Fencing Journal, 7/18   4 comments

I’ve secured a new job with evening hours, which means I won’t often make Thursday practices and will have to sharply cut back on my eventing. So these posts may end up being more about teaching than about fighting.


I did some one-on-one work with Andrew, one of my TSG students, on Sunday before anyone else arrived. We did simple sword-extensions to begin. I noticed immediately that something was off.

This is one of the fundamental ways in which my fencing-thinking has changed. At an earlier point, I might have examined each variable for a given movement – the position of the hand, arm, foot, shoulder, etc – as the student performed, actively looking for flaws. I now passively watch, and get an immediate mental response: “that looks historical” or “that doesn’t look historical”. When trying to explain this, I can only say that in my head, there exists knowledge of a shape, or a set of shapes and alignments, that the body performs when doing historical fencing, and I can now recognize these as easily and immediately as I can recognize an equilateral triangle.

I am reminded of this article. When you or I look at a familiar face, we don’t examine the shapes and positions of individual facial features (the eyes, cheekbones, nose, etc); we just recognize the person. Chess experts seem to have a similarly automatic recognition of certain arrangements of chess pieces. They don’t need to analyze the board; they just know. Fencing is becoming like that.

Dante suggests forming an “ideal” of what your fencing should look like, then figuring out where you deviate from the ideal, and working to get closer to it. This seems to have become automatic, at least when observing others, and that fact provides me with considerable confidence.

Back to Andrew

Of course, seeing a deviation is not the same as knowing how to fix it. While I was able to produce some improvement, there was still a little bump in the shoulder that wasn’t supposed to be there. Catherine (a professional physical therapist) was able to figure it out when she arrived (supraspinatus, for those wondering, probably overactive as a result of earlier weightlifting activities), and correction proceeded quickly from there.

I can’t wait for the day when I have the knowledge to do the same.

Teaching The Find

I was a little loath to jump into bladework with some of my new students, since they’re still rough on form, and the find requires good form to be effective. But I also wanted to present something new, something sword-in-hand, and get some feedback.

We usually teach finds as “point the sword over your opponent’s left/right shoulder (if outside/inside)”, and I occasionally bring out the Richard Cullinan “target the parrot on his shoulder” mnemonic. I’ll have another fencer test the find by delivering a straight lunge into the (hopefully) closed line. I’ve instructed my beginners to play with the degrees of find, not worrying if they get hit, and instead focusing on good mechanics, making the find as small as possible, and starting to trust the find.

This worked well on the outside (everything is easier to the outside), but Andrew was having considerable trouble inside. Telling him where to put his sword wasn’t working (his form kept drifting), and he clearly was dubious of the technique. Losing trust is a big deal, so I halted the drill. I instructed Andrew to run through a four-step mantra: profile the body, set the hand outside the knee, keep the sword in line with forearm, angle the point across the opponent.

Once he was focusing on his form rather than the sword, everything dramatically improved, and he had the “it’s magic!” epiphany that many do when they successfully find inside and the enemy’s point deviates from its to-the-face trajectory at the last possible second. Trust was achieved, and enthusiasm sparked.

This has some interesting ramifications for my teaching style. Keeping the sword out-of-hand was supposed to get my students to focus on their form first, and avoid the distractions of the sword. Certainly, adding in bladework earlier than I’d originally intended DID distract Andrew. But also, his work with the find served to contextualize and reinforce the importance of good form, and caused him to concentrate on the problematic elements to a greater degree. I suspect these will tighten up in the weeks to come.

Performing Technique, or: Point Control is Still a Myth

One meme that recurs in my teaching is that we shouldn’t worry about striking or being struck. These are not useful metrics for determining success or failure (because you can do things 90% right, and still be hit; or do things completely wrong, and still hit your opponent). Rather, we should focus on performing technique well. If we perform technique well, everything else will take care of itself.

I introduced this concept in the context of lunging to strike a small chalk dot on the wall. “Don’t try to guide the tip, just point your sword at it, and extend, lean, lunge, like you know you’re supposed to.” The improvement was immediate and startling. “When I’m not thinking about hitting the target, I hit,” said one student.

None of this is new or unexpected, but it’s always gratifying to see it work, and to see students begin to trust in the pedagogy.

Picking Up the Dagger

Catherine and I have been doing dagger work for the past few weeks. I have fought almost exclusively single-sword for nearly two years, so I don’t have much familiarity with its use, and Catherine’s already pushing at the boundaries of my knowledge. Time to learn more.

I brought my dagger out for some sparring. The most immediate changes were to my form and footwork. Changing the guard position made all that sloppy (likely the result of some instabilities in the hips), and there was way too much closing to dagger range. The high outside parry was consistently slow, and I had difficulty combining it with an offline step.

Things to drill …

Posted July 27, 2015 by Ruairc in Journal

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