Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cruddy Practices and Events and Getting Past Them

Pretty sure we've all had off events. Practice or event, pickups or tournament. I've been mulling them over lately, and I figured I'd toss out what's occurred to me, and people can chime in with what's worked for them, and we can all get some good ideas to try and turn cruddy times into productive improvement.

Besides, this might be old hat to a lot of people, but since I had to figure out how to deal with this more or less on my own, I figure that other folks might find it useful.

I think it's easier for me to do this when I'm coming away from pickups or practice bouts; I'm usually not nearly so dialed in as I am in a tournament with something on the line, so I feel like my brain has more cycles to pay attention to what I'm doing (or not doing, as the case may be). I'm probably the most self-critical fighter I know. In some ways, this means that I get to pay a lot of attention to a lot of little details about my fighting, and improve them. This is good! On the other hand, it means that I get really down on myself when things aren't working right. The bar I set for myself is, perhaps, unrealistically high. Oops.

Because of this, I think it's worth starting this discussion at the point where the fighting is going south, and it's starting to bother you. It's pretty easy for a feedback loop of frustration to start, and (as much as I'm terrible at doing this part) getting out of that is super important. Depending on the setting, I might take any number of actions to do this. Sometimes, I just call it a night a bit early. Other times, I'll armor down a bit and go do some teaching. I might even just go work on something simple that always needs attention, like footwork. In all of these cases, I'm making sure to just not do what I'm doing anymore. Give yourself a break, and eventually, some time to think.

The next part is the really hard part - if you're not fighting as well as you think you should be and you're getting frustrated, you have to figure out what specifically isn't working out for you. This can be more than one thing for sure, but be clear and concise. Examples might include:
- I'm not paying attention to distance.
- I'm off balance.
- My lunges aren't committed.
- My buckler isn't being active; it's just a stationary thing all the time.
- My disengages are huge.

These things don't need to be all encompassing, but you're looking for a number of the little issues which are adding to your frustration. I recommend nailing down some of these very quickly after you armor down, if you can. I find that when I'm getting deeply frustrated, the issues I come up with are either things that are ongoing issues that I'm already working on, or things that I know I shouldn't be having problems with but for some reason I'm just messing up. Write these down. If you have a teacher who's watching your fights, absolutely hit them up for their thoughts. Write those down, too.

Then - and this is the really important part - don't do anything until you've slept. No, seriously. Take that night's sleep and just let your brain work through what's been going on by itself on its own. This is super important. Your brain does a lot of work on things when it's not super active, and giving it time to do this is huge.

The next morning, take that list and come up with some drills for the next week. (You knew that drills would figure into this somehow, right?) They don't need to be expansive; you're looking to work on those specific things you wrote about. If the problems were things you've already been working on, you may already have drills that you're using for them. In that case, excellent! Make sure you fit them into your weekly rotation with a bit more prominence. If they're things that you just know you shouldn't be doing because you know better, then come up with something that you can do for five minutes in a drill session to remind your body and brain what's what.

Then go do them. Every day for a week.

Is five minutes a day for a week enough to train yourself a new skill? No, it really isn't. Is it enough to give yourself some progress on fixing a frustrating issue? Yeah, it really is. If it's still bothering you after a week, then you keep that drill in your rotation. If not, awesome, rotate it out and bring something else in.

So, yeah. That's what works for me. If there are better and more useful ways to deal with this type of thing, I'd love to hear them! (And I bet other people here will, too.)

Monday, April 20, 2015


In keeping with the trend lately of examining (or re-examining) fundamental concepts, I wanted to kick around some thoughts on tricks. Most of these are opinions I've held for a long time, but they've been put into a new context recently, so now I get to put these thoughts out here.

Usually when someone is describing a trick that they have, they're talking about one specific set of motions that they do that usually ends up with them striking their opponent. It's usually a set of motions that has a reasonably high success rate, or at least that the fighter perceives as a high success rate. It's a set of motions that they can train repeatedly, and can become very fast and smooth; they're basically setting up a macro that they can execute at whim.

If someone is describing a trick that someone else has, the definition is usually similar - a specific set of motions, a thing that they do, that works most of the time.

I think that both of these are problematic areas of thought to fall into. It's not the training that's the problem - most every fighter that I know has a number of go-to attacks or setups that they use, and a lot of those have turned into signature actions. This person's stutter step, that person's blade displacement on a lunge, that other person's wrist-roll on a cut. Those are all totally reasonable. The problem that I see coming up a lot lately is when the concept of the trick exists in a vacuum, and isn't based on sound fundamentals.

To put it another way, it's not the concept of a trick that I think is an issue, but it's the thought process behind it. If you don't understand what you're doing and why it works - if you can't describe how your trick is playing with measure, or deceiving the opponent, or whatever - then it's not adaptable. You're stuck with this one thing that you can do super well, sure, but it's not really adaptive if the situation changes. I think that the fighters I know who have a few bread and butter shots (and man, now I need a better term than "trick") but who really grasp the core concepts of fighting are insanely dangerous, because they can change up those shots on the fly.

Now that I've written this down, I'm not sure where else to take this (other than to say, "Hey! Learn your fundamentals and also be sure to drink your Ovaltine!") but I'll probably mull this over in my head more.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Economy of Tempo and Measure

It's time for more post-VISS rambling! Rather than talk about concrete technique type things, I'm in the mood to kick around some higher conceptual type things - specifically tempo, measure, the relationship between them, and what it means for the fighter.

I tend to work from the Italian framework of rapier theory. In general, this means that closer is better. If my opponent gives me a tempo to work with, I'm generally going to respond by closing. (Striking with my sword is closing of a sort, too. It's just a very final closing.) If I can't close safely, I want to set myself up to be able to do so. If I can ever avoid backing up, I will. (Ever notice how many actions in the Italian - and many other - manuals involve closing, and basically none involve giving ground? I heard some good theories about this from Tom Leoni - in short, if you're on a battlefield you don't want to back up because the ground is littered with tripping hazards and falling is death. In a duel, leaving the circle is losing. Not stepping into areas that you don't have eyes on can dramatically limit these issues.)

The problem with being close to my opponent - ideally close enough to strike with an extension or at most a "firm footed lunge" - is that any tempo I work inside gets shorter and shorter the closer I get. In terms of keeping myself alive, I don't like working inside a short tempo. I want more time to think, to react, and to respond to the attack. If I'm the one doing the attacking then a short tempo is awesome, but the first thing we need to be concerned about is defense, and only then do we consider offense, so there we go.

This leads to something which I've started to mentally refer to as the economy of tempo and measure. They seem to work on an inverse relationship; if you want more of one, you're giving up something from the other. There are some ways you can impact the exchange rate for specific actions, but you're still working against that relationship no matter what. We've all played with this, whether we really understood what was happening or not. Any time you lean or step back as you parry, you're selling off distance to increase the length of the tempo you're responding in. If you close with your attack, you're selling down that tempo to buy back some of that distance.

The more I mull this idea over, the more it gets increasingly clear just how much these two concepts encompass so much of the fight. This was pretty obvious to me before, but now it's become obvious in the way that the sun is kind of a thing that you notice in the sky.

Partly because of an increased mental emphasis on doing drills correctly, I'm looking at setting up exchanges to be what I want them to be. That's far from universally successful for me, but the point is that one of the keys to this is understanding how what you're doing will be impacted by the tempo and measure you're working within, and how it will impact them in turn. If I'm closing, I want to set things up so that whatever my opponent does will require a far longer tempo than what I plan on doing. Sure, realistically, there'll be people who just have insanely fast hand speed, and that's fine - but if you're able to play with the fundamentals really well, that doesn't matter because they just need to take such a huge tempo to strike you that even if they're speeding through the motion, you still have time to strike them safely.

This really feels to me like one of those Matrix moments. Once you've started to see the source code, you can't unsee it. This doesn't remotely mean that body mechanics, moving in good order, or any other fundamentals are unimportant, or even less important. Rather, it highlights the importance of training all of those things so that you can perform them so efficiently that you can shave down the tempo you need, or have a much more fine control over measure.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Best Practices for Drilling (The first of a series of VISS takeaway posts!)

Having just gotten back from VISS (which was awesome), I think that the next couple of posts here will be pretty heavily inspired by some takeaways I had. Not everything came right out of a class or a specific discussion; rather, a lot of things just kind of coalesced over the course of the weekend, and I get to talk about them here.

Rather than get technique-specific (or even more weird and esoteric) out of the gate, I want to start in with my thoughts on Best Practices For Drilling!

What struck me over the time I spent at the conference was how wonderfully collaborative it was. While a number of individuals there can be absolutely competition-minded (I'm certainly one of them), the atmosphere at VISS was one of communal learning. One of the places where this came out most was in paired drilling.  There's a lot that we can learn from the WMA community, and the work they do in paired drills is right up there, and I'm gonna share what I learned here.

Out of the gate, there was an emphasis on referring to the people doing the drill as "partners." You didn't have an opponent in your drill, you had a partner. This is a small change, to be sure, but I really think that it carries some really massive connotations. You aren't working against the person doing a drill with you, you're working with them, together, and trying to help each other out. No matter who gets struck at the end of the drill, you're both working and learning, regardless of relative skill levels.

There were some other, really concrete things that I took away, that I need to keep in mind for my own personal practice and teaching:

Being a good drill partner means that it's contingent on you to perform your techniques accurately and well. If you are delivering an attack, it must be an honest attack - on target, and able to strike your partner if they don't do something about it. There's a tendency in partnered drills to really let this slide - you assume the parry that your partner is supposed to do, so you don't make it a real attack that would actually land. This obviously doesn't help your partner learn to perform the correct counters, but it also teaches you to launch bad attacks. Nothing good comes of this.

On the same token, be sure to keep building up correct steps in the play that you're drilling. One thing that can really help this by working it out step by step from the beginning, and not jumping straight to the finished form. I don't mean doing the whole completed play slowly (though that's also good, and I'll touch on that later!) but rather building it up from the ground. For example, start with the most basic movement - generally, one fencer making an attack and striking the other. Do that. Do it well. Understand how the drill is starting. Then add the response to that. Do it a couple times. Then add the final counter to that defense. This way, you know that the whole drill is being based on solid techniques, and you have a better understanding of how all of them fit together, and why you might perform those actions in a real bout. This is a really good thing to do when you're just learning a drill, and is worth doing for multiple practice sessions in a row. Even when the drill is old hat, running through the buildup to self-check is a good call.

Related to this, you need to work on performing the technique correctly and accurately as prescribed by the drill. For some people there's a real desire to work outside the script, generally while saying, "Well, I can do this instead" or "I think this works better." Both of those might be true! You may prefer other techniques or you might feel like you get better results with them. That's fine, but it's also not what you're working on. Take the opportunity to work on a new thing for you, and remember that you're not helping your partner learn what they're setting out to learn if you're not giving them the correct techniques to work against.

Remember that even if you're the person being struck in the end, there's a lot that you're learning in the drill - don't just be a passive recipient of the final blow. The drill is still an opportunity to practice using the techniques that you're supposed to be using, but more than that, it's an opportunity to see how they work out. You get to see how a technique you're using looks and feels when it's countered; this is invaluable in a real fight, because you quickly learn when to bail to plan B, rather than press home a failed attempt at an attack. On the other hand, if your partner isn't sticking their end, you get to see how your technique feels when it works!

On that note, be sure to test your partner on occasion. You want to let them become familiar with the movements of the drill relatively unopposed, but you need to be sure to actually give them a good simulation of what they'll be up against. If they're supposed to find your blade as you attack, gain it, and strike you, and they perform a terrible gaining? Continue with your attack and hit them in the face! Don't do a counter to what your partner is doing, but just continue to perform your action if they can't stop you. Performing the correct technique poorly doesn't help anyone, but you need to be sure to have both of you troubleshoot why that happened. Don't leave your partner to figure it out on their own, but work together to fix it so that they can hit you like the drill calls for. Don't be a jerk about testing them - when there's a wide gap in skill levels this happens sometimes, and it can get really frustrating. Don't make it too easy, but keep pushing them to do it well, and you can work on your detail work and observation.

Drills are, in a lot of ways, performed in an "all things created equal" situation. You want to be sure that you're practicing them at the same speed as the slower partner. This ensures that it's the real technique being worked on, and not just throwing lots of speed all over the place. You can speed up the techniques as you get used to performing them properly. If they start to fall apart at all, slow it back down a bit. Work at the same speed all the time. Similarly, if there's a height or reach discrepancy, you can usually work around it without changing the core of the drill. One person may start a bit closer (for instance, if a drill calls for the attacker to start at misura larga, then they determine their misura larga) but the core sequence of the drill should be unaffected.

Finally, when drills offer the possibility of a choice, there's nothing wrong with deciding to limit the available options for a specific runthrough. It's amazing how much more complicated your decision tree becomes when you move from two choices to three, and that kind of added stress can distract from performing the techniques by a shocking amount. If in a drill one fencer can respond with, say, a push back, doing nothing, or a cavazione - and each of those requires its own response - it is absolutely fine to decide that for this set, that fencer can only choose between pushing back or a cavazione for the time being.

So that's that! The weekend was full of a lot of paired work, and over three days, all of this was my takeaway. I had the pleasure of working with a number of great partners of all kinds of skill levels, and being able to work with each other to help each other improve made such a difference in what I was able to take away from just one weekend of time.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wiktenaur Donation Drive

It's time for me to do this quick driveby fundraising mention here for Period Combat Nerds! 

The good folks over at the Wiktenaur site are holding an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, to pay for ongoing site costs as well as access to more manuals to scan and post for all of us to use.

This site is a fantastic resource, and being able to see them post even more manuals would be really awesome.

The drive ends on February 17. They've already met the base goal and are well into stretch goals, but every little bit, right?

Let's breeze through Plate 26 and 27, and get to Plate 28 and 29!

Woo hoo, we're back! In the time since the last post, things got wild and crazy for the rapier community, and a little wild and crazy for me, and also some real life. Also, snow. Good times, everyone!

So we're just going to briefly look at  Plates 26 and 27. It's not that they aren't interesting (they are) or contain important information (they do, but it's really an application of the fundamentals, like a lot of plates), but they're primarily interested in dealing with what SCA would consider percussive cuts. As I'm mostly interested in working through what we can really do with historic technique underneath the SCA's limitations, they're not hugely applicable, but here's a quick and dirty overview of them anyway.

Plate 26 has both fencers starting in Third, on the outside. (I want to work through this slowly sometime soon with someone else to see how this works, because I can absolutely see how it's on the outside, but saying that you "find them in Fourth" doesn't make sense to me, but I'm probably wrong and Fabris is right. Regardless, though.) You find your opponent's blade and they respond by raising their weapon to perform a mandritto (a cut from their right side). When they do, you hit them. Since the cut is coming from your opponent's right, or the inside line, you want to strike with your hand in Fourth, so that even if the cut falls, you can just raise your hand a little to catch it.

Basically, your opponent takes a big tempo in raising their sword to cut from the shoulder, and you take a much shorter tempo in killing them. Fabris does say that even if they take a shorter tempo and strike from the wrist, you still do the same thing and just catch the cut on your guard as you strike them. This is a fundamental concept, and we've seen this illustrated constantly up to this point. 

Note that Fabris does instruct us to make sure to roll our hand into Fourth and cover our heads if need be. This is consistent with his previous plates as well, in that if we're striking in mezzo tempo when our opponent is taking an offensive tempo (as in Plate 23) we want to make sure we're defended against it. If we're striking when our opponent is taking a nonoffensive tempo (as in Plate 22) we just strike cleanly in, without covering for anything.

Plate 27 is really the same thing, but on the other side. We find our opponent on the inside, they move to prepare for a cut on the outside, and we strike them in that tempo, rolling our hand into Second to cover for the cut from the outside.

...huh, okay, that was a fair amount of time spent on Plates 26 and 27, after all. That's fine, let's move to Plates 28 and 29 anyway. It's snowing outside, I'm warm inside, so I'm going to keep writing!

On the surface, Plate 28 looks very similar to Capo Ferro's Plate 8, which I've referenced to a lot of people before. It isn't really, but it does still serve to visually remind us about distance, leg shots at range, and how a2+b2=c2 and how that can make some attacks really bad ideas.

Reading the text though, we can see what Fabris is really getting at. We start on the outside, and we're way out at misura larga. We start to find our opponent's sword, and they respond by rolling into a mandritto at our head.

Again, a mandritto is coming from their right, or our inside line. We're at misura larga though, so Fabris says we should lean our head back a bit, and let the cut just "pass harmlessly." Yep. No parry, no nothing. Not even necessarily something a lot of people would call a void. As soon as the cut passes, you lunge and kill them. No muss, no fuss.  Fabris outright tells us that he thinks it's better to just "let cuts fall without parrying" rather than spending a lot of effort parrying them.

Plate 29 is predictably a similar action on the other side. We find their blade on the inside, they roll to perform a riverso, which is a cut from the outside.

The two real differences here are that this time Fabris specifies that we drop our point a bit to avoid blade contact, and when the cut passes we strike, and that he specifies we should strike in Fourth to cover the side that the cut has fallen into. This may not be necessary, but perhaps if it was a smaller cut from the wrist, it might be important to keep in mind.

As I said at the start of this entry, if we're not doing Cut and Thrust, these aren't things that we'll really see in this form while we're using rapiers in the SCA. That said, these techniques are absolutely applicable to anyone who loves large blade beats. Earlier in his manual, Fabris states that we can use a cavazione to deal with someone beating your blade, and avoid contact entirely. This is absolutely true - but I think we've all seen people who will, at a very wide measure, wind up and deliver a heavy beat to your blade - and in such a case, the techniques in these four plates would also serve very well.

Again, he's being consistent in his principles of avoiding blade contact unless absolutely necessary, and striking in mezzo tempo whenever possible. He's not trying to gunsling against his opponent, but hit them when they're doing something else.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fabris, Plate 25

Things are kinda crummy right now for the rapier community for a bunch of reasons.

So I did some point control tonight and now we're gonna look at Plate 25! (It's on the right. It's also really cool.)

Prime! That weird guard that everyone says "what good is that really?" about. This! It is good for this! (And other things too, but this!)

Anyway. "This wound of first against a third would happen this way."

Fencers begin at misura larga, in Third, on the outside. Each is forcefully pushing their blade against the other. (This is one of those positions that none of us should ever want to be in, but here we are.)

You should quickly turn their hand into First. While you are doing that and lifting your hand, you advance toward the opponent and hit them. (Straightforward, which is why I didn't really break this down into steps like I have previously.) I've found that it works well if you're rotating around with the wrist, and not a bigger arm motion. The strike can feel odd because it's not necessarily in line with the blade like a lunge, but it does work out.

Fabris points out that your opponent's sword should be underneath yours; you're basically yielding around it to keep your point free and kill them. He also points out that, again, being in the original position is bad, and you don't want to be there.

That's it! Really short, but super cool.