Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Functional Mnemonics!

If you follow any of the fencers who are semi-local to me on almost any social media, you'll probably have noticed that this past Sunday, we were lucky enough to have been able to catch Devon Boorman of Acadamie Duello in Vancouver out in the Boston area for nearly six hours worth of historical rapier teaching.

(Brief shout-out: in addition to the physical Acadamie, Devon also runs DuelloTV, which has a giant mess of instructional videos available. Setting up the basic membership is free, allows access to a number of the introductory videos, and only gets you one piece of email sent to you a week - letting you know which of the advanced videos are rotating into free access for the week. I cannot recommend this resource highly enough.)

There wasn't much in the workshop that was completely, 100% brand new to me, but I always love getting a full review of the fundamentals from the ground on up. Fixes to technique at that level almost always have a ripple-through effect to the rest of my fight in ways that are kind of hard to quantify but are absolutely there. Even little things like adjusting my hand or foot can have a long-term impact in that every little bit of increased efficiency will reduce the wear and tear on my joints, meaning that I get to keep doing this thing for that much longer in my life. Which, in something that won't shock anyone, is really important to me.

The other reason that I will always happily work through fundamental workshops is because there will inevitably be some turn of phrase or tiny little technique that will have an impact on my fencing out of all proportion to the time spent on it. This entry today is one of those little snippets - a couple turns of phrase and ways of thinking or describing an action and how to think of it just all clicked together into a thought which led to writing this up.

While I'm hoping to do a couple shorter follow-up posts about rapier specific things that were really important that I picked up on, I really wanted to note a couple broader mental concepts that kind of hit my brain on Sunday. Specifically, something that I've noticed Devon doing in his instruction that I'm terming "functional mnemonics." Now, I have absolutely no formal education in either the practice of teaching or learning theory or anything like that, so it's quite probable that this concept has a name all on its own already, and is well known in the field, but it's new to me so I'm noting it because I think it's super important. In practice, I think that using functional mnemonics will impact two parts of fencing - cognitive load and good technique.

One of the things that was mentioned as an aside is that people don't truly multitask like many folks think. We can't parallel process - we really can only do one thing at a time - but we timeslice really well, and jump back and forth from thing to thing quickly. That's fine most of the time, but you really don't want to be timeslicing while fencing. You want to minimize the cognitive load that you need to carry - you absolutely want to minimize the number of things that your mind will need to jump between to track. The usual way this comes up in practice is when a student first picks up a dagger, and the instructor points out that they don't want to create a third line of attack between the sword and the dagger, because that's one more thing to track, and can dramatically increase the cognitive load that the fencer needs to deal with. Remove that line, and the number of cycles in the brain dedicated to jumping from line to line drops a lot, and you can focus on other things. Win!

So relating this to functional mnemonics came up in the workshop terms of foot/knee/leg positioning. Typically, newer fencers are taught to keep their lead foot pointed along the line of action, and to be sure that their knee is extending along that same line, bending over the foot and toe. While this is structurally sound and worth practicing, it's also a lot to keep track of. Foot position, leg angle, knee tracking - that's really a lot. On the other hand, if you think of it in terms of keeping your knees out as though you were doing a squat, not only do you end up with a more structurally sound stance overall, but if you're used to the feeling in the knee when you're in such a position, almost by definition your foot will have to point properly and your knee will track over it correctly. You don't need to keep track of the individual components like we typically instruct people, it just falls into place. Knees out, recognize the sensation, everything else just happens. Much less cognitive load, more free cycles in your brain to pay attention to things your opponent is doing!

This also relates to the second way that functional mnemonics comes up - thinking of an action differently (and generally more simply) leaning to performing proper technique. This came up in three separate instances, but they all clicked together really well.
  • In using opposition, from the first finding of the blade all the way through the gain and the strike, students were encouraged to "keep your mind on your point" and not thinking of the action from the perspective of the hand at all. This really does end up preventing a lot of the problematic hiccups in the action.
  • When striking from opposition, thinking of it as a forward motion, and don't worry about the deflection at all. If you're moving forward into a good Seconda or Quarta, the sideways motion necessary for deflecting your opponent happens coincidentally and well, and doesn't go too far.
  • When recovering your arm after a lunge, thinking of it as tucking your elbow in, not withdrawing the arm, prevents the elbow-out chicken wing that happens sometimes.
None of these really have any changes in the actions themselves, but just thinking about performing the action using a particular mnemonic leads to performing it correctly solely because of the mindset or focus that the thought process leads to. Additionally, and related to the first point, thinking of the action in that way tends to summarize a lot of other little parts or makes it unnecessary to think about them actively, which also reduces the cognitive load you're undergoing as you're working on the actions.

I hadn't ever encountered this type of summary or thought process of teaching precise physical actions before, but now that I've been struck by it, I can see a lot of it cropping up here and there through Devon's instruction. It strikes me as supremely useful, both in terms of instruction and in terms of actual training and performance for myself, and I'm very likely going to be trying to work those into teaching when useful, and into my mental processes while I'm drilling and working on new techniques.

Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have about zero formal training along these lines, so if anyone has any more information or thoughts about this - either in terms of instruction or performance - I'd love to hear them.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Yet Another Practice Report

Remember when this blog also had cool period rapier content? It'll come back, I promise. For now, my practice report for tonight.

We had an out of town MoD show up, and man, I've missed having someone just roll into a practice and kick me around hard from out of the blue! I lack lunch money now! It gelled a lot of things I've been thinking of lately, and let me solidify plans for myself.

  • Movement continues to be a thing - it feels like stepping, body english, and explosiveness is being lost in Fabris. I know that all of these things are sure possible there (Logos is proof!) but it's way, way hard.
    • It's harder when it feels like my body is fighting me! My wind was gone, and a lot of aches and actual pain were happening. My hand and elbow were up to their old tricks. Anastasia assures me that when you really start exercising there's a period of things getting worse before they get better. So I live there now, until I don't!
  • I was biting way hard on feints. In retrospect, I felt like a lot of my attention that should have been on the fight was being eaten by the aches and pains and being in form, but that is what it is.
  • Measure! Pay attention to it! This was something I was good at once. When people keep pressing in, I should do a thing about that!
  • Multiple intentions! Ugh, come on! Also, change lines, idiot!
So yeah. Frustrating in terms of my body noping, but super useful in terms of really gelling a lot of things.

So I'm gonna keep working my Fabris - because I love Fabris - but also now that I can use my pel again, keep working more general combatives. (Or to put it differently but still accurately, remind myself that I have, and work on, a broader Italian rapier skill set.) The Fabris will continue to work its way heavily into my broader Italian repertoire, but I think upright work will help my back out and my mobility out. (Also, training deeper and fighting higher is stil really a thing.) Stand up, shake it out, and work those lunges and movement and everything. Work on transitioning from upright through the lean into Fabris and back out! Yeah.

Also, I should cut myself a little slack. Not much, just a bit.

Looking forward to the gym tomorrow morning, though. That'll help kick the rest of this. (I might try and re-juggle my schedule with the jogging to spread it a bit, that might help my fencing some.)

There's going to be a rapier workshop on Sunday though, and I'm deeply looking forward to that. It'll almost certainly help settle things, reinforce fundamentals, teach me new things, and just keep this ball rolling.

Next up, something from Fabris!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Some Rambling, and a Short Practice Report

So I'm sitting on having only the last entry for Mair's Third Sickle Plate; I don't really want to dig farther until Doroga and I get a chance to run that in person; we're just behind on that because life got in the way. I'm hoping to get a chance tomorrow at practice, though! If by next Monday's practice we don't get a chance to work through stuff I'll just forge ahead and we can backfill with information from trying them out as it happens.

Still, I want to get something up here, just to keep my momentum rolling. Tomorrow I may do something on Fabris, but tonight I want to get out a quick practice report just to keep myself honest.

Monday night I noticed a big difference working smaller, tighter steps against Dr. Deth. He still rocked me, but it was clear from the fighting and from talking after that I need to work on a few things:

  • Measure awareness. Linger just outside, and use that to put pressure on my opponent.
    • I'm still working on being able to bring the fight to people and not just be reactive (primarily by taking a tempo from them by claiming the initiative). I could just revert to trying to flush a movement (ie, making my opponent give me a tempo and capitalizing on that) but I'm trying to work a much more proactive fight against him.
  • When I want to move, I need to explode. Work a better explosive attack from Fabris.
  • When I parry with the dagger, I should be extending my blade, if not outright lunging into a committed attack. This can (and should) be drilled.
  • Lateral movement. Voids. Rolling off of Agrippa's ball. Stuff like that.
  • Dropping from an upright posture, through a lean, into an attack. Nothing new here.
(Anything I can work solo will be easier once I can do more regular work in the backyard and not the basement, too.)

Deth continues to force me outside my comfort zone while at the same time letting me work a lot of core fundamentals, and I'm really happy that he's regularly there on Mondays.

I fell off my five minutes a day minimum, and I damn sure need to get back on that train, no matter what or where I am during any day. Frankly, I've been feeling a little disengaged from fencing mentally and physically in general, which isn't good at all. I've had a lot of bad crap taking up space in my head for a little bit, so I'm hoping to get that flushed and then take up the free space with more swords. Get back to re-reading me some Fabris, writing about it more, and just doing more visualization throughout the day. Couple weeks of that and I'll be right back to normal.

That's that!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Practice Report

Since I haven't had time to turn the draft Fabris post into a real post, I'm going to do another practice report while I can still remember what I did and talked about last night!

  • Warmup fights with Anastasia went well. Decent energy, and I was rotating through guards pretty well.
  • Fighting Lupold went less well; it felt like I was stuck in an "I'm working on stuff" rut but I wasn't really working on anything in particular? Lower energy, disengaging mentally, and I think it showed hard. Also, my offline steps and dynamic body movements were basically nonexistent, and I had zero transition from an upright stance into a lean. Ugh.
  • Worked some with Meggie; I felt like this went really well for both of us. I kept trying to work on good disengages, cavaziones, or just turning over into a good crossing, but my debole just kept falling into her forte, and my crossing was nonexistent. Boo.
  • I picked back up a lot when fighting Malocchio; it's hard to stay low energy there, and I was going off-book a lot there too, but generally in ways that had to happen? Still, I felt a lot better mentally after those.
  • The night ended with some bouts against Wil Deth, and I got my clock cleaned. Fortunately, I got some great feedback after! He felt that while my steps might have been really clean, they were also very deliberate, big, and obvious. He's sure not wrong; gotta tighten that up a lot. Smaller, smoother steps. Also, I need to work on my passing steps more; they're fine in drills, but I never use them in practice.
Not sure what to do about general energy levels. Stay hydrated, eat a bit more before practice, and do some jumping jacks to wake the hell up between bouts? No idea, but I'll take what I can get there.

Most of my technical issues I'll be working on with drills. Remy and I were doing opposition work and the Capo Ferro hierarchy last week, and I think that'll help with the bladework issues. Going to focus more on my feet while I do solo drills, too. I'm thinking my usual set of precise lunges, steps, and passes should be followed by ones done at speed to get that moving in my head, and finish with slower ones to double-check technique. Also voids still, because I want more dynamic body movement, along with doing upright extension-lean-lunge both slowly and at speed, similar to footwork.

So a solid night of practice, and a good selection of items to work on for next week. Good deal!