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.


  1. Yea I always cringe at the idea of "tricks." I prefer having a system than a bag of tricks, since it's more encompassing and adaptive.

  2. Tricks are like you said, a few moves that work well for an individual either due to alot of training or due to their body mechanics, size, arms strength, etc... the "trick" to tricks is to like you said know why they work. For me what makes something an effective "trick"/move is if i can make it happen by guiding you into it rather than waiting for the situation to arise to use it. If i can get you into an attack parry action, and I can reasonably know where the reposte should be coming to because i know what i am leaving open, then i can counter parry-riposte and win the day. Almost with inhumane reflexes, but it's just a matter of setting you up for it. Too many people don't "think" far enough ahead in their fighting, which is why a straight shot up the middle can work so often. :-(

  3. A "trick" is a candle in the dark. It shows me where my fundamentals were wrong. Usually, if my fundamentals were wrong somewhere, others' fundamentals were wrong there too, and I can exploit that. Working backwards from a new "trick" will let me correct myself. Eventually I can learn to execute my new trick in an as-safe-as-possible way, and then it gets integrated into the overall whole of my art.

    As the local bag-of-tricks fencer, that's how I see tricks.

  4. Maybe more appropriate way to approach this might be to better define the word trick because it is hard to distinguish between “good” tricks vs “bad” tricks. Instead, I propose the term - educated technique - as defined by heavy weight kick boxing champion Joe Lewis.

    Mr. Lewis defines an educated technique as having the following characteristics: 1. It games time. 2. It gains distance. And the most important to me, 3. It neutralizes the opponent’s advantage. Using these criteria as the definition adds that last piece which is what is the intent of the technique, what is the thought or purpose behind it, which is where I think you might be going Donovan. By saying you are using a technique to neutralize the opponent’s advantage; it should, in my mind, mean you put some thought into why/how you are executing it. So with this definition you could still have things like a good technique, a strong technique, or a fast technique, for example; all of which are perfectly fine and may score a point/kill, whatever, most of the time, against most opponents. But would that same technique score on the best opponents.

    In my opinion a “trick” is not something you would work often if at all on the best opponents. The best opponents tend to not fall for “tricks”, they may, everyone is human, get caught now and again. But, if you would look at the statistics, the chances of that “trick” working again, or the number of “tricks” that a high level opponent may be beat by would be expected to be very small. However, an educated technique has a much higher chance of being able to score against the best opponents in particular because it is thought through on how to neutralize that opponent’s advantage.

    When you have this - “You're stuck with this one thing that you can do super well, sure, but it's not really adaptive if the situation changes.” It means you have not met criteria #3. You are throwing a shot because “well, it works most of the time”. And when you try that shot against the best, they beat you. Why do the best beat you, because you have not figured out how to neutralize their advantage.

    The best fighters may know how to throw possibly hundreds of different shots, but as you say, they only use a few. Why. Because of aspect #3. The best fighters pick the few shots that feel most comfortable, matched up with their strengths be it speed, power, body mechanics, then they apply fighting principles and strategies to those techniques so they are adaptive to neutralize their opponent’s advantage. They don’t need to use the huge collection of techniques, they only need 3 or 4, because when you put the permutations of how the attack approaches the opponent (direct, indirect, broken rhythm, etc.) along with foot work and change of essence, you can see quickly that the number of permutations for just 3-4 techniques becomes huge, and therefore adaptive to neutralize any opponents advantage. The best fighters then train how to take those 3-4 techniques and spend their time on applying fighting principles and strategy to them to make them effective against ALL opponents, thus making them adaptive. Sure, they may reach out and pull in something else now and again for a particular circumstance or just for fun, but the core training is around application.

    People who have “tricks” win sometimes. People with educated techniques win a hell of a lot more, and usually go on to greatness.

  5. I think this video clip sums up what you are trying to say very well. "learning a system vs. learning a series of tricks"