Category Archives: Training resource

We’re all in this together – Team building exercises Part I

by Pamela Muir

When practicing martial arts, historical or modern, it is important to have the full trust and cooperation of your partner.  It is stating the obvious that you are entrusting your safety to your partner’s willingness to stick to the designated drill and not to attempt to “win” the exchange.  Starting a practice session with a cooperative or team building game can help set the tone and unite a group, making the transition to non-antagonistic drills easier.  Sometimes it’s just plain fun.  Loosening up in order to play a game can itself be a bonding experience. Below are team building games and exercises designed for whole class participation.  Part II (coming soon) will be focused on partner and two or more competing team activities.

Human Knot
This is a fairly standard team building exercise.  You will need at least five participants.  It works best with a large class, the more the merrier.  Participants initially form a circle and cross their arms in front of their bodies.  Keeping their arms crossed, they then join hands with two other people in the circle.  They may not join hands with somebody that is next to them in the circle and they must join hands with two different people.  The group task is then to untie the human knot.  Without letting go, but allowing rotation and movement of the hands and arms, the group needs to maneuver everyone in such a way that you end with everyone’s arms uncrossed.  You will end up with one or more circles, perhaps interlocking, and some people will be facing the center of their new circle and other people will be facing outwards.

Lava River
Materials needed:
•  Parallel lines on the floor, approximately twelve feet apart, to use as boundary markers for the river
Pieces of paper, construction paper, or half sheets of newspaper.  These will be your  stepping stones.  You will need about half as many stepping stones as participants.
Group all players on one side of the river and hand the paper stepping stones to one or more players.  The goal of this game is to get all participants safely across the river of hot lava using the stepping stones.  Only one person may occupy or touch a stepping stone at a time.  In order to move a stone, it must be picked up before being repositioned, no sliding it across the floor or throwing it in any manner.  The group’s job is to figure out how to efficiently use the stepping stones to get everyone across.  A follow up activity would be to time how long it takes to get everyone across the river and to try to beat the group’s best time.

Line Up
Participants must arrange themselves in a line by height, shortest to tallest or tallest to shortest.  The catch is that they must do it in silence, no talking!  This game is a lot more fun if you have a practice space without mirrors.  For even more of a challenge, you can vary this game by having participants line up chronologically by birthdate, month and day.  (Including years in the birthdates can make this too easy, depending on the mix of participants.)  Remember, no talking!

Chain/Amoeba Tag
This game starts off as a traditional game of tag with one “It” trying to tag the other players.  However, once a player is tagged, he or she then joins hands with “It” and together they become a new “It” that can tag only with the free hands.  As subsequent players are tagged they join the “It” chain, only tagging with free hands, the ends of the chain.  The members of the “It” chain must work cooperatively in order to successfully tag free players.  The last untagged player becomes the new “It” for the next round.  With a large number of participants, say ten or more, you can play the Amoeba Tag variation.  Once an “It” chain consists of four players, it divides into two “It” chains of two players each, following the same rules, tagging with the free, not joined, hands.  Note:  if you have a large or outdoor practice space, you will want to set up a boundary for this game.  If a player steps outside of the boundary that player must then join the “It” chain.

A Pointed Primer – A simple introduction to fighting with the rondel dagger

by Pamela Muir

Let’s enter an imaginary scenario. Somehow you have been challenged to a fight with medieval rondel daggers and you have only this single training session in order to prepare for it. In a case like this, your primary goal must be to survive. We will need to keep the techniques simple and easy to remember. We are going to make the assumption that you and your opponent are not wearing armour, but typical medieval clothing which would involve layers of linen and wool. In addition, most sets of actions will have two options. Option 1 will be “I love you like a brother, man. I don’t want to hurt you.” Option 2 will be you hate each other more than most political opponents.

First we need the basics. Though a medieval rondel dagger could cut or slice, it was most effective as a thrusting weapon. You have two ways in which to hold it. The first way would be similar to holding a tennis racket. When you have your hand on the grip, the tip of the dagger points forward or away from you. We will call this the forward grip. The second way would be similar to holding an ice pick. When you have your hand on the grip, the tip of the dagger points backwards or towards you. We will call this the reverse grip.

As dagger fighting involves close work and therefore quite a bit of wrestling, you need a stable stance. Stand with your feet about shoulder distance apart, one foot in front of the other by a distance of about one and half to two shoe lengths. Imagine a hat stand vs. a coffee table. The coffee table is more difficult to push over. Be the coffee table. You will also need to keep your off hand out of the way. Have it resting on the back of your hip, at your waist or held in close in front of you.

Now since your primary goal is to survive and the best way to survive would be to not fight at all which would eliminate the point of this exercise, we are going to start each action with your opponent attacking first. For simplicity’s sake each action will be described with both opponents fighting right handed. Of course, these actions can be adapted for different handedness as they “work from both sides.”

Draw an imaginary line vertically through the center of your body and another one horizontally at approximately waist height. Your body has now been divided into four quadrants and your opponent may attack into any one of the four.

Our first set of actions will be your response to your opponent’s attack into your upper left quadrant. Your opponent may be using a reverse or a forward grip. Hold your dagger in the forward grip. From your stable stance, as your opponent attacks, shoot your left hand forward and up so that the pinky edge of your hand catches the inside of your opponent’s wrist. This is to accomplish that primary goal of survival. Option 2 is quite simple in this case. Upon a successful blocking of the attack, with your left hand grasp his dagger arm and stab your opponent with your dagger where ever he is open. Option 1 can be nearly as easy. At the moment you have successfully blocked the attack, again grasp his arm with your left hand and step so that your right leg and hip are positioned behind and against your opponent’s right leg and hip. Depending on your initial stance this can be done as either a passing, basic walking, step or a gathering step, one in which your back foot moves forward up to the front foot and then the front foot moves forward. As you step punch through that soft spot just below and inside of your opponent’s left shoulder with your right fist, this should turn your opponent’s body a bit to his left. Then with your arm across the front of his chest turn on the balls of your feet to your left, maintaining an upright and stable stance as you do so. This should throw him backwards over your right hip.

Let’s take the same line of attack, but this time you are in the reverse grip, such as if you have just drawn your dagger. Make the initial defense as before. The simple option 2 with the reverse grip is the same as with the forward grip, stab him. For option 1, keep hold of his dagger hand and hook your dagger behind his neck so that your arm is pressing on the right side of his neck and your dagger is pressing on the left side. This time as you step, with either a passing or a gathering step, make sure you finish with your right leg and hip in front of your opponent’s. Turn your body to the right as you wrench downward with your dagger and throw him forward over your right hip.

For both responses above, you could combine option 2 with option 1 by stabbing with your dagger instead of punching or hooking and then proceeding with the throw, but we are trying to keep the list of possibilities short and simple.

Oh, wait! Suppose in your panic you have not drawn your dagger at all? Or worse, for some reason you don’t have it. It will be okay, you will simply take his dagger instead. Make your initial block exactly the same way, but immediately afterwards grasp your opponent’s wrist and turn it outwards as if turning a doorknob. Now, you should easily be able to remove his dagger from his hand using your right hand. For option 1, well, you have his dagger, hopefully he will think twice about continuing the attack. For option 2, that’s right, you have his dagger and he doesn’t, you can continue the attack.

Changing to attacks to your lower left quadrant, your opponent will likely be in a forward grip. (Attacks to that quadrant are awkward while in the reverse grip. Try it against yourself in a mirror, you’ll see what I mean.) You can perform all the actions mentioned above, except this time you will shoot your left hand forward and downward to block the attack with the heel of your hand or the edge of your wrist on the inside of the attacker’s wrist. Remember that primary goal?

You could also block the attack using your own dagger. With the dagger in your right hand in the forward grip, grasp the blade with your left hand. Block the attack by pushing your dagger, using both hands, down onto his blade. Then, while maintaining firm downward pressure on his dagger with your dagger in your right hand, use your left hand to pull up on his wrist. This will either disarm your opponent or render his dagger useless. At this point you can use your imagination to accomplish option 1 or 2. In case you are without a dagger, you can simulate the same block using both of your hands. Catch your opponent’s wrist in the crook between your thumb and fingers of both hands, left hand in front of the right, and push downwards. Slide your right hand so that you can grasp the blade. As you push down with your right hand, lift the attacker’s wrist with your left hand. This should push his point back towards himself and you will either be able to stab him with his own dagger, option 2, or disarm him, option 1, or both, option 2 again.

Moving on to attacks to your upper right quadrant, this time your simplest blocks are going to be with your dagger hand. Those aren’t your only options, but recall for this scenario you don’t have much time to learn techniques and put them into practice, so we are keeping it simple. This line of attack most likely means your opponent will be using a reverse grip. Use the reverse grip yourself, and with survival in mind, block the attack high and forward with your wrist against his and your dagger positioned over his wrist. Scissor his arm between your right arm and your dagger and wrench his arm down and towards your right side. Shoot your left arm across his chest, turning him slightly to the his left, and step so that your left leg and hip are positioned behind and against the attacker’s right leg and hip. Turn your body to the left to throw him over your hip. You have accomplished option 1. For option 2, stab him when he’s down. You can accomplish the same set of moves without a dagger in your hand by using the pinky edge of your right hand to block the attack and then grasp his right wrist to finish the set.

This leaves only the lower right quadrant, but at this point you have already learned enough techniques to survive those attacks as well. Using the forward grip you can perform the throw described above in the attack to the upper right. Block the attack with your dagger or the wrist of your right hand. This time you will immobilize his hand by scooping your dagger under his arm and upwards, pulling his dagger arm towards you and pinning it to your chest as you step. You are now set to perform the actions as described above to complete the throw. Without a dagger, you will block with your right arm and then grasp his arm, everything else remains essentially the same.

Alternatively, you could use both hands to block the attack just like you could for attacks into the lower left. As before, using the forward grip, grasp the blade with your left hand, and using your dagger in both hands, push down on his blade to stop the attack. While keeping pressure on his dagger with your dagger in your right hand, lift up on his wrist with your left. You now know you can do the same set of actions without the dagger by starting with the block with both hands, catching his arm in the crooks between your thumbs and fingers, then finishing with a disarm or stabbing him with his own dagger.

You can now block and perform follow up actions for attacks to any of the four quadrants. Your follow up actions may be of a friendlier tone, option 1, or a downright mean tone, option 2. The key to all of them is to safely block the attack and make sure that you can walk away from the fight without resembling a sieve. This does not mean we have exhausted all the possible actions that could be performed in a dagger fight. This was designed as an elementary dagger primer, a simple set of easily performed and memorized actions.

We will conclude with the usual caveat and disclaimer that this is not meant to be a modern self-defense lesson. The best way to survive a knife fight is to avoid it completely. However, if you should find yourself transported back in time and unwittingly do something that places you in a situation where the dagger fight is unavoidable, the above lessons should come in quite handy.

Ringen Acupressure or The Liechtenauer Touch of Death

by Pamela Muir

In a survey of medieval wrestling techniques, called Ringen in the Liechtenauer tradition, there is a recurrence of actions that use pressure. The idea is that by applying pressure at partcular points on your opponent’s body, you force him into compliance because you have either created pain or naturally disrupted his body structure. I have taken to calling these Ringen acupressure points.1

One of the precepts of medieval wrestling is that if you need brute force to pull off a particular technique, odds are you are doing the technique incorrectly. Throughout the literature in the Liechtenauer tradition, wrestling techniques rely on a combination of physics, body mechanics and weak points in the human body.

First, let’s take a look at physics, which in wrestling, is applied mostly in two ways. Firstly, there is the use of leverage, whereby you use a point on your own body as the fulcrum while wisely applying force to disrupt the opponent’s body or limbs. Then, since only two points (in this case, the combatant’s feet) are in contact with the ground at any time, there is a naturally unstable position to be exploited. As an example, in one of the most basic throws you step so that the front of your lead hip is positioned directly behind and in contact with your opponent’s lead hip and at the same time you thrust your lead arm across his chest. You apply a turn of your body in the direction of your lead arm and leg, thus throwing your opponent onto his back. In this case, you are treating your opponent’s body as a lever and your lead hip as a fulcrum to aid in throwing your opponent off his feet. In addition, you are throwing him to his missing point of balance. Visualize your opponent as a three legged stool, with the third leg behind and missing: that third missing leg is the point towards which you should throw him. With the proper application of the principles of leverage and balance points, you will be able to execute the technique without the need for the use of brute strength.

Body mechanics comes into play simply because there is only a certain number of ways that a human body can move, and some of these ways are more efficient than others. Suppose we take the above throw as an example. It is important in the application of the throw that you thrust your arm across his chest in preparation for pushing your opponent backwards. The reaching of your arm is a more efficient and structurally sound position than using a straight arm to push sideways. A fun bar bet example of this principle is the “unbendable arm” trick. Bet your buddies that they will not be able to bend your arm as you hold it out straight in front of you. If you simply hold your arm up, they will be able to accomplish this effortlessly. On the other hand, if you instead visualize reaching for a glass of beer that is across the room, it becomes virtually impossible for them to accomplish the task. It is the efficient use of body mechanics that is a key ingredient in both the bar bet and the throw.

Now that we have a clearer view of the physics and body mechanics, we can focus on our knowledge of the weaknesses of the human body. Those weaknesses can be exploited through the use of a strike or blow or the application of pressure to a specific point. The strikes or blows are used to initially soften up your opponent through the use of pain in preparation for the finishing point of the technique. The application of pressure to a specific point causes your opponent to comply because of the pain induced and/or because his stable body structure given by skeletal alignment has been disrupted.

The Mortstöße, or murder strikes, are a named subset of the pain compliance techniques, usually used at the onset of the action. These can be found in Sigmund Ringeck’s commentaries.2 Most of these are blows aimed at parts of your opponent’s body so as to cause intense pain and thus getting your opponent to pre-comply with your intended follow-up grappling. Besides the oh-so-obvious move as the knee to the groin, the Mortstöße include fist blows to the heart, the temple, the sides of the neck and the navel. If you have ever been on the receiving end of one of those blows, you know that it takes some time to recover, even if only a fraction of a second, time that a savvy opponent will use to his advantage.

One of these Mortstöße, the gouging of your thumbs into your opponent’s checks, is not a blow, falling instead into the category that I refer to as Ringen acupressure points. These are not a named set of techniques, but are a group of techniques that I have noticed through my studies and practice. Most are not as grisly as the aforementioned cheek gouging, but with the use of pressure, they target specific points on the body and insure compliance by your opponent through the induction of pain or the disruption of his stable structure.

One such point is the soft spot on the chest just inside and below the shoulder. Here is a simple throw that utilizes that pressure point. Step so that the back of your lead hip is positioned behind and in contact with the back of your opponent’s lead hip. At the same time, press the heel of your lead hand into the soft spot below your opponent’s lead shoulder. Pushing forward with your lead hand and adding a turn of your body towards your rear foot will cause your opponent to fall backwards. Though we are still using the fulcrum principle in this technique, it is the forceful application of pressure to that particular spot on his chest that disrupts his structure in such a manner that he starts to lose his balance even before you add the body turn.

Another such pressure point is on the back of the upper arm. It is that spot right between your deltoid and triceps muscles. We can use that spot on the arm to counter the simple straight-arm throw mentioned at the beginning of this article. As your opponent starts to perform the throw on you by thrusting his arm across your chest, grasp the back of his hand with your same hand and with the other hand push down and forward against that spot on the back of his upper arm. In this manner, you either throw your opponent onto his face or you can walk him down to the ground. Once again, the forceful application of pressure to that body point will cause your opponent to lose his stable structure. It may also induce pain compliance as well.

The front of the leg at the joint where your leg meets your hip is another such point that induces compliance through pain and disrupts body structure. Unfortunately, I have been on the receiving end of that one in free fencing. My partner fell and as he did so, he raised up his buckler accidentally smashing into the top of my leg at the front hip joint. My body automatically folded in half and all I could think at the time was “Oomf, now I understand why that spot works so well!” I came out of the incident with a barely visible bruise and a deeper understanding of these pressure points. How about a more deliberate application for this one? As you plunge your fist or the heel of your hand into the joint at the top of the leg, use your leg to sweep your opponent’s out from under him. The combination of pain and pressure causes his body to fold up allowing you an easy way to sweep his leg.

In the above examples, the Ringen acupressure points were used in the midst of the throw or takedown. However, just like with the Mortstöße, the applied use of pressure can be used as a prelude to the intended technique. A finger break is just such an example. If your opponent has a hold on you with both arms either in front of or behind you, you can grab a single finger and wrench it backwards. As you can imagine, this would cause great pain for your opponent and his initial reaction would be for his body to follow the direction that you are pulling his finger, allowing you to take advantage of his disrupted structure. Along the same lines is the manipulation of your opponent’s head by pushing or pulling on his chin. If you can reach your opponent’s chin from behind, grasp it and pull it up and out, or if you cannot reach from behind, push his chin up and to the side. In either case, the neck pain and disrupted structure will give you a momentary advantage in which to perform a throw or takedown.

We have examined some specific examples of the application of these pressure points. In order to gain a better understanding as to how they work, if you have a cooperative partner, you can experiment with some of these points yourself. Have your partner fix himself in as stable a stance as possible. Gently manipulate these pressure points. (Please note the use of the word “gently”, as some of these work through pain compliance and it is important to be especially mindful of your partner’s safety.) With your fingers, push into the soft spot on the chest below the shoulder or the front of the leg where it meets the hip joint. Have your partner extend his arm and push with your fingers or the heel of your hand on the back of his upper arm to get a feel as to exact location of that pressure point. Very, very gently push your partner’s chin up and to the side. During all of this, it is important that your partner give you feedback. At what point did he feel that he was losing his balance? At what point can he visualize the pain compliance? Make sure that you allow your partner to do the same to you. It is on the receiving end that you are more likely to grasp precisely how these manipulations work.

Though I have only mentioned a handful of examples, these Ringen acupressure points, though unnamed as such, appear throughout the literature as a means of extra insurance in manipulating your opponent. By applying forceful pressure, as opposed to a blow or a strike, you either disrupt your adversary’s body structure or force him into a moment of compliance from the pain. It is precisely in that moment that you can then safely take advantage of his weakness and move on to your main grapple, lock or takedown.

1I would like to thank my friend, Christian Tobler, for coining the phrase “Liechtenauer touch of death.”
2Tobler, Christian Henry, Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001.