So, You Want to Learn to Fence…

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.

11 comments to So, You Want to Learn to Fence…

  • Ruairc

    Lots to digest here.

    Something that pops to mind immediately: my students spend significantly more time practicing the basics (solo and pair drill) before sparring than is typical in the SCA (or, it seems, than is typical in sport fencing). I have one student who began in July, and I plan to introduce him to sparring in a week or two. He’s probably logged about 70 hours by now, though obviously not all of that has been sword-in-hand, and his road has been a little longer and harder than most (he’s a quick learner but naturally a little clumsy, and had zero athletic experience until recently. For my part, my teaching has notably improved since he began).

    I have several reasons for this structure; if I can get foundational technique to 80-90% competency (“all the body parts are in the right places at the right time”) before we begin sparring, the tactical framework of Italian rapier should be more readily accessible, fewer bad habits will develop, and it should be much, much easier to delve into structural refinements. Also, proprioception develops faster when the focus is kept internal, and I feel that this is absolutely key for speeding long-term improvement.

    Morale is not a problem (there’s been visible improvement continuously) and this gating is roughly consistent with our longsword curriculum (his only other point of reference) and Windsor’s recommendations. We also have a very specific goal we’re working towards (Longpoint 2016, in July), which allows me to plan ahead and give time to the things that need it.

    But I do find myself wondering if I’m spending too much time on the foundations.

    • David Twynham

      This is a pretty traditional way to teach fencing, and I think it has a lot to recommend it. The longer that you delay bouting, the fewer bad habits you will have to repair later. By the time your students do start bouting, they have at least some sense of what kinds of things can happen and what they can do with them. In Italian traditions, bouting is typically introduced gradually by first fencing with the teacher who works on setting them up for success while gradually increasing the difficulty. Next, senior students, and then finally newer students.

      Modern fencing tends to take a bit of a different approach that has students bout earlier, and puts them in solutions where they must figure out how to solve problems. Lessons are then used to refine the solutions that they develop on their own and gradually introduce additional techniques. I think at a beginning level it produces some pretty terrible fencing, but done well can have good results.

      • Ruairc

        I read your blog entry referenced on Facebook and was intrigued by the idea of encouraging students to find their own solutions with minimal guidance from day 1.

        I’m not sure how appropriate it is for a historical context – it seems like we should (at least to begin) copy the masters’ solutions, and things like angulation may be too subtle to grasp instinctively – but the exploration of increasingly complex and refined problems seems like a fantastic learning tool. Is there a good way to adapt it, or does it work well as-is?

        • David Twynham

          In practice, the method that I use still has a pretty good deal of explanation. Part of my goal is to encourage a student and prepare them for success rather than frustrate them. The degree to which I try to have them solve their own problems depends a lot on what I perceive of their abilities. With new students, my first task is to introduce the technical aspects of handling a blade. In parallel though, I also want to introduce ideas of attacking in tempo, keeping measure, and responding to choice. So, in a beginning lesson, once I’ve introduced the primary attacks, I’ll often give the cue for each one and see how the student responds. I’ll also introduce mobility as early as possible and see how they respond when I step forwards or backwards. (If they don’t get it at first, hand gestures help). So early on, there’s a mixture of explicit technical instruction with relatively simple problems for a student to solve (do I advance here? what attack should I make, etc…)

          With a more advanced student, it’s a little different. Ideally, the’ve got a decent technical foundation, so if I throw something random at them, they’ll either pick a reasonable response or understand why what they did was wrong. In a lesson, I’ll try a specific action a few times and see how a student responds. For instance, I tell my student to step into distance with an engagement and then lunge with opposition. We do this a few times, and it works out fine, so the next time, as soon as they make contact, I push against their blade and see what they do. (most of my students will disengage, but some will make angle around my blade) next, I do the same with a step back and see what happens, etc… If we build up on this fairly slowly, we can get to fairly complex actions where the student is responding to patterns that they see rather than just doing what I tell them to.

  • Probably not? The key thing is keeping skill development in its context, which is not to say to move beyond foundational things. This doesn’t mean to focus on basics or not, but to build skills and knowledge that will not be inert– I may know what to do, but I also need to be able to do it when called upon.

    I find that the gap is well covered by antagonistic drilling, wherein the outcomes are not determined as in a drill, but the complexity of the exchange is not open as it is when sparring.

    One of my favorite early drills was simple:

    Teacher: feint on the inside, then lunge or cavazion to strike.
    Student: Parry/riposte, stesso tempo lunge, or contracavazione to strike.

    The student has the pressure of someone trying to hit them, but not ALSO worrying about being hit in the legs. The teacher feints, and then chooses how to try and beat the defense; the student learns to read the feint and respond.

    It’s totally a drill, but it establishes judgment. It is also very, very easy to build other versions of this until the “drill” is nearly indistinguishable from a fight.

    Teacher: Find on the inside or outside, feint and lunge or cavazione to strike, ricavazione if able, void any counters.

    That decision tree is all contingent on what the student does, and the student should have a known response to *attempt* at each of those stages. If they include some measure control, there is very, very little that should seem terribly different from sparring with limited targeting.

    If I were training people to compete in a specific tournament, I would probably limit their training to basic actions, but make sure those actions were done automatically. This would be counterproductive to well-roundedness, but being well-rounded and being able to handle complex situations is not an early kind of skill: it’s a more expert ability. I would work on limited skills, and strategize in the direction of constraining the fight to contexts for those skills.

    • Ruairc

      This describes pretty well what I’m doing. Once the pair drills have a certain level of complexity or antagonism and the student continues to perform well, I know it’s time to promote them to the next level. Given this particular student’s idiosyncrasies, I think I may introduce sparring on an every-other-week schedule and ease into it. We can’t afford to develop bad habits at this point.

      The tournament is rapier & dagger, which means there’s more stuff to cover. But yeah, we’re definitely shelving or deemphasizing a lot of the stuff that’s not super useful with dagger. Not least because my own knowledge of dagger is considerably less developed.

      Primary learning objectives are to have clean dagger parries + single-time ripostes against cuts and thrusts; feints to defeat the same; knowing how to free the sword when it is found on the dagger (mutation to sesta); and being able to transition smoothly to second-intention dagger shivs or cuts with the sword when appropriate. If this all goes faster than I anticipate, we may throw in invitations, oblique footwork, or finding with the dagger. There will be regular sparring with concrete objectives throughout to promote stress-tested technique as well as tactical and strategic thinking. I’ll be encouraging him to get out to SCA stuff, too.

      Having done sword alone exclusively for the last two years, I’ll be training the same.

      • What are the rules? What are you focusing on?

        • Ruairc

          3 points for a thrust to a kill target. Everything else is 1 point. First to 12 or best after 90 sec. More than three double hits gets the winner a significant penalty for the next round. Judged.

          My focus will likely be similar to what I’m teaching, although I’ve thought about branching out into Giganti for elaboration. I’ll try to keep my sword-alone skills sharp, since they may come in handy—particularly against the very light “rapiers” that are so popular these days.

          • To be clear, I think your methodologies as you describe them are sound in practice. Some of the paths to get there appear very far off the beaten path, but the actual classes themselves sound good. I would like to check it out at some point.

            With that ruleset, I would focus entirely on ring-cutting footwork to keep the fight on the outside line where the daggers can be mostly ignored. By turning the fight into a sword-alone style, you’ll be taking away almost every opponent’s comfort zone and frustrating them into overextending to use their daggers. The half-cavazione into seconda from an outside invitation in terza, or the passing step outside quarta, targeting the serratus anterior or sternocostal head of the pectoralis major, respectively. Follow up each attack with a cut to the lead leg and continue forward at a 45 degree angle.



            The “dart.”

            Versus a southpaw, you cut to your outside to keep their lead foot on the inside of yours, and their sword on the inside of your quarta. Girata of the left foot as a follow-up to a lunge, instead of following up with a pass, then a cut to the arm.

            Visually, this will look good for the judges as well. It has the appeal of a “walk away” knockout.

            With a 90 second timeframe and a limit of 12 (4 hits in 90 seconds, ha!) expect everyone to come forward and to chase. I wouldn’t even bother with entry steps at all.

          • Ruairc

            Good analysis. HEMAists tend to be very come-forward-and-chase in general, perhaps because they fight under ridiculous time limits like these. I’ll need to tighten up my retreats, especially the oblique variety. Recent high-speed video has revealed some issues there.

            I was strongly considering the sword-alone outside-line approach—and the fact that you also saw this as a good option gives me confidence that it’s worth training. Your elaborations (the follow-up cuts out of CF) will be very helpful. Don’t know if I would have picked up on those. I still have the nasty SCA habit of stopping after the first hit, not just in practice but in thought.

            Structurally, this will require I shore up a couple* weaknesses that I’ve been working on for the last month. So “keep doing what you’re doing.” God, I hate the obturators and gemellus. I hate them so much.

            I *do* want a backup plan for That Guy who doesn’t fit the mold, and I think it’s probably a good idea to be comfortable with one dagger-forward guard. Either sesta or the wedge of doom, and sesta seems more similar structurally.

            The biggest issue I’ll have to overcome is a lack of easily available training against opponents of similar skill, since I can’t make the weekly SCA practice. Recent sparring showed a lot of “good technique, reduced ability to read the tactical situation”, or being reduced to purely defensive actions against the second intention because I can’t keep up. I’ve been pushing for a couple extra practices, and I’m confident they’ll materialize, but I’ll need to get a LOT of repetition in beforehand so I can focus purely on the application.

            *Actually seven, individually inconsequential, but the sum total of which is “I can’t land outside lunges that I should be able to land”. I’ve been planning a post about these and how I came to identify them. Might happen.

  • Once the weather is better we can coordinate something some weekend. Bring the gang; I’m close enough to daytrip to WMH. I’m confident I can reduce the number of things to work on to something manageable.

    My hips have been in bad shape for ages, going back to 12 years old. They’re not that important. 😉

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