But look around. Is there in your group a "good" fighter, say someone who's been fighting 3-6 years, who always beats the beginners and intermediate fighters, but rarely beats the knights and masters? Odds are he is a big guy, very athletic, and he fights today just about the way he fought the first time he picked up a sword. Because of early success, he has never learned technique. In fact, he practically refuses to learn from the guys who usually beat him in tournaments.
Remember the first thing I said, "If it feels natural, it's wrong." Doing what comes naturally may win you a lot of fights, but it will inhibit your ability to improve. Practice and time may let you do the same things quicker and harder, but you will not be able to adapt to changing situations. And our combat is changing situations . . . in a blow, in a fight, in a tourney, in a year, in a career. Nothing ever appears the same, except principles. Principles never vary.
The principles behind the beginning blow will never change. This same blow or its cousin is taught by virtually every competent teacher in the Knowne Worlde. They are all variants of the beginning blow perfected and introduced to our fighting by His Grace, Paul of Bellatrix.
Open and close your hand. This is a simple demonstration of an obvious truth. Muscles must flex (open and close, expand and contract, etc.) to be of any use.
Drop your sword. Did it go up? Gravity is our friend. Use gravity, don't fight it.
It is quicker to use the Panama Canal than to sail around South America. It is better to go across the diameter of a circle than the circumference. Whenever possible keep the distance you travel as small as you can.
All athletes (ok, almost all) use the same basic motions. They are the same motions we use to throw a sword modified to the needs of their different sports.
In baseball, both the pitcher and batter do the same thing. They shift their weight from the back foot to the front foot while twisting their hips and extending their arms as far forward as they can.
In speed skating, the skater bends his knees and pushes off the inside of his back foot while coordinating his hips so that his other foot when it becomes the back foot can do the same motion.
The parallels in combat sports are obvious. But what about, oh, tennis? Watch a Pro tennis player's feet on his first serve. What's a tennis player's objective? To send an object with as much force and speed as possible toward his opponent and then almost simultaneously to prepare to block his opponent's return.
In any sport you watch, you can see something of use in swordwork. So what? I find it useful to clarify and break down what happens in combat by doing the same thing to other full-speed competitions. Try to have a clear picture of individual movements and also to have a general concept of the overall process.
We are going to use the legs by pushing off the Earth. Then we are going to smoothly transfer that power up the body. Finally, as though pushed forward by a wave of herculean strength, the elbow, arm, and hand will carry that power to your weapon and the result will be a blow of blinding speed, breathtaking power, praiseworthy precision, and unfailing efficacy. Mostly.
Or . . . by generating leg power and harnessing it with hips and upper body, the fighter's body becomes a coil which winds about itself as though drilling into the ground with the last movement being the sword spinning about like a whip.
Our combat has very clearly defined goals. Hit the other guy and don't let him hit you. Right now let's talk about hitting him. It's the easier part of the problem.
Practice this motion slowly. It's more important to do it right and fluidly, than almost right with power and speed.
During the sword blow, your entire body revolves around your spine. Because you are generating forward force with your legs, something has to give. The natural tendency is to let the legs push us forward, like in walking or running. Unfortunately leaning forward or falling forward does not serve our ends well. Someone will whack us on the leg or head if we lean forward. So to compensate and to keep from carrying the center of gravity forward, we turn the motion into a circle instead of a line. Rather than the power moving straight forward carrying our bodies with it, the power travels in a circle spiraling downward. Our feet and head stay in the same relative places while the rest of our body twists down.
The torso and butt move downward in a straight line while on the horizontal axis the torso and sword arm spin forward. It's almost like someone put a chair against your swordside foot's heel and moving neither you nor the chair, you sat down.
As you get more comfortable dropping your butt on top of the imaginary chair, twist your hips more and more. If you can twist open 90 degrees or more you're doing fabulously.
Now let your sword shoulder follow. You have probably been moving it all along. Try not to. Try to hold the shoulder back as long as possible. A major fault is letting the shoulder go ahead of the hips. The shoulders need to be dragged along behind the hips; not lead the hips.
Your feet have not moved. Have they? Is your heel on the ground? If not, why not? Your swordside foot is on edge (the big toe on the ground the rest of the foot airborne). And, of course, the inside edge of the swordside heel is on the ground. Your head is still, upright and centered with your steely eyes boring into your opponent's.
Feel the strain running up your whole body to the shoulder? Good. That's power. Or at least stiffness. You are probably using and stretching muscles that don't care for it. Don't worry. They'll be happy . . . eventually.
Your elbow is up. Ok, get your elbow back up. But wait a minute. This is where I begin to explain why your elbow is up. So relax for a minute.
The best analogy for this part of the blow is one that Duke Paul uses. You are a waiter serving someone soup. For some reason, not immediately apparent to you, you are carrying the soup bowl behind your head. You bring it out from behind your head and place it beneath your customer's nose so he can smell it. Your palm is flat; your wrist is not bent.
Now, slowly repeat this whole motion from stance again and again in front of a mirror. Make sure that your torso and head are straight and centered. Make sure you are not dropping your elbow. The natural thing to do (there's that word again) is to let the elbow fall off in a line with your shoulder so that they are in the same horizontal plane. It is paramount that your elbow be as high and as inside (against your head) as humanly possible. Keep your swordside heel on the ground.
You will fall down a lot. It's ok. But some clues -- it's better to fall backward than forward and better to fall to the shieldside than the swordside. You are screwing yourself into the ground from swordside to shieldside. Falling to the swordside means you are not generating enough twisting power. Falling forward means you are tossing your sword out at your opponent, not driving it with your hips.
Sword blows begin tight to the body, travel away from the body, and finish tight to the body again. When you fail to include the third part, you are like an archer who has not let go of the bowstring. Notice blows that seem to be stopped a good distance from the target and then just fall to the ground. The reason is that the blow was tossed forward, not driven by twisting hips and torso.
It's as if your mental image was of you and the sword as a wall. You and your sword want to fall in a 90 degree arc splitting your foe from crown to pizzle. You wind up on the ground with sword extended over your head. This is wrong. Get rid of this notion.
In reality, the image you want to have is being a catapult. A large weight is flung down on one side (your butt) so that an attached arm (your arm holding your sword) is flung forward.
A fallen wall is on the ground, inert and broken. A catapult is ready to be recocked, powerful and upright. The fallen wall school uses the shoulder and arms only; the catapult school uses everything from the feet up.
Practice the whole blow from start to finish until you do it right once. (This takes 30 minutes to a lifetime.)
Notice that your sword has neatly cut your dread enemy's head in two equally messy parts from his shieldside ear to his swordside ear. There is a built-in follow-through when the blow is done correctly.
Now what? Well, actually, you more than likely did not cut his head in two. In fact, at this very moment, your sword is bouncing off your opponent's shield. Now we separate the quick from the dead.
What you do when your sword is returning is FAR more important than what you did to send it toward your opponent in the first place.
Failure to make a complete return results in getting hit hard and finishing the fight on the ground. (It's better to be the one standing. He probably has good returns.)
Reason number two for putting the elbow in the ear is the RETURN. During the return, we are going to uncoil (relax) all that twisting we did during the blow's forward flight. The sword is going to arrive mysteriously behind the head again. And we will once again be in textbook stance.
That's the plan. For most fighters, the swordside shoulder flies open, the blow is blocked, and the swordside shoulder never pulls back, never returns. This is called "opening up." Opening up is very, very, very bad. A fighter who opens up loses his leg or gets smashed on the back of the head.
And that is the third reason to have the elbow up. It serves as a memory aid. It reminds and enables the fighter to keep in good stance and to make returns, two very important items.
And here are other reasons for keeping the elbow up. Forcing our elbow up just about forces the swordside shoulder to close, to realign itself over the swordside foot's heel in proper stance. And it makes us throw a full powerful blow with the hips. The open swordside shoulder with the swordside arm dangling in front creates a lot of wimpy annoying blows thrown with just forearm and wrist.
There are three returns I teach: easy, hard, and very hard.
To do the easy return simply let gravity take your hand downward. While your arm drops, reverse your hip motion. With wrist locked as it was on impact, let the sword fall until the moment just before it is at the side of the swordside knee. Simultaneously you will have completed straightening hips and torso. At that point bend your wrist toward your shoulder. Your arm's momentum will carry the sword to where it should be. Finish this one fluid motion by returning, at last, to proper stance. Feet in a right angle, shield toe pointed at the opponent, hips and shoulders in line over feet, head still, upright, and centered, elbow up, and sword falling down the spine.
The hard return is only a little different. Instead of letting the arm drop, the fighter pulls his swordside elbow straight back as though he were elbowing the person behind him. Finish the return as above in the easy return. The advantage here is that it's a little quicker, a little more aggressive.
The very hard return is another kettle of fish. The arm never drops. The fighter starts his hip return and at the same time pulls the sword back with the shoulder in a motion which looks like he's trying to stab someone standing behind him and to his shieldside. This is the quickest return. This is the most taxing return. It does not lend itself to returning to stance automatically because the effort of jerking the shoulder back tends to throw one off balance. However, it builds sword speed like no other exercise I know. It also builds good shoulders (that is, from an aesthetic point of view -- or so the Ladies tell me).
But the really critical thing about returns is to do them completely. Get that sword back behind your head while recocking the hips! Return to correct stance as quickly and fluidly as possible!
It does not matter how you return the sword as long as:
The beginning fighter should strive to master technique and coordination first. It is not the hardest, fastest blow that wins fights; it is the hardest, fastest blow that lands on your opponent. Fluidity is far more important now than power. Power is easy to learn. Coordination takes far more practice. Shield bashing is impressive to some, but not very effective.
If your feet have moved while throwing the blow, now is the time to correct any problem in your alignment caused by that movement. When you return to stance, place your swordside foot decisively. By that I mean, put your foot down and leave it there. Do not put it down and then move it around trying to find a comfortable spot. Then (remember that line formed by your shield big toe and your shieldside heel?) place the shieldside foot so that your swordside foot is in the right place.
Practice the complete blow. Do it as slowly as possible. No, slower. No, I really mean it, slower. Speed hides flaws.
First make sure that your swordside foot remains on the ground. Once you are pleased that the swordside foot is down, concentrate on your elbow. Is it dropping? Yes, it is. (If it isn't, is it as close to your head as possible?) Keep the elbow up and close. Work until you know instantly by feel that you are dropping your elbow or lifting your swordside foot. Then stop it!
When you have reached the point where you can detect the two major errors whenever they reappear in your blow, you can shift your attention to less catastrophic problems. Are your palm and wrist a single upright unit? Is your head up, centered, and still? Is your shieldside toe pointed at the opponent? Are your feet correct in respect to each other? To your opponent?
Guess what? You have now taken the first step of the journey. You know
what else? It's a long journey.
Continue to Chapter 5