Teaching and Training with Intent

By J. Clements

"What is the cause that wise men in learning or practicing their weapons, are deceived…? …whatsoever they teach is both true and false;
true in their demonstrations, according with their force and time in gentle play,
but false in their actions according with the force & time in rough play or fight."  
- George Silver, 1599

In ARMA's approach to historical fencing we have a philosophy of teaching and training with "intent." By this we mean practicing actions realistically in proper range and speed with the intention to safely make controlled contact. We believe the only way to communicate authority in any interpretation of these fighting skills is not by theorizing their application, but through energetically displaying competence by skillfully executing techniques in a manner that demonstrates their martial validity. Indeed, given the frequent misrepresentation and popular misinformation so persistent in this subject, this is arguably a necessity.

It surely gives no credibility or legitimacy to this subject for those claiming expertise to fail to perform with expertise. If techniques or actions are to be established as functional and effective under actual conditions of violent force, they must logically be shown-at some point during instruction-with something more than hypothetical slow motion sequences. Simply "going through the motions" of a fighting technique isn't sufficient to either evaluate it or develop it as an effective action. It is certainly acceptable to move with deliberate caution and careful control when doing initial analysis, such as when first teaching new students, or when practicing with novices, but the eventual goal must be to execute actions with earnest intent -assuming your goal is actual skill in the reconstruction of a genuine combative system. The use of controlled force in this very way is itself a sure sign of higher skill.

An instructor of Renaissance martial arts today cannot argue that techniques can be performed in correct range at proper speed and timing during sparring/free-play (against an opponent actually trying to hit you-when you don't know what he is going to do and who doesn't know what you are going to do), but then also say they cannot demonstrate or teach the same actions in the same way under controlled conditions (where your partner is doing only what you ask). It would be difficult to imagine a competent teacher in any physical activity, be it martial sport or martial art, instructing that a student should realistically practice on their own movements that they themselves cannot demonstrate, as an example to emulate, in the same realistic manner in the first place. Students certainly should not be left to experiment on one another by themselves in how to strike counter-blows with proper energy. It is a knowledgeable teacher's very role in this craft to supervise such practice. In fact, sometimes for beginners moves must be exaggerated during instruction in order to show the full-action which is executed much tighter when done at full speed.

Presenting the core physical mechanics of actions for consideration is one thing, teaching them with artificiality is entirely another. To suppose that actions executed in slow motion or at half-speed respond identically when delivered in earnest at full force to actually cause injury is illogical. Going slow enough to learn the basic correct form and fix faults is fine, but if the error lies in the interpretation of the technique itself this can only be made apparent when it's applied in serious practice or free-play. Thus, to justify our understanding of Renaissance martial arts techniques now we must at the least show them with safe but realistic energy-meaning in actual striking range with realistic speed. The historical sources tell us students training with the weapons of war toughened themselves so that they could better resist the rigors of the battlefield. Even in an age before safety masks, rapier masters were said to be able to "hit any button" -meaning, they could skillfully land their point on their students with well-placed thrusts. Neither of these were performed in slow motion.

Practicing with intensity does not mean just using strength or speed either, for learning to effectively deliver techniques, enthusiasm is no replacement for experience-i.e., the precision gained from well-practiced movements. In reconstructing and interpreting the methods of extinct combat arts today we must also be ever careful to be sure we actually are re-developing skills that would work for real-against unskilled beginners as well as well-trained and experienced opponents.

Yet, a student might reasonably ask, "But what if I concentrate my practice on a lower level of intensity, one that suits me, is enjoyable, and seems more than adequate for learning and practice?" The question is a legitimate one and the answer is that such effort is certainly both acceptable and even warranted in the learning process of a combative system, so long as the virtue and historicity of training at higher levels is also recognized and appreciated-as the means by which we come to know what is combat effective. Further, we must reject the notion that any student of this subject is incapable of or unsuited to pursuing it as a legitimate martial art with energy and intent and instead has to be resigned only to role-playing and pretend performances. Such a pessimistic view is condescending and insulting to both enthusiasts of historical fencing and to our heritage.

The techniques of Renaissance martial arts were meant to protect an individual from being attacked with deadly speed and force. Historically, it was imperative they were understood within this context and they were surely taught to students in this way. When practiced out of a necessity for men to survive deadly encounters would these skills have been learned any other way?


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