by some.

Wish you the continuation of an amazing martial experience.