Drills, Sparring, and the Happy Path

The other day I became engaged in a conversation about why there seems to be a reasonably large population of fencers who study the manuals diligently, but later struggle to perform against opponents who are actively resisting them. I recall some years back being told that I “shouldn’t exist” because that person’s experience with historical fencers were people who had good form and mechanics, lost most of their fights, and then made excuses about how their opponent didn’t “fence right.” My contention has always been that historical fencing works as is, but the fencer needs to be able to apply the theory contained therein.

Upon revisiting this topic, I recalled an older article I wrote a few years ago about the benefits of specialization: http://www.weeklywarfare.net/?p=2740 In it, my premise is that becoming really good at a few things is a great strategy if you can also become really good at setting those things up and preventing anything else from happening. It occurred to me that what I’m essentially describing there is a “happy path” test, where you’re going through the process of what happens when everything goes right. Plates are happy path demonstrations, as are most drills: they show you what happens when everything goes your way– but, as the fencers mentioned above discovered, they don’t prepare you for the unexpected and they may not prepare you to control a fight well enough to funnel your opponent down your happy path.

The superior fencer is often the one who can accumulate enough advantages through line, measure, and position that the opponent’s next move is predictable to a small number of actions, each of which can be planned for and responded to. Achieving this sort of advantage is often referring to as being in control of the fight– a skill that takes time to develop, and can be built through intentional practice.

Solo Drills:

Solo drills, as their name implies, are drills that you do by yourself (or under the watchful eye of your instructor). They are generally simple in nature and involve no more than a few steps. An example of solo drilling would be practicing the arm extension, lean, step, and recovery of a lunge, or practicing disengages around a doorknob. Good solo drills have set parameters, a clearly defined condition for success, and no surprises or stressors.

Solo drills have three major objectives, in order of priority (overlaps exist; don’t get caught up on seeking needless precision):

  1. Mechanics: The main reason to do a solo drill is to move your body correctly. Since there are no barriers impeding you, this is an ideal time to strive for perfection (within reason; heuristics often win out in real life).
  2. Consistency: It is also important to work on performing the action in more or less the same way each time. This ranks as less important than mechanics simply because you can perform an action consistently, but also poorly. That’s how knees get injured. Consistency warrants its own discussion, though, because one of the major reasons even experienced fencers still do solo drills is because they are working to ensure that their good mechanics are present under stress. The adage of “Do it until you get it right, and then do it until you can’t get it wrong” applies here.
  3. Effectiveness: It may seem odd to put effectiveness last on the list, but what I mean here is that in a solo drill, it is far more important to perform the action correctly and consistently. Adding effectiveness is usually the part to come last, with speed or other violent intent. You cannot maximize your effectiveness if you lack consistent and correct mechanics.

Solo drilling prepares you to perform actions, but it does not build your capacity to fight effectively.

Partnered Drills:

For the purposes of this writing, partnered drills should be thought of as drills wherein a set sequence of actions are performed at various speeds: the agent acts, the patient responds, and so on down the line until the sequence is finished. They can be relatively complicated in nature, and most plates from fencing manuals describe something that can be performed as a partnered drill. If the agent performs a feint, draws a parry, and then completes a cavazione to strike (and nothing else ever happens), it’s a partnered drill. If the agent finds the patient’s sword and lunges (and nothing else ever happens), it’s a partnered drill. Good partnered drills have a clear desired outcome, a set path to accomplish that outcome, and no surprises. Stressors exist because tempo may become relevant depending on the drill, and it is now possible to commit errors in more substantial and apparent ways.

Partnered drills have four major objectives, in order of priority (debateable, but I wrote this and you did not):

  1. Conditional reflex: The number one purpose for partnered drilling is to establish a reflexive connection between a situation and a response to that situation. Ultimately, there may be many different appropriate responses to a set of circumstances in a competitive fight, and it is less important that you perform a specific one of them when compared to the supreme importance that you attempt any of them. You are learning when to take action as much as which actions to take.
  2. Effectiveness: Even if your action contains errors or significant areas for improvement, hit and don’t be hit. If it’s helpful, build in an additional strike to follow up in case your first attack misses or fails.
  3. Consistency: Mechanics become rolled into consistency here because there are now enough variables that performing identical mechanics each time is very unlikely, but consistently performing within an acceptable margin of error is very possible. A few degrees of angle in the opponent’s sword will change your mechanics slightly, but the resulting action shouldn’t be more divergent than is necessary to accomplish the same goal. Judging tempi correctly is also a tremendously important skill and a vital part of consistent outcomes.
  4. Efficiency: Here, efficiency means putting in the minimal amount of effort needed to accomplish your goal. A smaller cavazione is better than a larger cavazione, provided the cavazione still works. A faster lunge is better than a slower one, and once you have reached your natural limits on muscle contraction, efficiency of movement is your best path forward to increased speed.

Partnered drilling teaches you what actions to take during the “happy path,” when everything goes exactly according to plan. This is extremely useful for developing theoretical knowledge, beginning contextual responses, developing muscle memory, and building a framework for later information processing, but can only prepare you as a fighter for opponents who are not only limited in their approach, but who are limited in the particular ways you want them to be limited.

Antagonistic Drills:

Antagonistic drills can be one of two kinds: some antagonistic drills are a simple if/then statement (e.g. if you find my sword and lunge, you will hit me, and if you don’t find my sword, I will hit you with a stop thrust), and some are decision trees (e.g. you feint, I react with a parry or I don’t react; if I parry, you cavazione and strike; if I don’t react, you lunge to strike; in either case I will attempt a stop thrust, so be sure to find my sword and close the line as you attack). Typically, decision trees don’t go past three steps because of the limits of space before anything further is either a reset or a grapple. Good antagonistic drills have clear outcomes, active resistance, no surprises (the decision tree has no unknown branches), and as much stress as possible. A sufficiently complex antagonistic drill bears a strong resemblance to sparring, and failure here likely means that you get hit.

Antagonistic drills have five main objectives, in order of priority (caveats apply, but only sometimes):

  1. Reading: The first and most important skill developed in antagonistic drilling is the ability to read the opponent and to make predictions about their likely responses based on subtle cues. These cues may not even be articulable at first, but over time a fencer will ideally be able to identify with hints led them to expect particular choices.
  2. Judgment: This has to do with evaluating measure, tempi, and learning what your limitations and capacities are in given contexts. Judgment, here, is found in knowing what is possible and what isn’t. It’s better to be able to read an opponent to see when they will attack, but judgment is how you know what attacks are possible and whether or not you can parry, or need to retreat.
  3. Effectiveness: Hit and don’t be hit, even if it’s not mechanically ideal. If you are doing an antagonistic drill at full speed, if your action works as intended it can’t have been that wrong.
  4. Consistency: The more ingrained your reflexes are, the more you will move toward particular sets of actions for given contexts that work best for you and are most comfortable. You will begin to build a suite of attacks and defenses, and go to that well more and more often.
  5. Efficiency: Once you have identified your consistent (and hopefully effective) actions, making them work better can begin in earnest. I don’t think it’s fruitful to worry about optimizing actions that you aren’t generally drawn to under pressure, so this ranks last.

Antagonistic drilling is as stressful for you as the happy path can be, but it still lacks the unexpected. Antagonistic drilling at a high level can often result in people who perform very well against skilled, orthodox fencers, but then struggle disproportionately versus sloppier or more unorthodox opponents.


Sparring is largely unpredictable and its main purpose is to explore what happens off the happy path. If everyone always fought in a textbook manner, antagonistic drilling would suffice, as it would cover all needed bases and could eventually contain all possible “expected” actions. Sparring is essentially using the sum total of your skillset to achieve victory. Good sparring allows you to experiment freely versus a resisting opponent, and often has far more stress than any kind of drilling.

Sparring has four main goals, prioritized in the following order (fight me if you disagree):

  1. Effectiveness: Hit, and don’t be hit. Your opponent is doing all they can to hit you and not be hit. See what works for you and what doesn’t, and adjust your practice accordingly. Here, effectiveness involves consistency, judgment, efficiency, etc., but winning ugly is still winning. Win.
  2. Learning deviations: Freely acting opponents will do unexpected things in unusual ways, and sparring is when to learn what those might be and how best to respond to them. Few drills cover truly chaotic moments, and sparring will create plenty of them.
  3. Skill focus: Working on a very specific thing in sparring means that you are developing and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t for a particular action or skill. An example of this might be working on counterpostures: in this case, it doesn’t matter if you are hit or not, so long as you are never hit by a single intention. Similarly, you might be inviting to the inside line to then perform girata (which will likely mean getting hit a lot on the inside line at first!).
  4. Funneling: When people talk about taking control of a fight or seizing initiative, they are often talking about what can be described as funneling an opponent towards a happy path from drilling. Invitations, feints, footwork, measure control: all of these things are essentially attempts to manipulate your opponent into acting in a way that you have a planned response for. You remove their options until the fight resembles something you have drilled, and then, for a moment, the fight functions just like whatever drill it was you’ve funneled them toward. This is the hardest thing to do well, as your opponent is always resisting you, and so while it represents a very skillful fight, it is much less important to achieve than a baseline of effectiveness.

Sparring is where you put everything together to eventually become an artful fencer in practical application, combining theory with reality into action. Sparring can build your battle computer better than drilling can, but sparring at the expense of drilling comes at the cost of everything that drilling provides and places substantial limits on your skill potential. This article http://www.weeklywarfare.net/?p=3364 may be a useful supplement.

As a brief aside, and one that I think must be included in this discussion for the sake of completeness: fencing is a sport, and none of the above will grant you any considerable benefit unless you make yourself into an athlete. Your body absolutely must have the capacity to perform the actions your brain knows to do, or your training will leave you frustrated. You need not be a marathoning bodybuilder, but you need to have a sufficient fitness level to control your body as it moves through these actions at the speed necessary for them to be effective against a resisting opponent.

Now that you’ve seen these different types of practice and know their values and limits, it is up to you to apply them. Using self-evaluation and external criticism, you will be able to determine which areas you need to work on based on what you can do well and what you struggle with. You’re going to be better at the things you do more often, and weaker at what you’ve practiced less. It will also help to learn as much about fencing as you can, as building physical capacity is much more readily done if you have a framework of information and a lexicon to use. As I wrote about in this article, http://www.weeklywarfare.net/?p=3622 , deficits in any area have repercussions elsewhere that often cannot be fully overcome.

If you need to drill, drill. If you need to fight, fight. If your best fight is a sloppy brawl, get really good at sloppy brawls, get really good at turning fights into sloppy brawls, and then drag your opponent out into the deep waters and drown them in your fight.

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