Question from/for the Audience: Thinking your way through a fight

How do you interpret and incorporate the mental aspects of fighting?  How conscious are you of reading opponents’ body language, selling a bait or a feint, working through your decision tree before getting to measure, etc.?  How has that aspect of your fight developed over time?


(I’ve got an answer in the cooker, but figured I’d let other people chime in first)

6 comments to Question from/for the Audience: Thinking your way through a fight

  • Dante di Pietro

    This is many questions. Many complicated questions.

    To me, the mental aspect is primarily remaining collected under pressure. I relax, the other person stops being a person for a little while, and then we’re back to earth.

    I am extremely conscious of body language. I don’t even see a person in front of me so much as a collection of angles, measures, and weight distribution. I think there are probably very few people who read the body as well as I do, in no small part because of my very high visual processing index. I usually have things figured out before I get into measure; the people who hit me are the ones who are either fast enough to overrun my processing speed, or who have unusual physical capabilities that I don’t account for (or who outfence me, of course!).

    It’s developed over time as I’ve learned more and more about fencing, but only because I analyze constantly, and am always working to connect my knowledge to my experience.

  • Staffan Arffuidsson


    Interesting questions. And I agree with Dante about them being complicated.

    For me, I am still working on that. I have been focusing on tells and attempting to control the fight. No, it doesn’t always work for me. One of the Schools out here has several people at different levels. This has helped me analyze the style, and apply that mental process when studying others. One of the things that has helped me is that I have attempted to learn several different styles of fighting. This knowledge has helped me in fights against opponents who follow a certain path. For example, I am pretty knowledgeable with the Italian based styles (mostly Capo ferro and Giganti, though there are a set of skills that the Italianated systems mostly stick to). If I know someone has trained in one of those styles, then I can anticipate what they will bring to the field. Forewarned is forearmed!

    I am still attempting to understand body language. I think I will still be trying to figure it out until my dying day.

    Thanks for the questions!

    In Service to the West,
    Staffan Arffuidsson

  • Wistric

    First, as has been mentioned here nauseatingly often, I am a big fan of Musashi’s “No Mind” fight. To quote Coach Miller, “If you’re thinking ‘This is a feint’, it’s not a feint.” Similarly, if you’re thinking “This is me fighting,” you’re not fighting, you’re thinking about you fighting. “This is me parrying” or “This is me lunging” have a dilatory effect on the actual parry and the actual lunge. And if your thought ends with a question, you’re dead. “Did I make that parry?” will get you murder-fied.

    In “The Book of Martial Power,” Steven Pearlman uses his cat as an example of the mental goal for a fighter: In a fight, the cat is 100% in the fight, body and soul. So, too, when chasing a laser pointer, cats are 100% murderous intent (if you’ve seen Queen Aretha go from inert blob of fluff to balls-out Blood God at the “click” of the pointer turning on, you know how thoroughly they embody their intent).

    Musashi talks about the mind becoming the strike, instead of just observing the strike. Most of my mental game is then getting my mind poised to strike, getting my mind to that 100% intention point. Which is not to say I don’t think.

    Outside of measure I think like a sonofabitch. My brain races and calculates, all to answer three questions:
    1. Can I defend myself if my opponent attacks?
    This involves the assessment of my opponent’s guard, movement, person, garb, etc, etc. For an example, see my breakdown of my champs fight. It involves not just knowing my opponent’s range, but knowing his plan: where he holds his body and his sword tell me what he’s thinking of doing, or at least tell me where he can attack (the lines available to him). If you’d like, I can go into more detail about how I read an opponent.

    Having read my opponent’s planned attack, I then have to determine whether or not I can defend against that attack, and tweak my guard to establish my defense. Until I can comfortably answer the above question “Yes” I do not go near measure.

    2. Can I strike my opponent without risking harm?
    Having assured my safety, I then take my earlier assessment of my opponent and review it from a new angle: can I hit him while maintaining my defense? Usually the answer is “No”. The vast majority of fighters are not so obliging as to let me gain control of the line and to leave an unopposed opening for me to attack. However, if the answer is “Yes”, I strike. Lunge and done.

    3. Can I make my opponent give me a tempo?
    If the answer to 2 is “No”, I move on to this question. How will I make my opponent give me a tempo? Well, if I’ve already closed the line, my opponent needs to move to attack me, and I can attack him during that movement. But truth be told I’m not quite so sharp as to be able to hit (or at least lunge through the point of opposition) during most disengages, if that’s the approach my opponent takes. I usually like to elicit larger or more numerous tempi.

    That’s when I give an opening. A nice juicy target. All they have to do is try to take it. I know if they bite, I can shut it down. If they feint for it, I’ve already planned the defense against their cavazione (I only use, like, two invitations, so I don’t have to think these through a lot).

    If they’re clever little buggers, though, and don’t bite, I double check that I’ve got the line controlled, and I attack. I’ve got two basic choices, because, again, I need them to give me a tempo. One is the feint-cavazione, the other is a feint-and-yield (really, just a cavazione by other means). Either elicits the tempo of their parry for me to act in (if they don’t parry, then I complete my lunge and they die).

    That’s really the point where the decision tree ends. If you scrape away my wordiness it’s pretty simple, and of course WordPress doesn’t support Visio.
    1. Am I safe? -> No -> Get safe
    2. Am I safe? -> Yes -> Can I strike safely -> Yes -> Strike
    3. Am I safe? -> Yes -> Can I strike safely -> No -> Take tempo -> Strike

    How many of my fights actually are that succinct? 20%. Maybe 25%. The other 75% are much more complex, and involve what happens after one of those “Strike” moments is reached. These occur in the fight of “No Mind”. All of that decision tree happens outside of measure, but once “Strike” is reached, I am in measure and thinking gets you killed.

    What happens at and in measure, in the “No Mind” fight? Only those things which you have already drilled and practiced. The action happens so quickly, and over such short distances and times, that your brain does not have time to wait for cognitive analysis. Instead, based on the visual and tactile inputs (movement of your opponent, pressure on your blade and body), you respond in the way you’ve trained your body to respond.

    After my feint-cavazione, the re-cavazione is triggered by my eyes perceiving the parry motion or my hand feeling the touch, not by my brain saying “Lo, he moveth to parry, I should re-cavazione!”

    This also requires unfocused vision. I recently realized that I only look at my opponent’s lead shoulder throughout a fight (to the point that I couldn’t stop it while training a woman wearing a low-cut tank top, which was awkward, you know). I’m not expecting that shoulder to move; it’s the second least mobile part of the body in a fight (hips are the least mobile). And that’s the point. Your peripheral vision detects motion better than your foveal vision. If you’re looking at a hand, you won’t register its motion as quickly as if you are NOT looking at it. Why the shoulder and not the hips? Sword’s closer to the shoulder than the hips, and I can still see the feet while looking at the shoulder. (My tactile perception, though, lives entirely in my swordhand, with just enough left out for shot calling. Maybe. That’s another post)

    What about when the fighting gets inside measure? Most of us don’t drill fighting here, but it turns out all of those drills we do at measure actually feed into our response selection here. Pressure/no pressure at the press yields the same result: No pressure, you strike for the opening even if the strike is a draw cut instead of a lunge; pressure, yield around and strike.

    What about if it’s something entirely outside your repertoire? Then you get bumped in to cognitive analysis and get trapped in your OODA loop and die from thinking in measure. We drill and drill and drill some more to push back that OODA loop threshold.

    Your mind is not deciding what you will do next; your body is. All your mind is doing is watching for where to strike and the strike follows because the decision-making part of your brain has been bypassed into an assumption of striking. The mind also keeps an eye out for the OODA loop trap (which it recognizes when that bypass breaks down) and redirects away from it, usually by throwing a panic parry or bailing; again, this is not a good place to be.

    The above process occurs for just about everybody in a fight, whether they’re going for the No Mind fight or not. Even if they’re trying to think their way through a fight, the human body resorts to instinct and trained responses to save itself whenever pressed. Recognition of that can be applied tactically:
    1) The mere act of presenting an invitation relies on this to some degree, a trained “see opening, take opening” response.
    2) If your opponent is expecting you to do A or B, and you do C, they get thrown into that state of cognitive analysis trying to figure out what C is and give you a tempo of the mind (Yeah, yeah, I’m just making tempi up now). Set-ups like throwing the same feint-cavazione, but from out of measure, can prime that A or B pathway in your opponent’s brain.
    3) A non-committal movement just outside of measure can show you what their trained response is to any given action.
    4) Retreating out of attacks instead of parrying them gives you an opportunity to see what attack your opponent prefers, if they repeat the same one multiple times.

    Of course, these all require action on your part, and if your opponent is waiting for you to give them a tempo, you’re doing just that. So in each case, I’m making sure I’ve got #1 and #2 covered: He can’t hit me while I’m in guard, and he can’t hit me while I’m moving.

    How has my process changed over time? Well, my current flow chart represents a full 200% increase over my initial flowchart, which was:
    1. Pointy end goes in the other guy (One day I will lay out the derivation from this first principle of all fencing theory, at least to the best of my understanding).

    When I started off, that’s where I was. I could lunge really fast, and was young and fleet of foot, and was just trying to hit first. My mental game was really just focused on measure and controlling it.

    Eventually I doubled the complexity to a whopping two items (each of these progressions, by the way, predated a scarf upgrade by about a year. Just putting that out there):
    1. Control other guy’s sword
    2. Pointy end goes in other guy

    So now my game focused on how I was going to get his sword and then stab him. This led to a very aggressive fight, throwing large blocks with my off-hand or sweeping parries with my sword to actively take control of my opponent’s sword. Worked on anybody I was taller and faster than, unless they had a clue.

    It also relied on a lot of thinking about how I was going to block the sword and what his possible counters were and what I could do from there. Too much thinking. Got me killed.

    Stripping it down to the bare bones of thought, and an SOP to apply to all fights, required adding a three-point flowchart, but also required stripping away all of that secondary thinking that the two-point plan required. That’s about where I stand now.

  • Dante di Pietro

    The “no mind” thing has always been an abstraction to me, as I just don’t seem to enter it. My internal process is much like the Sherlock Holmes films, where the titular character “does the math” and predicts the next several stages. I make it a point to exploit “no mind” people with “this is my invitation” moments: I create an invitation and prepare both a counter and a counter-counter in case the other person recognizes the invitation and looks to exploit it in an undesired way. Tricking the instinctive fighter is a pleasure.

    If I had to distill it all down to a small number of points, I think it would be:

    1) Dominate space.

    Everything I do operates within this one idea: measure, tempo, finding the sword, mechanics, etc., are all about manipulating space, and I am unsatisfied with the word “control”, because it is too passive for my tastes. Everything about my fight is asserting myself and imposing my will on my opponent, that the space they occupy is as I desire and allow it to be, and that I will eventually put my sword in the space they already occupy.

  • Staffan Arffuidsson

    I have never found the word “control” as passive. But, I believe we are disagreeing over semantics. Other than that, I definitely agree that one must take, and maintain, control over the fight.


    • Dante di Pietro

      I think of the connotative value of each word. If we fence, and I dictate the events of the fight, I have control. If we fence, and I dictate the events of the fight, and you look like you don’t belong on the field with me, I have dominance.

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