Play to Win

Learning is serious business. Whether in sport, academics, or our careers, we can spend thousands of hours and potentially even more dollars trying to improve our knowledge and abilities. Sometimes, however, in our efforts to excel, we forget one of the most serious parts of learning: the need to play.

Reaching the highest levels of any field–and certainly the highest levels of fencing–requires years of practice and coaching directed toward continual improvement. Realizing this, athletes, coaches, and parents often look for and design highly structured training to facilitate the development of the skills and abilities necessary to win at ever higher levels. As important as that training is, we must remember that, in addition to structured practice, we should also engage in “play”.

When we play, we partake in an activity simply for its own enjoyment. We experiment and try new things, free from concerns of winning and losing. This opens up new educational opportunities. As James F. Christie and Kathleen Roskos write in their paper Standards, Science, and the Role of Play in Early Literacy Education*:

Play, with its freedom from insistence on the here and now, introduces the flexibility that converts the rigidities of skill instruction into the realities of skill use by the child. Lacking this, children may be taught, but they may not learn in ways that evolve toward higher levels of skill performance and that, in the end, are educationally significant.

By spending some of our training time fencing without particular instructions from the coach, without worrying about winning, and taking a playful approach–trying different things, not allowing ourselves to be confined by any set of “right and wrong“–we create new avenues of learning that are lost to us if we rely entirely on structured practice for our development. This idea is important for fencers of all ages, but especially for children.

The work of researchers Jean Cote, Joseph Baker, and others** has demonstrated the significant impact play can have for the future athletic prospects of children. Top athletes are repeatedly shown to have spent more time engaged in “deliberate play”–backyard games of soccer, pickup games of baseball, etc.–as children than lower level players, in addition to the time they put toward structured practice.

Along with exposure to a wide range of sports when they are young, fencers of all ages can benefit greatly from time spent being inventive, unorthodox, and playful on the strip. It will improve their coordination, increase their understanding of the sport and of their bodies, allow them to formulate new technical and tactical solutions, intensify their motivation, and overall help them become better fencers. Play is an integral piece of learning to be creative on the strip. And, of course, it’s fun.

It may be difficult for the coach or parent to embrace the idea of play as a valuable piece of training. It’s easy to dismiss play as simply “goofing off”. After all, play requires no central authority pouring knowledge into the empty canister of the fencer’s mind. It requires coaches and parents to relinquish a certain degree of control of the athlete’s training and recognize how misconceived the canister metaphor is for the process of learning. However, while it may be a blow to the ego, those same coaches and parents will find that handing the athletes some autonomy in their training through play will yield greater results than structured practices alone.

So, on our journey to improve ourselves and our abilities, and to constantly learn more, we should remember that sage command we were repeatedly given as children:

Go play.

*The parallels between the importance of play in sports education and academic education are great. See Play = Learning(edited by Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta M. Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek) for the Christie/Roskos paper as well as many others that detail the value of play in the education of children.

**See Essential Processes for Attaining Peak Performance (edited by Dieter Hackfort and Gershon Tenenbaum) and Expert Performance in Sports: Advances in Research on Sport Expertise (edited by Janet Starkes and K. Anders Ericsson) for some of the relevant papers.

Luck and Flow

Legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once joked, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”* Though Gomez’s tongue was comfortably situated snugly in his cheek, there are many athletes who compete as though they are waiting for luck to hand them a victory.

In fencing, there is an obvious difference between those athletes who are waiting to be lucky and those who are actuallyfencing. Many fencers–maybe even most fencers–fence the same way from one bout to the next. They use the same actions, executed in the same way and with the same timing, irrespective of the opponent. These fencers are hoping that their usual routine will happen to succeed against the next competitor. Though they may not realize it, they’re hoping to get lucky.

Higher level fencers, on the other hand, adapt to and interact with the opponent. They fence the current bout as it is happening, instead of reliving previous bouts they’ve fenced hundreds of times. The difference between the fencers who are relying on luck and those who are good, is that the good fencers fence in the moment.

Fencing in the moment means, at its best, experiencing a state of flowFlow, identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi**, is the mental state that is often referred to as “being in the zone”. It is when you are entirely absorbed in an activity, so much so that you lose sense of anything else, even the passage of time. Accomplishing that requires tremendous concentration. It also results in much greater potential for top performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions that must be present for one to experience a flow state are also those that are necessary to optimize training and help a fencer develop the skills they need in order to move beyond relying on luck. They are:

– a clear set of goals,
– a balance between how difficult the athlete believes the challenge to be and how developed they believe their skills to be,
– immediate feedback.

When these conditions are combined with a high level of concentration and motivation, one may achieve flow and attain all the benefits that come with it (including great joy, increased potential for top performance, and improved learning). Perhaps more importantly, even if one doesn’t experience a flow state, the quality of learning will still necessarily benefit. When a fencer’s training lacks any of those three conditions, his development can suffer–even if he is motivated and concentrating. In training, the coach has much of the responsibility to make sure all three of those conditions are present, just as it is the fencer’s responsibility to make sure that he concentrates.

Training that has clear goals, a good challenge/skill balance (in other words, training that the athlete believes to be just at the edge of his limits), and immediate feedback isn’t concerned with luck. The point of that kind of training is to allow the athlete to take control of his development and his performance so that he can excel. It is an active response to the question of athletic achievement. Alternately, when one relies on luck (whether consciously or not), one is responding passively. That, fundamentally, is the difference between high achievers and everyone else: good fencers aren’t passive. They don’t have time to wait for luck.

Take a look at your own training and, most importantly, your mental approach. Are you actively engaged in your improvement? Are you regularly setting new goals and improving your abilities? Or are you doing the same things over and over and hoping for a “good day”, the right match-up, or a little luck?

Forget about luck and go with the flow.

*Gomez was as famous for his self-effacing humor as for his pitching. He also once said, “A lot of things run through your head when you’re going in to relieve in a tight spot. One of them was, ‘Should I spike myself?'”

**See Csikszentmihalyi’s books Flow and Flow in Sports (co-written with researcher Susan Jackson).

The Tao of Fencing

In his classic book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, martial arts legend Bruce Lee writes:

Fighters can be placed into two main categories: the “mechanical” fighter and the “intellectual” fighter. It’s easy for the mechanical fighter to give advice because his fighting techniques and tactics are the result of the mechanical repetition of strokes, bred of a lesson which was purely automatic and lacking any explanation of the why, the how and the when. Their fighting follows a familiar pattern in each successive encounter.

The best fencers distinguish themselves by their ability to adapt to a situation as it occurs, and their freedom from the restrictions of dogmatic teachings. Their responses to given conditions are not dictated by antiquated ideas of fencing “schools” or the opinions of specific coaches but, rather, by the immediate needs of the moment and their ability to perceive what is happening, based on their own experiences and individual characteristics.

The difference between the “mechanical” and “intellectual” fencer is in whether or not the athlete is entirely present in the bout. The mechanical fencer is conditioned to fence in the “right” way–both in terms of technique and tactics. This is necessarily limiting. The intellectual fencer strives to fence in an effective way. The truth of fencing is that there is no rightway. There is only that which works in the changing reality of the present moment, and that which does not.

Even a cursory look at the top fencers in the world shows how extremely varied highly successful technique (both in terms of bladework and footwork) and tactics can be. The 2008 Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medalists in women’s sabre, for example–Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson, and Becca Ward–all fence very differently. (This is perhaps even more striking due to the fact that two of them were trained by the same coach.) Look at the best fencers in any weapon and you will discover many different approaches to the technical and tactical needs of each bout.

The mechanical fencer will be limited by his predictability and by his inability to fully perceive and understand the reality of the bout. His belief in his “doctrines”–born from the mindless, machine-like training to which he has been exposed–will force him to only see the bout in terms of those doctrines. He will not be open to a fuller understanding of the interactions between his opponents and himself. He will not be open to the wide range of options available.

Fencers (and coaches) should work to move beyond thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong” and toward “presently effective” and “presently ineffective”. They must move beyond simple “mechanical repetition” in their training and toward dynamic, realistic preparation for the ever-changing conditions of bouts.

Fencers need to be able to fence in the moment, adapting with the changes as they happen. Tactical development needs to go well beyond the ability to pre-select actions while at the en garde line; high-level intuitive decision making* (sometimes referenced in our sport as technical-tactical skills) is fundamental to being able to fence in the moment. The intelligence of the “intellectual” fencer is not in his ability to consciously consider his options during the course of a bout but, rather, it is in his ability to understand and react to the present situation without the distractions of the conscious mind. This is one of the reasons that Lee notes that intellectual fighters will not be able to give advice as easily as mechanical fighters. The mechanical fencer will respond to surprises in his conditioned, predictable ways. The intellectual fencer will be able to demonstrate creativity when faced with the unexpected. That kind of approach does not lend itself to very concrete advice.

Technical development needs to emphasize variability and versatility, not absolutes: there are many ways to execute parry-4 or a lunge or a thrust, and the fencer must be ready to perform his movements as necessary for any given situation. The correct movements are the ones that are efficient (no wasted effort, nothing to signal the opponent, and executed in such a way as to facilitate the implementation of other movements afterward) and effective. Or (to put it another way) if it works, it’s good. And what works is always changing.

Bruce Lee also writes:

Truth has no path. Truth is living and, therefore, changing. It has no resting place, no form, no organized institution, no philosophy. When you see that, you will understand that this living thing is also what you are. You cannot express and be alive through static, put-together form, through stylized movement.

Approach your training with the goal of seeking that truth.

*There is some suggestion that implicit learning may improve intuitive decision making. See this paper by Marcus Raab.

Cowboy Wisdom

In the 1992 Western Unforgiven, Gene Hackman–no doubt channeling his inner cowboy sports psychologist–details what he believes to be the most important element for success in a gunfight, explaining: “Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya.” Unsurprisingly, this advice is applicable beyond a group of guys trying to shoot each other in the face.

A fascinating phenomenon can be regularly observed at fencing competitions of any level–from children’s events to Olympic Games–in which a bout that had been quite even, suddenly becomes very one-sided in its last moments. These are the sorts of bouts in which the fencers are trading off touches, neither gaining more than a one or two touch lead at any point (and that lead may even alternate between them) until, at say 10-10 or perhaps in the last moments of the final period, one fencer gets a run of uninterrupted touches, winning with a notable lead. In these bouts, the difference between the winner and loser is well defined by Hackman’s words.

Though the two fencers may initially be fencing the bout equally well, as the bout progresses one of the two starts to get “rattled under fire”. He becomes affected by fact that neither fencer is definitively winning the bout. Perhaps he had thought that the bout would not be as challenging or perhaps the high level of sustained intensity has begun to wear on him, but after fencing a significant portion of the bout at the same level as his opponent, he suddenly falls apart. He loses control of his emotional state.

There are two important lessons fencers must take with them from this scenario. The first, of course, is to be prepared–and even comfortable–fencing close bouts. It can even sometimes be beneficial for the fencer to anticipate the score staying close. Expecting an effortless win and, instead, finding a challenging opponent can be a lot more disconcerting (and certainly more stressful) than fencing a bout that turns out to be easier than you planned for.

Secondly, fencers should learn to identify the opponents who have more difficulty maintaining their emotional control. These are often the competitors who get particularly frustrated as the bout wears on or when a referee’s calls don’t go their way; they get more temperamental and excitable in high-intensity situations. The important quality to look for is not simply whether a fencer is high-energy and excited, but whether his emotional state clearly changes in difficult situations.

When facing more emotionally erratic opponents, fencers should be sure to maintain their own composure while, at the same time, keeping the pressure on. There are various ways to exert that pressure (yelling after touches, creating brief delays in the bout, fencing more aggressively, employing certain kinds of body language, etc.) and choosing the right tactic will depend on identifying what is most likely to create a reaction from the opponent. Most importantly, fencers need to be patient. In the beginning of the bout, the opponent may fence very well and show no sign that he may lose control. However, it is important to stay focused and continue to manage one’s own emotions while waiting for the opponent to fail to do the same. Very often–especially in close bouts–it is not the fencer with the best weapon control, but the one with the best emotional control who wins. This advice can be particularly valuable when fencing an opponent who is expecting to win, or one who has better technique or more experience.

Once the opponent starts to become more emotional, the signs will become obvious. It can be easy to lose control of one’s own emotions while watching the opponent become more upset, so self-regulation is critical. Emotional instability is what will take the opponent out of the psychological state he needs to be in to fence well. To take advantage of that failing, fencers must be sure to “keep their heads”.

Good technique is a valuable part of success in fencing, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed.

Feed the Animals

In her latest blog post, Stanford University researcher (and author of Mindsets) Carol Dweck argues against the current trend in US education of emphasizing testing in schools. The result, she claims, “sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb–not a place to create and learn.” A similar phenomenon can be found in youth sports.

The sports analogue to school testing is, of course, competition. Competition can be a great deal of fun, highly instructive, and an important part of the training process. It can also, however–much like testing–become counterproductive if it is over-utilized.

Increasingly, the pattern in youth sports has been to greatly intensify the emphasis on competition.* Children are competing more often and at younger ages. Though not as severe as the problems in youth baseball or soccer, in fencing there are competitions being held for 7 and 8 year olds. There are 9 year olds flying across the country to compete against each other. In a sport in which peak performance is generally reached when an athlete is well into his 20s or 30s, this approach is concerning.

The goal of sports instruction for children needs to be instructiontheir education and development–not assessment. Children, particularly very young children, gain very little from competing. As much as one might wish otherwise, there is no way to determine whether a young child will be a champion adult athlete, and an intense competition schedule does not increase a child’s chances of future success.**

The downside for the child in an environment overemphasizing competition can be great. He is at a greater risk of burnout, his learning is more likely to be “corrupted” (learning what he needs to win against other children, rather than the skills he will need to be successful when he’s older), and perhaps worst of all he risks developing what Dweck terms a “fixed mindset”–believing his abilities are fixed rather than learning that his success is a matter of sustained effort even after experiencing failure. An athlete with a fixed mindset will avoid challenges in order not to look incapable–an approach which is directly contradictory to what is necessary for high level learning and achievement.

Coaches and parents should aspire to create an environment where the focus is on teaching the children not just the sport, but the idea that learning is an ongoing process and the act of engaging in learning (through the work and practice they put in) is more important than immediate results. Children who understand that will learn far more and be far more resilient when they experience failure. And, of course, they will be much more likely later on to be successful in sport (and everything else) when an increased competition schedule becomes more appropriate.

As Dweck notes in her blog, recounting the words of an educator from India who was comparing US and Indian educational policy: “Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Children are a lot like wild animals, of course. Our focus needs to be on feeding them because their weights are always changing.

* See Mark Hyman’s Until It Hurts and Richard Gindburg et al’s Whose Game Is It, Anyway?

** See the work of Tudor Bompa, especially his Childhood to Champion Athlete

Video – Cartwheel Lunges

Fencing exercises should be fun and dynamic. By practicing fencing movements in various–an often unusual–contexts, students learn faster and have way more fun. See our new video below for an example of how to make learning fencing movements more fun and effective.

When learning and perfecting fencing movements, be especially careful to avoid boring, mechanical, repetitive activities. The more varied and interesting the exercises are, the better you (or your students) will learn and more expansive your skill-set will be.

A Small World View

Curacao is a beautiful Caribbean island with a population of about 140,000, extremely limited resources, and some of the best Little League Baseball players in the world. They qualified for the Little League World Series every year from 2001-2009, winning the title in 2004, and taking second in 2005. Eleven players from Curacao have gone on to play Major League ball. Curacao is a baseball phenomenon.* To put this in perspective: 180,000 teams from 90 countries compete in Little League baseball. That’s more teams than Curacao has people.

There are many things that contribute to Curacao’s success: highly motivated athletes, supportive families, dedicated coaches, and a national love of the sport. Those same factors are, of course, found in cities all over the US (not to mention Latin America, Japan, etc.) that don’t have nearly the level of success that Curacao has, in spite of often having far better funding. So what makes Curacao different?

Curacao has an asset that many of its competitors will never be able to emulate: it’s tiny.

When, in the opening game of the 1996 Major League World Series, Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Arndruw Jones hit back-to-back homeruns, the entire island of Curacao wasn’t just watching their countryman succeed, they were cheering on their neighbor–someone whom they knew, whose house they could point out, and whose family they saw regularly. (It is Jones’ breakout success in ’96 that Dan Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, credits with causing an explosion of passion for baseball that precipitated Curacao’s rise to Little League prominence 5 years later.)

Because of Curacao’s tiny size, the children there don’t just idolize their heroes, they identify with them. They see their heroes’ lives–particularly their early lives–as a parallel of their own. They don’t just say, “I want to be like him when I grow up”; they say, “I believe I can be like him when I grow up.” This, like dominoes falling, causes more and more success. Kids who watched Jones at the World Series eventually qualified for the Little League World Series. They then came back and helped the next group of kids below them who now had a larger group of successful athletes with whom they could identify. Every new success creates several more. Suddenly, a country that had produced only four Major League players in the entire 20th Century, has added seven more since just 2000.

The same process can be seen in US fencing. As recently as the 1990s, it was universally accepted amongst Americans that the US could never compete with Europeans in fencing. There weren’t enough fencers or money or good coaches or time or whatever. Then, in 1995, Iris Zimmerman won the under-17 World Championships in women’s foil. This was almost immediately followed by stronger and stronger results for US fencers, leading to the incredible dominance of US women in sabre. Mariel Zagunis winning Olympic Gold and Sada Jacobson Bonze in 2004 led to the US picking up 6 Olympic medals and having the second highest medal count of any country in Beijing in 2008.

Although the US is a large country, the American fencing world is extremely small. It is fairly easy to meet, get to know, and compete against the top fencers. As a result, a single individual achieving something great impacts everyone. It changes the culture. The kids who are learning to fence in the US today are a lot like the kids learning baseball in Curacao. They don’t lament US fencing weakness. They believe–they know–that they can compete with anyone in the world. They knowthey can win Olympic medals.

A similar effect often appears in small fencing clubs. One strong fencer suddenly leads to a wave of strong fencers a few years later. The training may not have changed, but the perceptions of the athletes have.

There are, perhaps, two extremely important lessons from this. First, smaller is often better–the beliefs of the athletes are far more important than the number of athletes. Secondly–and maybe most importantly–take your heroes off their pedestals. After all, if you’ve put them up too high, how will you ever reach them?

*The documentary film Boys of Summer follows the team during its 2008 season and is certainly worth adding to your Netflix queue.


Losers Rule

Alexandr Romankov is often remembered for his ten World Championships and five Olympic medals, and is generally considered one of the greatest fencers in history. However, what is often overlooked–and, perhaps, is far more interesting–is that Romankov’s early fencing career was unexceptional. He spent many years without any great success in the sport. He loved fencing, however, and had a coach that insisted that, with diligence and patience, Romankov would eventually excel, so he continued to train hard.

The Soviet national coaches and fencing federation were so unconvinced of Romankov’s prospects as an athlete that it was only in 1974, after his diligence and patience paid off and he had won every national competition, including the USSR National Championship, that he was finally permitted to join the national team and compete internationally. In fact, although he had already won every domestic event, he was told that anything other than first place at the Nationals would mean he would not be on the national team. One month later he won the World Championships*.

Success is often romanticized as something magical or determined by fate: a great champion who comes out of nowhere and is totally unbeatable; the boy who has never trained before but, after a little practice with a wise old master (Wax on! Wax off!), can defeat opponents who have trained for years; the poor, uneducated laborer who suddenly discovers he actually has some unknown world-class skill. These ideas can make for enjoyable stories, but they do not reflect the reality of how success is achieved.

Success is always the product of failure. In order to learn the skills necessary for success, one must first fail. No child is born knowing how to ride a bicycle. It is only after trying, falling down, and trying again, that he eventually learns. The forms and varieties that failure come in are extensive. Fencers first fail when they are introduced to the basic fencing movements–they don’t control their weapons properly nor move well on the strip. They fail during individual lessons and group exercises: hitting at the wrong time or in the wrong way, using the distance incorrectly, etc. They fail when they try to implement new ideas or new actions. They fail during bouts. They fail during competitions. Failure occurs far more frequently, in fact, than success.

Successful people are not those who do not experience failure, they are those who accept failure as part of the process of improvement.

Accelerating that process often requires one to seek out failure. There are coaches and teachers who endeavor to only provide their students with challenges that they know the students will immediately overcome. These educators believe their students should always feel successful. Similarly there are students who avoid anything that they are not certain they can manage. In fencing, this means fencers who never try anything new and coaches who never conduct exercises beyond their athletes’ current abilities.

In order to excel, we must move outside our comfort zones. We must challenge ourselves–which means we must attempt things that are beyond our abilities. The sign that something is beyond your abilities is, of course, failure.

If you are not routinely failing, it is impossible to improve. When you fail at something, keep working at it until you can fail at something new. By escaping the trap of avoiding failure and, instead, understanding its irreplaceable value, you will be able to make huge strides in your learning and progress.

And that rules most of all.

*It’s worth noting that in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was such a fencing powerhouse that the USSR National Fencing Championships was considered a much stronger competition than the World Championships.

Tactics and Fireballs

The arcade game boom of the 1970s and 80s was fading and interest in video games was waning when the entire industry was suddenly jolted back into relevance with the appearance of Capcom’s Street Fighter II in 1991. Though the invention of the two-player fighting game is often traced back to Tim Skelly’s 1979 dueling game Warrior, it wasn’t until Street Fighter II appeared with its cast of playable characters, each with their own assortment of special moves, that the fighting game genre took off. Pac-Man and pinball may have lost their appeal, but Ken and Ryu brought players–and their quarters–back into the arcades.

One thing that became immediately obvious to everyone in the video game industry was how often players would come back to play the game in order to work on their skills and better their performance. The range of techniques and tactics employed in Street Fighter II went far beyond what players had seen in games like Donkey Kong and Q*bert, and many players engrossed themselves in the quest for mastery.

Though it was more complicated than the games that preceded it, the moves of any particular character were still easy enough for the casual player to learn–which meant that success in the game was dependent on a player’s tactics. Players would develop and practice assorted tactical choices in order to beat their opponents. When is the best time to use a certain move? How far away should I be in order to have the best chance of success? Players deliberately worked to improve the choices they made in the game.

The processes involved in learning tactics in fighting video games parallel how tactics are learned in fencing. It is those processes–as they pertain to tactics, in particular–that makes learning fencing particularly engrossing.

Learning is often distinguished as either occurring implicitly or explicitly (or as some combination of the two). Implicit learning refers to learning that occurs incidentally, without any intent to learn an underlying rule structure–often without any particular intent to learn anything at all. Children first learn their native languages implicitly–they may understand the rules of grammar enough to make proper sentences, but they cannot necessarily explain what those rules are. Explicit learning refers to educational situations in which the various structures involved are explored and defined. If you learn a language in terms of conjugations and declinations, you are learning it explicitly. The ability to verbalize the specific rules of a situation (e.g. “When the opponent searches for my blade, I should hit with disengage.”) is indicative of explicit learning.

Much of what we learn in fencing (and video games) happens implicitly. Many of the nuances of how fencers prepare their actions and which actions they choose in certain situations may, for many fencers, be learned implicitly. In fact, research shows that many things are much better learned implicitly than explicitly. According to the work of Gabriele Wulf* and others, sports technique is acquired faster, more permanently, and can be correctly performed under higher levels of stress when learned implicitly. When it comes to tactics, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Research by Markus Raab at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin suggests that the less tactically complex a sports activity is, the more valuable implicit learning is; conversely the more tactically complex the activity, the more efficacious explicit learning will be. In other words, when an activity has a smaller number and variety of choices, it can be learned better implicitly. When an activity has more choices and more variations, explicit learning will better prepare the student. (It should be noted that any explicit learning will necessarily also contain implicit elements.) All of this is very valuable information for fencers and coaches.

The first lesson here is that fencers looking to excel should be focusing more of their conscious effort on improving their tactics than their technique. This is not to say that fencers should ignore their technical development, but rather that technique can be expected to improve a lot “on its own” if it is couched in the proper tactical context.

Secondly, fencers should be fairly deliberate about their tactical development. The coach, of course, can be very helpful here, but there are many ways for a fencer to improve his tactical understanding on his own. Remember, young children often develop a fairly sophisticated understanding of video game tactics without the help of a coach. Fighting games, like Street Fighter II, have many of the same tactical concepts as fencing, which players are able to master independently. (The benefits of independent explicit learning on tactical development is one of the reasons why fencers should keep fencing journals.)

Finally, it should be realized that there is no such thing as fencing training devoid of tactical learning. Tactics are, fundamentally, decision-making in bouts. It is impossible to fence without making decisions (though they may not be very good decisions). A fencer without any understanding of tactics would stand dumbly in place waiting to be hit. That, however, doesn’t happen because from the moment a student gets on the strip for the first time, he begins learning–often implicitly–certain basic tactical notions.

By understanding how we learn–and particularly the role played by both implicit and explicit learning on technique and tactics–we can structure our training to accelerate our improvement and maximize our results which, of course, for our opponents means game over.

*see Wulf’s Attention and Motor Skill Learning.

Made You Flinch

In The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi writes, “In battle, if you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.” This idea is at the heart of tactics in fencing. In order to control an opponent and properly frame the bout, fencers have to be able to do more than just respond to their opponents’ choices. They must force their opponents to react.

Many people often think of creating a reaction as an idea that only applies to feints or second-intention actions. In fact, the majority of what we do in a bout should be designed to elicit responses from our opponent. The way we maneuver, the movements of our blade, what distance we fence in, our body language, even how we choose to leave the en garde line when the referee says, “fence,” all present opportunities for us to draw a reaction from our opponent. That reaction might be something quite obvious (such as in the examples of effective feints or second-intention actions) or it might be far more subtle. Affecting how assertively the opponent fences or what part of the strip he uses, for example, can be much more devastating than drawing a parry with an effective feint–partly because those kinds of reactions are more likely to go unrecognized for what they are, but also because they affect the rest of our opponent’s choices (eg. a fencer who has backed up to the end of the strip is not going to make the same choices as one who is in the middle).

Understanding the likely reactions to the situation he’s created (based on an understanding of common responses as well as knowledge of an individual opponent’s preferences) coupled with good technical-tactical skills, allows a fencer to be a moment ahead of his opponent. If, for example, a fencer uses sharp changes in distance (including half-steps, small hops, etc.) to make his opponent nervous while he prepares his attack, it will be much easier to parry the attack than if the fencer were to simply back up and wait for the action to come, hoping his parry will be at the right time and place.

Fencing, like all combat sports (as well as team games), relies heavily on motor responses while under time pressure. The goal in creating a reaction is to take advantage of that fact. The opponent does not have time to consider and compare various responses–this is one of many ways that the analogy to chess is so ill-fitted to fencing. In order to best control the opponent, a fencer wants to create situations that the opponent responds to immediately and without thinking. In a sense, you want to make your opponent flinch.

Here’s a simple exercise you can do to improve your tactical understanding and ability to create reactions:

Write down profiles of some of the fencers you routinely encounter–these can be teammates from your club as well competitors you regularly see in competitions. While you should, of course, include their favorite actions, the profile should have far more depth. What part(s) of the strip do they generally fence on? What do they do when they are there? How do they react when they get nervous? What sorts of things generally make them nervous? How do they react to a fencer who is very aggressive? How do they react to a fencer who is less aggressive? You want to create a profile that examines more than just whether or not an opponent likes parries or generally hits to a particular line.

Once you’ve made your profiles, develop different plans that make use of that information. (“I know she gets a little frantic when someone suddenly accelerates into short distance. I’ll do that and finish with a strong beat-attack or feint to take advantage of the loss of control.”) For competitions, it’s best if your plans focus on your own strengths (in practice, of course, you needn’t be so limited). Then, go test your plans out. Through experimenting, you’ll get greater insight into your opponents, allowing you to make even better plans. Even more importantly, your ability to analyze the opponent and the situation will improve significantly, which is essential if you are to effectively control the other fencer.

Remember, as Musashi also said, “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you.”