In my classes on how to enter a fight, one of the things I teach is to constantly smile. Smiling helps you to relax and remain calm. If you are calm, you can tense up in a controlled manner whenever required, instead of wasting energy and slowing yourself down by being too tense too early and for too long.
Think of throwing a ball, a frisbee, a spear or a dart: Your best throw requires moving from relaxation to a short instant of tension as the missile leaves your hand. Being tense all the while will result in an inefficient, jerky and awkward move that will hardly serve its purpose very well.
It is the same in swordplay: Tightness will make you numb, slow and tire you out.
Smiling also helps you to be confident and raise your spirits. While self-esteem is of course no guarantee that you will prevail, you have already lost if you do not believe in yourself at all. For lack of confidence in your skill and technique will undermine your physical ability to put them into practice in the first place, and it will be close to impossible for you to fight in a determined and likewise refined way.
Grim and frowning warriors of modern Tinseltown make poor role models for swordsmen. Unfortunately, we are unconsciously affected by these images and ideas, in particular when it comes to sword-fighting. Nowadays, fight sequences set in some sort of medieval or fantasy setting have become rather dark and grim. The entertainment’s industry’s lust for blood and gore is presumably designed to make for a more realistic and more vicious staging of fight sequences, in order to meet the demands of an audience that is privileged to have suffered relatively little exposure to violence.
Modern sword-fight heroes and heroines enter combat with howling fervour, their faces distorted to grimaces of rage as they recklessly flail at each other, usually driven by a burning desire for revenge. However, this passionate approach to combat may be easy to relate to for the average Joe, but it is, in fact, the exact opposite of martial arts.
As Stephen Pearlman has pointed out in his recommendable ”Book of Martial Power“, the aim of any martial arts education is to replace instinctive responses by martially sound ones. To become an accomplished fighter, one has to learn to divorce determination from tightness, calmness from slackness and re-combine them to a mind-set that is superior in combat (and not only there), but which does not come with our natural emotional make-up.
The skilled combatant has learned to do his job in cold blood in an effortless way – much in contrast to the yelling, grunting and howling primitive fighters we see on screen.
So if you need an image or a role model to inspire yourself, then rather be dashing and daring like Hollywood icons of old, e.g. Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, or their successors in movies like ”The Princess Bride”!
Think of them instead, and smile as you advance, cheerfully and with joy, as recommended in these quotes from a late 14th century German fight-book:
“Kunheit vnd rischeit / vorsichtikeit list vnd klugheit Vornu~ft verborge~heit / moße bevorbetrachtu~ge / hobsheit / fetikeit / Wil fechten haben vnd frölichs gemüte tragen”
Audaciousness and swiftness / wariness, stratagem and prudence, reason, clandestineness / measure, premeditation / prettiness / skill: / (all this) fighting wants to have and carry a cheerful spirit.
(HS 3227a, f. 18v, Germany, late 14th century)
“als balde als her nur siet / das her in mit eynem schrete / ader mit eynem sprunge dirreichen mag / wo her deñe indert in blos siet / do sal her hin varn / mit frewden / czu koppe ader czu leibe / künlich an alle vorchte wo her in am gewisten gehabñ mag / alzo das her ia den vorslag gewiñe /”
As soon as he just sees / that he, with one step / or with one leap, may reach / where he sees the other exposed, / there he shall rush / with joy / towards head or towards body / audaciously and without any fear, where he may have him most certainly / so that he at any rate may win the vorschlag /
(HS 3227a, f. 20r, Germany, late 14th century)
Transcription: Diek Hagedorn
Translation: Roland Warzecha
Original title photo: Sabine Bär, showing Lean Rasmussen and myself at the Berlin Buckler Bouts in May 2015.
You can download the title image for free in a printable resolution here.
Read a brief review of ”The Book Of Martial Power” here.
Read about the results of forced smiling and laughter compared to howling here.
I always enjoyed watching Doug Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and Cary Elwes. Such confidence was amusing.