So, You Want to Learn to Fence…   11 comments

Actually, this will end up being more about learning in general, and how to effect skill and knowledge development as an autodidact. Most of us are, to one degree or another, self-taught, and so having a better understanding of how to learn without direct instruction is invariably useful.

Before we begin, you must accept and understand that learning is a struggle. You will need to wrestle with your knowledge deficits and overcome them one at a time. You may not even know you have these deficits until long after they’ve affected you. That’s how experience works, but there are ways to mitigate the risks involved. You should also accept that the way people learn best is to be presented with a challenge that is just outside of their ability, to attempt it, fail, and then to receive instruction and correction before attempting it again. Ideally, this guided practice happens with the direct benefit of someone expert enough in both the subject and pedagogy to know what you need to know and how you need to learn it.

If you are teaching yourself, those corrections will be largely self-generated. That’s difficult, so learning will take longer than if you have an instructor — and so we’ll address some shortcuts to mitigate this risk. The best method, of course, is to make use of the vast amount of work that has already been done. Research and evaluate sources just as you would with any topic. There are all sorts of resources, and if you are a novice, anything that moves you further forward is useful; work from many sources and beware of anything too different from everything else. It might be the best option, but it warrants more scrutiny than something that hundreds of people have found true through experience.

It is always best to have a specific, demonstrable, and measurable goal in mind. Educators refer to these goals as learning objectives, and if you set an objective that is too broad, you’ll have difficulty measuring your progress. Instead, you should set objectives that can be either marked as “done” or as “sufficiently well.” In the former case, it might be something like following a lunge with a pass reflexively, and in the latter, it might be the lunge itself. You might define a lunge done “sufficiently well” as being able to lunge and recover smoothly, easily, and remain balanced and mobile the whole time, and if you actually perform all of the actions involved that you are attempting to do. One objective I used was: “I will maintain opposition throughout my attack and recovery.”

I suggest video, a brutally honest training partner, or both. Either way, you’ll have to be analytical and critical of yourself— and not in the useless way where you make yourself feel awful. The good way, where you identify problems and then fix them. You’ll have to figure out how, but you also have access to the Internet so you won’t be working in a vacuum.

Your criteria for “done” creates your ideal to strive for. I am using ideal here to mean the thing you aim at, not a representation of perfection, though as you become more expert your ideal will become closer to perfect. Early in your training, “functional” is far more useful than “technically flawless,” since it is not especially useful to spend too much time perfecting one skill outside of its context. This would be like learning only the verbs of a language: you may feel like you’re doing a lot, but vital elements are missing. Bruce Lee’s example of the man who has thrown one kick ten thousand times isn’t very threatening if he’s only done it at a stationary bag.

Once you have this ideal in place, break down its characteristics into useful pieces. I prefer to think in terms of sections of the body because I can think about my arms, head, legs, feet, hips, and spine, I don’t know many people who can break it down further than that without becoming overloaded– and really, if your feet and hips are in the right place, your leg is, too. Simplify as much as you can without losing utility. There is no precise measurement for this: if you’re overwhelmed, you need to simplify, and if you’re unable to fine-tune, you need to complicate. Exercise judgment case by case. Adequate to function is sufficient.

Next, make an attempt. It can be very bad at the start, and that does not matter at all. In fact, you might even benefit from some early spectacular failures because you need to be comfortable with failure. Give up protecting your ego early on and you’ll get to deserve an ego sooner. I’d also recommend not spending too much time theorizing through a concept; the more time you spend thinking it over without doing much, the more invested you’ll become in your interpretation and it probably won’t be much better, just differently wrong. But, since you’ll now care about the time you spent, you’ll defend a flawed position. Don’t defend your ego until you have some credibility behind it.

Conversely, don’t approach a topic with a textbook-only answer. If your objective is to use an invitation and counterattack, make sure that you can describe how the invitation is created, what attack(s) you’re hoping to draw, and how you’ll counter each. Know the particulars.

Since your first attempt at something is bound to be flawed, your next step is to compare it against your ideal (or something you know to be a good example) and note areas of difference: what happened, and what did you intend to happen? What accounts for the variance? Continue to ask yourself why something happened as it did until you have hit upon something actionable, often a specific root cause that solves other problems in a cascade effect.

This is the part that will almost always be the cause of careening toward a breakdown. Many people will address the question of what happened by guessing, or by repeating some maxim they heard once and half understand. “I need to find the sword,” they’ll say, inadequately identifying that finding the sword is a multi-stage process with numerous failure points, and each of those must be evaluated and accounted for. I have seen dozens of people give a good academic description of finding the sword only to watch them do something that bears only a passing resemblance to what they memorized without comprehension. It is vital that you examine your answer to why what happened was what happened for soundness; if you guess for the sake of having an answer, you will learn nothing.

Early on, these root causes will mostly be mechanical. Again, video and slow motion observation can show you the difference between what you’re doing and what you think you’re doing; there is often a disconnect in people who are less athletic. Lacking expertise, you run the risk of a false diagnosis, so be sure to look back at your ideal and try to find the most glaring problem that makes your actual result erroneous. There’s a good chance it starts with your feet, your hips, or your spine. Assuming you’re in good shape (if not, get in shape), anything awkward is worth considering for revision.

Some sort of peer review will help you develop as well. This can be in the form of a journal, video fighting diary, or practice partners. Even if they are not working on the same system as you, you can still ask them: “I am trying to do X; why didn’t X happen?” Again, this is investigating and eliminating variance between the ideal and the actual. You are, as Michelangelo put it,  freeing the statue from the boulder. Get something that looks essentially humanoid before you focus on making sure it has realistic fingernails.

Continue refining.

You’ll fail far more than you’ll succeed, but that’s how learning works. If you are insecure and value defending your ego too much, your progress will be slow. It doesn’t much matter if you make mistakes, so be brave and bold and experiment until you find effective results, and then keep stress-testing them against resisting opponents. Compete. It does not matter if you go 0-2; aim for 1-2 next time.

Do not undervalue the importance of practical application, as that is where any theory must become reality. I will leave you with the words of fencing grandmaster Salvator Fabris:

“And you will find many reasons to rejoice, for it is not grave men of science (our old rivals in the noble race to history’s praise) turning theory into practice; rather, it is one of your own kind who is now converting practice into proper theory.”
The principles of martial arts are uncovered through experimentation under adverse conditions. As theory and practice are both available to you, pursue both and unify them.

Posted January 23, 2016 by Dante di Pietro in Fight Psychology, Teaching and Training

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