Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The process of discovering who you are is fascinating, and often easier in review than in the moment.
I think there was probably a phase in my early 20s when I thought I could be any kind of person I wanted to be, but that belief did not contunue into my 30s when I started to notice that I had edges - things I was drawn to, things that make me happy, and things that make me angry and upset.
Who knew?
As I get older, these edges become a little harder and narrower, my patience for many things has worn thin and I find myself concentrating more and more on that which has held my interest over these many years - martial arts and the art of the sword.

Nothing wrong there .... Follow your passion and all that ....

But I was struck by a couple conversations recently, on line and in person, about this apparent 'self discovery' of individuality, and what that means.
On the one hand it is good to 'know yourself' your strengths and weaknesses, and particularly what you can give back from your unique point of view, as a teacher or whatever ...
On the other hand, this definition builds rigidity, in the same way that we walk a certain way that makes us easy to pick out in a crowd of strangers, we dance how we dance, and we look out of the eyes we have seen out of through many many decades of habits and tendencies. We all have a 'schtick' if you like, a thing we do, a role we play, and at this point in life, I am not sure if to view this schtick as a gift or a hindrance ..

Specifically in the context of dueling, this 'schtick' is your fighting personality, your tendencies and your glitches, and having one limits you in two ways - first in that you are predictable to those that can read you, and second, and more corrosive in my mind, in the natural ceiling this sets up as to how much you can improve.

There is a limit to every game, how fast, subtle, or even slow you can do what you do, accuracy has a finite quality to it after all .... So this may be splitting hairs, I mean after all, enough is enough, right? Surely we should be happy with who we are, and accept what we can do, including our limitations .... But, this tendency as we grow older to close in, and narrow down our comfort zone, is starting to feel claustrophobic to me. It seems natural, but that just makes it more insidious.
Improving yourself gets harder with age, I suspect mostly because of this 'edge hardening' of our personalities and self identities. Some may point to physical diminishment, but if the most highly skilled fighter I learned from was a skin and bone, chain smoking, cancer sufferer, then I don't think I can agree with that. I think it is because at some point you have to look outside yourself to do this, and often that is not so simple, it involves the possibility of change, and the older we get, apparently the less we want to do this. It make us vulnerable and uncomfortable, two things that we tend to avoid as we age.

So, to those out there feeling the same claustrophobia, here are a few things that I've come up with that seem to help -

Play outside your system
Work with different weapons, different, and new people.
Try absolutely different pursuits.
Particularly look for resistance to certain things and go do them.
Keep your eyes open and you will see the links and the patterns without forcing them, and remember, the most potent place for improvement are in mistakes, errors, close shaves .... and losses ...

Other suggestions welcome.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Music Improvisation, Conversation and Creativity

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." - Darwin

Listen to this:

I've been thinking for while about how dueling involves 2 distinct, yet parallel and interactive, brain functions - the one that 'does' and the one that 'plans'.
The above link is a radio interview with a neurosurgeon and his work with Jazz musicians.
It's fascinating to hear that the experience of playing improvised jazz with another human is the same as my experience of free sparring/dueling with an opponent. I mean, it is not surprising in the least, the first article I ever wrote about Eskrima was called 'The Art of Conversation', but still most interesting to hear it talked about in these terms.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


My system of FMA assumes the sword is the first, and primary, weapon. Learn the sword, and everything else will follow.
Other systems leave the sword until last, or separate it into it's own special section. Most FMA styles start with stick, move from there to empty hand, and then to edged weapons, maybe, last of all.

There are many reasons for the order in which things are taught, and each series has it's pros and cons. It's taken a long time, but I can understand, finally, why it is the way it is in my style - sword first .... well I should say I 'might' understand, after all it is only my opinion ....

I've written before that the sword is a singular weapon, it really is! Disregarding all the variations in usage due to shape and size, edged weapons have one thing in common - if you are holding one, your opponent will think twice before entering into your space. Even if they are twice your size and they can break you like a twig, even if there are more than one of them, you still have time, and the possibility, of averting taking damage if you are skilled enough and smart enough.

So, it follows that if holding a sword takes power and force out of the equation ..... what else is there?
Well, obviously a more tactical game, and given the presence of swords there is now the space to explore these other universes, a space much harder to find when there is no real threat to keep an aggressor out*.
So, a place to discover tactics for when you are faced with an overwhelming force, when you are at a disadvantage, or seem to be facing loss.
A space to learn about psychology, hooks, triggers, and threat, of danger and cost and the price of victory. None of which is possible if you are too big and strong to contemplate needing it, or too small and weak to even imagine that the possibility exists.

Sonny said: "Accuracy first, then power, then speed" - A recipe for upping anyone's game, even those who rely first and foremost on power and speed, but especially for those that have neither.

*The other great forum to practice tactics without power and speed is in the grappling arts, but they are limited to the tactile variety as they work from contact.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The First Problem

Every time you attack, you are open ...
Put another way, if you can get them ... they can get you, and the thing they can get most easily is the part of you that is closest to them, which, in all probability, is your weapon hand.
Sword designers know this of course, so any weapon designed for combat usually has some kind of hand protection, a guard of some kind. This can take the form of a cross piece, a basket, a cover, a thumb guard, or a curve in the blade that deflects cuts away from the hand.
(Of course even with a hand guard the arm is still a target, it's just a little harder to get to as it is further away and behind an obstacle (the guard itself).)

In the Visayan style I practice, the weapons generally have no hand guard at all, because it is a system designed for 'daily carry' blades - Bolos, Goloks etc - and these are utility knives/tools. What this means is, because the piece of kindling, coconut, or chicken you are cutting is not going to cut back, they are deemed unnecessary.
This means that when you use the same blade in a combative setting, the first necessity is to protect is the hand, because basically, no hand = no weapon.

So the ability to target the hand and to not be a target is the first problem to solve, and the first game to play. It is part of our First Flow - playing at the edge of the range and 'picking' targets whenever they appear.

First lesson:

Learn how not to get hand tagged.
Learn to tag the opponent's hand.
Learn to not get tagged AND tag at the same time.

More advanced:
Learn how to use body angle and weight shift instead of stepping to play the margin. Also, learn the limits of this game - when to bait a tagger, and when it is too dangerous and what new game to play.

The most important pieces here are understanding range, but also understanding repetitive rhythm and the ability to mirror/read you opponent's patterns, whilst making your own movement as unreadable as possible. The ability to be accurate is also an absolute necessity.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Moment of Choice

There are certain moments that are more useful to you than others, especially if you are fighting from a position of disadvantage - in other words, you are weaker, smaller, or perhaps outnumbered.

If you constantly resist against what is going on (literally force vs force) you can get exhausted pretty fast. Direct power will not win out against a stronger opposition ..... But timing might.

You have to choose your moment, but the moments before the right one cannot be approached passively. You must use them well, and you must avoid taking damage whilst you are creating your own. You must also know when you need not do anything and retain energy, when you are not in immediate danger, when there is a status quo, or when resisting is a path of diminishing returns.
You also need to know how you can deflect, shear, and slip, and how to cause motion to your advantage, both physically and psychologically.
There will always be some kind of movement, but it may be just shifting your center, or going limp. It may also involve doing something counter intuitive like falling into your opponent or opening yourself up more. Perhaps changing your emotional output, or the words you are using ....
The only way to understand these moments, and learn to do the smart thing, is to find them, dwell, experiment, and see what is possible. It's a weird world with no right answers and nothing guaranteed, and to practice, you have to put yourself in vulnerable situations, play outside your comfort zone, and not rely on what you already have. But the pay off is good - and often with a much higher chance of success ... at least compared to the 'almost zero' of the alternative path .....
If there are situations where you always seem to lose, then perhaps you are not being creative enough in your approach? If you always have difficulty with a particular opponent or a particular series of moves always ends in your demise, why?

How early can you change the script?

How late can you save the situation?

PS: If you are always putting yourself in situations/duels where you can win ... you will never learn this.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In an adversarial interaction like a duel it's a pretty sure bet that your opponent does not want to do what you want them to, and will in fact avoid doing what you want.
But ....the only way to truly control the game is to manipulate your opponent, so how do you practice making someone do what you want them to?

First, you have to understand who they are and what they want.
The 'what they want' part is quite easy .... they want to strike you down and win.
The 'who they are' is a bit trickier, but essential to find out, because this will tell you what they are willing to do to get 'what they want' ... and also what they cannot resist.
Learning what they want to avoid is also a useful exercise, for instance, losing status can sometimes be way more of a motivator that protecting self. Also certain qualities of movements can disturb more than others.

Learning these things about another person involves watching them and trying to trigger responses. These responses will vary from person to person, and higher skilled players will probably be less 'reactive' than the less skilled which in itself is useful information to have.

Sonny used to say that 'In training you are immortal'. So this is indeed where you have to take the time and learn this ability, because it takes time to watch, and learn to see what's going on, and it takes time to create realistic triggers that create usable responses in others.

Many of us don't know what we look like to our fellow players and opponents, and this fact is compounded by the fact that each of our opponents will see us differently.

You have to learn what THEY see, and you have to SEE what they do ....

Possibly the 2 most important skills you'll need.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Acknowledging Hits

Interesting conversation going on regarding how to frame a set of rules for competitive sword sparring. In this case Bolognese style, which looks like great fun but I profess to know nothing about.

This post is inspired by the discussion about rules for competition, not as a critique about this particular set (that actually seems quite sensible), as I know nothing about their system, but more as a springboard to put forward my point of view on rules and sparring in general.

I for one am not a fan of rules .... the more you have the less realism and smart adaptation you get ... I mean you get adaptation ... but to the rules, and as the rules are there generally for safety, and dueling really is not a safe sport, the adaptions become silly, and purely focused on the rule-defined-win, which is often very far away from anything approaching realism.

For me, the first question, before any format is drawn up, should be - Why include free form sparring in the system at all?

My answer would be - Because what you train in a more formal/playful setting, should work, and be put to good use in a combative setting also. If it does not manifest, or does not work, the material should be revisited and perhaps revised. Sparring is a place to test this.

Sword sparring, in my opinion, should be integral to the learning process, the goal of which is to understand as closely as possible, the weapon you are using and the context you are using it in. Ideally, should some time machine or teleporter be invented that could throw you into a time and a place where you really needed to 'do your thing', the training should have given you as strong a chance as possible to prevail.
If this is the goal .... and for some it may not be (and of course there is also the debate as to the actual parameters of the skills we practice ..... but if it IS the goal) then the only rule I would want to instill in any free sparring scenario, is the acknowledgement of hits.
OK .... I also like The Dog Brothers - 'Be friends at the end of the day, and have both participants leave with the same IQ that they started with', AND 'Only you are responsible for you' ......
The safety requirements should be taken care of through the design of the training weapons used, and the protective equipment worn, which should be kept relevant to context, again to prevent stupid decision making.

But back to acknowledging hits ....
If you read the Facebook conversation linked to from this blog post, you will see a few different points of view on this.
Here is mine, and the reasons why I think it is a worthy skill, and an important part of sparring.

First off - Some strikes are more incapacitating than others, and I think it obviously valuable to practice fighting through hits, so I do not equate acknowledgement of a hit with stopping the play. It's perfectly possible to acknowledge with no break in play ... and if this is not possible, it means your forebrain needs more training to keep up, as it is what strategizes and makes the smart decisions, and SHOULD be on line and paying attention.

Some commented in the discussion that in the heat of the moment, you can't be expected to notice these hits, and leaving it up to the player can cause grief when they do not acknowledge being hit.
I understand this point, but would counter with the idea that the very practice of noticing should be part and parcel of the play.
IF, and I say again IF, the idea is to protect yourself and prevail with as little injury to your person as possible, the hits against you are hugely important to notice, acknowledge and work to try and avoid next time. I think that leaving the noticing to an external source ONLY hands over responsibility that should be yours and yours alone. By all means have an external observer as an extra set of eyes, or as a corroborating witness, but do not rely on them to stop the game or call the hits.
Acknowledge them, NOT so you can stop and run away/give up/roll over ... but because you want to avoid them in the future.

Another issue that came up in the discussion is what is disparagingly known as 'knife dancing' in some circles - This is when both parties dance about out of range and neither wants to enter. The feeling was that focusing on the taking of hits would prevent entries and 'real action'. Well, good. That's probably realistic. Who the hell in their right mind would want to engage an armed enemy if they did not need to?

Which brings me to ......
If you want to create a reason to engage, figure out a goal that is separate from 'winning' against the opponent. Perhaps there is an object that both sides try to get and take out of the arena? Or perhaps one is guarding the object and the other needs to get past them. Perhaps one has friends coming and one needs to escape before they show up?
Focusing too much on defeating the opponent is often a flawed goal. This "Monkey Dance" with lethal weapons is a mixed up set of circumstances, and the lethality of the weapons should dictate that this is a fight for survival NOT for dominance.
Learning how to do it better, and gaining this ability to prevail and get away, is far more sensible than the old Filipino story that describes the aftermath of a standard challenge match  ..... One goes to the hospital .... and the other goes to the morgue.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


So, yeah, 3 hours .... not enough .....
But maybe enough to fill the head and nervous system ...?
(All feedback gladly accepted)

From my end - Had a great time yesterday though probably talked too much. Really hard working, communicative, and receptive group ... and the first group totally outside my system to try out some of the drills progressions I'm getting together for an e-book/video on cheating ... OK, tactical thinking ..... ;-)
Ostensibly it will be a book about Faking, Baiting, Freezing and Looping, but the preliminaries to doing these successfully - an accurate understanding of range/space, threat/safety, time/rhythm, human tendencies - have to come first.
Yesterday was mostly about range, playing with the margins, and learning to experience and notice what is ACTUALLY going on.
We also looked at how blades work, how edged weapons are unique in how they move. How close you need to get to use them, and some of the counter intuitive things you need to do when facing them.
Looks like this may turn into a series of workshops, so with any luck I'll get to test out more of these progressions in the not too distant future.

Thanks again to Peter and Soja Martial Arts for hosting, and the invite back. Next time, probably focus more on the hand as target, and take it from there ....