Question for the Audience: Tells

I was thinking about the Most Dangerous Swordsman I’ve known (though, this was when I was a foil fencer at the club in Orlando, so it’s been a while), who was this late-60-something guy shaped like a beachball.  In no way, by physical judgment, could he have been thought of as dangerous.   I was a newbie, and he generally didn’t work with new folk.  Still, the few times I crossed blades with him I got a hell of a lesson.  He barely moved his feet.  When I attacked, he twitched and I was parried, and then his point was on me.  But it wasn’t just him beating up a newbie.  Everybody in that club feared him at some level, even the forty-something guys who’d started fencing in college.  He spoke with an Hungarian accent, which has led to the First Maxim: Beware old, fat Eastern Europeans.

Clearly he had superior mastery of the fundamentals of combat and had drilled his sword work and footwork to a fine edge, but he also had that nearly telepathic capacity to read his opponents, always.  These qualities made up for any physical advantages his opponents might have.   Most of the voices on this blog are bouncy little twenty-somethings, but they won’t always be.

There are a few times where something, just some slight shift of weight or change of an angle, in an opponent has not just said “I’m going to attack” but “I’m going to attack in this particular manner.”  I remember the first time I read it – Alejandro was fighting me left handed and there was something that led me to hold up a hand and ask “Are you about to take your big offline lunge and hit me over the top of my inner elbow?”  He allowed as how he was.  Another time, I think, got me Sir Christian’s positive vote for the white scarf polling.  He had lunged, and when I didn’t counter he asked “Why?”  I said I was pretty sure he’d intentionally lunged short to bait my counter attack so he could strike in counter-time.  Again, something about his lunge that I couldn’t have measured at that moment.  He gave me a great compliment, saying “There are Provosts who can’t make that assessment.”

Uncle Walter’s got his list of rules, and one of them is “If you know where your opponent is going to be a half second from now, you should win.”  That’s why we put our opponents in obedience.  It’s also why that old Hungarian monster learned to read every body (see what I did there?  Clever, n’est-ce pas?).

Our bodies give us away, and our opponents’ bodies give them away.  So here’s the question: What are your tells?  What do they say?

Reply here.  And, audience, if somebody misses a tell, point it out for them.  Be HELPING.

5 comments to Question for the Audience: Tells

  • Dante di Pietro

    I don’t really know what my tells are, though I assume I have some. If I knew what they were, I’d be working on eliminating them. 🙂

    I do a lot of false weight shifts with my hips to mask the real ones when I’m transferring my body into an attacking distance. I suppose finding the sword would be a tell, since I don’t really attack until I have control.

    You can generally tell which direction I’m planning based on my feet, but that’s usually a response to my opponent’s positioning. I’m not sure if that’s a tell, per se, as you use the term.

    So, you tell me.

  • Ruairc

    When sparring, my form goes to shit. Most of my tells involve me getting my body back to a place where it can actually move, instead of whatever weird place it was before I intended to attack.

    From what I’ve read in the Book of Martial Power and the Book of Five Rings, though, it seems that the only way to truly get rid of tells is to abolish intent and ego – even intent as basic as “I want to win”. I have managed to do this only two or three times while sparring. I’ve no idea how to do it consistently.

    • Dante di Pietro

      One thing that has consistently worked for me is to focus my training exclusively on technique. This may seem counterintuitive, but I tend to do less well if I tell myself I want to win. I am far superior when I simply want to do my best and don’t get hung up on the whole win/lose thing; winning is a side-effect of fencing well, but fencing well is effortless and without pressure. I have permission to do my best and still lose, so there’s no mental energy wasted on nerves.

      Even if I have a bad day, I know my career, if you will, is substantial enough that one bad day is no reflection on what came before or what will come after. I try to fight in only the moment. I have generally good success with this: I occasionally lose two in a row, but almost never three. I can’t even recall the last time that happened.

      • Ruairc

        “I want to have better technique” is still intent. Mushin no shin is a tricky thing.

        But it does seem a more useful mindset than the usual.

        • Dante di Pietro

          Don’t confuse training methodology or pre-fight psychology with in-the-moment thinking. If you “no mind” your training, you’ll “no win” your competition.

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