Friday, July 22, 2011

talkin' tactics, part 1

About a year ago I ran into a shortage of regular training opportunities. No local classes, reliable training partners, not a lot going on. I had seen a group of people who swung foam swords in the park. I figured I'd go play a bit, good for some movement and time outdoors if nothing else. I was pleasantly surprised. I learned there are different foam combat organizations, and while some are heavy on role-playing and ridiculousness, this particular branch is focused almost entirely on the fighting. They hit and play hard, and while there is almost no formal training background present, their veterans have been doing this a long time and have strong natural styles. Additionally, their weapon construction tech was way better than the manufactured foam bats I'd used to spar with FMA groups. Much more sturdy for blocking, allowed for stronger swings that still hit safely, and could be built to mimic most weapon types.  I read their national internet forums. The foam construction knowledge was very good, I learned a lot. but in sparring with the locals, I discovered that dealing with a shield was a big problem that I did not know much about.

So I read their Fighting Skill Development & Training board. It was... disappointing. New fighter questions were mostly responded to with varying degrees of "shut up and read the guides in the sticky threads." The guides in the sticky threads were a mishmash of a whole bunch of different things- 17th century illustrated fencing manuals, the wikipedia entry on OODA loops, SCA youtube video series. Not useful for beginners and no coherent basis for discussion. I thought, maybe if I throw some rigor and thought into the pot, the knowledge basis here will stiffen up and show some outlines.

My first effort was a response to a question about charging, which I reposted earlier in this blog. There was no response at all. Which was a bit mysterious- I had put a bunch of stuff in there, surely something would be worth responding to? but nothing. okay, I thought. I'll make a video. The florentine (two-weapon) section of the stickied guide links was particularly disappointing. Some brief descrptions of a static guard positions, advice to learn some filipino martial arts with broken links to videos or incomprehensible text descriptions of sinawali. I had spent 14 years as a rabidly single-handed fencer. To this day, my right arm is noticeably bigger than the left. Not just the muscle, but the BONES. I had some passable ability to fake it with my left hand (coaches need to be able to give a lesson left-handed to teach the differences), but it wasn't until I started with FMA and learned sinwali and other drills did i really gain any sort of ambidextrous coordination.

So I made a video. My target audience was the clueless new fighters who wanted to do cool shit but had zero background or training. I thought, super basic sinawali to begin learning two-handed coordination. Show the useless spinny version. Explain the broken-down timed version that you can start to pull tactical applications from. Make the connection to the classic two-weapon pose that everyone adopts but doesn't know how to actually use. Seemed like an obvious good plan, right?

What followed is familiar and probably predictable to anyone who has read public mixed-school martial arts forums. Let's take a tour! I'm pulling excerpts here, there's just a lot of great ground to cover. Some of this repeats from stuff I've posted here. I was drawing from my previous writing, and my failure in this forum was part of the impetus to start this blog. Italics are current comments, I bolded some choice lines for emphasis.

My video:

Todo: That **** will get you dead real fast. You pulling that on the Bel field?

Me: which part?

Slagar: Honestly, almost any of it. It looks like your mechanics for power generation are probably pretty decent, but any florentine fighter who keeps their swords in any of the places yours are is gonna get hit a lot. Good Belegarth florentine fighting looks sneakily similar to boxing with swords, plus wrap shots. This looks like ninja noob stuff, and will just get ya killed.

Black Cat: Though I am not experienced enough to truly know how to explain the reasons why, I have fought enough to know that these techniques won't work on the Belegarth field. I'm a horrible melee fighter, and I can see the flaws in this particular fighting style. <links to guide post by respected Belegarth elder, Kenneth>

Respected Belegarth elder, Kenneth: Many "real" martial arts techniques are going to get you "killed" no matter what fighting style you do. Some branches of martial arts have practical theories, but many are filled with complex, stylized and inefficient techniques ... Perhaps more importantly, many real martial arts techniques fail to take into account what happens if your move "fails". If your super-seiyan spinning roundhouse backfist lands, the other guy is probably going to be hurting. ...

Unfortunately, the movements shown in the video would fail many modern day combat theories. The angles of attack are limited. The weapons have difficulty traversing the vertical planes. The shots are telegraphed. The set of defensive movements is limited. The arms are easy to "jam" together and prevent effective attacks. Two practical theories I was taught: Putting your arms on top of each other is generally bad. Putting your arms behind you tends to be much less effective than putting your arms in front of you. ... The style shown in the video would probably not be very effective against your medieval knight wearing plate and using a large shield.  ...  Many martial arts styles teach techniques, not theories. True martial arts theories tend to translate pretty well into any form of combat. EX: Don't telegraph your shots. Don't stand in a stupid spot.

That response was particularly notable, for being completely condescending, lacking content, and just being plain wrong.

Tiercel: Pause sixteen seconds in. I can take a shield, a second sword, a jav, or just about any piece of equipment at all, hold it straight out, and have you thoroughly locked up. While I do this, I hack your left side to pieces. This would require neither much skill, nor quick reflexes, nor experience to do. You're putting yourself in a defenseless position. This is just one example.
There is no value in crossing your arm over your torso and "tucking the blade under." You're wide open. Fighting single sword, I'd throw two blue shots to your exposed side, and get out of your strike area before you could get your sword off your shoulder or out from behind your back.At about 52 seconds in, you show the "continuous swinging." You expose your forearms again and again and again. A Bel fighter wouldn't be intimidated by the swinging. They'd take your arms, since you're offering them so freely.

Note that the continuous swinging was the part that I demonstrated the common but not useful interpretation of sinawali. Which i say is not useful. And do not mention intimidation.

Me: <attempt to bring the discussion to practical details>
This is where you start with it, and is mainly concerned with the question of "how do I learn to operate with two swords in a way that keeps them both active and prevents me from getting tied up?" Attribute development.

The quote from Kenneth is good, but not exactly what's going on here. If you're going to hit someone, pulling your arm back from where it is in order to hit is a bad idea that invites a counterattack. Moving your body forward while your weapon remains behind (stepping forward while your blade is behind your back) is a bad idea that invites a counterattack. The pulling back I was talking about is concerned with what happens AFTER your attempt to hit. Filipino martial arts has several kinds of strikes. One is with follow-through, lobtik, i.e. you swing, it hits or misses, and you continue through to the other side to chamber for the next swing. The other is a rebound, wootik, where you bounce off and chamber back the way you came from. Full sinawali patterns train your arms to do either and not get in the way of the other hands.

that one where I withdraw my right hand to an overhand position is actually a third type, abaniko, or fan. I didn't get in the video because you can only talk about so much at a time usefully, but it's a right forehand shot, which then flips over and hits again. standard introduction is to hit both sides of the head, but in Belegarth translates to an over the shoulder wrap shot. i don't get to use it much because the more experienced fighters here are taller than me and my wrapping over their shield-side shoulder is tricky, but it's the exact same shot they use. the followup is a looping overhead stab which is more useful to me.

the default behavior of the blades straight back is from stick fighting, to prevent getting your stick grabbed and you getting trapped/strangled with your own stick. but if they go vertical they're effective blocks. Would be more effective if anvilling wasn't an issue, but that just makes it more important to have the return momentum for blocking.

like in boxing, i was taught that if i don't have something touching my chin, i should expect to get knocked out. if both my weapon are out trying to hit, i am about to get hit.

and then i get pwned

Todo: And here I was hoping you'd quietly accept your mistake. Silly, silly me.
Do you think EVERYONE who has posted merely "doesn't see your tricky ninja options"? Because trust me, we do, and we will kill you before you get them out. Like in boxing, if you don't have your hands up. If your swords are not up and available for punchblocking/ dodging and counterattacks, you're gonna die. Your arms are going to get pinned or your non-sword side is gonna get hacked. It's up to you.

I haven't even mentioned different options. Let alone tricky ninja options. I'd like to get to them, but we've gotta stick to the basics. I attempt to return to the basics

Me: At no point am I advising standing in fighting range with both arms chambered waiting for action. That is where the drill starts, because beginners need a place to start. Serious dudes roll their eyes at it, because it seems silly, but serious dudes also end up teaching it, because it works. It teaches you how to have an off-hand that isn't stupid and can attack and defend. It teaches you, specifically, how NOT to get trapped and bound up. The issues involved in reaction time, entry tactics, open vs. opening targets, distance, etc, are all interesting, and all factor in, but you start somewhere.

If you're fighting single blue vs. single blue, and you're holding your sword on one side, does that mean you're going to get hit on the other side? Nope, because that sword is gonna come right across and block it. Well, what if you feint an attack to the open side, then go the other way? Well, it might work, unless they counterattack at the start of the feint, or step back and do a compound parry, or just stay because your feint was too fast, or unconvincing, or etc. etc. entire body of combat tactics.

you gotta look and say, what's it for, what works better. there isn't good advice for learning basic two-weapon coordination. Advice i've seen here says do everything with your off-hand, or fight just with your off-hand. Which is alright, but doesn't teach the hands to work together.

Kyrian: I've often introduced sinawali variations to fighters when I'm teaching two-weapon combat. However, I've never seen them as being particularly useful in the melee.

Todo: So are you advocating this as a training drill or technique? Would you ever stand with your swords like that in a Bel fight?

Kyrian, holding the line: Absolutely. For fighting, however, no. I feel it limits the usable angles for the chambered arm; there are only so many attacks and angles you can initiate from there. I personally prefer being able to initiate the same types of attacks from either side. For example, with the arm chambered, I wouldn't be able to do a stab with that arm without some movement indicating my intentions. Plus there's the potential for that weapon getting "stuffed" by an opponent's shield especially if he closes quickly and/or uses aggressive shield techniques.

Todo, establishing battle lines: Oh, I know you wouldn't Kyrian. I was talking to Phlebas.

slightly pissed off at this point, I go take some sparring footage. my opponent, Chris "Dagganoth", is a longtime Belegarth competitor. He's not the best, yet, but he grew up in the sport, regularly attends national events, and is a reasonable representative of the state of the art

Me: Mostly training, but practical applications are pulled out of it in a variety of ways. I wouldn't advocate standing like that in a bel fight, but I'd do it, as much as you ever wanted to be standing in a set position.
it looks like this: <sparring video from earlier post in this blog, >
you can, in fact, thrust from a low chamber, with almost no telegraphing. i know i did some today, don't know if I caught any on video. there are stab-only sinawali drills, which are sort of awkward but interesting.

Slagar: Please stop posting bad advice in the forum I point everybody at as a teaching resource. Pretty please? Love and Kisses, Slagar

Dagganoth, my opponent: A lot of his stuff is surprisingly effective at Belegarth Combat, windows that are left open for shots LOOK to be open for far longer than they are, and close quickly. I'm pretty quick about fighting people's openings and these techniques, when done just right, pretty well keep my offense shut out. ... It's very sound stuff, and it can be very hard to track where both swords are moving at once, making blocking a real pain. It's an excellent foundation for combos and footwork in particular. I think it needs to be kept in mind that this video wasn't created to make a Sinawali fighter, this video was made to demonstrate a fundamental martial arts technique focused on combos and reliability, in order to benefit your existing belegarth game.P.S. Phlebas' stab technique outshines any Belegarth fighter I've ever fought.

Me: Slagar, you do know that in the tutorial page you refer new fighters to, in the florentine section, two of the three written ones advise people to learn sinawali, and the other written one recommends the cross block as the preferred block? and i made this video specifically because all the sinawali links in those tutorials are broken/useless.

Dane, one of the top fighters in Belegarth: Really hate that chambered guard; the bait is way too obvious. If you have to block to the baited side, that's too much ground to cover, too easy to be opened up for just about anything unless you're super quick, and even then, the super quick fighters that get away with that guard use it against opponents they know to be vastly inferior.

note that I am not super quick. my natural reflexes are actually a bit slow, and i tend to think too much. i do have a decent analytical eye, though, which can seem like the same thing

Slagar: Ok, on the chance I'm wrong and this is really an effective technique/style, I'll keep an open mind. Wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong, or the last.
Go to an event, fight big names. Post video if you can (video cameras are hard to set up at an event, I realize), or W/L ratios in sets of 10, and against who. Show me that what you're doing is making you an effective fighter in our game, tell me you used it and beat Galin, Kenny, Physic, Peter, Bhakdar, Battlechrist, Ruben, Dane, Angel, Elwrath, whoever the top sticks in your area are, 6/10 or better. Show me what it's good for .... anything to help you coordinate your off hand into fighting is fine to practice, to train with. I'm not harshing on that. You're advocating actually fighting with it, as your video showed. That's what I'm saying is wrong.

Repeating myself from earlier: "At no point am I advising standing in fighting range with both arms chambered waiting for action. " So he backs off slightly due to community pressure. In compromise, he admits that, if I can beat all the top fighters of their organization, documented, all by my lonesome, it might be worth discussing. Then there's some discussion about how sinawali drills are okay for coordination, but have no practical application, based on the one time they went to a class and learned something called "heaven sticks" or something. Seems to be getting somewhat back on track, so i try to work in some more basis of discussion.

Me: The takeaways from sinawali are things like always being able to hit from multiple angles, rhythm and tempo changes, awareness of opening and closing lines, and being able to manipulate weapons without ever getting tangled or bound (the idea of being able to easily tie up someone trained in kali is ludicrous). If you only see the spinny-flourish version, it's easy to get the wrong idea. With half-beat timing, you get the ability to simultaneously monitor low line and high line, as well as simultaneous near-defense (shots coming to the torso) and far-defense/offense (attacking or blocking shots to the arm).

The patterns are 6, 8, 10, even 12 count things. Practical applications are two or three shot extracts from the patterns, put in to proper context. You have to do some application drills to be able to use it effectively.

And then i cross over into discussion about guard positions. Next time!


  1. Sinawali is an absolutely awful tactical practice, but a useful weapon/body integration practice .... if done with a few modifications. It can also teach you about timing, half beats etc if you know what to do with it.
    Most people do it face to face with a partner - try it with one foot/shoulder in and in constant motion, stepping around and switching leads - WAY more useful.
    Add some in and out, so your shots are aiming at your opponent and not their weapon, and your defense and offense actually exist ... and perhaps you'll have a chance of convincing these guys about it's use.
    Having said that, sometimes fighting them is the only way .... hence the dueling history of FMA :-)

  2. see it seems to me like we're basically saying the same thing. "Sinawali is awful tactical practice, but it could be alright if you did with proper footwork and targeting, good understanding of timing, and a sense of defense of and offense."
    "Sinawali is usually done wrong, you gotta remember to add in the timing, footwork, targetting and swing variety."
    The problem is that two-weapon fighting is mind-scramblingly complicated, and no one can do all that on the first go. It's like, Teacher: lesson 1 here's the basic arm movements!
    Student:: *mind destroyed, no coordination*
    Teacher: Go practice!
    Student: I got it!
    Teacher: Good! Lesson 2: here's the footwork!
    Student: *mind destroyed, no coordination*

    repeat for lesson 3 (timing), 4 (distance), 5 (new pattern), 6 (new pattern with footwork, timing, distance), 7 (learn how to make new patterns), 8 (release set patterns, play)

    except people don't stick through and do the practice to get lessons 2-8, because it's hard and your mind gets destroyed each time. but... I don't think I've seen any other learning plan that does the job of learning two weapon fighting any better/faster.

  3. I would agree with you up to the part about patterns .. I don't think you need them. You can jump straight to tactical ideas by feeding with 1 or 2 weapons, so the student has to either just block, just strike, or alternate blocking and striking with 2 weapons. That's how I learned. The only time I played with any kind of pattern - I think I know 1, with a low variation, so 2 all in all, was on a pendulum target, just for the weapon manipulation. Anything with a partner was done with a feeder feeding stuff I had to block and then counter, or stuff I had to feed and then block. If the feeder is good - feeding into openings, walking around, and expressing the strikes so the student has time to do what they need to do, they will end up doing sinawali ... but the random kind with the footwork ... straight off. Timing added when it becomes easy.

  4. hmm. I see that, that is how I learned fencing, too. It does require constant one-on-one attention from an advanced feeder, though. What's the time scale on your experience with that? like, a year of two-hours-per-week, or what?

  5. Hard to say - would depend on previous experience and how quick a learner someone is. But I have come to the conclusion that it is the fastest way - faster than patterns and then learning what they are for. I suspect that Sinawali made total sense to you because it combined with your fencing and sparring - you understood it's benefits from the 'back end' as it were.
    My teacher told me straight out - 'don't teach patterns', that they produce glitches and are so disconnected from what you have to with them that they are a slower way to learn. Logic might dictate that having the patterns ingrained would help, but he came to believe this was not so as the muscle memory is not doing stuff in real time but in imposed beats and patterns with no 'input' side creating them .... if that makes sense, so the reactive nature of 'seeing' is lost.
    I do think you need a skilled feeder, but I have also developed ways for students at the same or lesser levels to play to improve skills. Playing with people of lesser skills improves feeding skills interestingly enough ...
    So how long does it take? No idea, but I do think it's the most efficient route, and certainly faster than anything else I've seen.