Validating what we do in martial arts

Goliath (MS Germ.Quart.2020), folio 22r

It is important when we study martial arts of any description that what we do has some kind of purpose and that it is meaningful.

If the purpose is to learn self-defence then we must ensure that the self-defence techniques actually work and are not just empty gestures. Furthermore, we must ensure that the attacks used in the self-defence system are performed in a meaningful fashion and that they relate to sensible and real threats; without a real threat, a self-defence technique cannot be tested, and indeed training against empty threats will make it much more difficult to respond to a real threat effectively.

If the purpose is to reconstruct a historical martial art then we need to ensure that we are reconstructing it as authentically and honestly as possible. If the style uses a cutting weapon then we need to ensure that how we perform the strikes will actually cut; if the style involves parries then we need to ensure that the structures and mechanics are in place to form a competent parry against a strong and committed attack. Without the ability to make a competent attack, then the ability to practice forming a competent parry is reduced and compromised.

In the Academy of Historical Arts, we believe that “validation” of techniques is important. This article will seek to examine some of the tests that we use, and will attempt to explain why we believe that validation is important.

Definition of “validate”: To establish the soundness of; corroborate. According to

To be able to validate that a defensive structure is competent and able to defend against a committed attack, we must first validate that the attacks are committed and meaningful. A parry performed successfully against an empty threat with no real intent, commitment or structure behind it does not necessary show that the parry was effective; successful performance against a committed attack that has been proven to work properly as a violent threat is what needs to happen to validate the parry. So to be able to validate defensive actions, we must first know that the offensive actions in the system are valid and meaningful.

So how do we validate offensive actions? There are four tests that we use in the Academy of Historical Arts:

1 – does it match the source?

2 – does it work in drilling?

3 – does it work in cutting?

4 – does it work in sparring?

I will look at each of these tests in turn and will explain why I believe the test is important and worthwhile.

1 – does it match the source?

First of all, does the technique match the source? Since in the Academy of Historical Arts we practice historical European martial arts, we believe that historical accuracy is important. If a technique is described in one way by the historical sources, but performed differently by practitioners, then clearly there is a problem at this first hurdle.

If the source says that a technique should be done with the front / true / long edge of the weapon, then is this how the technique is performed by the individual? If the source says that the technique should be a descending cut, then is it indeed descending in the correct kind of line and angle?

Also, if there are illustrations of the technique, then does the performance match the illustrations? Of course the illustrations may be slightly different due to artistic conventions, angle of perspective, the quality (or lack thereof) of the art itself, or indeed the quality (or lack thereof) of the digital or printed scans of the source illustration to which we have access.

It is often worth performing some kind of analysis on the source to determine just how reliable the source is, and how much we should let it influence our perception of the martial art. For an example analysis method, please see this earlier article of mine here on Encased in Steel:

So, if the technique looks like illustrations from the sources and if its performance matches the descriptive text in the sources, then the technique passes the first test.

2 – does it work in drilling?

Assuming the technique matches the source, the next test is to see if it can work in drilling with a partner. Drilling is generally less competitive than sparring, and is usually limited in terms of what actions can be performed (in order to train a specific technique or a specific skill). As a result, it is a gentle test to see if the technique can work in a co-operative or semi-competitive environment.

If the technique fails in this gentler and restricted testing environment then it has very little chance of working in the much more competitive and random environment of sparring. For example, when performing the Zwerhaw from the German system of longsword, does it keep the individual safe while executing a cut to the head of the opponent? Or does the method of performing the Zwerhaw lead to a situation where the incoming attack hits the individual on the fingers even as the Zwerhaw comes round and lands against the attacker’s head? If the technique cannot keep the individual safe in drilling then it has no chance of keeping the individual safe in sparring!

For another example, in sabre and broadsword disciplines, the technique of the “slip” is very important. It keeps the legs safe against low cuts, but if performing the slip in drilling results in grazes to the thigh when the practitioner is expecting a leg cut, then in the randomness of sparring the slip will probably not work and the leg will receive a painful hit. However, if the slip is effective in drilling against low cuts, then it stands a much better chance of occurring successfully in sparring.

3 – does it work in cutting?

If the technique matches the sources and also works well in drilling, then it is time to validate just how destructive, forceful and well-structured the technique can be against some form of cutting / breaking / destruction medium.

If a technique such as the Zwerhaw with the longsword is unable to cut a target medium such as milk bottles filled with water, or rolled tatami mats, then it is unlikely to be able to cut into something like a human body. As a result, if the technique fails the cutting test, then in all likelihood the technique is being performed with poor body structure and without the necessary mechanics to make it effective upon landing on an opponent.

Likewise, a cut with a sabre or broadsword should be able to pass through a cutting medium cleanly, otherwise there is some kind of issue with the mechanics of the cut. A medium such as tatami mats provides excellent feedback about concepts such as edge alignment, and even something as simple as a milk bottle filled with water can provide some feedback about problems with cutting mechanics.

The benefits of cutting tests have been written about on this blog before:

Assuming the technique fits the sources, manages to work well in drilling and also manages to cut a target or otherwise impart the necessary force to be an effective threat, the next (and final) test is in sparring.

4 – does it work in sparring?

Can people actually manage to pull off the technique in sparring? This is the test that most often sends me back to the drawing board, to re-examine some aspect of how I perform techniques. Sometimes in the fast paced, competitive and random environment of a sparring bout, I am simply unable to perform a technique in the manner that it has passed the previous tests. Perhaps it is simply too slow, or it falls down when an opponent presents a situation that is just a little different from what has been drilled.

For example, when performing a Zwerhaw counter to an Oberhaw, perhaps I have managed to make it work in drill and in cutting, in such a fashion that it fits the sources. However, if I have only practiced against a directly descending vertical cut, then it might fail if an opponent comes at me with an Oberhaw at a 30ยบ angle. Or if I am used to drilling the Zwerhaw against people who cut to a lower hanger with their Oberhaw, then my technique might fail against someone who cuts into an outstretched Langort position. Or it might fail against someone who strikes the Oberhaw with more force and strength than my regular drilling partners.

In any case, if a technique simply does not work in sparring, then there is EITHER something wrong with the interpretation of the technique OR something wrong with my own ability to perform the technique. Maybe the interpretation of the technique is not too slow to work in sparring; maybe I simply lack the speed to make it work in a faster paced sparring situation. Maybe it is not that I am too weak to make my Zwerhaw work against a strong attack, maybe I am binding with the weak of my sword instead of the strong, and as a result the whole technique fails.

If a technique fails the sparring test then it is important to work out WHY it has failed, then take measures to improve the technique (or the practitioner) so that the technique is able to work.


If a technique fails any of these validation tests then the technique (or practitioner) is flawed in some fashion, and remedial steps need to be taken. Perhaps the interpretation of the strike needs to be improved, perhaps the structure and mechanical aspects of the strike need to be improved, perhaps the drilling of the strike needs to address certain common issues that cause the validation tests to fail. Perhaps the technique is fine but the practitioners need more time to train that strike than other (easier) techniques, and so this should be taken into account by the instructors.

These tests are not designed to make it more difficult to “do a technique properly”. Rather, they serve to show that something in the performance of a technique has gone wrong, and we can take advantage of the knowledge that the technique failed a test to examine what went wrong and to fix the problem. It is much better to acknowledge that something has gone wrong and then to fix the problem than to spend months practicing something only for it to fail in some spectacular fashion that results in an injury to the practitioner.

For example, I know several longsword practitioners who hold an Ochs guard in a very poor and incorrect fashion. The manner in which they hold the sword leaves them very vulnerable to powerful strikes against the hands and forearms; if this is not recognised early and sorted then these people will continue to practice an unsafe and vulnerable position in the mistaken belief that it is entirely safe and perfectly fine. One day this faith could result in a serious injury to the hands due to the vulnerabilities of the position. If only the correct validation tests had been performed then such a scenario could be avoided entirely.

Something that I also see quite regularly is that people perform a cut one way in drilling, a different way when they cut a milk bottle or tatami, and in yet another way when they spar! If the technique is done differently in each situation then clearly there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

In your school, do you have validation tests to ensure that the building blocks of your system (the strikes, parries, structures) are sufficient and meaningful? Or do you believe that such tests are a waste of time? Or do you use a different set of tests? I would be interested to hear your thoughts and opinions, so please feel free to leave a comment with your ideas.

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  • Shay Roberts

    Keith, good article. It’s great to see there are folks out there who are thinking about this!

    You mentioned the things that can happen when not working with your regular training partner. So true. Our groups can become insular and often a type of subconscious cooperation can occur between friends that hides problems in a technique. I have seen this so many times. So it’s important to bounce things off of a contrarian or someone from the outside before adding that final stamp of approval to a play.

    It’s also important not to lose heart if something isn’t working during bouting. An opponent who knows you or knows your system can anticipate and disrupt an otherwise valid execution.

    One of the biggest challenges we have faced is understanding the exact set of circumstances under which a technique should be applied. Often, understanding and executing the play is not difficult, but it still doesn’t work in bouting because it is being applied in the wrong situation. And by this I mean issues such as distance, direction of force, and other things the manuscripts are often vague about.

    Fighting is an art, but there is also a science to it, and I like your group’s methodical approach!

    • KeithFarrell

      Thank you Shay, I’m glad you like our approach! We think that the only honest way to approach what we do is to test it to make sure it works and is valid. If we teach without validation, then what assurance do we have that it is right, and what faith can our students put in it? But if we do validate everything, and take every opportunity to test things in different scenarios and circumstances, then that gives us as instructors faith in our own system, and it gives our students faith that we as instructors know what we are talking about!

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