Five Pieces of Advice for Getting the Most out of a Week-Long Swordfighting Intensive

This week I have been leading an instructor training intensive at Academie Duello. 50 hours of instruction in Italian swordplay technique, theory, and teaching methodology. So far it is living up to its name — intense —  for both the students and the teachers. That's not a statement of distress, simply one of fact. The course delivers a lot of knowledge in a relatively compressed space of time, and it doesn't let up for five days.

What I enjoy about the intensive environment is the immersion that it affords the participants. Instead of a few hours, you have days to absorb new learning, test it, question it, and ingrain it. It can be rather challenging, when you go to a weekend workshop, to truly acquire anything new. You can do your best with the exposure you get, take copious notes, and then do your utmost to remember, recreate, and practice what you captured, but the length of experience is so small that the fidelity of the information is often questionable. In an intensive, the teacher can share their knowledge, then help their students in the process of absorption and conditioning, something that has to wait until afterward with most workshops.

That said, just because you have signed up for an intensive, doesn’t mean that you can relax and passively absorb the information and expect the best possible results. Learning is an active process. Even with the extra hours, it is essential still that students not take the environment for granted, and do their best to get the most from their time there. A few words of advice:

  1. Sleep, eat, drink. Look after yourself. 5 to 10 hour days of a single subject can be rather gruelling if you let them. Put your usual late night events and activities on hold, go to bed early, eat well, and truly use your breaks to recuperate. Do all this before you start to experience exhaustion; once you're behind, it's hard to catch up.
  1. Pace yourself. It can be tempting to cram in as many reps as possible, even when the quality of those reps starts to diminish significantly. When you feel yourself start to flag, keep a rhythm but lengthen the interval. It's more useful to do a few good reps. Rest. Then do a few more good reps.
  1. Fail lots in front of your instructor. Often, as I approach a student, they end their reps or switch roles with their partner. It seems that many people don't want me to see them make an error. You should seek the opposite. If you're in an intensive, the best thing you can get is lots of hands-on time with the instructor, helping to give you input, insight, and correction. If the instructor hasn't been to visit you in the class recently, throw up a hand and ask them for advice, correction, or further challenge.
  1. Take lots of notes. You may believe that you'll remember it all, but you won't. And even if you remember mostof it, writing it out is a tremendously good process for mulling through and deepening your understanding of the material. I use many tools for notetaking from note books, to smartphone apps, to video and still cameras. You can even trying dictating your notes and reflections on breaks, if the written word is not your thing.
  1. Empty the cup. Even ifyou have an extensive background in the material being delivered. Do your best to ready yourself for new information and experimentation. I find I get the most out of a workshop when I come fully as a student, not as a visiting instructor or expert. An incremental thought might not require your full attention, but sometimes that thing that seems awkward is a revolution that may benefit you for years to come, if you only have the humility to see it and put the work in. Channel your critical commentary into excellent questions.

Thank you to my students this week who have truly been embodiments of this advice (though perhaps not always regarding sleep). It has been a pleasure working with all of you.

If you get the chance to attend an immersive learning seminar, on any topic, I highly recommend it.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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