Monday, November 24, 2014

Jogo do Pau Intensive Course: Full Course Review


During the week of November 10th, Academie Duello offered a five-day course on the living art of Jogo do Pau, a stickfighting tradition from Portugal that has its roots in the swordplay practices of medieval European battlefields. The course was taught by the internationally recognized instructor, author, and coach Luis Preto, and ran 10am to 4pm Monday through Friday, with an hour-long lunch break each day. As an add-on, some of us also signed up for additional instruction for a coaching certificate. This came in the form of an extra thirty-minute lecture each day, and an exam following the course to see how much we'd retained.

I've already put down my initial thoughts on each of the first five days (which you can see here). This is my one-week-later review on the whole event: Content, presentation, format, and so on.

The Art - Jogo do Pau

I've heard that the Spanish tend to play sports gently, whether soccer, or jugger, or anything else. The same cannot be said of the Portuguese: Jogo do pau is fast, hard, and unforgiving. The name "Jogo do pau" means "Staff game," and it's primary weapon is a five-foot staff made of a robust but flexible hardwood (Luis said it was lotus). The staff is thicker on one end, and held by the thinner end to deliver more powerful blows.

Because jogo do pau uses the staff, and not a bladed weapon, the art is focussed on delivering rotational blows to deliver maximum force at the point of impact. Because it is a defensive art (i.e. focussed on surviving an encounter with someone trying to injure you), and because it has strong foundation in outnumbered combat, there is a strong emphasis on breaking hands and knees, and anything else that happens to be within reach.

For a full accounting of jogo do pau, some of its history, and a thorough accounting of its techniques and strategy, I highly recommend checking out Luis' books and DVDs, and his youtube channel.

One of the main perks of working with a living tradition, as opposed to trying to reconstruct arts from books, is having someone to correct all of those little mistakes you don't even know you're making. Right from the get-go Luis was clear about which techniques worked and which ones didn't. He was particularly clear about which techniques were better at full speed, and which ones only seemed to work, and only at slower speeds.

We spent the bulk of our time working on one-on-one techniques, but also covered some two-on-one techniques. By the end of the course, I felt like everyone had a thorough understanding of the mechanics of one-on-one combat with the staff, and we all had the tools to develop outnumbered combat more thoroughly with a bit of reading and practice. We didn't go over any of the baton (short stick) material, though I`m sure there`s plenty of it to go over at higher levels of study.

The Coach - Luis Preto

It takes a lot of planning, experience, and insight to run a twenty-five hour intensive course without either burning out the students or covering so much material that it cannot be retained. Fortunately, Luis Preto hasn't only been practicing jogo do pau for almost two decades, but it's clear that he's been practicing it at a very high level and putting a lot of thought into the best way to pass it on to other people. His postgraduate training in sports training methodologies and coaching sciences definitely showed, in particular during the coaching certificate add-on.

The material of the course was carefully structured around developing perception skills, with a focus on distance management and reinforcing the key principles of day one: Defense is more important than offense, distance is the best defense, and always keep an eye out for easy targets (thrusting someone who attacks from too close, and striking hands and/or knees if they're left unprotected). Each day carefully reviewed the material of the day(s) before, and adding new material in a way that easily integrated it into what we'd already learned.

If you're ever presented with the opportunity to train with Luis, I highly recommend it.

The Format - Week-long intensive

Twenty-five hours is a lot of work, especially when a significant portion of that is working at full(ish) speed and (mostly) maximum intensity. By the end of the week, I suspect that everyone knew which muscles they hadn't used before, and which muscles they hadn't stretched enough. I know that there were muscles in my inner thigh that I spent the weekend stretching and working loose again.

Over the course of the week we covered a LOT of material, but I'm fully aware that there could have been more. We only did relatively little multiple opponents stuff (only...two or three hours?), and we didn't do any baton (short stick) material. I don't think most of us could have taken much more than five hours a day, but I think a second week would have been manageable. At least in terms of training; in terms of taking-time-off-work I think two weeks would be significantly more difficult to fit in. 

On reflection, one of the biggest perks to having that much time dedicated to training was that we were able to give each concept the time that it needed to be fully explored and developed. If something needed two hours we could work on it for two hours and still have the time to put it in context and integrate it into freeplay. 

The Add-On - Jogo do Pau Coaching Certificate

At the end of each day, those of us who'd signed up for the coaching certificate were given a lecture that was supposed to be half an hour, but, due to technical issues and tangents, usually ran forty-five minutes to an hour (though nobody complained). Each day we went over the theory a different aspect of coaching: Teaching Fundamentals, Physical Conditioning, Managing Practices, the Perception-Action approach to teaching, and Tactics (including sparring guidelines). Lectures were accompanied by powerpoint slides which efficiently laid out the topics covered. 

The coaching lectures were very helpful, even just in terms of putting the rest of the day into context. Most of what we covered in the coaching classes followed the contents of Luis' books, particularly these two, but with room for questions and answers, and being backed up with the rest of the course, I found that it stuck a lot better.

Rather than wrapping up the course with a final exam, Luis opted for another day of lessons and Q&A. The final exams are being carried out over four weeks: every Friday Luis sends us a list of questions, and we have a week to supply answers. It's an interesting format, one that encourages longer-term engagement with the material, and thus greater retention.

(Final?) Thoughts

The whole course itself was a definite success. The instruction and fellow students were all top-notch, and the intensity of the art itself is something that I particularly enjoy. Finally getting the chance to learn from Luis in an extended setting is something that I've been hoping to do for a long time, and it's been everything I hoped for.

The entire course's strict focus on the primacy of defense allowed us to go the whole week with a minimum of protective equipment, while maintaining intensity and "speed honesty." The system as presented by Luis was pretty simple and straightforward, and everything we learned was geared towards combat efficacy.

Although this past week has (mostly) been a return to the same-old schedule, Luis' training methods have been rolling around in the back of my head pretty much non-stop, and have already changed the way I think about teaching and planning classes.

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