My Hands Are Not Invincible


This post was originally published on the Terminal City Duellist blog.

A few years ago, Luis Preto was living in Vancouver, getting his Masters in Coaching Sciences at the University of British Columbia, and stopping by Academie Duello every week or so to get some practice time in with either myself or the school’s director, Devon Boorman, or, as was frequently the case, with both of us. The weapons of choice were usually longswords, but he usually had a bag of staffs, which we’d pull out from time to time. He also had two sets of ActionFlex staffs that he’d had specially made that were fun to play with.

Training with Luis was always enlightening. His training paradigm tends towards full-force and minimal gear. More often than not we didn’t wear any protective gear, not even masks, the result of which was that I quickly learned that my primary concern must be defence. Luis’ precise sense of both distance and timing, and incredible speed all forced me to bring my top game to every drill and exercise, no matter how basic or complex. His low stance also allowed him to strike low targets that I was unaccustomed to defending, which brought me to develop defensive strategies to be able to keep all of my limbs protected or ready to evade.

One particularly memorable session started with the three of us working on parrying exercises for about an hour, at the end of which Devon had a meeting or some kind of important business with a deadline. Both Luis and I didn’t have anything to do until much later in the day, so we decided to go all out with the ActionFlex staffs.* Since the weapons are padded, and the point of contact is quite flexible, we decided to forego any kind of protective equipment beyond mutually agreeing against thrusts to the face.

Boy, did I underestimate what I was getting myself into.

After half an hour, I was starting to figure out how to keep my hands safe. Imagine thirty minutes of having your hands very enthusiastically slapped by a towel-wielding ninja. Thirty minutes after that and I started to figure out how to protect my lead leg, which in turn led to another twenty to thirty minutes of being reminded that I needed to protect my hands. I did manage to land a few hits of my own, and there were a handful of very satisfying thrusts, but overall I think Luis belaboured me for the better part of an hour and a half, if not two hours.

It was marvellous.

It was marvellous, and I’m pretty sure that I learned more in that single two-hour period than in any other single training session before or after. I learned that, aside from one notably eye-watering exception, my ability to protect my head was pretty darn solid, likewise for my torso. I learned so much about how to move to keep my limbs safe. And upon reflection, I learned a lot from Luis about how to train someone without having to say anything. For every improvement that I managed to implement, Luis was able to push my limits, to make it better than it was. If I was able to deal with a particular hand shot, Luis changed his targets or approach and forced me to think strategically, rather than just technically.

By the end of the session my hands were pretty puffy from getting slapped around, and so was my left thigh. I still haven’t really figured out how to keep my lead knee safe, but my hands are much safer than they were, and protecting the hands is now one of the first things I check for when getting students ready for sparring.

At this point it’s been a few years since I last got to train with Luis. I’m definitely looking forward to spending a whole week with him.

You can join us, too, in next week’s five-day Jogo do Pau course, which still has a few spots left.  We’ll be spending twenty-five hours over the week learning the strategy, tactics, and techniques of a living stick-fighting art that has its roots in medieval and renaissance two-handed swordplay.

*A quick note on padded weapons: They are kind of silly, yes, and definitely do not accurately reflect the dynamics of steel-on-steel contact, sure, but they do allow you to go all out without too much worry about damaging your partner, and although they don’t necessarily match up to sword dynamics that well they are not that far off from a pair of sticks. Did I mention that they allow you to go all out? All of my most exhilarating training revelations have been in the discovery of training tools that allow me to express myself with gusto–duelling sabre, anyone?

rolandcooper Roland Cooper is a lead instructor in Academie Duello's Adult Swordplay programs, and the head instructor of the Youth Swordplay program. He is also the head of the Frontage Department, which includes both the store and the front desk.
Read more from Roland Cooper.