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Fencing Thoughts: posts originally from my Facebook page

Posted by lowendr on January 18, 2015 at 5:40 PM

 One of the big frustrations and reasons people start and then quit fencing is because they have unrealistic expectations of themselves. You must learn and remind yourself there are four stages to mastery of anything:

 Unconscious incompetence (Bruce Lee said this stage was 'natural' and even 'primitive,' instinct-driven behavior)

Conscious incompetence (this stage is where you begin real training and practice; you're still trying to get all the move and ideas.)

Conscious competence (at this point you've trained so much that you have learned pretty much all you can)

Unconscious competence (this is the fabled stage some call "Artlessness" where you have so assimilated your knowledge that it is an unconscious part of you, and you execute and embody perfection without appearing to even try. You return to a new 'natural' state, the state of Mastery.

 On the path to mastery of anything, I agree with this statement: Greatness comes not from advanced techniques, but rather from an understanding of the fundamentals at a deep level. The fundamentals for fencing, of course, are form, fitness, timing, distance control, and strategy.

 Your automatic responses are knee-jerk reactions that must be completely tamed and brought under your conscious control, until you have trained them so well that you no longer need to consciously control them. You are now NOT being "automatic", no matter how fast and fluidly you appear to move.

 Think of it like this: imagine your body is a horse, and your brain is the jockey. When does the jockey rein in the horse, when does he let it run? When does he lean left or right, and how does that help the horse run faster? When you begin to simplify because you now understand what is meant by the phrase,"only what is needed, no more, no less", you are on the road to mastery.

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Fencing thought of the day: Keep your Tip up! If your weapon is not always in front of your opponent's target all the time, ready to strike, you could miss a lot of easy opportunities to score.

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Fencing thought of the day: Footwork is essential to conditioning and strategy. Fleetness, light-footed, twinkle toes...lots of analogies to dance, particularly ballet. You can think of fencing as a dance of sorts, and many an author has likened the duel to a "dance to the death" and romanticized the event, but serious footwork is the reason you can deliver a serious attack, or mount a serious defense. If the bladework fails you, your footwork can still deliver you from harm. Strategic retreats happen all the time in fencing, if only to give a few seconds to breathe and think about your next moves.

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Fencing thought of the day: the Flash has the super power of amazing speed, but time and again the drama comes from his struggle to figure out how to use his speed to his advantage and not his detriment. In Fencing as well, if you're a super athlete and have great speed you will also need that much greater control in order to use it to your advantage. Speed is great, but at the expense of control it will never win consistently. The opponent who possesses speed WITH control will always prevail over the merely fast.

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Fencing thought of the day: to be effective, you must develop a balance between having a keen general awareness of space, distance, and timing alongside a sharp intensity of focus. It's really two kinds of awareness that need to happen at the same time. One can begin to understand how this is done by trying this exercise: read something while listening to music and try to open yourself to taking in both. I use that wording as a hint. Since it is nearly impossible to make conscious focus NOT take the center of your awareness, you must learn to pass off your awareness management of the space, distance, and timing to your subconscious mind, in effect making this data an automatic and high-priority input to your brain, just below your vision, autonomic reflexes, and strategic intent.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: it is some peculiar measure of Man, to know the extent to which they refined and perfected the art of poking someone with a stick.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: Where does Mastery come from? A lot of people know the old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!" but they still refuse to acknowledge the truth--boring and repetitious actions may not be fun, but it's the only way we know of to program the muscles and nerves to do what you want them to do quickly and with precision, over and over. You must practice moves until they become unthinking correct reactions. Then, after your muscles know WHAT and HOW to do something, your brain can begin controlling the WHEN based on the WHY.

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 Fencing thought of the day: It's sometimes daunting to think how complex this game of poking each other with sharpened sticks has become. Humans have a gift (curse?) for analyzing and improving things. Swordplay, after centuries of practice and analysis and refinement, had become an Art. From poking each other with sticks to a sublime mental and physical high-speed chess game. That's what Humans do--elevate the plain, the simple, the prosaic, until it becomes Art. In the pursuit of Art, you don't worry about complexity, because it's part of the turf, and in the hands of the Artist, everything looks and seems simple.

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 Fencing thought of the day: When attacking, take one step further than you thought you should have--success requires more than minimal commitment. Also, safety comes first, so when retreating, do likewise.

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 Fencing thought of the day: it is a cliche to say that the weapon is yourself, or only an extension of yourself. But it is true to say that your body and mind attain mastery of the weapon only when deep understanding of it's strength and weaknesses become equal to deep understanding of your own. The weapon is not you, but it is a very accurate mirror of you.

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 Fencing thought of the day: when this sport was first established, the high degree of courtesy towards your opponent was felt to be a necessity; the more brutal the sport, the kinder you must be when the time for sport is over. Unfortunately this has not been the way in the world at large. Gentlemen and gentlewomen understand.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: When someone tells you to relax, do you understand how to do it? A paradoxical truth in martial arts is that the greatest speed and the most control come from a place where the mind and body are relaxed. It's simple physics--if you are tensed your muscles are typically aligned towards only one direction of motion. If your opponent does something unexpected and you are aligned the wrong way, you'll have to waste precious milliseconds re-aligning to the correct response, and most likely you'll be too late. It's simply momentum--you have stored kinetic energy you can release in practically any direction, but if you start in the wrong direction you'll have to put on the brakes and re-route yourself, and that takes too long. On the other hand, if you can manage to always begin in a relaxed way then your body is "expecting" no special direction, even though your mind is analyzing all the time, and when the time comes to commit to a direction, your odds of responding with the right reaction increase.

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 Fencing thought of the day: your most dangerous opponent is yourself, but you have one advantage over this opponent--you know their mind, and you know their knee-jerk reactions. You must learn to control your knee-jerk reactions, because they are the weakest link in your defenses. Your process is one of unlearning the "wrong" (e.g. un-fencer-like) reactions, and learning to control the right ones so well that when things happen too fast to form strategies, as they so often do in a bout, you know your body can take over and at least defend you properly.

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 Fencing thought of the day: there are many people that are essentially non-aggressive types, and thank goodness there are, and that they are not all children. In this sport being aggressive is a requirement in order to win, but even in my anachronistic and arguably barbarian game it is understood that there is a line where aggressiveness turns into bad sportsmanship. I wish things were so clear cut in the real world.

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 Fencing thought of the day: Deception, when considered as a tool of self-defense, can be extremely effective, but you have to be very convincing. In our sport, the feint of an attack must look identical to an actual attack, or it will not provoke the opponent into making the move you want them to make in order to fall into your trap. We consider deception to be a bad thing, but strategy sees it otherwise: the only bad deception is the one we can't make you fall for, from the would-be deceiver. Of course, if you've been successfully deceived the reason it makes you so mad is because you KNEW you shouldn't have fallen for it, and therefore you were a party to your own demise.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: Reading your opponent's body language for intent to attack is not enough. You must look for their weaknesses and their strengths. Part of your strategy that should be nearly automatic is exploiting those weaknesses and evading/nullifying their strengths. Fencers often make an analogy with Chess, and in this aspect they are exactly alike. The thing is, of course, that the better fencers hide their intentions (although it's the "point" of the game, excuse the pun) and fencers learn to hide the rest as long as possible too. Thus the value of taking a minute to recon your opponent before attacking. The evaluation of an opponent's martial abilities and limitations often calls for an intense scrutiny of their every physical tic, mannerism, posture, balance, and movement. You examine all they do, see what's dangerous to stay away from, see what you might take advantage of, and you file it in your mind. Then, when blades actually engage, you have some criteria for your reactive mind to draw upon for advantage and security. You must train your mind to recognize subtle clues that can help you in your effort to prevail.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: instead of trying to recapture youth and inevitably failing, enjoy the occasional moment of redemption. Today I bouted at Epee with a young man at the club and he was 17 and fast and pretty good, so I think I only got him maybe once for every 4 times he got me. I kept falling about two inches short even though I got a few in. After, tired out and feeling very old, I sat down and I was trying to avoid visibly sulking or feeling bummed when one of the parents of some student walked up to me and said "you were SO fast out there, me and my kid really enjoyed watching you fence with so-and-so, and give him such a hard bout." Well...I didn't get as many touches, but I guess they must've looked good? Anyway, a pretty good session today!

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: Reduction ad Absurdium? If you reduce the sum total of peace versus war enough, you can perhaps entertain the metaphor of driving versus fencing? In driving you are taught (or should be taught!) that in order to AVOID MAYHEM you should adopt a strategy of yielding to everyone, because according to the law, no one save emergency vehicles have RIGHT OF WAY on the road. In fencing, as in all martial arts, the objective is to TAKE the right-of-way. Martial arts make no distinction between the yielder and the taker, except in as much as to assume that the taker is the position all would want, because that is traditional. We say "winner take all." But what if taking all from your opponent is the way in which you may also rob yourself of Moral Victory?

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 Fencing thought of the day: See yourself through your opponent's eyes. What do they see when they look at you? What does your En Garde position give away? What openings are you showing? Where do you look weak? Where do you look strong? Take this to the next level--reverse the principal, and ask yourself if there are ways in which you can take these "tells" and use them as subterfuge, 2nd intention, and bait for traps! See yourself through your opponent's eyes, and know that eyes can be tricked!

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 Fencing thought of the day: everyone's lives have challenges, and so, as in so many capacities, the human mind draws analogies sometimes between life and the realities of the bout. Life doesn't really reduce like that, but its challenges may be met with much the same self-cheerleading you'd do for yourself before and during a tournament. As in life, you are given a series of challenges you must pass or fail in order to move on. Each challenge is a separate event, deserving it's own unique focus from you. Each challenge, whether you see it now or not, has a beginning, middle, and end-game you must negotiate successfully. Each separate engagement has things to teach you. And each next, should you inevitably/statistically fail one or two along the way, is not nearly as important as your overall average success rate.

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Fencing thought of the day: musculo-skeletal self control comes to no one overnight. You don't know how to drive your body nearly as well as you can drive your car, and there's a good reason for that--your car is stupid simple compared to the range of what a finely tuned and well-controlled body can do in terms of precision, force, and agility. In order to learn to move and use such a complex device as a human body, you're probably talking about a few years worth of work on that alone, just to get to the point where your body can do what you need it to do. In Fencing, as in Dance or Music, the ultimate goal is not just to learn a particular dialect in the language of the Body, it is to learn to speak it so fluently and beautifully that it becomes Art.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: Preparation is 90% or more of everything we humans do. In the sport of Fencing, you cannot spend more than an instant preparing your attack--it is too easy to be counterattacked in the middle of even a half second delay. You must reconnoiter your opponent thoroughly, base your strategy on this data, and then visualize your attacks and what you'll do if things go wrong. And they always go wrong. You must remember that the victory often goes to the first to recover from a fall.

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 Fencing Thought of the day: while observing and judging at a junior tournament today I was struck by similarities in the way one learns to fence with the way one learns to read, write, and use words. This is not an original idea of mine; historical fencing books speak of the melee as being a "conversation of the blades" made up of various combinations of fencing moves that are executed in "phrases." In such context, most of the kids were still learning how to "draw letters" and the ones that won were advanced enough to "make words." The advanced fencer can make "complete sentences" and the pros and the rare prodigy "write poetry." All craft takes this route, as skill is acquired. The longer they practice the craft, the fencer/writer's ability gets better, clearer, more direct, focused, and economical.

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 Fencing thought of the day: Precision in action is all about having economy of motion during your correctly executed moves. Only do what is required to be effective, no more and no less. What you are attempting to perfect is simply control over your own bones and muscles. To get them to do what you want them to do, basically. It's only hard and only takes training when it is something out of the ordinary that must be done precisely, usually at some speed. Learn to correctly "wax on, wax off," and then repeat a thousand times until it becomes nearly effortless. Until you can do it consistently perfectly on command without thinking about how to do it. This is the only secret to Mastery.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: I just read a short scholarly paper on the Kinematics of the Fencing Lunge. The summary conclusion of the research was that if you incline your center of gravity 6 cm to the anterior, you can decrease the weight on your back leg just enough to make your lunge a bit faster, whereas if you don't you will have a slightly slower, yet longer lunge.

It occurs to me that the Fencing Instructor should teach BOTH these variants, as they are obviously both tactically useful.

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 Fencing Thought of the Day: are you uncoordinated? Remember how embarrassing it felt to just occasionally be spastic and sometimes fall or otherwise nearly injure yourself? Humiliated, we avoided trying THAT again! And that is how we lost some very lovely and meaningful experience, and learned something wonderful. I could be speaking about skateboarding, or ballet, or fencing, or a whole bunch of other disciplines, because they all share this in common: a willingness on the part of the students to ENDURE the normal pains associated with the slow gaining of Mastery. Bumps, bruises, contusions, etc., that's all part of the package. Do we seek out pain? No, of course not. But it is important to acknowledge that pain can be a very good teacher all by itself, and that there is much that can be learned from such brushes with reality.


 

 

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