The New York Historical Fencing Association is a school of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Our studies are based on the teachings of the 14th century German fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer. Although we focus primarily on the longsword, our curriculum includes wrestling, dagger, sword and buckler, spear and poleaxe. NYHFA is a member of the HEMA Alliance.

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NYHFA Longsword Curriculum is now being offered in Manhattan, through Sword Class NYC, taught by NYHFA Instructor Tristan Zukowski. Please visit for all information pertaining to class schedule, class fees, etc.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The life lesson of swordmanship

By Fabio Lamborghini

Wanna a piece of me, baby?
Learning how to wield a sword can teach balance, it can teach how to transmit force from the feet stance to the arms, and it can teach that every blow received is a lesson. Over time I learned that for every strategy I need to plan actions, and for every action there is one correct movement. And, most importantly, I began to realize that whatever holds up my opponent's blade is not a perfect machine and I learned that psychology can be my ally.

Yet, I learned much more, little teachings that have been a great life lesson. Reading about these discoveries may sound amusing, as many of them are sometimes automatic reflexes, but I came to consciously appreciate them through swordmanship, and I have been using them willingly ever since.

> Awareness
I find awareness to be a beautiful and crucial concept: no matter what happens in front of you, be aware of what happens everywhere else too. Sensing the environment looking for the favorable positions and dangerous trapholes is part of being aware.
It is like going to a job interview with the future employer. One could just sit and answer to the questions, or one could constantly scan through the desk and the shelves for books and pictures that could tell what the employer is interested in, his/her "weak" points.
Similarly, it is like having a meeting with some collaborators and being aware that one of them is taking notes about your work. Being aware of it removes the surprise when discovering that someone has been claiming your results as their own. Actually, it allows to pull up the defense in advance, preventing unpleasant follow-ups.

> Focus
Setting up a target and reaching it: it is all about focus. No matter how the opponent defends or backs, fiercely swinging his/her blade: let him/her play, I will have that head. I had this concept very clear in my mind when I had to ask for my tax form, which was never sent to me. The bureaucrat at the other end of the phone had a long list of available excuses in a strenuous effort to change the topic. It was a great chat, I even discovered that the woman at the other end of the phone had two kids and a husband who works in the same building, that she has to leave work at four but it is because the physician suggested so, not to be overloaded with work, and that she has never been to Europe because her husband does not like long flights. I still wanted my tax form, and I got it.

> Never stop, until it is over
A very important aspect of focus is to have a clear goal from start. Sometimes, when sparring, we get a scratch, a flat hit, a gentle caress and we stop. The next thing we remember is the deadly blow that determines our defeat. The same happens just too often, generally masked by the mediocre common sense of "enjoying the little things". Focus, always, and never stop or halt until it is over. One can enjoy the little scratches and the caresses, but the focus is always defeating an opponent.
When we set a goal, be it finding the cause of cancer, or just running ten miles, there is absolutely no reason to halt at the first recognition by a senior colleague, or to stop because our training partner had lack of breath. These are little things. The next thing we may remember is that we missed what we wanted to achieve.

> Strategy Vs. Tactics
This actually became even clearer after I attended a course on game theory. When sparring I often had the impression that my planned actions were too limited in time to be a guarantee of victory. That is tactics: a few actions that lead to a specific, often intermediate, goal. Ensuring victory requires a grander plan, which includes studying and probing of the opponent, learning the weak points, taking advantage of them and, finally, delivering the final strike. This is strategy.
This applies to every human conflict in real life. While a powerful all-in-all attack may work in some situations, observing the opponent, learning the weak points, and wearing off the adversary before striking will always have higher chances to succeed. That was the case with the tax form. I listened to the woman and asked her questions so that she told me about her. Unsurprisingly, she was more concerned with following the rules than interested in helping me (for a mistake they have made, by the way), and her situation was not exactly brilliant with her co-workers including her boss. Wearing her off was just about listening to how many mistakes she has made for which she was reprised. This lead to my final strike when I offered her the chance to amend to at least one of them. It took quite some time, but nonetheless it worked. On the other end, I could have applied the simple tactics of calling her supervisor: there was a chance that, as retaliation, my tax form would have reached me the following year, instead of being there right in time.

> Never lower the guard
I learned this the hard way: lowering your sword and turning your head is always a mistake. In general, this has been the topic of a Nobel Prize for Economics (I forgot the name of the guy), who claimed that in repeated games (conflicts), the players will eventually move from a competing to a collaborative stance. In other words, there are going to be a lot of confrontations before you can think of trusting someone, no matter what. So, never lower your guard.
The applications in real life go from "beware of pickpockets on the buses in Rome", pass by "never leave notes about your most precious research on the desk when you leave", to "read the fine print on anything you buy or sign". This teaching is just natural, however swordmanship added a very interesting spice to it, which is the following point.

> Keep a threat position (aka fear the blade)
There is guard and guard. There is the guard that allows the opponent to comfortably sip some tea in the meantime, and one that will cause uncontrolled self-wetting because of the threatening stance. The second is often the best choice, when possible. Unfortunately, there is no real threat stance on a bus in Rome. On the other hand, asking for the name of the representative we are talking to on the phone, or in the shop, and asking for their phone contact and, in some creepy situations, for the phone of their manager is perceived to be quite a threat:"If anything goes wrong, I'll be here again looking right for you."
For instance, at work, when I feel something is not 100% right, I used to ask people to send me a detailed report by email (not lowering the guard). Now I require to cc a copy to someone else (threatening stance).

> Fear not the psychology
I have noticed that in many situations when the person I am facing knows to be somehow wrong, then he/she will fiercely attack, purposelessly, only to keep distance and try to scare me. Raising the voice is one such behavior.
In swordmanship we are taught that the way we look has a psychological impact on the opponent. Interestingly enough, once we are aware of this, we are no longer impressed. No matter how big the other person tries to be, or how hard he/she is trying to swing the sword, if we perceive it to be just the psychology of fear, we will not be afraid.
Most of body language, as well as the use of some verbal registries is just a psychological act of intimidation. We learn not to fear them and we train to identify and deconstruct them so that, in the end, we can actually measure the fear of our opponent. When in a work meeting someone starts screaming and insulting, then you know your last question undermined some shaky tower.

> Be the first to strike
Observation of sparring teaches a very important point: you cannot win if you don't strike. From this follows the central lemma: be the first to strike. There is a profound difference between attack and strike. The purpose of attack is to put the opponent into defense: it is a series of actions that may just be intended to probe the opponent and discover the weak points. The strike is the blow that is intended to kill. One can let the opponent attack the whole time and still deliver the first (and final) strike. Bargaining for a price is just about attack. Leaving the place is the strike, and don't turn back unless the seller runs after you begging you to pay as much as you want.

> The tempo of the strike
Mike made it clear. There are three tempos and each has its application given by how much range we have, and how much room there is for intimidation. I used to walk into colleagues' offices when I had a problem with them. This is like stepping first and then striking: I am out of measure and I end up showing my intention in advance prior to the confrontation. No wonder I generally faced defending urchins.
Bumping into the colleague at the coffee table, or in the corridor connecting all offices is like striking and stepping at the same time: no intention showed, that was just in the right measure. Sending an email with someone else in cc, it is like striking without the step: a painful snap to the hands. No time to put up defenses. Beware though, this will not be easily forgotten (nor forgiven).

> When in a bind, change, immediately
Sometimes arguments just happen and too often the bitter taste of unfinished confrontation just lead to a stalling crystallized situation. This is a bind. The very first time I trained I was taught never to stand still in a bind. Then, why should anybody stand still in any stalled confrontation? Searching for openings, or just changing can be done in several ways, many of which could actually aim at resolving the conflict peacefully, not differently from disarming the opponent.
A trivial example is a common situation when
B says:"A is an idiot because of Z, I am smart because of Y"
A replies:"B is an idiot because of Y, I am smart because of Z"
B adds:"A is an idiot because of Z, I am smart because of X and Y, with X very similar to Z"
A rebattles:"B is an idiot because of X as well"
B changes:"I apologize, I am an idiot because of X, which is actually Z."
A falls for it:"Yes, idiot, X is Z!" (Uops!)


These are the lessons I learned from the sword. I have no doubt that more are still to come. In the end, it seems that many of these are just innate animal reflexes over which we have no control until we understand them. I believe that understanding them, for instance through the practice of swordmanship, makes us a bit more humans, perhaps even a bit better humans.
PS In truth, most of my co-workers are very nice people. Crazy apples just happen.