Monday, November 28, 2011

Steal from the Best

One more post about getting out of yourself, being someone else for a change, and understanding other peoples' movement and psychology. Because as you know, if 'All war is deception', then it's not all going to be about you.

Here is a new video clip of Steve Morris talking about self reliance and mindfulness, unfortunately the sound quality is rather bad, but you can make out what he's saying if you turn it up. I thought it was interesting in many respects, but in the context of this post I wanted to connect his idea about 'stealing from the best' with what Sonny called 'Mirroring' i.e. discovering useful material by copying others.

Steve Morris talks about 'watching the fight' and extracting material from it that you can play with and see how it integrates in what you do. I particularly love the part where Steve talks about 'being' Mike Tyson for a month, moving like him, immersing himself in his rhythm and fighting attitude.
Sonny had a similar, but different, way of doing this. He called it 'Mirroring' (though also used the same term for more specific mirroring - like in cut angle, or which side of the center line the hand moves).

Mirroring the whole person is about moving like your opponent, being their real, live, reflection in a mirror - Stepping with them. weight shifting with them, moving the blade and hands like them etc, the only difference is adding the pendulum concept in the forward back direction to avoid clashing (if they move towards you, you do not close on them you step back, they step back, you move forward).
It's not something you can do 100% of the time as the flow tends to stop. There is a skill to keeping it going by noticing the natural breaks in the opponent's rhythm and breaking off also, perhaps instigating an entry, then back to mirroring to understand the reaction.
It's also not an intellectual exercise, it's a 'feeling' practice, which is why you have to flow to practice it, at least at first.
Everyone that trained with Sonny got to flow a great deal with the man himself, and thus got a chance to mirror him, his movement, and his many, many, different rhythms. It was hugely valuable and obviously helped us 'steal from the best'. However, I would say that it was also immensely valuable to try mirroring everyone I flowed with to try to understand how they moved, just the fact they were not me gave me new ideas and ways to move I'd never thought of before regardless of their skill level.

Mirroring within flow also makes it easier to watch movement on video and 'feel' it, and be able to steal from there too, as Morris does, but you definitely need a context to put it in or it is rather meaningless.
For instance, I can watch soccer or snowboarding, and though I can possibly find stuff in their movement patterns to help my dueling, there is no connection in my body to what they are doing in their context, so the visual information is only pertinent to what I actually, physically, practice, and can integrate in my personal 'real wold' experience.
Also, though Steve Morris, with his wealth of actual fighting experience, can insert new ideas pretty easily into his repertoire with probably little or no separation between seeing something and internalizing it, when he coaches his guys, they try out new ideas shadow boxing or on the bag, in partner drills and sparring. These ideas then get tested in the ring, to see what works for each individual and what does not.

In our system, we practice mirroring in flow and test in sparring/dueling with a variety of opponents. Having a variety of ways to move depending on your opponent is the goal, finding what works for you and against whom.

As an aside, not everyone's moves are keepers in a bigger sense of expanding one's tool box- but using a personal rhythm against itself - i.e mirroring the opponent as a tactic, is certainly useful. It's hard to explain in print, but watch soccer or basketball defensive play to see what I'm talking about. Couple mirroring with breaking the mirror, and leading off the opponent's rhythm, and you have much of what you need to understand them, steal from them if you wish, and hopefully beat them too.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Stack the Deck

The Vikings vs Finns post illustrates the difference in tactical choices between a highly armed, superior force and a smaller, weaker one. The Finns take their stuff and run for the forests, fighting guerrilla style - hit and run, from cover - as the Vikings retreat with whatever booty they have managed to pillage. Not sure about their magical ability to create storms of course, but nice timing all the same. They menace, in sight, from the shore to make sure the invaders don't land again.

About 800 years later, my father did military service, as did (and do) pretty much all men in Finland. He was basically taught to fight guerrilla style - hide, fight and run, using the natural environment, trees and snow, as cover - The best option for an out-manned and out-gunned force, which Finland with a population about 5 million (that's half the population of London living in a country the size of Italy), will always be.
The most famous Finnish example of this, of course, is The Winter War, when the Finns took on Stalin's invading army and succeeded in pushing them back despite all odds.  

How does this little excursion into Finnish history relate to dueling you might ask ....? After all is it not hard to equate a full scale war or straight out ambush with 2 parties facing off (unless they have friends and are not interested in 'honor' and a matching of skills of course .....)?
Well, the underlying connecting piece, at least to me, is this - Fighting from a level playing field is always undesirable, regardless of if you start 'even', or worse. Even if your skills are in theory better than your opponent, Murphy's Law always plays a part, so the common thread in all these examples is the necessity to stack the deck in your favor.
Of course some may consider this unfair, or call it 'cheating' ... but usually only if they lose.

Ways to do this -

- Increase your level of protection 
Hide in the forest, lie in the snow unseen, have a great defense, be out of range

- Be able to see, and seize the moment when it comes
The enemy is exposed (in a clearing), trapped (in the forest), or at a disadvantage (no exit)

- Deception [Mental, physical, and emotional.]
Intimidation/fear, feigned weakness, surprise, confusion, uncertainty/certainty

None of this is new. Strategists have written about it through the ages. The way Sonny said it was
Don't get hit. Learn to see. Tell a lie.

- First part is about you, your strengths, weaknesses, the best way to move and keep yourself protected.

- The second part about the 'you and them situation' (as Luo De Xiu would say), range, angle, timing, rhythm.

- Third part is about them .... perhaps a little about you, and the you and them situation, but mostly about who they are. You are deceiving them, not yourself, and if you are too much stuck in yourself, you cannot affect change in them. Some human psychology is pretty universal, but some, especially in a dueling situation is very particular to your opponent.

..... And of course there is always luck/witchcraft, but that you can only influence ... maybe ... Certainly not rely on .... :-)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Few Against The Many.

I have ancestors on both sides of the equation so I am not taking sides :-)
"Then he (Olav) sailed to Finland, landed and pillaged there, but all of the locals escaped into the forests and took all their possessions with them away from the area/region. The king ventured far inland and through some woods; there were valley regions called Herdalarna. They took some property, but no men. When evening drew near, the King began his way back to his ships. But when they returned to the woods, they were confronted by men from all sides, and harrassed and shot at fiercely. The King told his men to take cover/protect themselves. But before they could get out of the woods, he had lost many men and several were wounded. He arrived at the ships in the evening. In the night, the Finns created a great storm with their witch-craft. But the king ordered to lift up the anchor and raise the sails, and they travelled along the coast during the night. The King's good luck was then, like so often, more effective than the witch-craft of the Finns. They managed to sail along the coast of Balegard and then out to sea. But a band of Finnish warriors followed them on land as the king sailed along the coast." 


Friday, November 18, 2011

You .... Or Is It?

Rory Miller talks about how people have this tendency to stand in front of each other when fighting even though it's possibly the least sensible place to be. Of course, if your adversary knows you are coming, it's hard not to be caught in front, unless you are at a certain range and have the opportunity either through distraction or their movement towards you, to get around them ...

Another reason he postulates for this is the Monkey Dance paradigm - in a dominance type interaction (and dueling certainly falls into this category), it's part of the plan that a 'you' wins in relation to 'them'. Being in front makes sure they know who beat them.

So what happens if 'they' have your number, as it were?
You can't win as 'you' - they know 'you' are coming, can read who 'you' are, and on some level this means that everything 'you' do is a tell .......

Seems obvious, but you have to become someone who can instigate a rash decision, a mistake or cause a distraction in THEM. You need to change, and become whoever you need to become to make that happen. Sometimes it can be 'you', other times it can't.

Sonny was one of the few people I have seen fight/spar/play who could do so as many different 'people', changing his game to suit the moment and the opponent. I always admired this ability greatly, not only because it was fascinating to watch, but also because tactically, it made a great deal of sense.

“If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
"If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.
"If his forces are united, separate them.
"Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
Sun Tzu

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Neutral Points

Sonny had a term for places within movement where you could change your mind. In other words, places where you could 'hang out' (really for just a split second), wait for your opponent to commit, and decide if you yourself are going to go - left/right, in/out, strike/abort.
He called these places neutral points, or being 'in neutral'.
The weapon can be held in neutral positions, and footwork can be in neutral too.
The place where the feet pass each other when stepping is a neutral point. People rarely pay attention to it, though Bagua uses it as a focal point, probably for the same reason Eskrima does - it's important.
It's a great place to hide your intention, hide which side leg you are weighted on, and an easy place to switch weight from one side to the other and change direction, or get off line.

I wrote a post a while back about how Sonny used his knowledge of dance to create movement methods with a partner to practice dueling skills. I don't know the first thing about Salsa or Hustle dancing, or Cha Cha, so it was very cool last week when one of my students brought a friend to class who was in town for a visit. She is a professional dancer so I got her to teach us some basic steps and we all did some Cha Cha - Forward, center, cha cha cha, back, center, cha cha cha.
Cha cha cha are all neutral points.
As we were working on moving from weapon contact, the 'Sticky Blade' (akin to sticky hands) mentioned a couple posts back, it was a great place to put the two things side by side.
It was very interesting to add some syncopation, deception, and moving round, instead of straight to see how something cooperative can turn into something combative with very little effort.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gentlemen's Blood

Just finished re-reading Barbara Holland's fine book "Gentlemen's Blood: A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk.

Some reviewers have pointed out that the book has some flaws and errors, including the fact that there are no footnotes to back up some of the anecdotal stories, but it is a wonderful book, and a fascinating read none the less.

I think Barbara Holland would have been a fabulous neighbor. I woulds have loved to listen to her talk about life and the universe over a cup of tea ... or perhaps a few shots of whiskey.
Her wit is razor sharp, her humor as cutting as the duels she writes about. Her sense of irony is pitch perfect and lord knows I would not have wanted to be on the receiving end of her insults, sometimes so off hand and subtle you would not have felt the wound until you had bled out.

Here is a excerpt from the end of the book:

"Unfortunately, like the impersonal pistol replacing the personal sword, the weapons involved have moved a long way from the human hand. ......
"Battle now is not only too mechanized, it's also too big. Thousands of people can be killed at a clip, in the blink of an eye. Since Hiroshima, the idea of making elaborate arrangements to try to kill a single man seem ludicrous; surely one enemy's death is hardly worth the trouble of unsheathing a sword.
 Or perhaps it is."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Counter Intuitive

Things that feel counter intuitive (I'm sure there are more ...) -

1a) For swords with edges, holding your blade closer to you is safer than holding it away from you (distance varies depending on single or 2 handed weapon).
1b) If cornered and panicked, it's safer to pull your sword towards your center than slash about away from your body.

2) Looking at an incoming cut is safer than turning your head away from it.

3) From contact, it's often safer to close on your opponent than back out again.

4) You can reach further if you drop lower.

5) Letting go the weapon is sometimes safer than trying to keep hold of it.

6a) You can gain advantage by slowing down.
6b) Stealing the timing by slowing down or stopping can be just as effective as speeding up.

7) One of the most dangerous moments for you is when you are striking.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Pre-dawn Toyama-Ryu sword class was awesome again. Worked and talked on many things including how arcs meet straight lines and the deflection that creates.
Also the connection of the sword to the person and the person WITH their sword to the opponent - For power strikes, relative positioning (strong vs weak lines) is just as important as being able to reach the target ... especially when body checking comes into play.
Also looked at hooking and weight shifting, controlling space and creating distance, and choosing same side, or crossing of the center line. (Basically choose In or out? Left or right?)
Well, no surprise, but it turns out that all these elements require your feet to be under you and your body and feet working WITH the sword .. and by extension the opponent, to create 1) Safety and defensive line, 2) Advantage (angle and time) and 3) Power when needed.

Funnily enough, yesterday in Eskrima we were also looking at positioning, timing, set ups and moving off line. In Eskrima the only difference is that we were using single handed, shorter swords where power generation is less of an issue.The rest of the stuff - positioning, distance, timing, arcs ... all very similar.
And as far as the 'having your feet underneath you' part - absolutely crucial.
Now this is not a static thing. Steve Morris talks about moving the head and having the feet catch you, and especially in sword dueling, this is an essential skill - the head after all is a huge target, and taking it off line is a great idea in itself, and as a side effect is one of the fastest ways of having the rest of your body follow.
Sometimes though as a pre-set, if you are, say, setting your opponent up,  or creating an exit, it's wise to set up the feet and weight in a way to make the next step, and change of angle possible without telegraphing.
Sonny called this 'Puntaria' and is based on the very simple idea that if you point your toes at something, when you shift your weight to that leg, your hips will face in that direction. Point your toes at your opponent, and when you step on to that foot, you should be facing them.
Trick is to keep your knee and foot pointing in the same direction, and to let your body and weapon align above.
Note, it is REALLY important not to be flat footed. A firm footing is key for issuing power, but learn how to pivot, either on the heel, but mostly on the ball of the foot to move - you'll be much more mobile, and you'll save your knees into the bargain.
Also, learn how to hook step, and how to shift your foot even with weight is on it, and make sure you don't get caught with your legs crossed at an inappropriate moment :-)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Unless you are one of the rare few (are there any?) who have spent their whole life training or at leisure, practicing healthy exercise without injury, you will have used your body up in some way.
Age and wear takes it's toll. Gravity is a one way street. Entropy is omnipresent.
Work - from sitting at a desk all day, or in a car, to doing the hardest manual labor, will crunch, stack, compress, twist, misalign, and repetitiviely strain your body ... and that's not including injury - tendons that never quite go back to how they were, scar tissue that restricts range of motion and blood flow, bones broken, cracked and healed ... maybe straight ... maybe crooked.

Thing is, we are all like this, it's what life IS, and it's unavoidable .... well, perhaps some of the stuff from the 'stupid' file could have been avoided, but the rest ...? We all live there. They are fact, real, normal.
So please ... stop complaining. Use what you have. Work from where you ARE not from where you would prefer to be, or some fantasy alternative that does not exist.
Can't put your feet parallel? Can't squat? Can't straighten your fingers, wiggle your toes, fold in your hips, freely rotate your joints, flex your spine evenly?
Think you 'should' be able to do all these things? Sure, but if you've never spent any time doing them, why should you be able to?
Because I can? Other people can?
Well ... I can because I practice, other people probably because they practice too.
Do I have asymmetries, aches, repetitive strain injuries, old injuries, a job that 'damages' my body? Yes.
Can I ever be 'perfect'? No.
Can I be better? Yes.

You can mitigate a bunch of the wear that your body goes through every day, heal some stuff, improve a bunch more and generally work towards your potential IF ... and it is a big IF .... you pay attention, and work at it. Regularly, every day, all the time if you are a big enough nerd and have some imagination.
You are never going to be 'perfect' (what does that mean anyway?) but you could be way better than you ever thought you would be. So stop complaining, this is what life is. Work on yourself, let go of perfection, or some fantasy of your lost youth, and start moving towards your own, real, full potential, now, in the real present.
And no ... it's never too late to start.