Hi! I was wondering if I could have some tips on how to write someone teaching another person how to sword fight. I know some pretty basic things (stance, positions of swords) and how it’s different than fencing, but I could really use some extra help (or a nudge towards some good, reliable resources if you guys aren’t sure on how to help)!! Thanks!

First, I suggest you pick up a technical manual or how to guide on the type of weapons combat you want to write. Italian School of Fencing and German School of Fencing are going to be easiest to find, you can probably pick up a few manuals off Amazon or at your local used bookstore pretty cheaply. It’s worth going over the different kinds of blade combat and sport fencing may give you some insights into training.  Wikitenaur has historical manuals for other sword types and could be helpful. I’d also recommend checking out a Fencing studio/school in your area and talking to them about the specifics. Highlander’s second season has a good episode where Macleod teaches Ritchie how to fight. It’s good because it starts with him doing it wrong first (he’s angry at Ritchie and angry at himself) and then doing it the right way. The Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce is good for this also, so read it. I also recommend the Jackie Chan Karate Kid flick because it’s actually a good primer on training the right way with a good instructor versus training the wrong way with a bad one.

Let me break down how training works and why some of this is important because the underlying essentials stay the same between different forms in how people are taught. The skills that are taught first are the ones that will be the most lasting and most important to a student’s growth and development.

Start: stance

Stances are important because they are the base on which we rely on most heavily in combat. Before any student thinks about learning the higher level techniques, they need to start with stances. Stances are what keep you from getting knocked over, provide you with your balance when getting knocked around, and are important to keep you from stumbling when you get hit. Stances are all about foot position and where and how you bend your knees, they’re about keeping your back upright and maintaining proper position. Everything comes back to stances and they are the base for all techniques.

Stances are usually the hardest part of any lesson because when kids sign up, they w ant to get right to the hitting and the swinging. They see other, more advanced students getting to do all the fun stuff and they wonder: why can’t that be me? Most authors skip this stage of the training because they think it’s boring, they want the student to jump right to handling the weapon. But, someone with a shitty stance won’t get far and if they fail to learn how to do their stances in the proper way then all their technique will suffer as a result.

A student may not even be handed a weapon on their first day, they may instead spend their whole lesson with the instructor and other students going over different positions. Their stances will constantly be corrected physically by their instructor and their instructor will not be shy about moving the student’s body about until they are in the right position. This is important because the body needs to remember and once a student knows what it’s supposed to feel like, they can find that position again

Stances train patience. They are the first step to instilling discipline into the student because the student has to wait and they teach the student that fighting well is a little more complicated then it first appears. A good stance develops the necessary muscles in the legs and core, they also begin to teach the student the process of shifting between tense and loose muscles. This is important for striking.

Sometimes, new students want to die after the first day. Learning to use and develop their muscles can be very painful.

Second: the care and maintenance of the weapon

Sometimes, this one comes first. A warrior who cannot maintain their weapon is a bad warrior with shoddy equipment. This includes the care and maintenance of the warrior’s body. Eating, staying hydrated, exercise, and stretching are all part of this. In a modern martial arts school this will be touched upon but the instructor has no means of enforcing these lessons outside the school. If your student is one that’s handed over to the school for their development, then their life is going to be carefully monitored and structured.

It’s important that a student learns to respect their body, to respect themselves, and to respect their fellow students. Students need to understand their limits so that they learn how far to push and how fast is safe. When you’re taught your life has value, it becomes more worthy of protecting and the student is less likely to hurt themselves or others in training.

A student will not be given a live blade until the end of their training. Real swords are not used for training, even at advanced levels. A sword becomes dull when it’s used and a good weapon should not be in the hands of a beginner. Students may be given a practice sword instead to care for and they will be told to treat and care for it the same way they would a real one. Practice swords may be made out of metal or wood (such as the bokken), but they are dull and blunted, so the student does not accidentally cut themselves or their partners during training. That said, a practice sword is a real weapon (it is a bashing weapon). It can be used for combat, and should be treated by the student with the same respect they’d give a live blade. If they cannot properly care for their practice sword, then their instructors will not expect them to be able to care for a real one. The same will be true of any other weapon they learn to use and their armor.

Third: holding the sword

Holding the sword may receive a lesson of it’s own, with the students learning and practicing different positions with the sword while standing and then in their stances. They may learn one or two basic striking patterns this lesson, but the instructor will spend most of their time making sure that the grip and arm position are sound. They may use an advanced student or one of the better students in the class as a dummy. (This is the reward for being the best in the class, by the way, you get to be the instructor’s practice dummy.)

Again, the instructor will spend most of their time correcting the movements of the students, adjusting their arms, adjusting their hands, readjusting their stance. This is part of why I find the whole: “physical contact in a training sequence must mean love or attraction!” bit in some romances to be so funny. You’re going to spend most of your early years as a student (and the rest of your martial arts career) getting maneuvered about by your teachers. After a while, that kind of physical contact just becomes so normal that you stop noticing and just go limp. (You tighten back up when they have you in position again.) They aren’t always gentle either. The instructor may do things like poke the small of the back  or below to shoulder blades to get the student to stop slouching, kick the student’s foot out to force them into a deeper stance, push their knee out or up with their foot or whack them on the stomach to get them to tighten their abdomen. How rough the instructor gets will depend on how advanced the student is and how well they know each other. They’ll get more rough as time goes on, instead of less. Instructors will often start gentle to help the student build confidence in the beginning, then become rougher and stricter as they advance. The higher up your character gets the more they will be expected to do.

Fourth: Practicing techniques

A student will always learn their techniques before they are sent out to spar or practice dueling. Practice Combat is practice combat and it teaches you nothing if you don’t have some idea of what you’re doing. The idea behind sparring is to put a student into the arena to learn how fighting works, how the skills they’re learning can be used, and to develop confidence in their technique. If the student has no idea how to use their fists, their sword, or their staff, then all sparring is going to teach them is that they don’t know how to do any of those things. It’s a bad idea to tear someone down before you build them up and developing confidence is a large part of what makes a fighter successful. Fighting before they are ready only serves to be debilitating in the long run and without the necessary component of an instructor telling the student what they need to do and how to fix it, all that happens is the student ends the day thinking that they suck and that they’re never going to get better.

A student will learn a technique by watching their instructor. They will then practice that technique in the air, possibly in the mirror if one is available. Once they have the basic movement down, they will be given a training partner. Another student who is of equal skill to them. If there are an uneven number of students, then one student may be partnered off with the Instructor’s assistant or an older student or they will be put on rotation with another group. The match ups will be changed once the students get comfortable with their training partners. Instructors may match students up or they may let students choose their own partners, they may pair everyone off with the same gender but usually they’ll mix it up. The more experience a student gets dealing with different body types and enemies, then the more well rounded they will be in the long run.

There will be no freestyle. Your student is a long way from being able to develop their own techniques or use what they know safely without being observed. Students goofing off will be punished with extra work and if it persists, they may be asked to sit out the class.

They may be allowed to hit their practice partner if they are wearing some sort of armor or padding, however, this may be put off until they are at a more advanced level or using a very light practice sword.

Fifth: Sparring

The students get to freestyle. But only in pairs and only one at a time. This is for advanced students who have learned their lessons and techniques well. They are ready to take their next step into a wider world. However, they will be carefully observed and monitored by their instructors. The first time they spar, in fact, will usually be against the instructor or one of the instructor’s assistants instead of another student. (This sometimes leads to a cute/funny visual in a Taekwondo dojang when a teeny six year old yellow belt is chasing an adult black belt around the floor.)

This is just a condensed version of training. It is more complicated than this, but hopefully it will get you thinking in the right direction. Weapons instructors tend to be very physical people on the whole. They don’t do “hands off” because it’s a part of their job. If you’ve grown up in a culture that eschews physical contact and values personal space, then this can be a jarring and uncomfortable experience.

-Michi

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