The material in this article comes from years of applying the principles of internal martial arts to Amtgard combat. For background's sake, I will tell you that I have studied Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, and Cheng Hsin Tui Shou.
The question of applying classical martial arts to boffer fighting such as Amtgard is often a problematic one, especially with 'hard style' martial arts. Often, such styles focus on head shots (Japanese staff forms spring to mind, among others), hand shots (Philippine stick styles spring to mind, among others), or grappling (Jiujutsu and thousands of others). One also tends to run into gaps in the training; few schools teach weapons, many schools teach only forms, with no sparring, some teach a rhythmic style that neglects speed entirely, and of course even a good weapons school rarely trains you for the kind of variation one will see on an Amtgard field, such as polearms, flails, and shields.
It is therefore unsurprising that I have often heard the sentiment expressed that 'martial arts don't help you with Amtgard'.
However, while this may be true with external martial arts, (martial arts based on movement, muscle, and skills), I have found it to be quite untrue with the internal martial arts (martial arts based on principles and energy). I see my experience with these arts as the greatest contributor to my success on the field.
In this first article, 'The Basics', I give some of the simplest ways of applying internal principles to the Amtgard battlefield. Consistent practice of these principles for even a short time aids a fighter tremendously. I intend to follow with other articles on some of the more intermediate and advanced methods that apply. I hope you gain benefit from them!
The four basics which I will cover in this article are some of the most important for fighting. They are, posture, attitude, relaxation, and calm. If you devote an entire Amtgard day to each of these four, you will begin to get an idea of just how much they can do for you. Continue practicing and you will find, as your ability and understanding develop, that they are essentially all the same principle displayed in different ways. Remember, do not attempt to practice more than one of the basics in a given Amtgard day, at first. Only attempt to focus on two or more at once when you feel you truly have a good grasp of the principles that you are combining.
The basics of posture are very simple. The single most important thing is to be centred. This may sound mystical to some, but in fact it is very mundane. To be centred, simply keep your centre of gravity located on the imaginary line that connects your feet. In other words, your weight should be balanced somewhere directly between your feet at all times. This keeps you continuously balanced, which directly aids your speed and your reaction time, and helps keep you from being an easy target.
To get a feel of your centre of gravity, stand up into any sort of stance you like. Get a sense of how much of your weight each foot has, and what part of each foot is holding that weight. Think of your centre of gravity as sort of a shadow on the ground below you, and imagine where it falls. Now, shift your weight around. Experiment. Get a feel for it. How far can you take your centre off of the line between your feet, without feeling off balance?
Now, try a simple experiment to show you how being centred—or off-centre—affects you:
Stand normally. Now shift your weight forward of your feet; i.e., lean forward in some way, and sing a verse of a song. Doesn't matter what it is or if you sing it well. A Christmas carol, jingle, or the Happy Birthday song will do just fine. Sing a verse, and listen and feel how it comes out. Now, shift your weight back behind you just a bit. Sing the same verse. Now, centre yourself and sing it. Note the change. Now, to bring it closer to home, do the same experiment, but instead of singing, practice some shots with a weapon.
Now that you know the profound and subtle ways that being centred effects you, test your usual stances and movements for centre. Then go out to Amtgard with the purpose of staying centred all day.
Often application of a principle takes patience – one sometimes has to adjust a great deal, and the early stages of that are often awkward. Once one gets past those 'growing pains', as my sifu used to call them, great improvements occur.
It's amazing how far this will carry you. This is why people try to 'psyche out' their opponents: confidence and focus win battles, feelings of inadequacy and distraction lose them. Many people know this, but few realize just how deep it runs.
Find a partner (anyone will do) and try this exercise to demonstrate the extent to which attitude directly influences your effectiveness:
Have your partner place her hands together at chest level in front of her, so that her hands form an upright 'V', with the fingertips at the top of it. She should press the base of her hands together as hard as possible, and keep the 'V' as wide as is feasible (so as to keep her hands from being hurt). Now, standing directly in front of hir, chop down at the centre of the 'V' with a traditional “karate chop” in an attempt to chop through. Don't be afraid to be forceful; as long as you don't hit any fingers, no one will be hurt. On your first try, concentrate on the place you want to hit (the joining of your partner's hands). Then, on your next try, imagine your hand going all the way through; i.e., focus beyond the hands (this is a key element of 'brick breaking'), and note the difference in result. Next try, keep the same focus as last time, but with the mental attitude of being not good enough to break through, or “he/she is just too strong”. Then try it with the attitude that chopping through is both easy and fun. Repeat as desired, but to be fair, let your partner try, too. This experiment clearly demonstrates the direct and dramatic effect of one's mindset on one's effectiveness.
To make use of this understanding on the field, practice the art of not-comparing. Go out to Amtgard with the clear and focused intention to keep vigilance for /any/ attempts to categorize or compare someone on the field, including yourself. When you catch yourself doing this while not in direct combat, immediately distract yourself with something; for instance, tactics, RP, examination of garb, etc. This helps to cut off the inner critic's train of thought. When approaching combat, call to mind the attitude of ease and enjoyment that brought success in the above experiment. Keep hold of it, and watch your performance—and your enjoyment of the activity—improve.
The initial reaction that I've found most people have to the idea of being relaxed while you fight is, 'that doesn't make sense'. In fact, though, relaxation is one of the most important aspects you can concentrate on.
In today's world, relaxation is considered a luxury. Most people are only really relaxed when they sleep, if then! As tension is a wearing and draining thing for the body and mind, this may go some way to explaining why modern people consider such things as headaches, backaches, and minor illnesses as normal parts of life.
So, aside from health reasons, why relax while fighting? Because when you are relaxed, you are:
Or, to put it another way, a better fighter all around.
So that covers why, but we're left with the problem of how. This may be a bigger problem than you'd think. If you are like most people, you probably don't even know what it feels like to be relaxed in action. So first, a few guidelines:
What is relaxation, anyway?
How much should I relax?
Maximum relaxation. By this I mean, your legs use only the minimum tension needed to keep you standing (or walking or running etc). Your arm swings the weapon with minimum tension. All body parts not in use at each instant are loose, being pulled on by gravity without resistance.
How can I possibly be effective this way?
Learning how to relax: First, to get a good baseline, try a simple lying-down relaxation exercise.
Lay comfortably on your back and breathe slowly, allowing your abdomen to expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Feel each part of your body, starting at the top of your head and moving down. Wherever you find any tension, let it relax and surrender to gravity (a helpful technique is to imagine your breath flowing warmly through your body to the part that needs relaxation). When you get to your toes, go back and do it again. Since most people don't get really relaxed until downtime, you may find yourself getting sleepy at this point. Don't fall asleep!
Now, stand up. Take any stance that feels comfortable to you. Go through your body again. Notice all tension, and figure out if it's necessary or unnecessary. A certain amount of muscular tension in your legs, for instance, will always be necessary when you are in a standing posture, but minimize it. Be on the lookout for lifted or hunched shoulders, tight jaws, elbows pointed outward, tightness around the eyes, and other areas of tension. Take your time and get yourself as relaxed as you can be while standing (at this point; some people relax easier than others and even partial success is wonderful).
If that was very tough for you, stop there and practice until it gets easier. If not, pick up a sword and practice some shots. Feel what muscles you use, and try to make the exact same shots but more relaxed. Experiment with initiating the arm movement from the shoulders, the back, the hips, the legs. Then, add leg movement. Play with it for awhile.
Practicing this will teach you about your body, your body's natural alignment, and how to move more efficiently, as well as teaching you to relax in motion.
The final stage of the practice (and usually the longest) is bringing the relaxation onto the field. Just start by checking yourself every once in awhile, and relaxing your excess tension. Then increase the checks. Practice with a sparring partner who doesn't mind stopping while you get back into 'relaxation mode' does wonders.
Really just a combination of 'Attitude' and 'Relaxation', the aspect called Calm is nevertheless important enough to earn its own section in this article.
Calm is a detached state of mind. I like to sum it up with the common phrase, 'Don't sweat the small stuff.' It is important on the field because when you are not calm you are not relaxed, not properly focused, and it becomes nigh-impossible to keep the right sort of attitude. It is also important on the field because things such as losing your temper, placing too much importance on winning, and getting too egotistical are all signs of a loss of calm, and they are all potentially destructive to yourself, others, your reputation, and the fun of the game.
People attain calm in different ways, but I've found that the most effective way for me to keep my calm is to remind myself that 'It doesn't matter'. My life in one year's time, or one month's time, will not be in any way harmed if person A sloughs my shot, or if I don't win the big tourney, or if I'm not hot stuff on the field, or if the battlegame is imbalanced because the reeve ignored the magic restrictions, etc. If there are problems, I can move to help out and correct them once the game is over. It doesn't matter. It's no big deal.
In this way, I do not attach my emotions to the results of the day, or the actions of others on the field, and I am able to retain a calm state of mind in which I can truly practice the principles of combat. Invariably, if I lose my calm, my performance suffers.
In this article, I have attempted to summarize the best ways to begin to improve your performance on the Amtgard (or SCA, or Dagohir, etc) field by following internal principles. Even as a primer, it's a lot of information to try to put into these few pages. If you have any questions, or need clarification on something I've said, or if you'd like to tell me about your experiences trying this out, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to correspond, though I am sometimes slow to respond. :) Be patient and I'll get back to you!
Wishing you well,
Wishing you well,
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