CLA Tools for Teaching Cutting

In the HEMA world (and on this blog), the Constraints-Led Approach tends to be associated with games, but there are other ways to create constraints. In this article I’ll present some non-game CLA tools which can be used to train cutting.

By cutting I specifically mean cutting targets with a sharp sword. Of course there’s a whole debate about the relationship between sharp cutting and fencing, but I’m not going to get into that. Suffice it to say that I think cutting a tatami mat is a different task than landing a cut in sparring, and it’s useful to train for it specifically.

The big problem with learning to cut is that it’s not feasible to use tatami all that often, so instead we practice by cutting in the air or against a pell. Neither of these is very representative of the actual task, and they don’t give you much information about whether your cut was actually good. Without that feedback, it’s hard for students to explore and self-organize into effective movements.

Fortunately, the CLA offers a strategy for solving this problem: when information is limited, we can find ways to amplify it and make it easier to perceive and attune to. When practicing fencing skills, we often amplify information by manipulating game rules. For cutting, we can instead change the equipment or the physical environment.

I’ve been trying out a few ideas for tools that can be used to amplify information about edge alignment, velocity, trajectory, and other factors which influence cutting effectiveness. Some of these inherently create constraints by restricting the way you can move the sword. We can also use them as building blocks for creating constraints, by giving specific instructions based on the information they provide.

The tools on their own are a starting point. They give students access to some information which they can use to learn through exploration, but it will take further experimentation to find the most effective ways to guide that exploration.

The Tools

Glove Throwing

Put a glove on the end of your sword, and try to launch it with your cut. The padded rapier and singlestick gloves from Purpleheart seem to be a good weight. The trajectory of the glove provides information about where you’re directing the energy of your cut.

Glove throwing has a built-in constraint – it adds a lot of extra mass to the end of the sword, so you need more force to accelerate the cut. This seems to encourage people to engage larger muscles and drive all the way through the cut, instead of making snappy motions with just the hands and arms.

You can do a lot with this tool by adding task constraints. For example “try to throw the glove as far as possible”, or “try to throw it straight ahead”. It has the potential to be useful for correcting a lot of different issues with the path of the cut, but it does require some work from the coach to figure out which constraints will promote the desired changes.

Sword Squeakers

Sword squeakers are 3D-printed clamps that attach a plastic squeaker (like you’d find in a dog toy) to your sword. They are an invention of Zack Shalek, a student at Athena.

Squeakers amplify information about edge alignment – if the edge is not aligned with the path of the sword, the sound will be quieter or stop completely. Unfortunately, this information isn’t very precise – the squeakers are fairly forgiving and will make noise as long as your edge is mostly lined up. So they’re good for correcting gross errors, but won’t necessarily help with finer adjustments.

They’re also sensitive to velocity, and are particularly useful for indicating where in the swing the sword is moving fast. One cue that I’ve found useful with them is to try to make a long squeak rather than a short one – this encourages cuts with a full arc which are moving quickly all the way through the swing.

Pancakes and Sails

The Mark 1-A1 Battle Pancakes are a creation of Russ Mitchell. They consist of several layers of paper, cut into a sword-like shape and glued together around a rigid core made from paint stirrers. They’re basically a means of amplifying information about edge alignment. Because they’re very light and have a large surface area, air resistance can play a significant factor in the cut. If your edge is misaligned, you’ll feel noticeable drag during the cut, and if you twist the sword while it’s moving the drag may “grab” your cut and pull it off to the side.

The set that I made are probably a little too small. It’s pretty easy to muscle them through a cut without really feeling the drag, so they have to be used with a light touch.

Another tool along the same lines is a piece of thick cardboard, folded in half to form a “sail” and taped to the blade of a synthetic. This has a couple advantages over the pancakes: since it’s attached to an actual training sword it feels more sword-like; and it creates more drag (at least compared to the pancakes I made). Students also reported that the sail gave them some visual information about edge alignment, especially if they stood in front of a mirror.

Finally, I’ve noticed that the sail makes the sword feel more tip-heavy. I’m not sure whether this is actually due to its weight, or to the drag, but it creates a similar constraint to throwing a glove.

The Humble Sock

This is just a sock, folded over on itself. You can use it to amplify information about posture: put it on your shoulder (on whichever side will end up in front at the end of the cut), and if you dip your shoulder or hunch forward during the cut, it will fall off.

So far, this has had the most dramatic effect of any of the tools here. I’ve tried it on a couple students with major posture problems which had not improved with external cues or other coaching. When I gave them the sock they almost immediately figured out how to keep their torso upright while cutting.