Guy Windsor holding court at the Miller Recreation Center in Seattle
Our Lonin sword fighting group was recently treated to a weeklong visit, and weekend seminar, with Guy Windsor. The seminar weekend culminated a year-long experiment by our evening practice group in using Guy’s Fiore syllabusas a basis for a martial curriculum. As coach of the evening practice group, I feel that Guy’s syllabus has been tremendously useful. This post gives a little history about the creation of our practice group, our group dynamic and how Guy’s syllabus has been useful to us.
The Fiore evening practice group got started early in 2012 when Lonin acquired a permanent workout space within SANCA’s Georgetown facility. Neal had founded Lonin about ten years earlier. Meeting in a variety of different spaces, the group had experimented with a broad range of different armed combat types. At first the equipment had consisted of padded wasters. Over time Lonin had narrowed its focus to the longsword and had made the transition to the use of steel training simulators. The group began to forge connections with the larger WMA community, reaching out to teachers and researchers, including Guy, who were qualified to educate them in historical techniques.
Prior to acquiring the loft, we were working around SANCA’s busy class schedule and were only able to hold practice early in the morning. When the loft became available early this year, Neal was strongly in favor of the idea of my starting an evening Fiore group there. We bootstrapped the group with a Meetup.com gathering and acquired a few members, two of whom, Sterling Nelson and Randy Holte, are still with us today. Ten months later we draw six or seven participants in our evening practices, with an extended group of about a dozen active members.
Coaching Approach and Goals for the Fiore Group
I have a selfish motivation for organizing and coaching a sword-fighting group: I want to master swordfighting. To succeed in that, I need a committed and competitive group of sibling fighters. After many years of teaching martial arts, and through related trials and tribulations, I’ve developed a sense of my own comfort zone around training groups, curriculums, and organizations.
Andrew S. and I, in founding Seattle Escrima Club with the gracious help of our grandmaster teacher Rene Latosa, coalesced a model that works pretty well for me. This is what Andrew calls a “mature adult coaching model.” We get together, train smartly in a shared avocation, and work hard so that everyone can improve. We take care of each other. Rather than an authoritarian “master,” there are coach-leaders who facilitate workouts.
One might assume that an intelligent and committed group of reasonable adults would have no need for hierarchies, sashes or complex etiquette. Specifically, it works as follows.
- The group organizes as a “band of siblings” with coach-facilitators
- In their own practice, the coaches model diligent training for the group
- The group leans on, and compensates, higher-level expert practitioners, to teach seminars and provide curriculum, while remaining an independent, local entity
- Members show up consistently, support the group and put in a good effort
- The group efficiently uses its limited time together. This means maximizing work time while minimizing discussion, elaborate corrections and time-consuming experimentation
- Beginners and intermediates are nourished alike, working a common set of drills that are simple yet deep enough to allow everyone to improve where needed.
In this model, drills and curricula are treated not as “religion” but rather as a framework in which effective movement and technique is encouraged. Mistakes surface naturally (i.e., when I err, I get hit, get my balance broken, etc.), and great coaching can happen (the right feedback stated in the right way at the appropriate time).
A curriculum to support effective practices
A useful curriculum, and effective coaching practice, recognizes the varying needs of practitioners in different stages of skill acquisition. During an ideal practice, beginners get up to speed on choreography and structure, intermediate students fine-tune skills while modeling competent technique for their youngers, and advanced students work towards perfection, experimenting in subtle ways while sticking to the flow of the drills that everyone else understands. Classmates are discouraged from stopping the flow of the drill to criticize each other, or discuss, and rather offer physical feedback by performing their part correctly. A good drill produces a wealth of teachable moments for any practitioner. Everyone should be able to self-monitor performance within the drill, recognizing mistakes and areas for improvement. A great coach can watch a student, witness the five things he or she is doing wrong, and then give succinct feedback on the highest priority item in that “hit list.”
This model demands a lightweight, non-stratified and flexible curriculum. A lightweight curriculum imposes minimal overhead for coaches and students, allowing beginners to ramp up quickly. A non-stratified curriculum allows practitioners of mixed level to work together. This is great for me because I don’t have to separate the group into different practice clusters. Also, really, basics are all that matters so there is no penalty for the advanced student to spend a majority of their time drilling basics. Flexibility gives coaches and practitioners some creative room to innovate. With such a curriculum the group can elevate collective knowledge and skills without going overboard with overhead.
Fiore’s treatise (there are four extant versions, actually — we principally study the versions known as the Getty and the Pisani-Dossi, and this reference is to the Getty) contains almost 200 plays, with many more detailings of guards, strikes, and concepts. Given some time, it would be easy for someone to create a massive curriculum from this material. Much more difficult, and time-consuming, to create a succinct curriculum that captures the essentials into a reasonable set of drills, offering a student with one or two years’ commitment, some chance of maintaining the curriculum within memory.
Scope and context: the martial scenarios we’re concerned about
A final, critical piece for any martial curriculum is scope and context. Rather than play with a medley of historical traditions, we decided to standardize on a single source (Fiore). His treatises present a transitional and systematic martial curriculum that for me, meshed well with my beloved experiences with Rene Latosa and his Filipino Escrima concepts. Like Rene, Fiore was concerned with potentially deadly encounters: “…in anger, or for one’s life, employing every trick, deception and cruelty imaginable.”
To contrast the focus of our group, there is an avid and wonderful community of historical martial artists whose focus is sport bouting. Several of our members including myself enjoy competing within these venues, but as a group we have made a decision to focus on the combat scenarios that concerned Fiore.
Lonin’s engagement with Guy and the Swordschool Syllabus
Early in 2009, Neal and I, with Ben W., started working through an early draft of Guy Windsor’s new book on sword fighting. We met Tuesday and Friday mornings, and guided by Neal, who had the manuscript, would try to recreate various drills outlined in his book. There was regular back-and-forth email with Guy.
I met Mr. Windsor for the first time at one such Friday morning session. During that visit, Guy and Neal shot a video depicting the comprehensive sword plays of Fiore (sword in one hand, sword in two hands in wide play, and sword in two hands in close play). At VISS 2011, Andrew, Neal, Brandon, Mark and I attended Guy’s Fiore weekend intensive. During the same visit he also taught an evening workshop back in Seattle. Guy shortly thereafter launched the Swordschool Wiki and his YouTube channel. Andrew, Neal and I attended Guy’s workshops at WMAW 2011, and in November 2012, we brought Guy out to teach a Fiore seminar for our group.
The November seminar was for me, a capstone of a 10-month experiment in the use of Guy’s syllabus. Prior to the event, we were practicing the basic flow and structure of many of the syllabus drills. We were definitely missing a number of fine points, but having the foundational exposure to the syllabus drills in advance of the seminar was great as it positioned us to more effectively digest Guy’s instruction and feedback. Guy’s seminar and coincident visits to our practices were fruitful. We finished with a mountain of feedback on our execution of the curriculum drills, with many corrections on critical basics: stance, footwork, grips, posture, and positioning. He showed how to identify problem situations that might arise within free play, determine solutions, and then merge those solutions back into the basic syllabus exercises so they could be drilled repeatably.
How the Swordschool syllabus works for us
Guy lives in Helsinki, and we’re in Seattle. So far, the distance has limited our face-time with Guy to two or so events per year. Even so, the relationship has worked fairly well. We are not operating as a branch school, as the consensus is that Helsinki is just too far away for that to make sense, but we lean on his syllabus extensively in our practices, and we are making progress.
When I started coaching the evening practices, I quickly realized that I lacked the time and expertise to come up with an effective curriculum. I did not want to spend class time experimenting. I believe that given time and experimentation I could come up with my own reasonable syllabus. The time factor is the biggest stumbling block. I have a day job and four kids. Plus, I view all curricula as transitory.
Good curricula flow from effective application of martial and movement concepts. I feel that any curricula founded on sound concepts (both of the art and how to run a practice) can form a good structure for improvement. The specific techniques and plays chosen for a beginner/intermediate curriculum are less important, in my opinion, than the rooting of said drills in good concepts, and the ability of coaches and participants to work effectively in recognizing good vs. bad movement.
Drillsets are just a beginning. The magic of learning and improvement comes from the individual’s attentiveness to identifying and correcting flaws, his diligence and longevity within the training group, and effective coaching. The curriculum is important, but only as a framework to allow correct practice.
Following are some of the aspects that we appreciate about Guy Windsor’s Fiore syllabus:
- Guy roots his syllabus and drills in a higher authority (Fiore). He painstakingly maps his syllabus drills back to specific guards and plays in the Fiore treatises. We can see these connections ourselves, and indeed, we can creatively extend his drills by drawing our own connections from the texts.
- The syllabus has been developed over a long period of time, and although Guy continues to tweak it, the pace of change is fairly slow. This is critical in a long-distance relationship as continual creative change and flux within a curriculum poses huge challenges for distant schools.
- The syllabus drills (drill 1 & 2, the two thrust defenses, four corners and four crossings) compactly encompass a huge number of Fiore’s plays, and numerous potential blade-crossing scenarios.
- Like Fiore’s art, the syllabus plays and exercises connect with each other to present a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
- Minimally stratified
- The syllabus is only differentiated by Beginner and Intermediate levels. I am a firm believer in group unity within a practice: the ability to rotate beginner, intermediate, and expert students through a common drill framework. And honestly, I have no interest in rank advancement or putting adults through testing processes.
- The syllabus drills expand within themselves (having attacks, counters, and counters to counters) — beginners can work the basic motions while advanced can move onto the latter steps. The more simple, fundamental steps in the plays (i.e., the initial attack, the parry and riposte) come first and thus get executed many more times than the more-advanced (and less likely to occur) follow-ons.
- Guy encourages us to extend and modify the syllabus drills to accommodate other Fiore plays and guards; to add degrees of freedom and hence, difficulty; and to even perform the motions competitively.
- Guy has done a great job of disseminating his teaching through seminars, through the Sword School wiki, and within his books. Having these reference materials accessible to everyone allows beginners and advanced alike to check themselves, make corrections, and identify where practice or coaching is straying from Guy’s baseline.
Finally, Guy has made himself available personally to us, to answer questions via email or Skype. We recently agreed to start donating a small monthly stipend to Swordschool, but Guy worked with us in this way for almost two years before we sent any money his way.
Commitments and conclusions
Bootstrapping a martial arts group is challenging. A coach facilitator needs to be ready to commit for the long term. I am lucky to have a family and a demanding day job, and a lovely wife who knows my passion for the martial arts and supports me in attending three sessions per week. It’s a big commitment.
A coach facilitator needs to commit to attendance, and it’s key to demand the same commitment from students. I tell interested newcomers they have to commit to two evenings a week. No syllabus or coaching magic can make up for lukewarm commitment. Fiore’s art is complex and demanding. I can only imagine that in his historical context, practitioners committed far more time to practice than we. Their lives were at stake.
Despite our limited time together, I’ve seen inspiring growth in a few members of our young group. Not surprisingly, the members who consistently show up, show the greatest gains. Everyone starts from their individual base, but when I consider growth rather than raw skill, in every club I’ve ever been a part of, the group members who show up consistently benefit the most from their involvement, and those same individuals give back the most to the club.
Given limited time together, any group needs sound coaching principles, individual commitment, and an effective syllabus. I’ve leaned hard on Guy Windsor’s scholarship, and he’s given freely of his time to answer our questions via email and Skype. I’m grateful for his contribution to the art, and for his freely given support to our young group. I’m also thankful for my swordfighting siblings who help me get better every day. Thanks for reading, and best of luck to all of you, in your journey of growth in the martial arts.
Eric Artzt in Seattle, Washington — December 2012