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So I’ve run into a problem with my SCA fighting. With the move to the new house and all the renovations relating to that, I basically dropped out of the fighting altogether last autumn. Now that we’re finally settled and the weather is getting warmed (and the canton has a new regular practice site) I was able, a month ago, to get back into kit and fight. After a six-month break there was a huge drop in my skill level. That’s perhaps unsurprising, but the biggest thing I noticed was difference in performance between my sword-and-shield work (which is now piss-poor) and my longsword work (which is still reasonably good) and I’ve been thinking about why. And the answer I’ve come up with is pretty sad: I never learned proper fundamentals in sword-and-board.

When I started the longsword about a year ago I went right to the medieval (well, early Renaissance) source materials and really put an effort into it: I worked on footwork, stance, strikes and postures. I sweated on it, and I’m still sweating on it today… and the drills I worked with included such simple bits of advice as breathing properly.

I never bothered to learn any sort of historically-accurate technique with sword-and-board; I just picked up the “SCA basics” and got into it. Most new SCA fighters (including me) learn to fight that way: “Practice” involves getting into smelly loaner kit once a week and having people wail on them until they get a bit better — and nothing else. No footwork, no biomechanics, no historical study, not even any unarmored drills to do on their own time at home. I suspect the absence of emphasis on technique or biomechanics in SCA heavy fighting stems from that, and that absence tilts the playing field heavily in favour of those fighters with a certain natural aptitude for the fighting, at least at the novice level.

I’m beginning to suspect that a lot of fighters in the upper echelons were fighters who got wise to these facts and simply made a deliberate effort to pick up some better technique. Then those fighters become knights, take squires, and then teach their squires that technique (I suspect that why you’ll often see a talented novice fighter get squired and then their fighting kicks up a notch.) That doesn’t really help those fighters who’ve gotten into my situation, though: I don’t have that natural aptitude, I’m having to work for it. And I haven’t caught the eye of any knights, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be squired by anybody anytime soon for various reasons both Society and mundane (not least of which is that I’ve got enough on my plate without adding another level of complexity to my game) which means I’m not going to get into a mentor/student relationship anytime soon. In fairness, there are been plenty of fighters, both knights and unbelts, who are happy to give a bit of their time and effort to explain things to me, and I’m grateful for the help… but by its very nature that sort of instruction is fairly piecemeal. What I need is a much more systematic approach.

Because I never learned to fight correctly I’ve failed to progress beyond a certain level. And after having taken half a year off, I don’t even have those half-assed skills to fall back on because there was no system or logic to them. For example: I tend to hold my breath when I fight — part of that is biomechanics (in sword and board you hunch up like a heavyweight boxer behind your shield) and part of that is concentrating so hard I forget to breathe. Don’t laugh: there’s a lot of stuff going on when you’re swinging a sword as fast and as hard as you can while wearing 40lbs of steel and leather armour. But what do your muscles desperately need when you’re swinging a sword as fast and as hard as you can while wearing 40lbs of steel and leather armour? Oxygen. Forgetting to breathe is counterproductive to say the least: you spend a lot of time gasping as your body reminds you to take a breath, you lack muscle strength, you get fatigued very quickly, and so on. So that’s one of the things that I need to fix about my fighting.

I’ll always enjoy the longsword more than any other fighting form (it’s just such a beautiful fighting form; like dancing with a sword) but sword-and-board is the cornerstone of SCA combat. Period. I’ve got nobody to blame but myself for my current predicament and nobody but me can fix the problem. I’m not going to have some knight magically ride in and take me under his wing and work me through a Rocky IV training montage. It’s just not going to happen to me (even if that’s something could actually happen, which I doubt.) I’m in the situation where I need to re-learn my fundamentals… and I’m determined to do it properly this time.

So here’s my action plan: I’ve spoken with a couple of the live-steel folks I know (SCA fencers and HEMA enthusiasts care a lot about biomechanics and technique) about my problems and gotten some advice. I’m putting my pell up in the backyard this weekend, which will give me a place to practice; basically, I’m planning on starting from the ground up, with footwork. Breathing is going to be the emphasis. I was happy to see that my speed is still good, and my striking power will improve with better mechanics. I’m going to look at the historical record, especially the I.33 stuff, and adapt what I can to SCA heavy combat. I’m going to look at the few SCA fighting systems available, and see how I can use and adapt that stuff. And I’m going to have to knuckle down and do it now that the weather’s nice.

I’ve got two goals set for myself: First, I want to raise my skill level to the point where I can challenge into the White Bear Fian and second, I want to develop and write down a training regimen of drills that newbies can use on their own at home so they don’t get into the rut that I’ve fallen into.