People take up armored fighting for many reasons. Some think it is a way to participate in the romantic image of the Middle Ages. Others are attracted by the intensity of the action, and may think of it as a very enjoyable sport. There are those who see it as a way to achieve status and rank. A few of us view it as a martial art. This is not to say that the martial artist doesn’t enjoy the intense competition, or that the romantic doesn’t desire recognition for his/her accomplishments.
The level of involvement varies considerably, as well. Some fighters may attend several practices per week, and do pell work in between. Others only go to major wars or tourneys, and are seldom seen on the practice field.
Perhaps the one common feeling is that all of these people want to have fun. Personally, I tend to have more fun in an activity where I have some level of competence. If I lose every fight within ten seconds of the “Lay on!” I probably won’t stick around for long.
So how do I get this competence? The answer is simple: training.
Training can mean different things to different people. The most common training in the Society is sparring, sparring and more sparring. Usually, there will be a minimum of technique training – perhaps a few minutes before you get into armor, perhaps none at all. Often, a more experienced fighter will correct an error that you’re making. Then you go home and try to remember what he/she said, and reproduce it on the pell. Or maybe you don’t. After all, sparring is real fighting. That’s where the real fun is!
OK. I can appreciate that point of view. Personally, my goals are different. Not only do I want to get as good at fighting as I can; I want to improve and grow the art of fighting.
Everybody will fall somewhere on that scale. In this document, I will supply various training methods, and make observations that I hope will prove useful, if you want to move towards competence, and perhaps beyond.
In the old days
When I came into the Society, I was already an accomplished martial artist (a black belt in Judo). I was interested in technique and it’s application. I was accustomed to a particular training regimen, and I brought some of the training methodology from my Judo training, using it to structure a class for heavy weapons. Also, we were really just starting to develop the art - or at least, to change it significantly, and new things kept popping up. I wanted to take advantage of that, so we made "discovery" an important part of the training.
The practices generally ran this way:
- Structured slow work, with an emphasis on keeping everything moving at the same speed, and being "real" (not doing movements that would be impossible at full speed).
- Technique training. This was still done at slow speed. We would not only teach a technique, but also the counters, reversals, options, and anything of the sort that we could think of.
- Structured fighting. This was fighting with some restrictions - a limited number of blows, a limited area, limited techniques, one or both fighters on their knees, one fighter on offense, and the other on defense, and similar things.
- Free sparring.
Since I was interested in teaching and learning all weapons, we usually limited practice to sword and shield between coronations and crown tourneys, and to everything but sword and shield between crowns and coronations.
At any time, if somebody came up with something new, we would all stop to discuss it, to try to improve the impromptu technique, to determine how to counter it, to find variants, and to see if it suggested other new techniques.
All of the knights present would teach, once they had learned the techniques, themselves. We'd also take some time, during the free sparring section, for melees, bridge fights, and fights on stairs. Luckily, we practiced near a neat little stone bridge with waist-high walls, room for three fighters across, and about 50' long, ending in a wide stairway that had a landing, at which the stairs reversed directions. Lots of fun.
Moving forward to the present
These days, if I had the time to really train, things would be different. I think it would be most useful if I talked about the factors involved in training, since they include things that would not be included in a standard practice. These can be very different for the different levels of fighters, and will vary considerably, depending on the effort that the individual fighter wishes to expend. I'll describe them at a fairly high level of intensity.
This is often sorely neglected by SCA fighters. What I usually hear is that people think that they can get into condition just by going to fighting practice. That's true, to a point. However, when I was competing in Judo at a varsity level, not only did we practice for two hours a day, five days a week, but there was also additional cardio and strength training - probably taking 50 percent or more time as the regular practices - then there was usually at least one tourney a week. If you've got a friend who plays a sport at a college varsity level, ask them what they do for training. If you really want a shock, ask somebody who competes in wrestling at a high level.
I don't believe in deliberately mixing conditioning and technique or integration training. It's fine to fight a lot of fights at a practice, but your main concern there should be to practice. Don't use a sword that's extra heavy, or wear armor that's extra heavy. It will interfere with your technique and timing training.
Aerobic training is important, but it must be followed by anaerobic training. Heavy weapon fighting is closer to wrestling than running, and that requires more intense conditioning. To get this anaerobic conditioning, you should include interval training - like wind sprints or the equivalent, in addition to the normal aerobic training. This will help you get in a state of conditioning where you can perform, even if you can't get enough oxygen.
As an example, the last time I got in reasonably decent shape (and my back wouldn't let me use running as conditioning), my anaerobic workouts would either be on the stationary bike, or the treadmill. If I was on the bike, I'd sprint 30 seconds, and pedal normally for 1.5 minutes. Total elapsed time was usually 45 minutes. If I was on the treadmill, I'd use ankle and wrist weights, and do 45 minutes at 5 mph, with a 15-degree incline. If I had wanted to get into shape for competitive Judo, that would have been a good start.
2. Strength Training
Until recently (the last 10-15 years, or so), I never had to do this. Now I do. I usually do light weight training, or resistance exercises. My goal is to maintain muscle tone, and to strengthen any area in which I'm having - or likely to have - problems. Actually, these days, most of my strength training consists of physical therapy exercises, either for healing, or for prevention.
I don't consider it useful to see how much weight that you can train yourself to lift. I don't think that the time is well spent, considering the other aspects of training. Strength is great to have. If you need some, then go get it. I'm not an expert on weight training, but there are people who are. I would advise you, though, to approach weight training as a means to an end, not an end in itself. I've gotten a lot of very useful information by talking to physical therapists.
If you want to fight for a long time, this is a vital aspect of training. If you plan to keep fighting until you just can't, a world-class stretching routine becomes essential. As of this writing, I'm 64 and basically built like a tank. Traumatic injury isn't something that I really worry about. However, I'm constantly plagued by connective-tissue injuries - usually from over-use, or repetitive motion. I counter the problem with a LOT of stretching, and by specific exercises (mainly from my Egoscue training but some from my physical therapist.)
If you're much younger, and you think that you can get away with minimal or no stretching, you're right. You can. For a while. Maybe. Are you feeling lucky?
If you need to add techniques to your arsenal, the later stages of your training for a tourney is not the time. It takes a long time to really integrate a new technique.
If you want to learn a new technique, I'd suggest that you start with some instruction, on a pell, at slow speed. It always feels better if you do a technique fast, but if you're learning it, you can't tell if you're doing it right, unless you're doing it slow enough to see and feel what you're doing. If you just start doing it fast, without first learning to do it right, you are training yourself to do it wrong - possibly at the eventual cost of your elbow or shoulder.
Practice techniques slow, gradually building up the speed when you are comfortable with performing the technique at a slow speed. Mirror work is useful, as well as pell work. If you can combine them, so much the better. If you can use a mirror, practice with it in front of you, and on your sword side. Both perspectives are useful.
Structured slow work is a good way to start to integrate your techniques. This is described elsewhere. Besides the integration aspect, it is a good way to start training yourself in perception.
To "integrate" your new technique, I'd also recommend a method that I call "one-step sparring". I borrowed the term from Karate, and it isn't exactly the same thing, but it is the same concept. What I'm calling one-step sparring is where I would show you something I wanted you to improve or learn, then set up a semi-choreographed situation with you and a partner, where you would attack in a certain way, and your partner would respond in a certain way (or in a limited number of ways), and you would finish the attack scenario that I'd specified. This would be repeated at increasing rates of speed, until you were moving at full speed.
The dual purposes of the exercise are to (1) have you learn the technique slowly, when you can think about it, and (2) provide you a method of transitioning from the slow exercise to full speed, to full speed/combat conditions.
For instance, suppose I wanted you to work on a combination consisting of: (1) a slide-step with a right cross towards your opponent's sword, (2) blocking the return shot (3) a single-hip overhead as you move towards your opponent's sword shoulder, and (4) single-hip forehand to the face or legs.
I would first have you practice the entire combination without a partner, doing it slow for enough times to get you comfortable, and for you to learn the sequencing and supporting movements. Then, I would have you repeat the combination slightly faster, so you could start working on the flow - still without a partner, but possibly with a pell. I might have you speed up still more, and repeat the combination again, until you were comfortable with the faster speed and flow.
Then I would start you working with a partner, in armor, at a slow speed. This speed would be just fast enough for the swords to swing. Your partner would stay at the edge of your range, waiting for your attack. You would have to initiate the attack with a slide step / right cross towards your opponent's sword hand. Your opponent would block, and throw a blow in return - I would specify a straight snap to the head (this could be varied in later editions). You would block and throw a single-hip overhead blow towards your opponent's sword hand/shoulder/head, allowing your sword foot to move around in back of your shield foot, but only a few inches - followed quickly by a single-hip forehand to the head or legs, whichever is open. Your opponent, until told otherwise, would not try to avoid you.
This lets you learn the technique under optimum conditions, slowly, so that you learn it right. You can then gradually speed up the execution of the technique, until it's full speed, and make any useful modifications to the way that you or your partner perform it. At some point, you can have your opponent start to avoid you - not completely, because he/she knows what you are doing, and can easily ruin the exercise.
You can progress to actual fights, gradually (having you opponent be mainly defensive, or offensive with a limited number of types of blows - essentially vanilla), and make it a point to set up the combination. Discuss with your partner how best to do this.
For instance, you might start by changing his/her response in the high-end repetitions, so that he/she would be using his/her own defense, instead of the one specified. You could have him/her mimic the defense that bothers you the most. When you change the complexity of the exercise, it is useful to reduce the speed, and then build it back up, as you become more proficient.
It's also valuable if your partner helps to critique and correct you.
The entire series of this exercise may take several practice sessions. It's important that you have the technique down well at a slow speed, before you speed up and/or make it more difficult in some way. Even if you get completely through an entire series, you should start at or near the beginning, the next time you practice. Perhaps you won't need as many repetitions at each stage. You might want to have several techniques to work on, in the same way, at the same time. Then, if you don't have a partner, you can work on the early stages of the series for each of them.
Sometimes it is useful to have a training exercise that focuses on part of a technique or movement, or perhaps on some basic quality of movement or power generation. For instance, many people have difficulty with the timing of the sword returns. This contributes to a loss of power in combinations.
I have several exercises, which focus on this timing. Some of them don’t look much like fighting, but they serve the purpose. Part of another exercises teaches accuracy for sword strokes. Another provides a model with which to learn basic movement. There are a number of these exercises described in my on-line manual.
Eventually, you really have to fight to train properly. Just plain free fighting is useful, and you should do a lot of it, especially when an event is nearing, and you want to polish what you have learned. Early in your training, sparring provides you a test of how well you have learned what you want to learn. Later, it hones and polishes your technique.
Earlier on, you can modify your free sparring to work on particular styles of attack and defense, or to work on attacking or defending against particular styles. To do this, it's imperative to have a willing partner.
For instance, if you're trying to learn how to defend against a certain style, it is useful to ask Duke X, who is a master of the style, to instruct you. To continue to free spar against Duke X as your only method of training in fighting that style, is not so useful. It's like getting a swimming lesson, then getting thrown into a powerful river with rapids. If you catch on quickly, you will do well, and will profit from the intense competition. If you don't, you will never progress much past the point where His Grace pounds you into the ground.
You need a partner who will work with you, to allow you to learn and integrate each part of the technique, rather than just hitting you as soon as you make a mistake. (Heresy, I know.) If you're working on a specific technique/attack/combination, and your partner knows this, he/she can easily win every encounter, and do so before you get any useful training. Cooperation and mutual critique must be involved.
6. Tourney preparation
One of the best ways to prepare for a tourney is to fight in a tourney. Many fights in practice don't serve that purpose well. You shouldn't necessarily try to win every fight in practice. After all, it is practice, not a competition. If you use that one technique that always allows you to beat Squire Y, then that's the only technique you will be practicing. If it doesn't work against Sir Z, then you have a problem. In most practices, you should work on techniques that you have learned to the point where you need to use them in free sparring.
Think about the last practice where you fought five or six fights, one after another, against a particular opponent. After the first one or two, do you start to get careless? Do you try things that you can't do, because you started to get bored, or into a rut? That's the problem with practice.
One of the ways to counteract this phenomenon is to limit the number of fights that you fight with a single opponent. I have one of my squires limit himself to three fights with any one opponent. He can fight the same person again, later, but he can only fight three in a row with a single opponent. A secondary benefit is that he gets exposure to a greater number of fighters. Fighting a variety of fighters is essential. The wider the pool of practice partners that you have, the better.
However, it's good to get actual tourney experience, even if it is a small monthly tourney that you hold at your practice.
Here's where we start getting to the upper end of the level of involvement. It is very useful to know how your prospective opponents like to fight. Sometimes, it can give you an easy victory, if you notice a major flaw in a fighter's style. Once you notice it, you can prepare a method of exploiting that weakness. If that fighter happens to be your opponent in a tourney, you could have an easy fight.
In other cases, it can save you from providing your opponent with a similarly easy victory, in much the same manner. You should scout yourself, as well as your opponents.
How much work you want to put into this is up to you. If you have the time and inclination, you could even take videos, study them, discuss various fighters, and come up with a game plan for each of them.