Sunday, September 13, 2020

"There can be only one." Monolithic training environments and the fallacy of competence


Before I start with the discussion of this article I would like thank Nic Harrison for his assistance with ideas and direction in this article. His ideas and formulations have been most useful in describing this subject more fully and also directing the discussion in the direction that it needed to go. This is an important subject that each student and instructor should examine for their own part in the participation in, and rejection of monolithic training approaches.


The discussion which follows will be broken up into various parts so that the material can be discussed succinctly and with direction. This will allow the greatest and most accurate discussion of the subject. The subject itself is designed to address the subject of monolithic training environments, those which are seen as the be all and end all of the fencer's training. These structures are inward looking limiting outward and contrary views of the subject of swordsmanship.

To begin with will be a discussion of the subject of competence and what it means both in the sense of definition and also in technical sense in operation. This will lead to the discussion of the problem of monolithic training environments and give reasons why they do not work, and that they do exist, but in effect should not, especially in our information-rich contemporary society. Various influences upon this situation will be addressed to delineate the problem as it stands.

The second part will discuss the reason that taking the opportunity to learn more, especially from different systems of swordsmanship, and in different methods, will give advantages to the fencer. These advantages will be presented in contrast to the monolithic approach. Further will be given examples how the monolithic approach can be broken, but this can only be achieved with effort on the part of the participants.

These discussions will be summed up in the final part of the discussion. Monolithic structures are difficult to break down due to their nature, but it is possible. It takes people to influence them with new thoughts and ideas from external sources, and to challenge them and to demonstrate the advantages of other approaches. These challenges need to be applied with intelligence and demonstration of the advantage of the new approach to training and swordsmanship in general.

On Competence

The online dictionary (via Google) defines 'competence' as: "the ability to do something successfully or efficiently". In fencing terms this means the ability to stay personally safe fencing while not causing harm to the partner. The implication of this is to remain safe fencing anyone you cross swords with.

Some of those people may be better, or worse than you. Some may have entirely the wrong idea and be out to 'get' you, 'beat' you or are nervous and jittery with a sword in their hand under assault. It may be a competition or social sparring. In any or all of the above cases, a competent fencer will be able to stay safe. This is not to say that only incompetent fencers get injured. We know that this is not true, but it is rare for a competent fencer to act in such a manner as to cause injury to themselves, (sometimes, but not always using their partner to do it).

Competence is developed over time through learning skills and practicing those skills. It is also developed in fencing through facing different opponents so that the fencer can develop an understanding of the different ways in which people fence. This is an element which needs to be taken into account in the consideration of competence. A competent fencer is also one who can deal with the approach and tactics of an opponent, regardless of what they might be, and regardless of the length of their weapon. The only way to gain the knowledge how to deal with different sorts of opponents is to fence them and experiment with different approaches, not limit the fencer to a single method.

The "One True Way"

Fallacy of the Single Method

There are those who believe that there is “one true way” for training in particular weapon forms of a particular style. They also believe that the weapon should only be learnt in that particular style in that particular method and that any deviance from this is a “pollution” of the style and a deviance and should be avoided. For these individuals the weapon is taught and learnt the same way without any input from outside to change any facet of the process.

The approach above may sound appropriate to a more Oriental point of view but it also has presence in some Occidental schools as well. There is a notion that if the students learn something from somewhere else then it will somehow taint what they know and by them using this knowledge it will affect all the other students who come into contact with them in a negative way. This approach to the study of swordsmanship is flawed.

The single method of training to the exclusion of all others limits ideas. It does not allow the student to experience any new ideas from other areas, nor expand their own ideas because they are limited to what is found within the school. This limitation of ideas means that the fencer, should they take their skills out of the school to a tournament, will not be prepared for different approaches to using the sword, and thus will have no way of dealing with them.

Of course there will be an answer to this and other failings.

The answer that will be given in response to questions about other approaches is that the method which is being taught is “all-encompassing” so there is no need for other methods to be examined. This response is designed to tell the student that there is no need for them to go elsewhere because the teacher at the school can teach them all that they need to know, and that the method that they are learning will deal with anything that another swordsman can throw at them. Most often this is not the case, and there will be failures.

Failures in practicing the art as described by the school, especially against other schools, will be attributed not to a failure in the art, but due to a failure in practicing by the student. The student will be instructed that if they had practiced more that particular attack would have been defeated. In this way, the blame for the failure experienced is shifted from the methodology to the student.

Worse still, in tournaments run by the school cheating may be involved to prop up the school’s method. Officials will be affiliates or members of the school and their calls will be biased toward the school. Thus through the tournament the method is “proven in combat.” Complaints about issues with officials and how the tournament was run will be put down to individual perceptions rather than any real issue.

On an individual level in single method training, once a trainee completes a training course, there is sometimes the perception that is all that there is to be learnt, that their training is now complete, because they have completed the training course. Most of the time the initial training course gives the student of swordsmanship the basic “language” of swordsmanship, thus it teaches them how; to move, to defend and how to attack. These skills are necessary so that the student can now understand the more complex elements of swordsmanship which come after.

The Trainer Influence

Trainers influence students. They must otherwise they have no ability to teach. This influence can have a positive or a negative influence on the career of the fencer, depending on what sort of influence they are and how they influence the student.

For some trainers, they guard their schools as they would have been in the Orient. In some cases this is because there has been an Eastern tradition which has had an influence on the trainer in their career. What this means is that they have an old traditional approach. The method they teach is one which they feel is a personal method which they teach to their students. This method is not to be spread among other swordsmen but kept within the school. Within these schools loyalty to the school is of great importance and to train with another school. The student should seek permission first, and to not do so is seen as a breach of faith, which is sometimes punished, if not explicitly then implicitly.

In other cases, there is no previous Eastern tradition to somewhat explain this motivation, but the same attitude is taken and many of the same elements are also adopted. This idea of the personal method can be pushed even further. Here, the trainer is seen as the only voice of reason as it is their method which they have developed over an extended period of time. Pushed far enough these become a cult of personality, with the head trainer at the top.

These monolithic training structures, both the Eastern traditional approach and the cult of personality are not healthy. These approaches heavily discourage cross-training with students of other schools for fear that the students may pick up something new that they might show the other students which deviates from the method. Further, the students may find in their cross-training that there are questions that have no answers.

One of the fears which monolithic structures have is questions which have no answers, thus a fear of the discovery of a flaw, or flaws in the method which is being taught. How can the method be one which is “all-encompassing” if it has flaws? If all the students are following the method then they are not likely to find the flaws, but if they go outside the method they are more likely to, thus cross-training training is discouraged for fear of new discovery and finding something that the method has no answer for. Of greater concern is when these ideas spread to a wider community.

Group Influence

Groups will also influence how the individual trains and whether or not they are open to outside influences. Just like the influence of the trainer this influence can be of benefit or it can be a detriment to the advancement of the individual in their training. In this regard, it is often a question of whether the group is outward looking or inward looking.

The outward looking group will seek other opportunities to learn and different points of view to enhance their view of swordsmanship, and through this gain a greater understanding of it. The inward looking group will not. The inward looking group will have a method which they stick to which suits their rule-set and it will be a method and a rule-set which they will claim is their own, and which is the only correct one.

The same group will influence the individuals within the group through its culture to feel the same way about the method and the rule-set so that they have a common belief-system, and anyone who disagrees will be more than likely ostracised. They will believe that other methods are incorrect because they are not like theirs, and because they are not taught in the same fashion as they are.

The monolithic nature of the style will be most exposed when questions are asked about the style of swordsmanship and it is vigorously defended. There is a great fear that flaws will be discovered in the method and this will be covered up with bluster about the “superior” nature of the method. The questions will even be deflected to other places and avoided.

In defence of their method and to prove that it is better than those about them tournaments will be arranged. Of course, the tournament rules and the officials will be biased toward any member of the group and find in favour of them should a dispute arise. This idea will extend even further to the scheduling of events. Events will be cross-scheduled with others to ensure that members will only attend events of their own group, to ensure that they are exposed only to the correct culture. Of course, this will be hidden behind training program requirements.

Of Weapon Forms and Historical Masters...

There are those who will claim that they do not look outside what they are doing because what is happening at a particular conference is not relevant to them because they only study rapier and only from Capo Ferro, or only do German longsword. There are issues which arise from this approach in any way that it is viewed.

Taking the point of view of those who only study rapier and only from Capo Ferro as an example, this master did not invent the weapon form. He was not even the first to present the theories which are expressed in his treatise. Even if the individual wants to look at late-Italian rapier, Giganti is a better foundation from which to move to Capo Ferro, and there are theoretical elements within Fabris which are also useful as well. Further, even investigations into Agrippa’s principles can assist as well.

In an even broader context, there is the important element to note that all forms of swordsmanship are united by the same two primary principles of Time and Distance regardless of the sword’s form. So even by studying the longsword, there are elements which one can learn about the rapier, and vice versa. Indeed di Grassi approaches the use of his two-handed sword with the same principles as he does with his single sword. So approaching the examination of swordsmanship focusing on only one weapon also denies all the associative learning which occurs.

Further there it is historically inaccurate. There is evidence through the treatises of the theorists and masters themselves that they did not learn their arts from a single individual but learnt it from several. They learnt it from whoever would teach them something which would be of use to them. This is the same approach that all should approach swordsmanship in our current age.

Then there is the argument, “I’m only starting, I need to understand [insert weapon form] properly before doing something new." This is a false argument as only by learning something new will it be possible to understand what is being studied, and possibly not even then. The issue here is that in the beginning it is difficult to understand what the possibilities really are and also the theory involved. Only through even an examination of some other weapon or approach to the same weapon is it possible to have a glimpse of other possibilities and theory.

Unknowingly Guilty

Of course when a person decides to learn a skill, or train in a weapon form, or pursue a course of study, in swordsmanship, there are the best of intentions. The same can be said when a person takes it upon themselves to train others in the same. From the outset the intention is to approach the subject to gain the greatest understanding of the material, this is not always the result.

People start with open eyes and as they become involved in various aspects of training they become more closed to opportunities and approaches, due to various reasons. The issue becomes when these avenues which are closed are closed for no good reason at all. The issue is further increased when these avenues cannot be opened because some sort of conviction has been formed that these avenues were closed and should not be opened, even when good reasons are presented. This is where the monolithic training structures are formed along with the concept of the “one true way”. Validation should always be sought and re-sought for every approach.

“The only sure knowledge is that I know nothing.” Plato

While Plato’s statement is somewhat disingenuous, in that even the beginner after their first lesson has some knowledge, it is an approach that can be taken and is a healthy one when examining outside ideas. This approach allows us to examine new ideas with the perspective of the benefit of new knowledge that will always benefit our knowledge of swordplay, regardless of whether it is the same form of weapon or not.

When the opportunity is presented to learn something new, or even learn something which is familiar from a different point of view, the opportunity should be taken with both hands. This will broaden your experience and your horizons. Only through learning new things and re-examining what we already know will we really understand what is possible.

Swordplay Universals

The essential fact is that even with a different type of sword, there are elements which are related. This is because all swordplay is related. It is related because the human body can only move in a certain set of particular ways, and because all swords carry similar characteristics which cannot be divorced from one another.

Clearly, all swords have a handle. All swords have two edges, regardless of whether one is blunt or not. All swords have a pommel of some description to hold the rest of the sword together, in most cases this also acts as a counter-balance to the blade. The balance point of a good sword is somewhere just beyond the extent of the hilt of the weapon. All of these characteristics of the weapon mean that there is commonality in the method of their use.

Masters’ Words

The masters’ treatises have a bad habit of not explaining everything. This is for two main reasons. The first is assumed knowledge, things that a student of the period the treatise would know. The second is concealment, things that the master would conceal so that the student would have to come to him for an explanation, thus pay him to teach him. This second one is found especially in the works of earlier period masters. The concealment was so people had to come and get lessons and also so only students of the master could use the treatise alone to train. In regard to the first reason there are simple concepts which were assumed knowledge because this is what was taught as a part of the education during that period. Some of this has been left behind in our modern education system so these elements need some explanation.

Learning another system adds to experience and knowledge of swordplay and this can only enhance the ability of the fencer. This experience and knowledge can be used to extend and enhance the performance of other weapons due to the common foundations and also to enhance similar weapons due to the greater understanding. There is also a prime tactical reason for learning another system.

Learning another system allows a person to examine it from the inside. To take it apart and see how it works. To discover what the essential elements are. So then the same system can be defeated through this knowledge. This means that the person who learns more systems knows better how to defeat other systems because they have a greater understanding of them.

Further the understanding of other systems can assist in understanding the development and history of the system which is the primary study of the individual. While they are not directly linked, there is evidence for foundation elements found in earlier works that is also found in later works. Similarities in formation of action and movement which are too close to be coincidence, especially when geographical considerations are taken into account. The history, while some find it unnecessary, explains why weapons and styles developed the way that they did.

Study for Understanding

Through the study of material which binds your interest in terms of time and geography can aid in understanding of the overall teaching method which a person studies under. Study is an essential part of learning, and while the beginner’s study is primarily mechanical in the beginning, they should have intellectual elements to their study as well. The more experienced student should be studying treatises and other theoretical elements to better understand what they are being taught.

There must be a reason why the instructor is teaching. There must be some sort of foundation from which they have built themselves to a position where they are able to teach and some experience and knowledge. The reason needs to be established for a person’s ability to teach and the reason that they are teaching. This reason needs to be examined, especially if the reasons seem spurious.

The clever student of the sword will learn from everyone. The teacher will learn from their students as much as the students will learn from their teacher. Everyone has something to teach, even if they do not realise it themselves. The important thing with regard to this is the approach: for the student it is learning better ways to learn; for the teacher it is learning better ways to teach.

Giving Back

The new teacher should bring something new to the school at which they are supposed to teach. A new teacher should always be adding to the curriculum not just repeating the old curriculum as it has been previously presented. Even a different perspective taken on the old curriculum is better than simply teaching it the same way. Updating the curriculum with the latest knowledge is always a good thing.

In those schools which have a ranking system similar to that of the London Masters of Defence, i.e. Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Master, the rank of Free Scholar should mean something. It should not be just another rank. This rank should mean that the student is “free” to learn new things. There should be an expectation of new learning and exploration placed upon individuals of this rank. This is to encourage them to find new things to study, to find different perspectives. This is a way to enhance a school and to prevent it from stagnating.

Moral of the story? Don’t make mountains, there are enough mole hills already.

The monolithic training structure is difficult to break down due to its nature. It is one solid block and those who are within it often do not see what is without it. They also do not see any issue with their approach. The nature of the structure is that the students have been taught that there is a single way to do things and it is by the structure that they have been taught. The teachers have been taught the same from their teachers, and it is in this fashion that the structure gains and maintains its rigidity. It is because the people are so invested in the structure that it is so hard to break down.

The influence to change needs to come from within the structure, but external sources need to show the flaws in the structure to elements within it for this to occur. This is where there are always issues. The external sources are external so they have little impact upon the structure unless they can influence those on the inside. Once individuals on the inside have been influenced, they need to exert influence on the inside from the inside to achieve change.

The most important thing is that this influence and challenge must be achieved through the use of demonstration and intelligence. Intelligence needs to be demonstrated in the alternative approaches along with demonstration of the use of these alternative approaches otherwise there will be no effect. Battering away at the monolith with one or the other singly will have no effect, they must be performed together. Persuasive arguments will be fended off by blunt statements without demonstration; demonstration will be fended off without intelligent argument.

Monolithic training structures believe that they have the one true path toward achievement of the way of swordsmanship. Unfortunately there are quite a few of these structures out there, even worse is that many of them can’t even identify themselves as such. There needs to be flexibility for a school or other organisation to grow with the knowledge which is being made available, this allows the organisation to remain healthy. Healthy interaction with other groups can only assist with this and can only benefit swordplay overall.