Hi I'm Henry Walker. I'm a Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern.
Have you ever been in a class performing a drill and a person states that they could counter the action that you are doing with another? How about, that the drill that they are doing is artificial and does not relate to combat? What has happened here is that the person who has made these statements is probably true on the first, and is definitely true on the second, and it is because drills are not combat.
Drills are related to combat in that they will teach you the skills that you will use in combat. They will teach you the individual skills not how they should be used in combat. If you approach your combats the same way as you approach your drill expecting that your opponent is going to give you the cues and exact attacks given in a drill, you are going to be sadly mistaken.
A thrust and parry drill teaches one partner how to thrust properly, and one partner how to parry properly. It teaches the each partner the bare mechanics of one action and the timing of the action of the parry. Nothing more. Then they swap and they get to drill the other action and learn it. This is not combat.
Even when the drills become more complex, it is still not combat. In the drill: one thrusts; the other parries, binds, steps in and cuts and then moves off to a safe position on guard. There are several actions in this drill. It is not combat because the opponent does not respond to the bind, nor the stepping in, nor the cut. Even when the counter is added to the drill, it is still not combat. It is a drill with a responsive element. It teaches the student how to close and cut, and also how to respond to an opponent who does the same.
Drills are artificial and they often do not relate to combat because they take skills in isolation and focus on them so the students can learn them. Drills are designed to take a skill or a set of skills and work on these particular skills without the involvement of others in particular, or at all in some cases. There are drills which do not use footwork, something which is mostly essential in combat for the fencer to survive. There are drills in which one partner only defends, something that is not likely to happen in combat. Drills are artificial and they are supposed to be, they are skill-focussed.
The next time that you are drilling remember to focus on what's being worked on at that point in time. There is no point in worrying about how it relates to other things, your trainer will get around to showing you how it all fits together. Drills are designed to put a particular skill or skills in a situation where they can be focussed on and used over and over. This is so that the skill can be learnt. This is the purpose of drills, for learning. Combat is a different thing altogether. Cheers, Henry.
The following is the third and final part of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as this and is preceding parts are quite long. This was the only way for the appropriate information to be included in the document as a whole, and to not drag it out into more parts. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is presented with more detail and new evidence.
Speed in Fencing
In fencing there are a lot of comments made about the speed of fencers; how fast they move, how fast their actions are, and so forth. The problem is that this becomes the focus and speed becomes overestimated in its worth to the fencer. Speed is only one attribute that a fencer would find an advantage possessing, but it is not the ultimate.
“While many fencers believe that speed is the most significant factor in a fencer’s makeup, this is not the case. To be sure, speed can be useful, but it is, in fact, subordinate to both timing and distance. ... A fencer who has taken the time to develop both timing and distance can easily take a “fast” fencer apart.” (Evangelista, 1996:165)
Speed is tertiary to the ability to control Time and Distance, and accuracy. If you cannot control the Time or timing of the bout, then the opponent will not allow you the time to strike them; if you cannot control the Distance of the bout, you will always be too close or too to strike the opponent; if you are not accurate, you will not strike your opponent even if you have the opportunity to. Develop the essential principles and how they apply and accuracy not only of your point and edge, but also in your actions as they will affect the principles by which all fencing is governed.
“A fencer who has been fencing for a longer period of time has practiced his actions a lot more than a newer one, thus they are closer to being locked in thus they are more automatic. Thus the more experienced fencer will seem faster when using these skills which have been practiced.” (Walker, 2019:281)
The experienced fencer has practiced more, thus they have more of their skills as neural pathways, thus they have to think less about what they are doing, thus they have time to plan what they are doing, and not just worry about what is in front of them. True speed in fencing comes from efficiency of motion. An experienced fencer has had the time to refine their skills and remove excess motions so their actions are more efficient. While some are also more physically adept, and developed due to fencing, this is not always the case. Simply adding muscle, power, strength and speed will not help.
“When people do that — add speed to mediocre technique — they just get more mediocre results. It's like the sign that says, "Drink coffee ... make more mistakes faster and with more energy!"” (Ox, 2016)
Accuracy of technique is always more important than speed. This should always be the focus of training. The fencer should always focus on getting their skills accurate and developing form before ever worrying about speed or strength. Adding these in too early will develop bad form. Speed in training may hide issues, but these same issues will cause the student problems later on. Caile (2017) addresses the same problem with regard to the Oriental martial arts.
“Fast, however, also can hide a lot of problems – especially bad technique. ... Too often, there are poor biomechanics ... things that can dramatically reduce power and efficiency.” (Caile, 2017)
Poor biomechanics are a real issue as they can not only lead to ineffectiveness in technique but this can also lead to strain on muscles and joints and future injury. Slow practice allows for the correction of issues thus the chance to prevent some possible future issues. Such correction should always been seen as adding rather than subtracting from the experience. Speed in training used to cover bad habits is not an ally.
“Fencing for the most part is a quick, energetic form of combat or sport, depending on what your weapon is. This means that the actions are quick and precise, and responses to actions are likewise. With this in mind, for some, it will be difficult to understand how practicing actions slowly will help them progress when in the end they are going to have to perform the same actions at speed. This is something which you will find will come from the greener students for the most part, but some advanced students as well.” (Walker, 2019:278)
The above appears as the second paragraph of my previous article on the subject of slow training, which can be found in A Fencer’s Ramblings (2019). That discussion was much shorter and designed to introduce people to the idea of learning through slow movement training, and all that can be learnt. This investigation is obviously much more in-depth, but the same issues still apply. There are those who do not understand the advantages of slow training and who believe that once a skill is learnt, then slow training is no longer required. This is evidently not the case as such slow training is used by high-level athletes in their regular training; it is a faster way to high-level skill presentation.
The Faster Way
“One of the most powerful training techniques for building high-quality speed was "slow training." It still works for Olympians, and it has been proven incredibly effective for martial arts (think Bruce Lee) and firearms training as well.” (Ox, 2016)
With such a lot of high-level athletes supporting the idea of slow training, it is surprising that there is so little knowledge about it and support for it in the swordplay communities. The broad spectrum of activities should be noted which were mentioned which use this method for training. In these situations, the development of perfect form and functions of skills is of great importance. Ox (2016) further describes the process in which such slow training was used.
“They developed and perfected their form at a much slower pace, and then speed came naturally. Ideally, they practiced at a speed that allowed them to do the same motion with perfect efficiency and form — exactly the same way, every time — until it became automatic and required no conscious thought to do.” (Ox, 2016)
When an action, or a series of actions is practiced at a slow pace, corrections can be made easily so the action can be corrected, thus less practice is wasted practicing the wrong thing. The athlete can then more easily practice the correct actions with accuracy knowing all of the elements involved, so every time that they practice the neural pathways are built more quickly and stronger than if they had been performed at speed. Fencing actions are no different.
“You might be thinking combat skills are different. They're not. In fact, the faster you intend to execute a given skill and the more stress you think you might be under when you execute it, the more critical it is that you practice slowly.” (Ox, 2016)
Each extra element which is heaped upon the skill adds a level of interference. The faster the skill is required, the faster the muscles are going to be pushed, the more accurate the skill must be practiced. When there is more stress in the situation there is going to be more pressure to perform the skill at exactly the right moment, which will affect how the skill is performed. All of these factors will affect the skill. Only a skill which has been practiced properly will achieve its goal.
While it would seem the opposite, slow training is the way to get faster, as frustrating as it is. “I know slow practice is frustrating and tortuous, but it really is the fastest way to get to a high level.” (Icasas, 2015). Slow training trains for precision in the skill and eventually that skill will have been practiced so that conscious effort is not required, it will just happen in response to stimulus. Pushing for speed rather than slowing down and being accurate will allow inaccuracies into your skills, “but slow training will help you get to the level of performance you want to achieve faster than always trying to push your speed.” (Ox, 2016). Simply because slow training is precise, slow training is practice for perfect, and perfect practice makes perfect.
“When learning new physical skills the mind works to automatically integrate them into a learned vocabulary of automated body movements. But if you learn technique too fast, the technique will likely be sloppy and imperfect. If you practice very slowly, you can concentrate, breaking each technique down into its individual parts.” (Caile, 2017)
Many try to cover bad form with speed. This is not just the case with fencing and swordplay, but also the same for other activities. Bad form means bad technique and this usually comes from practicing the technique too fast in its initial stage when the skill has not been learnt properly. Slowing down allows the skill to be learnt properly and practiced properly. Speed is a product of efficiency and proper form, thus it is something that will come later with practice.
Form First, Speed Second
“In the beginning, an aspiring fencer should focus on form rather than quickness. To try fencing with the alacrity of D’Artagnan before you are ready for it only confuses matters. When you have a solid grasp of what you are doing, when you can get your blade to go where you want it to go, then, and only then, add speed.” (Evangelista, 1996:165)
There is little point having speed if you cannot hit what you want to hit. Accuracy is always more important than speed. Accuracy comes from having proper form as it is form which places the body in the correct position to allow accuracy to occur. This is expressed in the variation in foot position and its effect on the thrust. Slowing down allows you to focus on getting things right so that you are in control of the actions. Focus on the skills that you are practicing.
“That’s why “slow” should be part of every practice. What this means is that you should practice various techniques very, very slowly, while intensely focusing on what and how you are doing it, paying attention to correct biomechanics, balance and form to try to eliminate any errors of technique.” (Caile, 2017)
Practicing slowly allows you to feel every movement of your body and to feel what the technique feels like. If you are wobbly in your technique, then it is likely that your feet or body are not in the correct position. Check the position of your hand; this will affect the position of the blade, by extension check the position of your arm and shoulder. These things can all be achieved at slow speed because you have the time to feel it. Work on one technique at a time.
“Master each technique slowly and carefully, without rushing or being rushed, and you’ll be fine. If your instructor, director and/or partner try to rush you, and you are not ready to move on, say “No!” and stay at slow motion until you are secure. You will be happier in the long run for doing that, and possibly healthier too.” (Girard, 1997:5)
Girard (1997) is discussing in the context of actors and techniques for stage choreography and choreographed fights. The same applies. Do not move on to moving more quickly with your practice of a technique until you are comfortable with it. Ensure that you can perform the technique properly and with the minimum of errors possible, stay at slow speed until you can. Only then should you speed up, “With slow training, the focus is on how many perfect reps you can do in a row, not how quickly you speed up.” (Ox, 2016). Precision in action is the aim of practice as there is no point in practicing something which is not accurate, as it will just have to be repeated with the correct action later on.
“Always start slowly, correctly and precisely. Ensure that your fundamentals are correct before worrying about speed and power. If you follow this advice, you will have a higher chance of developing correct historical fencing technique without injuring yourself.” (Farrell, 2014:278)
Some of the advantages of slow training have already been indicated above in the discussion. So that these advantages can be more clearly stated, they will be discussed in more detail. These advantages can be stated in different ways but in the end they mean the same thing. The idea is to bring some clarity to what the advantages are.
“The use of slow work allows us to see the body and weapon moving. This is something which is much more difficult to see at full-speed when bouting. What this means is that the combatant and any observer can see how the combatant is moving his or her weapon and body. This can allow a person to see where a possible change in footwork, body movement, or hand movement can make a difference to their technique. As a diagnostic tool, slow speed performance of technique is very useful.” (Walker, 2019:279)
Slow training has one of its greatest advantages in diagnosing problems. In the initial training stage, a teacher can easily pick up issues with a student’s technique and correct them before it becomes a bad habit. Slow bouting as a technique used in training, a student can see how to respond to an action and respond properly ingraining the proper response. Likewise repeating actions is possible as they are easier to remember and other options can then be found.
2 Muscle Memory
“Doing it slowly gives your body time to adjust to and memorize all those disparate movements. Repeating it slowly is like carving it into your muscle memory, creating a lasting impression that it can draw on at a moment’s notice, once you’ve practiced it enough.” (Icasas, 2015)
Each action in slow training is made deliberately from one position through to another. The body has the time to remember not just the first and the last, but each position through the process, meaning that the body is likely to remember the technique that is being practiced more effectively. The slow movements connect to one another to form a picture of a technique rather than a set of individual movements which do not seem that well connected. Such connections make the learning process faster.
3 Faster, More Efficient Technique
“If you incorporate “slow” into your practice, your technique will improve, unnecessary movements will be eliminated, and you will learn to better keep your balance through progressions of movement. Thus your technique will improve and you will become stronger and faster, the very thing you were aiming for in the first place.” (Caile, 2017)
Giacomo di Grassi, in His True Art of Defence(1594), states that every movement is accomplished in time. If a movement has excess movements made during it, the movement becomes inefficient. This is not good for a fencing technique. Slow training allows you to eliminate unnecessary movements from techniques, thus increasing the efficiency of techniques, thus increasing the overall speed of the techniques. This is because you can focus on the technique that is being performed more accurately than you can if it was practiced at speed.
4 Performance Under Stress
“But the benefits of slow practice goes beyond just eliminating wasted movement and getting faster. It also helps you perform better under stress.” (Ox, 2016)
When a person is under stress, their brain is flooded with various chemicals designed to deal with the situation. These put the brain on high alert. They unfortunately do not do anything for the performance of skills in a cold, calculating way. Too much adrenaline makes the hands shake for starters. Slow practice has made the technique which is being performed a normal action which is performed in response to a set of stimuli, nothing more. This is when the neural pathways have been built and are solid. This skill remains unaffected by these racing chemicals and their reactions within the body. The slow training of the technique also means that the relaxed situation in which it was practiced is transferred to the situation and the technique is still performed with the same deliberate actions, because that is what the brain and body have been told to do.
Unfortunately, slow training is not all good news; it does have its issues. Luckily most of these have more to do with the trainee rather than the method. “I do have to admit that it has downsides. Most of these are a result of coming into it with the wrong mindset.” (Icasas, 2015). Mindset is an important factor in any sort of training and must be taken into account. In examining the issues, some of the mindset that accompanies these will also be examined.
“I don’t have any stats to back it up, but after having taught martial arts courses and enrolled in a dozen more - plus learning musical instruments, rally driving, and others—I feel confident in asserting that this is where many newbies fall offthe wagon.” (Icasas, 2015)
Slow training is not easy. It takes time and it takes control. The trainee has to be willing to take the time to slow down and look at exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it, and be willing to be corrected. Control itself takes time to develop and this is the key to staying slow, because in our high-speed, fast-car world, we are obsessed with how fast things go. The student needs to understand that the slow training is the best way, and is of the greatest benefit to them. Here is the mindset which is required: for great reward, there needs to be great effort.
“Different bad habits. In practicing slow, you may develop a whole different set of bad habits.” (Icasas, 2015)
If you do not focus on what you are doing you can develop a whole new set of bad habits which is the reason why focus is important when performing the actions in slow training. It is vital that you pay attention to the accuracy of your technique and not short-cut any of the techniques, but move through all of the movements correctly and accurately. The trainer should always be paying attention to the students’ actions, but the students should also be paying attention to their own actions.
“Stuck on “slow.” There’s a saying that goes, “you play as you practice.” This applies to slow practice in both positive and negative ways. Perform slow practice too often, or with the wrong mindset, and you risk performing slowly even when you’re trying to perform fast.” (Icasas, 2015)
Being stuck on slow is a matter of mindset. In training slow the focus is performing techniques to get them correct so they can be performed with speed and accuracy. If there is no progression toward increased speed then there is the possibility of getting stuck only doing slow training and thus when increased speed is required, there will be a problem. Branching training toward increased speed should always be included, but only once the technique is correct. Remember the reason for the slow training.
Needs to be Done Right
To be effective, “All it means is that slow practice needs to be done right in order to be truly effective.” (Icasas, 2015). The student and the teacher both need the correct mindset toward the slow training in the beginning for the slow training for it to be performed correctly. The focus is on getting techniques correct and then moving this technique on toward normal speed. This element always needs to be present in the mind of both student and teacher.
“Be mindful. Keep track of everything that you do. Notice any bad tendencies you may have and work hard to iron those out during your slow practice. Do an action at the regular speed, figure out where your stumbling blocks are, and use your slow practice to overcome them.” (Icasas, 2015)
The technique needs to be performed at speed once the technique is correct. Only then will you find out how you will actually perform it under some pressure. If there are issues found, then slow speed training can be used to eliminate these issues. This backwards and forwards play between normal speed and slow speed should form a part of your normal training to eliminate any of the errors that you might have in any of your techniques. Efficiency of technique is the key to improving speed.
“Don’t forget to push. Remember the original purpose of your slow practice: to improve your high-speed performance as fast as possible. Challenge yourself to increase your pace while still maintaining proper form and technique. Don’t stay frozen at the slow pace forever.” (Icasas, 2015)
Slow training is used for the increase of accuracy in technique. Once accuracy is gained in the technique, then it should be pushed a little for speed. Accuracy needs to be maintained. If accuracy begins to wane, then the speed should be brought back a little until the technique can cope with the speed, then it can be increased again. This method allows for an increase in speed while maintaining accuracy, but accuracy should always be the prime goal. The speed should be developed on the basis of efficient movement rather than simple raw power of the muscles.
In this investigation is a discussion of slow training and the theoretical elements which are related to it. The investigation has covered many different areas including neuroplasticity and other subjects in the area of neuroscience, but also areas of physical pursuits as well. Such areas are related because they all are focussed upon the same goal, the learning and retention of motor skills.
Initially, for the fencer, some of these subject areas would have seemed somewhat out of place, hence there was a discussion of the sources at the beginning of this investigation. Drawing sources from far afield enriched the discussion and demonstrated that the idea of slow training is not one that is new or is without foundation. Such evidence brought to bear means that the idea of slow training even for such an energetic and quick pursuit such as fencing is based in firm foundation.
The following is the second of three parts of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as these are quite long. This was the only way for the appropriate information to be included in the document as a whole, and to not drag it out into more parts. Unlike my regular blogs, while the first part appeared on its usual monthly date, the following parts will appear one week after one another so that you are not kept waiting too long for the next part. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is now presented with more detail and new evidence.
Motor Skill Learning
“neuroplasticity is what allows for the acquisition and retention of motor skills. By motor skills, we are referring to finely coordinated muscle movements such as batting, putting, and free throws.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The same category of movements also apply to all those found in fencing. The following part discusses the science behind the acquisition of motor skills and how they are implanted in the brain. There is enough science presented here to demonstrate the basis for these ideas, but not so much that to confuse the issue. To this end, only a single source has been used to keep things simple, though other sources during this investigation will refer to the same processes.
Motor Skill Learning: Two Phases of Learning
“Motor skill learning is defined as the process by which movements are executed more quickly and accurately with practice. Motor skills are acquired over multiple training sessions until performance reaches a plateau. There are two phases of learning: a fast phase and a slow phase. The fast phase involves rapid improvement over the course of one single training session. The slow phase involves small, steady gains that develop over multiple practice sessions, eventually reaching a stable peak.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
In the acquisition of a skill this plateau is the sign that the skill has been learnt as the skill level does not increase for a period of time; at this point in time the basics of the skill have been acquired. The ascent to this plateau is marked by two phases, as noted, a fast phase and a slow phase. The acquisition of the essential skill happens rapidly, the accuracy in this skill occurs over a longer period of time. It is in this second part of the process that most will get frustrated.
“In your subsequent practices, you begin the slow process of gaining accuracy so that the vision in your brain matches the movements of your body.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The slow process of gaining accuracy in a skill is what bogs many down and also discourages many. Here, many will want to move on to the next thing because they have the basics of the skill, thus think they have learnt enough. The important thing is to stick with the practice and gain accuracy in the skill so that it can be performed properly and so that the brain retains it accurately. From a slightly different point of view, skills are gained in a three stage process.
Three Stage Axis of Acquisition
“In addition to the division between fast and slow, motor skill acquisition can be separated into stages across another axis: 1. Encoding 2. Consolidation 3. Retention & Recall.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The three stage axis of acquisition presents a slightly different approach to the previous acquisition of a skill, but gives more detail about some of the specific processes involved. For skills in swordplay, this approach is more useful when examined. The encoding stage is when the skill is learnt, the consolidation is when the skill is more deeply processed, usually in the mind so that it becomes a part of normal process, and finally the retention and recall is the final part where the skill becomes a part of the individual so that they can call upon it without conscious thought, thus having built an appropriate neural pathway, or muscle memory.
“Encoding overlaps with the fast learning period and refers to the process by which a motor skill is converted from an experience to a construct that is stored in the brain. The majority of encoding will occur online — or the interval during training sessions.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
Encoding is the first stage and is where the skill is initially learnt. The skill must be learnt properly in this process. Slow training is most useful here because the body can move through the action slowly and thus remember each movement in intimate detail, rather than rushing through the action, possibly missing some of the nuances. It is also here that mistakes can be made if the learning process and the skill is not the focus of the student.
“In contrast, skill consolidation happens offline — or the interval between training sessions. Sleep is a critical offline period; it’s when the majority of skill learning is consolidated in the brain. Consolidation can be thought of as an intermediate phase between fast and slow learning.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
Consolidation happens after the class has finished. If the student goes over the skill in their mind with a vivid image of what they have learnt, there is a likely chance that they will remember what they have learnt and it will be stored properly. The mind most definitely has its part to play in the process. The moving image of the skill which is given by the brain, or to the brain, is the one which is going to be repeated, thus a vivid image remembered from the class is best for the process. Thinking about fencing, helps your fencing.
“The last stage of learning, retention, occurs simultaneously with the slow learning phase, during both offline and online periods. The result of retention is the commitment of the learned skill to muscle memory and the ability to retrieve this memory at will. Muscle memory refers to the ability to perform a skill without any conscious effort.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The last stage of learning is retention. Once retained a skill can be corrected, but it takes a lot of work due to the effort put into placing in into the muscle memory as it is. This is the reason why practice must be made accurately initially and where slow training has an advantage because corrections can be made more easily as they can be more easily seen. Once retained, a skill is then used without conscious effort, it is simply applied to the situation at hand; this is the goal of muscle memory. A different part of the brain is used to operate the skill as the skill is moved toward muscle memory.
“Once a skill is committed to muscle memory, the motor cortex is less involved, and activation switches to lower-order processing areas such as the cerebellum where subconscious motor memories are stored. This reflects the behavioral shift that occurs as the motor skill improves — i.e. less and less reliance on thinking until the skill can be completed with no conscious effort.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The advantage for the fencer is that they do not have to think about how to do the action, just doing the action, or in some instances not even that. The fencer’s mind is then free to think about other things such as observing the opponent to see what they are doing, and planning ahead for their next series of actions. This is where much of the advanced fencer’s speed comes from, a lack of conscious effort applied to skills.
Understanding the learning process allows a person to see where and how they need to apply themselves. The use of slow training techniques in a training routine allows for skills to be learnt in an intimate way allowing for an accurate retention of the skill. This aids the learning process, even if it would seem to slow the process down somewhat. In the end the fencer will have learnt the skills much more effectively than if they had rushed through and only used drills at speed.
“studies have shown that even elderly people can generate new neural pathways and increase their capacity for learning and memory. Simply put, our brains are malleable, moldable, plastic. Thus, it makes sense that this phenomenon of rewiring the brain is known as neuroplasticity.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016a)
Neuroplasticity was discussed previously. There are elements of neuroscience which cannot be avoided when discussing the subject of memory, more so when discussing the building and retention of skills. Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon which occurs every time a skill is learnt, and this does not matter whether the skill is a motor skill or a more mental skill.
What is most interesting is that this investigation began simply focussing on training and methods using slow techniques, it has branched out to include such subjects as have been included due to the research which has been performed on subjects in sport. “Pop culture calls it "muscle memory." Science calls it "neural pathways."” (Ox, 2016). While not knowing it, many practitioners of the arts of the sword had been discussing the subject of neuroscience, in layman’s terms admittedly, without even knowing it. It is these neural pathways which will be the focus of this part.
Neural pathways form an important part of our everyday lives that we take for granted. We walk, we pick things up, we move things, all sorts of activities, “it's just a fact and a consequence of the neural pathways ingrained in your brain that have made these things second nature.” (Petrosino, 2018). Neural pathways make activities part of our second nature, they make skills so that we do not have to think about them, we just do them. This gives us great advantage because it allows us to be thinking about other things while doing something else. Of course, it is not all that simple. Old habits are hard to break.
“In the gym and in training, most people’s defaults are to go to whatever movement pathway has become their autopilot. I mean, heck, that's even true in life. People take the same routes to work, and they default to the same behaviors when stressed, etc.” (Petrosino, 2018)
Everyone has at least one habit that they would like to break. Of course that means that they have to fight against the neural pathways which have, for the most part, been unconsciously written. For those who are participants in sport or other activities, these habits may be a part of the activities, in which case the neural pathways have probably been somewhat more consciously written, but also in some cases there is also some unconscious activity. In either case the task of re-writing is difficult.
“The brain is an amazing super computer, capable of directing and coordinating complex motor and mental skills. Once a movement pathway becomes embedded into it, however, it becomes very set in its ways.” (Duke, 2015)
Luckily, due to neuroplasticity it is possible to write new neural pathways, or even re-write old neural pathways. The brain is most definitely malleable in this respect, and this is a good thing. It means that we can get rid of those bad habits.
“The science community has done a lot of work in recent years showing that the brain can both make new neurons (neurogenesis) and new neural pathways (neuroplasticity). Neural pathways are just a series of neurons connected by single or bundled fibers that connect to send signals from one region of your brain to another or to the rest of your nervous system. Hence, these neural pathways allow your body to consciously and subconsciously carry out activities.” (Petrosino, 2018)
What this means is that all of those poor neurons that most of us killed in our late teens and early twenties with the consumption of alcohol are not lost, they can come back. You just have to encourage them to do so, and this means using your brain. This is not the focus of this investigation to gain knowledge. The focus is on the gaining and the development of neural pathways for skills. For neural pathways, that involves the training of both the body and the brain, and both need to be involved in this process for the most effective result. Petrosino (2018) describes three stages of making a new neural pathway.
“To make a new neural pathway, you go through three stages: cognition, association, and autonomy. The cognitive stage is where you learn a new thing, like a new way to squat, by watching, doing, and thinking. It's the introductory phase to the new “motor pattern.” It's a hard phase because you need to figure out how to do the damn thing without reverting to old patterns. In the associative stage, you start doing the new thing more. This stage is where the newly learned motor pattern starts to become more natural. However, in this stage, the new skill/pattern/thing isn’t natural yet, making it somewhat frustrating. The final stage, the autonomous stage, is where you finally do the damn thing without consciously thinking about it. It’s the stage we all want to get to immediately but need to go through tons and tons of repetitions to get to.” (Petrosino, 2018)
The three stage model presented, describes a process for the development of a new neural pathway, or a new skill. It resounds much like the process that was given in the previous part of the investigation about motor skill learning, with little surprise. It is the association which will take the longest period of time as it is here where the repetition will come in, slow training will be most useful in the cognition stage, but also useful in the association stage to ensure that the skill is correct and practiced correctly. For the improvement of a skill the same process applies, but more focus needs to be applied.
Improvement of a Skill
While Duke (2015) is discussing the acquisition of a skill in his discussion, if a person wanted to improve a skill, the same process actually applies, but there more focus is needed, “not only is performing repetitions of a new movement a key in learning it, but to both feel and see the movement will only make your swing hologram more vivid.” (Duke, 2015). His discussion uses a golf swing as an example, but the same can be applied to any skill. You need to feel and see the movement which is being made, and this needs to be performed slowly so you can see and feel exactly what’s going on.
This idea of Duke’s is further developed to include, “Eyes-open, slow-motion swings will increase your visual awareness, and eyes-closed swings will further enhance what you are feeling.” (Duke, 2015). To enhance the two different senses he focusses on one and then blocks out the other so that the individual can focus and find out exactly what they are doing. All the actions are done slowly.
The whole idea of both the slow-motion with eyes open and eyes closed is so that the brain can register every movement of muscle, joint and bone so a firm image of what’s exactly going on can be formed in the brain. With this image of the perfect form this is the target, without it, what is the target? Or as Duke expresses, “If you don’t have a vivid image and feel for your movements, what are you expected to recall when you hit the start button on your golf swing?” (Duke, 2015). This same approach can be applied to the skills of swordplay, and any other skill, and used to both improve the skill as well as learn it.
Neural Pathways: Easy to Establish, Hard to Develop
“I’ve been told it only takes 30 seconds of consciously thinking about something to build a new neural pathway, and that might be true. But it takes hours of repetition for it to become second nature.” (Petrosino, 2018)
Neural pathways are relatively easily built, but it takes quite a bit more effort for that neural pathway to become developed and significant. It is a pathway which is being built, if it is not used particularly much, it will be present but not particularly prevalent, active thought will be required to use that particular skill. The way something becomes second nature, thus to be built into muscle memory so it is second nature, is through repetition, and lots of it.
“To make stage combat a safe practice, it must be ingrained into the actor’s muscle memory through constant repetition. By slowly repeating mechanics, a thin layer of “potential habit” is placed in one’s physical and mental memory. The mind and body begin to make the actions more natural; this is known as kinesthetic learning.” (Girard, 1997:5)
Kinesthetic learning is essentially learning by doing. It is learning through doing a physical activity. In this particular case it is learning through the repetition of the skills which the individual wants to learn. In the case of an actor it is the directions of the fight director, in the case of a swordsman, it is the techniques of swordsmanship. These are learnt through the practice and making them more natural to the person who is using them. The more natural a skill can become the more likely it will be used.
“it is much easier to engrain a movement pattern if it’s natural, or in accordance with the laws of nature. The point here is that the more things we can “let” happen in the golf swing, instead of trying to make them happen, the less tension and compensations are required. It will also be easier to develop and consistently use these new neural pathways.” (Duke, 2015)
If an action feels awkward because it is biomechanically unsound, then it is less likely that the person is going to learn it. If it is biomechanically sound then the student is more likely to retain it and practice it as taught. There must be some leeway in teaching of physical skills for physical variance, because everyone is not built the same way. An action which is more natural to a student is the one that they are going to learn. This is also assisted if the skill can be connected to something they already know. The brain will protect those skills which we use the most.
“In fact, neuro science shows us that when you practice something over and over, exactly the same way, you not only create a neural pathway in the brain, but it also gets surrounded by an insulating sheath of cholesterol called myelin. This insulating sheath protects the neural pathway from the performance-robbing effects of adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals that are released in extreme stress situations.” (Ox, 2016)
Not only does practice reinforce a skill in the sense that it reinforces the practice of the skill but it also protects the skill on a biochemical level. Meaning that even the body gives the individual benefits from practicing. Old skills should be practiced as much as new skills to continue their protection, but as this is a discussion of new neural pathways, these will be the focus. How much practice you put in is not as important as regularity and what you practice.
“we know we can considerably speed up the process of creating a new neural pathway if we are constantly refreshing the correct movement. Ten minutes a day verses 1 hour a week will yield faster results. Note that I said “correct movement,” not “correct positions.” Without getting too deep into the rabbit hole of neuroscience, the Holonomic brain theory supports that people learn motor skills not by linking a progression of positions together like line-by-line computer code, but instead by storing the entire movement as a neural 3-D hologram.” (Duke, 2015)
Practice needs to be regular and movement-based. Short periods of practice each day are better than large practices in single lumps each week. The idea is to keep the skill fresh so the brain will remember the skill and be reminded what it looks like, so the motions are reinforced. Previously old skills were mentioned as needing practice as well as new skills, and this is very true. Old skills should always be re-visited so that they are reminded and remembered. Thus practice needs to be continued.
“If you continue to practice, the optimized brain-muscle output will be maintained and so will the skill, but if you neglect practice, the functional connections will become less synchronous, resulting in poorer performance. So, there really is a reason why your mother always told you that practice makes perfect. It all comes down to neuroplasticity.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016a)
Practice is important for the maintenance of all skills. Anyone who has played any sport or been involved in any activity over a period of time will have noted that if they missed practices over an extended period of time that their skills waned. It was not that they had forgotten how to do things, just that they were not as sharp as they were previously. Practice is vital to continued proficiency at high levels, but the practice must be effective and it must be practicing the right things.
“It takes about 500 repetitions of an action to put it into your muscle memory, but you must practice it accurately. Any mistake you make in the action will also be practiced into muscle memory as well and it will take 50,000 repetitions to remove a mistake from muscle memory, so it is best to do it right the first time. Any action which is placed in your muscle memory can be performed without thought, this means you will react quickly to the stimulus given by your opponent; another reason why you must practice accurately and why your partner must give you the correct stimulus when you practice.” (Walker, 2019:241)
The problem is that a person may practice a skill over and over again, but if they are not focussed on what they are doing, errors can creep into their practice. This means that these errors can become a part of their skill, thus a part of their neural pathway. Meaning that they have done their practice, but they are not perfect. With this in mind, a saying needs to be modified, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Each skill that is practiced, needs to be practiced so that it is practiced the same way, consistency is vital, with one another, and with the form that is intended. A veteran player or swordsman will have done their practice so established their pathways, thus they will have much more difficulty in correcting their mistakes than a beginner.
“This is why more experienced students have such difficulty correcting their form – they have so integrated technique into muscle memory that unless they are concentrating on what they are doing in terms of improving their technique, they just revert to what they have done all along.” (Caile, 2017)
The best way to avoid problems with form or practice is to avoid the..
The following is the first of three parts of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as these are quite long. This was the only way for the appropriate information to be included in the document as a whole, and to not drag it out into more parts. Unlike my regular blogs, while this part will appear on its usual monthly date, the following parts will appear one week after one another so that you are not kept waiting for the next part. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is now presented with more detail and new evidence.
Those regular readers of my blog, “A Fencer’s Ramblings”, or those who have bought my book, Un-Blogged: A Fencer’s Ramblings (2019), will note that this subject has been discussed before, with a similar title. This investigation is a much more in-depth discussion of the subject with evidence from neuroscience and other subjects supporting the findings.
The subject of slow training is one which is of interest because it forms a vital part of discussions of many different forms of training in many activities. It has great advantages to those who engage in it as it allows the participants to focus on the techniques and hone the accuracy of these techniques to ensure that the correct methods are remembered. The subject of “muscle memory” appears in the subject of training in many disciplines and also is evident in the area of swordplay, and will be discussed in some detail here. Slow training enhances the process of gaining “muscle memory” and aids the participant in gaining the correct techniques.
The bibliographical discussion aims at describing the sources which have been used throughout the investigation. Demonstrating the relevance of the sources to the investigation, even though they come from a wide range of disciplines not necessarily related to swordplay. Such a discussion reinforces future arguments and discussions which are made throughout the investigation.
All too often participants focus on the physical aspects of training and forget the connection with the mind. This part of the investigation is intended to highlight the important connection between the body and mind before a deeper discussion of the operation of the connections is made.
A discussion of the process of learning and integrates some of the points made in the connection between the body and the mind. It introduces some of the important aspects of neuroscience which are applicable to the learning of motor skills. Such information is made in a format which it is easier to understand than a deep discussion of all of the aspects of neuroscience applicable. The focus is its applicability to motor skill learning and this process. This information is most useful in understanding muscle memory and how it works.
Muscle memory is a concept which has been discussed by sports practitioners and theorists for an extended period of time, i.e. the idea that if a person practices something enough it becomes almost a natural reaction. It is only more recently that science has discovered that this is actually the case, and that there are actual structures in the brain being built. The discussion of muscle memory examines some of the concepts and then discusses how old techniques are difficult to remove and new techniques need to be repeated in a constant and consistent fashion to be embedded.
For some speed is an obsession in fencing. It would seem to be the prime motivator of their game. Speed is an asset, but it is not the only way in which a fencer should attempt to succeed. There are other elements of fencing which are more significant. The development of accuracy of technique is always a greater asset as when this is developed it is of greater use. The best way to develop this is through slow training.
Slow training is challenging and it will seem tedious to some, but it is actually a more efficient way of training for speed than just attempting to perform actions more and more quickly. Slow training develops precision in the action. This precision leads to efficiency and it is here that true speed is developed. Slow training takes actions and examines them closely, removing issues so that the most accurate action is practiced.
Seven of the articles which have been used in the following investigation concerning slow training, and will be discussed below, are not directly related to fencing, swordplay. It could be claimed on this basis that there is nothing appropriate to be read about the subject, which would be incorrect. To find information about the subject of slow training and its related subjects it is necessary and useful to look a little further afield to address the subject properly.
Icasas’ (2015) “Practice Slow, Learn Fast” on his How to Suck Less website is a blog discussion about slow training and its advantages as taught in the Oriental martial arts. He gives the reasons for slow training and the reasons why it is important to the development of the student. There are a lot of similarities between the Oriental and western martial arts in their methods of training. Further, the ideas which Icasas presents are applicable in their form and application due to the commonalities of the core principles, the same of which can be said of all martial arts.
Again, Caile’s (2017) “Viewpoint: The Power of Slow” on the FightingArts.com website gives a discussion of the advantages of slow training in the martial arts. This is focussed on the martial arts of the Orient and is aimed at promoting the use of slow training for the promotion of accurate techniques. The same applies here as all forms of martial arts are based on Time and Distance, thus the methods of training also have much overlap as well. It is the foundation principles which can be used to examine the development of skills.
Ox’s (2016) “Slow in practice means fast in combat” on the MultiBriefs: Exclusive website is an article about firearms training and the use of slow training in combat training. It describes the advantages of slow training in an actual situation and discusses the use of the same training in other sports as well. He also connects some of the appropriate terminology with regard to brain function. This connection between the common language and the appropriate medical jargon is most useful, then there is something to build on, as will be seen in the following articles. The importance of accurate actions in combat with firearms cannot be understated. These principles can be applied to the use of the sword, having the commonality of both being weapons and both having precision in their actions for high levels of skill. This latest article would seem to be stretching the field of possible research to its limit, associating firearms training with swordsmanship, but the principles of training remain the same. Adding knowledge from modern medicine to understand what is actually happening in the brain can only be an advantage, thus even further afield the net can be stretched.
Petrosino’s (2018) “Training to Build New Neural Pathways” on the Elite FTS: Columnist website is an article related to weight-lifting. It discusses the use of the brain in gym-training for the development of neural pathways for the development of correct training patterns and techniques. This is a discussion of the deep connection between the actions of the body and the development of the neural pathways which control those actions. This mental approach, applied to weight-lifting, can be applied to fencing. The information about brain function increases understanding of the processes involved.
Duke’s (2015) “Changing Neural Pathways” on the SportEds.Com website is a discussion of neural pathways and uses the action of practicing and developing a better golf swing as an example. It discusses how neural pathways develop in the brain and what is required to overwrite old ones and properly develop new ones. Neural pathways are what are commonly referred to as “muscle memory” as can be seen it is actually in the brain not in the muscles. The golf swing is used as an example but a thrust, cut or parry could also have been used, and the same would still apply. Simple skills need to be developed and focus needs to be maintained to truly retain skills.
Halo Neuroscience’s (2016) “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Motor Skill Learning” and “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Hyperplasticity” (2016a) are both primarily promotional material designed to promote the training programs and products which are presented by Halo Neuroscience. The former discusses how the brain attains and retains skills, describing some the actions of the brain using the appropriate jargon associated. The latter discusses information about how the brain operates in the acquisition of motor skills and the development of neural pathways. These both have a general sport focus. Both of these articles discuss the development of skills which is appropriate to the discussion. The information about how they are developed is most useful as it gives understanding how and why the skills develop the way that they do.
Girard’s (1997) Actors On Guard: A Practical Guide for the Use of the Rapier and Dagger for Stage and Screen is evidently a manual designed for fight directors and actors. Its information is related to the subject as it addresses weapons and subjects which are clearly associated with swordplay and its use. The information from here is about the training of the actor in the use of these weapons.
Evangelista’s (1996) The Art and Science of Fencing is a fencing manual addressed to the modern fencer and as such is directly addressing the subject of fencing, but may seem not so much to the historical fencer. What needs to be made clear here is that there is a commonality which is present between arts of the sword, regardless of its form. Such information about is training is thus useful to all scholars of the blade.
Two sources which will be used are directly applicable to those who study the historical weapons are Windsor’s (2013) The Swordsman’s Companion: A Modern Training Manual for Medieval Longsword, and Farrell’s (2014) Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick. The information drawn from these directly addresses the training of historical weapons and thus is most appropriate for historical swordsmanship. In the same category of appropriate address is my own recently published, Walker, H. (2019) Un-Blogged: A Fencer’s Ramblings, which directly addresses both the subject of historical swordsmanship and also the concept of slow combat and its use in training. Indeed this investigation is a direct expansion of one of the articles found in this book, and used in this discussion.
In this discussion it is vital that information is drawn from as many sources as possible to present both theory and practice of slow movement training to demonstrate its application and advantage. This discussion of the sources is designed to point out the applicable nature of training methods of other sports and pursuits to historical swordsmanship. Of necessary nature is the theory presented to reinforce the practice which is presented throughout the various pursuits noted and, of course historical swordsmanship.
Mind and Body
“Bringing mind and body together on the fencing strip is the ultimate goal of fencing. ... A blending of thought and action supercedes all true effectiveness on the fencing strip. Touches, therefore, become the expression, the outcome, of superb fencing,” (Evangelista, 1996:169)
Fencing as only a physical game is very limiting; it is actually a game of mind and body. Both have their parts to play for the fencer to achieve their goals. To be sure many of the skills of the fencer will be written into the fencer’s muscle memory so they do not have to think about these actions, but the mind still has its role to play. There are still observances to record and plans to be made. The problem is that many people forget the mind and only look and the physical aspects and not only in fencing.
“All too often, I see people missing the importance of thinking about the muscle-brain connection when it comes to training. And that’s a bit of a shame because creating neural pathways that allow you to train and move correctly is a component of making gains.” (Petrosino, 2018)
Petrosino (2018) is discussing gym training and weight-lifting and a person would be surprised that there would be any involvement of the mind at all in that particular sport. Parallels can be drawn between fencing and the points that the author is making, in both cases neural pathways, what most people call “muscle memory”, are a function of the brain, not the body. They are written by the actions of the body, but they have to be conscious actions to be written correctly and accurately. The actions have to be thought about; mind first, body second.
“it is important from the beginning for you to establish the habit of “think then do.” What this means is that you visualize and understand a technique or action before physically committing to it. Think about a technique, know what you are about to do is right, and then do the action.” (Girard, 1997:6)
The idea of thinking and then doing is presented here by Girard (1997) in his stage fighting manual for the use of rapier and dagger, meaning that it crosses over to an area which is familiar to fencers and those involved in swordplay. For the actor, this idea is used because it means that they are thinking about what they are doing first, and then doing it, for safety reasons. The fencer can apply the same sort of approach for training purposes, and tactical reasons; visualising what they want to perform and what the correct timing is and then performing the action. The mind element in skill acquisition cannot be avoided; this is how skills are gained, not by training only the body, but by training the brain.
“neuroplasticity is what allows for the acquisition and retention of motor skills. By motor skills, we are referring to finely coordinated muscle movements such as batting, putting, and free throws.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
Motor skills, like the ones used in all forms of swordplay are gained through the virtue of neuroplasticity. Only through this can we create and modify neural pathways to learn new skills and to correct mistakes in others learnt previously. To reject the use of the mind in the pursuit of swordplay and to rely on the acquisition of skills through purely physical means is a limited approach. Understanding the reasons for this is an even greater asset.
The end of Part I
The Bibliography will be found at the end of Part III.
The following discussion is a little off my usual discussion of fencing subjects, but it does apply to the broad general area of fencing. The following is a discussion of Jack London's White Fang and how its themes and concepts can be applied. While not exactly aimed at fencing it does discuss training in fencing and also concepts around expectations and education, two subjects which are related to fencing.
The novel White Fanghas been used by many people to explain many different things. For myself, it is one of my favourite books that I enjoy reading because it immerses you in the place and period in which it is set and also shows you somewhat the life of one wolf from pup to full-grown, and the interesting experiences that he had along the way. There is an animated version of this story available now on Netflix, which hits most of the main plot points, but misses much of the detail which is contained within the book. It also, as can be expected, changes elements within the story as well.
The first question that White Fang asks is how much of you is wolf and how much of you is dog? Or to put it another way, how much is driven by your instincts and how much of you is driven by what you have learnt at the hands of others? The same question could also ask how much of you is free and how much of you is tied to expectations and impositions, many which are imposed by the self?
We would all like to think that we are more wolf than dog, that we are free to do what we want when we want, but this is really not the truth. We are tied by our expectations of our society, and impositions made by ourselves and our own egos and what we want out of life, which tie us to society. The freedom of the wolf is an illusion that we would like to hold, but many cannot grasp.
Other aspects of the dog show themselves, our education, our further learning at the hands of other education and being part of societal systems. All of these things make us good members of society, good dogs. To rebel against these, to become the wolf, is to threaten ourselves with the potential of becoming outcasts, to stand alone, something which our gregarious nature and ego-financial-driven selves are somewhat afraid of. We admire the rebels in our midst, those who stand alone, but do not join them. Sometimes we need to stand alone, because it is the right thing to do.
In the story, White Fang spends some of his early years in the wild. Then with his mother, Kiche, becomes a sled-dog for an Indian named Gray Beaver. He is trained in this role. He does not get along with the other dogs in the tribe, his mostly-wolf self shows too much. He fights the other dogs to defend himself and place himself on the top of the pack. But he is accepted by Gray Beaver and thus works for him. Later, through some trickery White Fang is sold to “Beauty” Smith and is trained as a fighting dog. He is beaten and set upon other dogs. The fights are vicious and all that White Fang learns is how to fight and kill the dog that is in front of him. Eventually he is taken by Weedon Scott who heals him after a dog-fight and then teaches him another way; that he can live without fighting, or at least that fighting should only be reserved for enemies.
White Fang’s story shows many fights with other dogs who refuse to accept him. In some instances it is to prove that he belongs and others it is because it is what he was trained to do. Some instances are because it is what he is. His early experiences are of rejection from other dogs, these are his formative years and they leave an imprint of not being wanted by other dogs. The result is he defends himself against them and establishes his dominance. This fighting ability pure and raw is taken by “Beauty” Smith and harnessed and let loose on other dogs for money. Weedon Scott wants something else from White Fang, to show him another way; that he can be accepted and that fighting is not the only way to be accepted. He learns from these experiences that he can be accepted and that fighting is not the only way to fit in.
What we must all ask ourselves is in our teaching and interactions are we acting like “Beauty” Smith or Weedon Scott? Are we taking someone at face value and just accepting everyone else’s view of them, or are we forming our own opinion? Are we simply harnessing one ability or are we really developing a human being? This is a question that trainers in all forms of martial arts must ask. What sort of impact is the training having on the individual? Is it perpetuating a cycle or is it doing the best for the individual?
As trainers of martial arts we should all be seeking the improvement of our students, in all senses of the word. We should not just be honing their fighting abilities, but we should also be examining other aspects as well. The social aspects of the art that we teach should be a serious consideration, as the students will learn everythingfrom their teachers. If you teach in a gung-ho, “anything for a win” fashion, then that is what the students will take away. If you teach in an honourable, victory by art and skill rather than pure force fashion, then that is what the students will take away.
I recommend White Fangto anyone as a good read, and a book which will probe thoughts. The themes and ideas which the author presents are some which need to be considered. The story itself is well-written, primarily from the point of view of the protagonist wolf-dog White Fang, which is an achievement in itself, it describes scenes which will make you think. Cheers, Henry.
With no surprise, especially considering the title of the article and the blog, this article is about swords. But it is not just about them as objects alone, singularly, or pointing out one type of sword. It is an examination of swords in general. People, when they discuss sword, especially if they have anything to do with them in hobbies or study, are quick to separate and isolate them by function, culture and type. This discussion is designed to break down some of those barriers, to look at swords as swords.
The discussion which follows is more curatorial than social or practical, though both social and practical elements will come into the discussion. It is difficult to discuss swords without swordsmanship. To attempt such would be like attempting to discuss cars and their performance without discussing driving. There will not be a history of the sword, nor will there be any discussion of any particular type of sword, in fact this is exactly what this discussion is trying to get away from. The purpose of this discussion is to present the similarities between swords, rather than their differences so that they can all be appreciated with equal worth. DefinitionThe Oxford dictionary defines a sword as a noun, "A weapon with a long metal blade and a hilt with a hand guard, used for thrusting or striking and now typically worn as part of ceremonial dress." (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sword). The Cambridge dictionary defines it as "a weapon with a long, sharp metal blade and a handle, used especially in the past" (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sword). Finally, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "a weapon (such as a cutlass or rapier) with a long blade for cutting or thrusting that is often used as a symbol of honor or authority" (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sword).
All define the sword as a weapon, all define it as having a long blade. Interestingly, in two of them they specify a metal blade. Two relegate the weapon to the past, while the other attributes symbolic meaning to the weapon, thus giving it some use in the present. What will be noted in all of the definitions is that they are very rudimentary, though they do have some specificity to them. Depending if one or another of these definitions is chosen, some types of sword may actually be not included in their definition. The most extreme examples would be the non-metalic swords used by some islanders and also pre-colonial peoples. Care must be taken in a definition.
A sword, could be described as a weapon with long blade designed for cutting and/or thrusting, which has a hand grip of some fashion. However specificity in length of blade could create questions as to where a weapon crosses the line between a knife and a sword. Then there is the question of weapons such as the "messer" which was a large knife, but was the length of a short sword. It needs to be noted that the definition of the sword is not as easy as it might sound. Sword is a SwordAll swords are swords, regardless whether it is a sabre or a rapier, katana or a schiavona, it is a sword. We are the individuals who divide them up and show them to be different in shape, or nationality, or use, or period, or whatever. In all cases all of the weapons which have been named, all six of them are swords. Obviously we divide them up so that it is easier to understand what we are talking about, but sometimes this creates confusion if a person does not understand what the other person is talking about. The most important point that needs to be made is that they are all swords. Regardless of which period of history, or from which culture, they are swords. Similarities
"The difficulty of treating the Sword is enhanced by the peculiar individuality which characterises it, evidenced by an immense variety of physique, and resulting as much from unconscious selection as from deep design. One of the characteristics of indigenous art is that no two articles, especially no two weapons, are exactly alike; yet they vary only within narrow and measurable limits." (Burton, 1987:xxi)
Burton (1987) is describing how swords are both complex articles in which no two are exactly the same, but at the same time all fall within a certain level of variation. It is this second point which needs to be noted. There are similarities across swords which cannot be denied. They all have blades and hilts, obviously, but a person can get even deeper in the examination of the similarities. The cross-guard is also a similar item. In some cases it may be a part of the handle, but it is still present, if in a reduced form. In the case of the katana it is the tsuba, thus a circular cross-guard, which would seem somewhat contradictory. The pommel is also present, it is the part of the sword which holds the rest of it together, and in the western versions adds counter-weight. In the katana this is the kashira.
These similarities which have been pointed out, only are those in the hilts of the weapons, the blades also have similar characteristics as well. All have a strong, weak and a middle portion of the blade; these are all relative strengths in comparison to one another. The strong is most used for defending, the weak is most used for offending, and the middle is most used for controlling actions of the opponent's weapon. When it comes to the question of edges, the weapons do have at least two edges, even though one of them may be blunt. Even this blunt edge can be used for actions against the opponent, such as parrying and actions of control. These similarities in physical form need to be noted and appreciated. Shape, Use or Culture?Swords have been classified and organised into groups often by specific shape, function or culture. The question is what is the best method of classifying them, is it one or a combination of these methods. Burton (1987) suggests two which are common among collections being Topical and Geographical or Material and Formal, the former considers the culture, location, place and date, the latter which only considers the objects themselves (Burton, 1987:xxii). Obviously both have their advantages and disadvantages. Coe et. al. (1996) use a more combination system taking into account both the artefacts themselves along with the cultural situation in which they were found in, thus taking advantage of both approaches described by Burton (Coe et.al., 1996:6).
The combination of classification of weapons has the advantage of not only examining the objects themselves and examining them for construction, shape and manufacture, but can also look at the culture in which they were found and look at their use, which is often sorely missing in curatorial approaches to weapons. This missing approach leads these curatorial approaches to divide swords down definitive lines which are not actually there, due to misinterpretations as to how the weapons were used.
Some weapons were more specialised in a single area of use than others, this is undoubted. A perfect example of this is the estoque, or tuck, which was designed to be used by an armoured combatant against another for a thrusting attack designed to pierce through gaps in armour. The weapon had no edge, so there was no chance that there was any chance of cutting ability. Often this is claimed to be the origin of the rapier, however that it is a weapon designed for armoured combatants makes this a somewhat spurious claim.
The rapier is a classic weapon for the abuse of weapon historians about its use. For some it was a purely point-orientated weapon which could not cut at all. For others it could cut just as easily as more military-styled weapons which were its contemporaries. Neither of these is accurate. The rapier was a point-orientated weapon, meaning that it was designed more for the thrust than the cut, but it could still cut, just not as well as a military sword of the same period, it was designed for civilian duelling and self-defence.
On the other end of the scale some would attempt to have us believe that the longsword was purely designed for cutting and that it did not thrust at all. Longswords came in several different forms indeed Oakeshott numbers twenty-two different types of sword in the medieval period (Oakeshott, 1998:24), thirteen of which could be claimed to be longswords. Some of these were predominantly cutting weapons, but that is not to say they did not have a tip to thrust with, and some of them were more designed to thrust with also. So, needless to say, it depends on which form of the longsword is being spoken about.
The sabre is in a similar situation, it can also thrust as well. No doubt Oriental weapons have the same spurious claims been made about them. These arguments will not be discussed here as I do not have the expertise in this field. Needless to say, weapons need to be examined carefully before claims on their use are made, especially when it comes to specialisation. ConclusionEach person has their preferences. Some people prefer chocolate ice-cream over vanilla, some people just don't like ice-cream at all. Preferences for swords are much the same, just because you prefer the longsword, does not mean that you cannot appreciate the jian, katana, gladius or rapier. Each sword has something to say about it and of its use. There are many similarities between weapons which can be appreciated.
Each sword was a tool designed for its time and place, to take it out of this time and compare it to something else, to deride it is not useful. Placing a sword on a modern battlefield and trying to compare it to modern weapon systems is like trying to take an apple and compare it to an orange among other oranges. Sure, both of them are fruit, but they are simply not a good match for comparison unless the question is for preference about fruit, not the best orange.
The greatest challenge we face is to get out of our comfort zones, and in some cases these comfort zones are quite small. Have a look at some others swords and appreciate them for what they are and what they can do. Make comparisons of them with swords that you are familiar with, but not for the purposes of derision, but for the purposes of noting similarities and other positive notes. This way you will come to appreciate more weapons and also the skills that go along with these weapons. Remember that the two deciding principles of time and distance exist for all martial arts armed and unarmed, you can learn something from all different places if you really put your mind to it. BibliographyBurton, R. F. (1987) The Book of the Sword, Dover Publications Inc., New York, USA
There are questions which are going to be asked about this particular post, like what is he on about? That is simple. There is the propensity for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community for re-inventing the wheel rather than taking perfectly good examples of things and either just using them or modifying them slightly to suit their purposes. This post will give three examples which seem to keep coming up as issues for the community which have been dealt with elsewhere before. Why?Why is it that in HEMA people seem to need to keep re-inventing the wheel? It is almost like that what has come before is just not good enough, or because it comes from another sport, or similar area and they do not want to be like them that they cannot use anything which is anything like them. There are three topics which have histories which are established which could be used as they are, or modified to purpose, yet they are not. This is, of course, causing people issues and in some cases injuries as a result because people are doing the hard work that has been done before all over again. ArmourArmour has been around for literally thousands of years, yet when it comes to HEMA rather than looking at existing examples of armour and simply copying it or modifying the armour to suit, new armour has to be invented. The great saga of the gauntlet is the greatest example of this one that can be put up as a prime example. There were fully-articulate gauntlets manufactured and used in the medieval and Renaissance period. Why are they not just copied? Or at least the principles of their designs not copied? Its not like they did not work.
What I find really amusing about this one is that people in HEMA have been cobbling together protective gear from other sports or designing it based on other sports, and then realising that it has holes in it, which are not covered. Then these holes are being covered by examples which are found on medieval and Renaissance armours. Knee protection first just covered the front of the knee for HEMA, now it seems that fans are being added to protect the sides and give some protection to the back of the knee, which are, of course, found on medieval and Renaissance knee cops. Why go through the effort of having to find out what does not work when we already know what does? Armour StandardsWhen it comes to the question of protective gear, each club or organisation will have their own ideas about what will be required for their own people. Obviously it will be dependent on the weapon that is being used, i.e. more will be required for doing longsword than smallsword. What is a little silly is that for the most part these standards are created on the spot from what the individuals think is reasonable. There is in existence an armour standard, for rapier at least, which has been around since at least the late 1990s which is an international standard, that being used by the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA).
Why not start with this and then add on to it? Obviously it is effective, and all of the hard work has already been done. Seems that some would rather not want to be in anyway associated with the group than use a standard which is known and works, which is ridiculous. Instead these people would rather go through the trials and issues of finding out what works and what doesn't, which puts their members at risk. RefereeingThere has been a lot of discussion about how tournaments should be judged, whether one referee should be used and four linesmen, or one senior referee and one junior and two linesmen, or some other combination. My particular preference is to teach the combatants to call their own blows, I mean they are the ones receiving them so they would know the best if they have been hit or not. Some of this has started to filter into competitions and gradually it is beginning to hold some sway.
Again what we see is the HEMA community trying to re-invent the wheel when there is a system already available for them to use. This system is found in non-electric sport fencing. There is a presiding judge and one for each fencer. The presiding watches both competitors the others only watch their one fencer for a hit and indicate when theirs has been hit. Again, it is a recognised method with a recognised standard. It also results in using only three people and not four or five people to staff it, which has advantages when the staff are primarily volunteers. ConclusionThree different areas have been examined where standards or examples are have already been established, and yet in all three cases the HEMA community is trying to invent their own. The question has to be at this point in time, why? Is it an ego thing? Not willing to accept that maybe it has been done before? Or not willing to borrow from another group and thus admit that they may have some good ideas? Both of these are ridiculous reasons not to use ideas or standards used by another group and modify them to suit what is required. In most instances in the HEMA community, there is probably already an answer out there to the question which has been posed, it is a matter of finding the answer, and accepting that it is the answer. For some, it is the last bit that is the most difficult.
A previous post discussed the subject with regard to treatises and the use of the sword and shield. In this discussion it mentioned the Norse sagas. The following is a discussion about the Norse sagas and the information which can be found within them which is potentially useful when reconstructing the use of the sword and shield in the Norse fashion. It should be noted that this indicates some directions which are presented by the evidence, but does not make any wholesale claims about how a sword and shield should or should not be used. These are preliminary findings from a documentary discussion.
Norse Tradition – From the Sagas
The first thing that should be noted is that the Norse warriors should not be thought of as mere brutes who used mere strength to bash their way to their opponents, skill was evidently present, “Grettir struck down between him and the shield, cutting off both his hands at the wrist.” (Palmer, 1999:15). Such a blow performed shows skill with the sword and demonstrates that the art of war as practiced by the Norse needs a closer look before sweeping claims are made.
Norse shields evidently had shoulder straps on them, enabling the shield to be swung on to the back enabling the sword to be gripped with two hands, “When he had said this, he gripped his hilt with both hands, and, fearless of peril, swung his shield upon his back and slew many.” (Clements, 1999)
The idea that the shields of this period were weak in some fashion, even though there is evidence of them being destroyed in the same saga, should not be over-stated, the shield was still used as the prime defence, “but, distrusting his sword, parried the blows of both with his shield,” (Clements, 1999). This clearly tells us that the shields were well-made and there are quite a few mentions of shield bosses made of metal.
Further to this idea Palmer (1999) mentions a shield which was evidently passed along, “with the round target that once had belonged to Thorveig.” (Palmer, 1999:4). This means that the shield had been through one user and then proceeded to be used by another; again this disputes the weak nature of shields of this period. There is also evidence from the same source that they were bordered with iron, “his sword stuck fast in the iron border of Steinar’s shield.” (Palmer, 1999:4), a factor which would have extended the life of the shield quite a lot and made it not a disposable item.
Shield struck and damaged
While it is true there is evidence from both Clements and Palmer of shields being destroyed by blows and also cut through, it would seem that the blows which did this were extraordinary rather than the regular blows the shield would take. Further a shield which a sword would bite into could be used to the user’s advantage, “the blow fell on his shield. Gunnar gave the shield a twist as the sword pierced it, and broke it short off at the hilt.” (Palmer, 1999:17). Thus in this case while the shield was penetrated the occurrence was used to its owner’s advantage by breaking the opponent’s sword while it was stuck. Swords sticking into a shield are evident in more than one place in these sagas.
Use of shield
There is also evidence of swords not sticking into the edge of a shield, “Kari caught the blow sideways on his shield, and the sword would not bite;” (Palmer, 1999:22), clearly the angle at which Kari parried his opponent’s blade was not correct to catch the opponent’s weapon in the edge of it. The use of the shield to defend a warrior is evident in many places throughout the sagas, “where he defended himself, holding his shield before him, and hewing with his sword. They made little way against him.” (Palmer, 1999:15). In some cases it was holding ground, and in other cases it was merely defending, “He held his shield before him and retreated” (Palmer, 1999:15). In either case, the shield was the key to the warrior’s defence.
Of course there is also evidence of what would happen if the warrior could not use his shield in time to block a blow of an opponent, “so he could not throw his shield before the blow,” and so was struck (Palmer, 1999:19). In this case “throwing” the shield before the blow is extending it toward the opponent. This gives evidence that the shield of the Norse warrior was not used in a passive way, but in an active one.
The shield was not held back, but extended toward the opponent, “Thorbjorn took his shield, and held it before him, drew his sword” (Palmer, 1999:15). This would enable the warrior to have room to move, or draw their sword and presents the shield in a more active position rather than a more passive one. In most instances where the shield is used it is in an active position rather than a more passive situation, “Then Thorbjorn rushed upon Grettir and struck at him, but he parried it with the buckler [shield] in his left hand and struck with his sword” (Palmer, 1999:16). This idea of the active use of the shield culminates in the shield strike where it is used against the opponent, “Thoralf thrust his shield so hard against Eyvind that he tottered with the shock.” (Palmer, 1999:24). This shield strike could be made against the shield or directly against the opponent, either way it demonstrates a very active method of using the shield rather than a passive one as often has been assumed.
Well, after some writing, collating, and quite a bit of editing I have created a book version of several of the posts which have been made here. Some people asked me to do this as they found that the articles were quite useful and they would be even more useful in a book format. Well, you got your wish. The book will be published on 15 March 2019, you may have seen the advertisements at the bottom of some of the posts for my GoFundMe to raise money to get the book published. These will give you an idea of some of the articles which appear in this book. If you have enjoyed reading my posts you will enjoy reading my book. It includes a Foreword by Keith Farrell.
"“A Fencer’s Ramblings” is a blog which was started in May 2010 to spread knowledge about the subject of Historical European Martial Arts, and indeed fencing in general. While there is a definite bend toward particular areas, nationalities, and forms, this blog has covered many differing subjects. What is contained within this book is a selection of the articles which appear on this blog, along with some extra articles of interest by the author. These have been updated and slightly re-written to suit their normal format, but they still retain their original purpose, to inform and educate the reader about various elements of the subject of fencing, which in and of itself must be taken from a broad point of view. Some of them are conversational others are written from a more academic point of view, this selection contains something of relevance for anyone who is interested in swords or swordplay."
The print version of the book is AU$28 (+P&H) while the eBook version (PDF) is $AU16. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy, then your pre-ordered print copy will be signed. Pre-orders should be sent to email@example.com.
There is a certain flavour to swordplay, and an expected code of conduct which is seen. This is one of the things that differentiates it from just two combatants beating the snot out of one another with swords. Many of these elements of etiquette are common knowledge, but some, it would seem, are not so common and need to be brought into the light. I have previously written a rather long discussion about fencing etiquette if you're interested, it can be found here. Needless to say this is a big thing for me.
At the beginning of a bout the two combatants salute one another, this is a sign of respect and thanks for their presence. Any officiating staff or an official table can be saluted as well, this is also a sign of respect and thanks. Once the bout has concluded the two combatants should handshake at the end of the bout to thank each other for the bout, all this is usual stuff. None of these actions should display any attitude toward the opponent or how well the fencer did during the bout. More to the point, these actions should be done regardless if the officiating staff directs the fencers to do so or not. It is just being polite and keeps the bout civil. This is all expected sort of stuff, which most fencers who have been about for a while would know.
Before all of this happens, there are some important steps that need to happen. Firstly, if this is the first time that you are meeting this particular opponent. It is good fencing etiquette to go up and introduce yourself to them. This is a good way to get the measure of your opponent and also break some of the tension. Even when the tournament stakes a relatively high, they are not to the death, and when they were the two combatants knew one another by name. It also means that you will know who you are fencing next time that their name is called, and it is also more likely that you will be able to discuss the bout afterward in a friendly manner. Friendships can be made by such a simple introduction.
With regard to introductions there is another step that needs to be made. When you arrive you should go and introduce yourself to the tournament officials and thank them for running the event. This will instantly put you on their radar in a positive way. When another school is running the tournament, you should also go and find their head instructor and introduce yourself to them, this is simply being polite.
If you are a head instructor of another school then this is even more important so that the other head instructor knows who you are. This way they know who to contact about disciplinary actions and also commendable actions performed by your students. If you merely just hang around with your students and other school members no one will know who you are, and if you then start giving instructions, offence may be given. This is an element of fencing etiquette which ensures smooth communication between participating schools at tournaments and builds a community spirit among them. It is vital to remember that fencing etiquette applies to all and that students will learn the keys of this from their teachers and thus they need to be examples for their students to follow.
There are designated safety officials at events, sometimes they are called Safety Marshals, sometimes just plain Marshals, either way, these individuals are the individuals who take the official burden of the safety of the event upon their shoulders, and it is not an easy task. What is even more important is that safety is everyone's concern, thus by default everyone is a safety official. If you see something which is of a safety concern, you are expected to call it. No one is going to complain if a bout is briefly halted due to someone being concerned about safety. Don't wait until it becomes a real issue stop it early. What is this doing in a discussion about etiquette? A person who does not assist where it is required in this area and leaves an incident to happen, which they could have stopped, breaches etiquette by their silence. There are times when staying silent is worse than standing up and saying something, and this is one of them. Cheers, Henry.