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Interview with Luis Preto, JdP instructor

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by Peter Smallridge

Luis Preto is a practitioner and coach of Jogo do Pau, a traditional baton and staff fighting art from Portugal. He is author of many books about this martial art as well as a new DVD, FROM BATTLEFIELDS TO DUELLING: THE EVOLUTION OF JOGO DO PAU, all of which are available from his website the http://www.pretomartialarts.com/

 

PS: Hi Luis, thanks for doing this. To start off, would you mind explaining your background in sports coaching and in Jogo do Pau?

 

LP: Hi Peter, like all coaches, I guess, began this journey by being an athlete throughout my teens and twenties. Parallel to this, I completed:
– A 5 year undergrad in Physical Education (yes, the whole course was 5 years, since things were different before the Bologna restructuring of universities),
– A first masters course in sports teaching methodologies,
– More recently, a second masters course, this time in Vancouver, Canada (UBC) in coaching sciences.

I began by coaching karate for several years, then team and individual sports as a PE teacher and, during this more recent life experience in Vancouver, I coached basketball a high school level and JdP / Historical Fencing at Blood & Iron MA.

As for my experience in JdP, I began practicing it 18 years ago and have been teaching since 2000. At a National level, I was the technical director of the Portuguese Federation for 6 years and, on an international level, I have taught this art at several HEMA events, Dijon, Swordfish, WWOC, Houston and at a few others, thanks to the kindness of each event’s organizers.

 

PS: Jogo do Pau is a “living” rather than a “historical” martial art, that is to say that there is an unbroken line of transmission. Could you explain a little about your “lineage” and the revival of Jogo do Pau? I understand there was a period when it seemed an “endangered species”?

 

LP: Well, for starters, I guess the classification of arts as historical or not depends on one’s definition of the term historical. For me this term refers to activities that date back a long time and, thus, Jogo do Pau is as historical as the remaining systems being studied. Therefore, personally, I would classify Jogo do Pau as a living historical martial art.

Now, regarding the fact that it managed to be preserved over time, I believe this is explained by the physical conditioning principle of “use it or lose it”. Though I would love to be able to present a more exotic explanation, the thing is that Portuguese society was still mostly rural up until the 1970s and, additionally, both lacking the financial means for people to acquire expensive weapons and it was very difficult for people to attain a legal license to carry and use a firearm. As a result, people simply kept walking around with walking staves, which ultimately led to the preservation of the art. These were the social and cultural mechanisms that brought about the need and conditions for the art to be preserved – the mere need to survive with the tools at hand.

As for “the art”, as in a unique and unified Jogo do Pau, that didn’t exist until recent times. Exactly as happened in other places, the need to use the art for self-defense made people fearful of sharing their art (their secret weapons) with strangers. As such, and despite the universal use of the term Jogo do Pau to refer to any school, the truth is that there were as many different schools / styles as there were instructors. This lasted until the 1980s, when Nuno Curvello Russo managed to travel all over Portugal and train for extended periods at each school. On top of this, he added extensive training and testing of the learned contents through sparring against a wide variety of opponents. Ultimately, this resulted in the creation of his technical program, which constitutes a unification of all the schools by bringing together each school’s most positive traits in a coherent and (combat) functional manner … and this is the lineage that I follow.

As you stated, Jogo do Pau has also faced some difficulties in being preserved, especially over the last 2 decades. The reason for this is the same pointed out earlier: social constraints. With the Portuguese society having changed to a more urban based society, the use of walking staffs stopped being a common occurrence, which made Jogo do Pau less of a practical self-defense tool. Combined with other leisure activities backed up with much better marketing strategies, Jogo do Pau’s popularity simply plummeted. The current revival of the art, through sportive competitions together with the transference of the “traditional” staff based skills to the baton, has seen the art take positive strides forward, and the future looks again bright.

 

PS: Follow up question: Many in HEMA (and other martial arts) feel that there is a tension between “sportive” and “martial” arts – do you feel that this exists in JdP as sportive competitions arise and there is less cause to use in the traditional self-defense contexts?

 

LP: Regarding the arts’ sportive and martial components, there isn’t much of an issue within Jogo do Pau, and the reason for that is twofold.

1) Combat is a system where variables interact with each other. Hence, as soon as one or more variables are changed, removed, or added, the system changes. As such, the first thing to do in this case is simply come to terms with the fact that, though sportive sparring is meant to be a safe(r) simulator of the original form of combat, any expectation that it ever manages to be a full simulator with no flaws is unrealistic. We were fortunate to have people who understood this, which allowed for the management of sportive sparring to be less emotional and more constructive.

2) However, and more importantly, Jogo do Pau never stopped being practiced, with its focus having always been on sparring. Additionally, protective gear is very recent and, up until very recently, very expensive. As such, the success criteria in competition has traditionally been that of objective injuries (and not that of subjective evaluations from judges) and continues to be so when breaking in newbies into drills and sparring with more experienced training partners. Making a long story short, combat was preserved and, as a result, when trying to put together a sportive simulator of combat, we know and agree on the reality which we are looking to simulate through a competitive rule set. Personally, I would not like to be in a situation where I had to figure out a rule set to simulate a reality which I don’t really know from top to bottom, it sounds like a daunting task (borderline impossible) and, given the lack of a reference point, one that I would never be sure of having gotten right even when managing to do so.

 

PS: You’ve been working with HEMA practitioners for a number of years now, both teaching JdP at HEMA events and offering coaching specifically for HEMA. How have you found the HEMA community?

 

LP: On a personal level I have found the HEMA community to be made up by extremely great people. Polite, focused and enthusiastically pro-active individuals.

On a martial level, I have sensed that it tends to be a community almost uniquely focused on sword contents. Note however, that this is not meant as a criticism. These arts are practiced as a leisure activity and, when choosing one’s preference from the vast field of leisure activities, any choice is valid (otherwise, we’d end up practicing the same and unique activity worldwide). I prefer sticks, other people prefer swords and there are even some weird ones who prefer football (go figure), but we can all live together and respect each other’s space. Nevertheless, the HEMA community has been guilty, in my opinion, of one error which has been that of judging a book by its cover when it comes to Jogo do Pau. People look at Jogo do Pau and, without analyzing the art’s contents, they assume that this living tradition has nothing to offer their sword practice simply because the weapons are different. I believe this assumption/ premise is false, and one which has limited some of HEMA efforts in trying to make sense of its manuscripts.

 

PS: What is it that you have been specifically able to offer HEMA practitioners?”

 

LP: Well, I have been able to offer two different but complementary things.

1) From Jogo do Pau, I have been able to lend a helping hand in refining technique and the tactical application of technique. Just recently I watched on a clip Keith Farrell stating that in HEMA there is sometimes the knowledge of the starting position and the end position of a movement, but not the knowledge as to how to go from one to the other nor when to use the technique. Well, as a living tradition Jogo do Pau has no mysteries regarding either technique or tactical application, which has helped some HEMA trainees whom I have had the pleasure of coaching. Additionally, the practice of outnumbered combat that Jogo do Pau offers has also expanded trainees’ martial horizons while also bringing in a whole new and complementary dimension of fun to practice.

2) From my studies in sport sciences, I have been able to incorporate the ecological perspective of human movement into my teaching, which has been useful in many cases by means of getting trainees to progress quicker and also showcase a greater transference of their skills between drills and live sparring.

There are many more things to add to this, especially within the coaching side of things by supplying complementary physical conditioning, nutritional support, psychological guidance, enhancement of recovery strategies, etc., but unfortunately I haven’t yet been part of a HEMA project that runs this deep.

 

PS: The ecological approach was something that I really appreciated at your London seminar. Could you provide a quick summary of how this guide’s training works?

 

LP: As far as the ecological approach goes, it’s actually something very simple that is useful in bringing back simplicity to the learning of new motor skills. Initially it can be challenging for instructors based on movement oriented traditional teaching approaches, since it implies a 180 degree reversal of teachers’ mentality. By this I mean going from trying to to movements to trying to teach tasks, where trainees merge their own body awareness with the environment’s constraining and affording elements so as to perform a needed task. Here the performer’s mindset is centered around thinking of the task at hand, such as catching a ball, and the movement is more of a side effect, as it is an intuitive adaptation to the conditions. For example, if the ball happens to be a tennis ball, one catches it with one hand, whereas a basketball elicits the use of both hands … unless one has really big hands, obviously. As you can see, by being context oriented, one learns to perform tasks in the form of problem solving actions, and not mere uncontextualized movements … which optimizes learning and application of new skills in free play.

Those looking for more info on how the ecological approach works will be very well served by looking into Richard Schmidt’s work. If, however, time happens to be of the essence and one is looking for a shorter document on this while also having it being specifically oriented towards martial arts, then perhaps my book “Development of Technique & Tactical Skill: A practical guide for coaches, parents & athletes” might be a good fit.

 

PS: So, to step out from technical and tasks to the tactical – the new DVD begins with discussing the context of JdP’s development and the difference in tactic that different environments of combat dictate – especially group vs single combat. HEMA is practiced, by and large, in a context of one on one “dueling”. How does this transfer between arts?

 

LP: I understand why very little outnumbered training is being conducted, since the few references to it are, at best, vague. However, using swords or sticks for outnumbered combat doesn’t vary a single thing. As I explain on the DVD, when surrounded by opponents one has to swing the weapon with a high range of motion (as seen in Jogo do Pau) in order to (almost simultaneously) push everyone away (from 9 to 3 o’clock) … regardless of the weapon being bladed or not.

Additionally, by having been fortunate in learning Jogo do Pau’s outnumbered skills, I am able to look at the overall pointers on outnumbered combat present within HEMA’s sources and see that it fits like a glove. And since martial arts’ origin / essence lies in preparing mostly for outnumbered combat, this was the origin of Jogo do Pau and, I assume, of the arts that make up HEMA as well.

Later, obviously, as industrial cities were created, people living in these cities began focusing more on dueling. Consequently, dueling went from being fought by resorting mostly to outnumbered combat’s skills to other skills more fitting for facing a single foe … which culminates with centering combat heavily round the thrust. However, between the origin (outnumbered) and the end (thrusting game), several stages were covered as a result of constant adaptations to opponents’ evolving tactical approaches. This is the historical recap that I present on the DVD, where technique is contextualized from a tactical and evolutionary point of view. Furthermore, since tactical premises can be analyzed conceptually regarding their causes and consequences, I believe that the present case study of Jogo do Pau can transfer nicely to HEMA, being of use to both instructors and trainees.

 

PS: May I point out that the advice to use continuous diagonal cuts when dealing with multiple opponents is found in the 1608 Giganti, for use with the rapier?

 

 

LP: Funny, AAD’s rapier instructor Gregor Rozman took my Jogo do Pau seminar in Ljubljana back in March, in which we focused significantly on outnumbered combat. Later he took part in a HEMA event in Italy (Florence, I believe) and came back with the feedback that “our” concepts for outnumbered combat held up very well with the rapier as well.

And, on the issue of using Jogo do Pau as somewhat of a blueprint (or, at the very least, as one additional reference) in interpreting HEMA’s written sources, the idea isn’t revolutionary at all. I know of a few HEMA people who are interested in Ringen who have been seeking input from live traditions, such as judo, BJJ, sambo and wrestling, which is obviously a huge help compared to having to make sense of written sources alone. As a weapon based living martial tradition, Jogo do Pau offers that, and perhaps even more than the non-European grappling arts stated above offer for Ringen, since Jogo do Pau’s technical foundations are exactly the same as that of its French counterpart Jeux du Baton … which means that it is actually part of a wider European tradition and not merely a Portuguese one.

But for those demanding more objective evidence of this possible transference between the arts, I can vouch that I have seen a few HEMA classes being taught on the montante with the instructor being, unfortunately, unable to shed light on the tactical application of some of the techniques. This could have been avoided had the instructor in question complemented his analysis of written sources with the practice of Jogo do Pau, as the contents in question are present in Jogo do Pau and are duly contextualized from a tactical standpoint.

On the flip side of things, my partner on the DVD, Patrick Scheler, has been splitting his time between German sword fencing authors and Jogo do Pau for a few years now, and his testimonial about the conceptual transference between the two is quite positive.

 

PS: So how did you find working on the DVD?

 

LP: The experience itself was a great one, since I had an awesome crew and I love new challenges. Additionally, since the DVD gives me hope of being able to help the HEMA community on a larger scale, it just felt like a perfect fit, which itself is highly motivating.

Furthermore, working through the footage a few hundreds of times afterwards also came to be a learning experience for me, which I love. It’s amazing how many small details you discover or start seeing differently as you accumulate new experiences.

 

PS: How different was working in video instead of text or in person?

 

LP: Putting together a DVD is extremely motivating, since one is able to showcase each technique from start to finish, which is impossible when putting together books, since one has to forcefully skip some frames.

Regarding how the DVD stands in comparison to teaching in person, on hand teaching in person entails receiving questions from trainees and, as such, you feel that you have a greater chance of making yourself understood. However, the DVD forces you to carefully plan what you wish to point out, while also looking to be concise. In turn, this ends up being a great experience that transfers quite nicely when planning and delivering teaching in person.

 

PS: I understand that there’s a special edition of the DVD with extra content on body mechanics. If you had to give one piece of advice to the readers of this interview on how to improve their body mechanics, what would it be?

 

LP: Well, I cannot reinvent the wheel and, as Terence Hill once stated in a movie regarding the absolute core fundamentals of combat, “fighting is fighting”, regardless of the weapon. As such, the number one biomechanical centered advice I would give is improve your posture. Doing so enables people to fight more effectively and safely. By effectively I mean achieving greater flow in transitioning from backward steps to approaching ones and vice versa, as well as use the body mass in order to maximize kinetic energy’s output both in striking and in parrying. Regarding safety, I am referring myself to health, in the form of being more effective in staying away from back injuries. 

However, I need to point out that biomechanical refinement needs, in my opinion (and in coherence with what I previously stated in favor of the ecological perspective of human movement), to be regarded as the cherry on top of the cake. It’s like the rooftop of a house: crucial to have, but one which needs to be built on proper and effective foundations of functional coordinative skills. So don’t go training against imaginary opponents, especially while you a beginner or intermediate level trainees … unless you are striving to underperform.

A second note, improving posture enables you to fight more effectively but not more efficiently.

It’s a wrong assumption to believe that “proper” technique maximizes effectiveness and efficiency. It does maximize effectiveness, but at the expense of being less efficient.

 

PS: As someone looking in at HEMA from a fairly outside viewpoint, what do you think of its current state?

 

LP: Having had my first contact with the WMA community back in 2006, I can say that the technical level and physical conditioning level of trainees has, on average, sky rocketed. Additionally, from an organizational standpoint, the progress has also been amazing, especially over the last four years, with a huge array of events being developed, to go with the creation of Federations on a national level and, very recently, on an international level. Hence, overall, I believe the community deserves as a whole a standing ovation.

Now, having said that and being a perfectionist myself, I also see a few things that can propel HEMA to even greater heights.

It seems to me that not enough attention is invested in optimizing teaching and coaching by bringing in the vast knowledge sport sciences has to offer, as most of the community’s energy is still being geared towards figuring out the arts’ contents. I obviously understand the need to start by figuring out what to teach before focusing on how to teach it. However, the community has already researched quite a bit “what to teach”, and I believe that a better balance between these two facets would now be very useful.

Additionally, as HEMA has progressively become more and more focused on sword contents, I believe a deep and global reflection on this is needed so that the community progresses in the direction of the identity they really desire. Does HEMA involve being a kind of MMA performer of historical combat skills (including swords, but also staff, dagger, wrestling and such) or, alternatively, is the road really going to be that of transforming HEMA into HESA (Historical European Sword Arts)? Again, there is no right answer here. This is just a matter of choosing one’s identity, but a choice that should be done deliberately so as to avoid being a victim of chance and later regretting it. Perhaps it is possible to promote a bit of both, in the image of track and field and gymnastics, as these communities have both specialists and multi event performers. But right now I don’t see much future for multi-event performers and I would love to see that changing by seeing more events following in the footsteps of the Longpoint event. One last note on this, the information from the authors and weapons being studied seems to be too scattered.

Perhaps, now that there is an International Federation, some kind of online course could be put together to certify people in their theoretical knowledge of the sources. Note that I am not referring myself to master titles, but to theoretical starting point (perhaps required as a prerequisite to enter competitions) meant to help develop a coherent body of knowledge for people to start from, thus facilitating relationships within the community and projecting a better image to the rest of the world. But please don’t take offence at these lines, since this is nothing but my personal and subjective view on the issue and, like you so rightfully stated, a view from someone on the outside looking in. So filter it, use whatever you like and throw away what you don’t like without taking it personally.

 

PS: Personally I’ve moved into teaching HEMA almost accidentally, with little by way of a coaching background, which I’m sure isn’t unusual in HEMA. Aside from getting proficient at the relevant art ourselves, and buying your rather helpful book on Development of Technique and Tactical Skill, what are the key points to consider when coaching others?

 

LP: Well, analyzing coaching depends on one’s angle/point of view, since you may be geared towards analyzing skill development, psychological factors or physiological elements. However, since having the needed motor skill that makes up one’s activity is the most crucial foundation of one’s performance, I’d say that, to optimize motor skill development, great coaching entails being very effective at movement analysis. By this I mean being able to complement the, sometimes, easy diagnosis of trainees mistakes with the understanding of the factors causing the mistakes, which in turn are crucial in developing effective and individualized corrective strategies.

 

PS: Thank you very much for taking the time for this and for sharing your views with HEMA News. . Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

 

LP: I would like to thank you, HEMA News, for this opportunity to convey information which I view as relevant to improving the coaching of martial arts. As a professional in the field of coaching and an incurable martial arts addict, I will be always available to discuss potential partnerships geared towards optimizing both new and existing martial training projects.

For now, I hope that the sword oriented HEMA community gives this DVD on the historical evolution of technique and tactics in Jogo do Pau a chance, since I truly believe that it can be very helpful to them. First of all, it represents a highly valuable shortcut that contextualizes technique from a tactical standpoint. But more importantly, it brings to the table an understanding of how techniques transferred from outnumbered combat to single combat, which is an understanding currently lacking as a result of the previously mentioned vague descriptions of outnumbered combat available within HEMA’s sources.

And, last but not least, if one day anyone in HEMA decides to be a maverick by adding stick fighting competitions to it event, I will be available and ready to do my part in making it a reality. Cheers you all!

 

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One thought on “Interview with Luis Preto, JdP instructor

  1. As always, nice to se U in action Luis. 😀 Anders

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