The Zone

“Since when did you remember how to fence?”

I shrugged. I don’t usually go seventy-five percent against Wistric—even the slow, schlubby teacher-Wistric who shows up at Thursday practices. But in my last dozen or so passes everything was clicking. I wasn’t getting intimidated, my actions were small and subtle, and I was wasn’t falling into my usual screw-form-I-have-speed bad habits after two tempi in measure.

The fight became perfectly intuitive. Everything was clear. Counterguard, find the sword. Action. Counteraction. Finish. It was neither premeditated nor rote. The perfect response simply materialized, effortlessly, each time.

“You should fight like that all the time.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Getting to that mental state happens more frequently now than it used to. But it still requires too much build-up to reach quickly, and too much focus to sustain for long. What’s worse, it seems to be brought on by the opponent. Wistric’s shoot-from-the-hip style tends to draw it out (perhaps because I don’t have time to think). But against a more defensive fighter? Or even—a very inexperienced fighter? It’s miles away. The pace of the fight kills any momentum I gain, and I’m back to overthinking everyone’s actions.

Dame Roz says I mirror my opponent’s fight, rather than imposing my own; a problem endemic, she says, to teachers. I think there’s some validity to that, although I’m not sure why I do it or how to stop. Seems to be a catch-22, really—I need that tachypsychia/flow/”the zone” to dominate and dictate the fight without getting killed, but I can’t get into that state unless my opponent is cooperating.

The more I study the Italian system, the more I am convinced that it requires a constant awareness and use of hairsbreadth distinctions of tempo and measure to perform correctly. If I only possess the necessary acuity in moments of intense and perfect focus, am I lacking in automaticity? Do I have too much mental energy tied up in performing processes that ought to be thoughtless, and thus, not enough left over for the requisite fine observation, interpretation, and decision-making?

Or am I simply not sufficiently mentally prepared before the fight begins?

And if the latter, how can I fix that? Regulated breathing seems to work for Wistric and Connor, but I seem to need a shot of adrenaline to achieve comparable focus.

It is the greatest delight to taste the acme of my ability, where I feel myself a match for anyone, but it’s frustrating for it to be so elusive.

As a relevant footnote … does it help to fight for someone else? Not the perfunctory “queen and country” sort, but the “this is my inspiration” variety?

11 comments to The Zone

  • Dante di Pietro

    In my experience, the physical actions have to be practiced enough so that they become automatic without thought, then the judgment has to be tested enough so that it becomes automatic, and then you can go back to thinking about discrete moments to improve your fight. I have to pay a lot of attention to various things (look at some of the analyses I’ve written to Wistric on this blog!), but I have a handful or two of “standard” actions that I take. Most of it is knowing *when* to do *what*, but if you pay attention to my fights, there isn’t a lot of diversity, just “appropriateness”.

    When I was a newer fighter, I used to intentionally mirror my opponents’ styles to both find what I liked, and also to try and beat people at their own preference. I learned to switch things up and go with whatever was a good counter for what I was facing. I still do that to some extent, but within the constraints of the Italian system I know.

    This all really takes time, and most often the improvement is steady at first, but then becomes a matter of leaps forward after periods of stagnation. This is normal. When I came into the SCA, I had 4 years of wrestling behind me, so I had a lot of comfort with 1 v. 1 competition already. It was 4 years after that before I picked up an HMA book, and now 8 years since then to be where I am now. Some of it just takes time. I learned to spike my adrenaline wrestling (it’s oddly a matter of becoming very, very calm, but I also have to elevate my heart rate at the same time to about 70-80 bpm); I take a few deep, rapid breaths and it’s time to go. Develop a trigger that signifies “go time”; Celric used to be able to tell if he was winning or losing a finals against me just based on how I was pacing beforehand.

    My inspiration has always been internal. I love my wife, but I don’t win for her. I succeed because I like to win and I’ve been willing to work to make that happen. You’ll get there, too.

  • Vicente Raposa

    ‘The Zone’ is an interesting topic, I think, specifically because it’s so elusive. Some days I make every shot, I’ve got their timing down pat, I can read them like an open book– and on the other hand, there are some days where feel like I’ve forgotten which end of the sword goes in the other guy. I think there’s a difference, though, in being ‘in the zone’ and having that ‘click’, or that feeling of ‘go!’ that brings out the best in your game. I’m beginning to doubt that good days or bad days are something you can plan for, but I think you can hit that sweet-spot of intensity, of clicking, on any occasion, depending on your state of mind and what really gets you motivated.

    Mirroring styles can mean a few different things, but as I see it, it boils down to these two, primarily: expirementation, and hesitation to dominate. Expirementation is fantastic for practice, although it’s better to mirror someone in a fight with someone other than the person you’re mirroring, but if you’re hesitant to take control of the fight-space, I think that’s where you need to look. Find out why. It may stem from a lack of personal self-confidence (especially prevalent in new fencers, so I doubt that’s the case but you never know), not knowing how even if you want to (a mid-level fencer problem), or not wanting to be a jerk because only jerks dominate people (which is why we don’t crush less-experienced fencers). In any case, identify the problem, because all three of these have clear solutions. I’ll point out, too, that while it’s possible to mirror someone’s style as a combat strategy, it’s not a very good one, and you figure that one out pretty quickly.

    What I love about fencing, where the money’s at, is the struggle against another person who wants to take the fight-space from me. It’s a battle of wills rather than a battle of pokey-sticks; I can tell immediately when my opponent isn’t giving me everything, because I lose interest and go from fencing mode to teaching mode. But this is the fight you want to fight. Are you doing everything you can to control and frustrate your opponent? Do you know their temperament? Do you know what options you’re giving them? Can you punish them for taking the few options you give them? Do you thereby know what they’re going to do before they do it? And finally, are you consistent enough in your play to make this happen all day, every day, against anyone?

    You don’t need your opponent to cooperate to get into a state of flow: you need them NOT to cooperate to get into a state of flow. Don’t use your mental energy trying to fight your opponent, or their style, or their swords or their scarf or their anything. Next time you’re in practice, think: “This is MY field. Their space is now MY space, and I refuse to give it back.” Put yourself in your opponent’s space. This doesn’t mean sweep and close, or press stupidly. It means that you should move the fight from out of your head and into your opponent’s.

    It might feel uncomfortable at first. You’re probably going to get whacked a few times until this mindset becomes as natural to you as the belief that you’re a human (that is, beyond doubt). But don’t let go of it, don’t give up. In time it will become a clear-cut matter of simple knowledge gaps: How do I make him behave? How do I close that line? How to I lure her into my trap? How do I do that feint-disengage? This will give you context for everything you learn. Rather than simply learning Italian plays, you learn where they fit in the picture… and as a result, those ‘click’ moments will come more often, and they will gradually become permanent. And then you’ll be an unholy terror to whoever’s standing across from you.

    At least this is how I see it, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt. I’ve been wrong before, but this mindset is central to how I fight, and I’ve been fantastically successful in a short amount of time. The very situation you’re describing sounds exactly like my situation not two years ago, and I’m hoping that maybe the solution I found for myself will help you as well.


  • Miriam d'Hawke

    Interesting topic!

    I can’t quite say that I “mirror” my opponent, but I will admit that my style changes slightly depending who I’m fighting. Now that I sit here and think about it, I think that it’s more likely that I do it either when I’m nervous/thinking too much, or are just mucking about — that is, when I’m not truly fighting.

    As for how to get into that “zone”, I’m like you — the whole deep breathing thing just gives my brain time to think of all the things I should/shouldn’t do, leading into a lovely cascade of stepping onto the field and thinking-too-much ( very occasionally, it will be very idiotic things — I’ve stepped onto a field, done salutes, watched my opponent circle for a few moments, and then started noticing that one sock was slouching… ). Likewise, fighting “for” someone hasn’t been my ticket-entry to “The Zone”, though I certainly known people for who it is. Mind you, I’m most commonly fighting for a friend as opposed to my ( non-existent ) “One True Wuv!”, so perhaps there’s something there.

    What I’ve found that does work, at least pre-fight ( that is, things to get into “The Zone” before stepping onto the field for the match; remaining there can be it’s own challenge. See above, re:slouching socks. ADHD for the win? =D )? Dagger fights. Specifically with someone who understands that the point is just to get moving, usually just calling blows instead of taking them. ( If in a situation with a marshal keeping watch, preferably one who understands that it might involve a little more grappling, body-contact, and pommel checks than are typically seen. Nothing ruins the zone more than a marshal getting their panties in a wad and coming over for a debate about back-of-the-head blows. )Similarly, finger fights/bop game. Similar to dagger fights, only without armor — either fencing with fingers or trying to ‘bop’ one another on the nose ( cough. Not that Azriel and I ever do that ). Again, the point for me is to get moving and preferably having fun in a competitive way.

  • Wistric

    Specifically re: fighting for someone, I think it does matter just how invested you are in that person. I have a favor from Sunneva that I wear over my heart, and during salutes if she’s not handy I’ll touch it and tell her “I’m going to kill this person for you.” I don’t know how much of an effect on success that has, but when I lose it does motivate me to not suck the next time.
    Then there’s the Sir Christian Approach: He took the field, once, and telling himself “If this guy wins, he will rape my wife and eat my dog.” He’s only done that once. Something about an absolute failure to control his violence level and reaching an adrenaline peak that it took a long time to come down from.

    • Miriam d'Hawke

      Ah, the ” kill, murder, die” technique!

      • Wistric

        Chris is 6’3 and probably 260, most of it muscle. The thought of him in “kill, murder, die” mode is terrifying. I’d say 50/50 he’d manage to put a blunted sword through a rib cage if he was in kill mode, so his opponent that day was pretty damn lucky.

    • Wistric

      Another thought on this I realized last night: The “I’m going to kill this person for you” is an indirect way of telling myself “It’s time to kill” and throwing that switch so I’m not in… was it “shlubby” you called it? mode

  • Ruairc

    Speaking of last night! I tried the “this is my house” mindset, and consciously or not, this made me take control of the fight rather than letting my opponent dictate the pace and style. Combined with pushups between bouts to keep from getting cold, I found myself fighting better than usual. I still slack off a bit against less skilled opponents and I was getting a bit jumpy as the night wore on; I shall need to temper that intensity with relaxation.

    I acquitted myself fairly well in free-fighting (except against Yusuf … not sure if it’s the curved sword or the Turkish style behind it, but the usual tactics don’t work very well. Time to innovate!). We held a couple mock tourneys in preparation for Ymir–a Blacksword and a double-elim–and I got to the finals in both. With two WS, two FS, and two fellow Sea Dragons in the bracket, I think that’s a good sign.

    • Vicente Raposa

      Glad to hear it’s working for you! You summed it up pretty well– temper the intensity with relaxation. Keep in mind that intensity does not mean tenseness (your mind and your body need to be as relaxed as possible, or you’ll be an easy read), and that it’s nothing personal (so you don’t lose your honor or your temper). It’s just your field, and that’s the way it is. How could it be any other way?

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