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.


  1. As a really new fencer (and someone very concerned about not screwing up her knees any further) "knees out" is a much more helpful note than "are your knees pointed over your toes?"

    Feeling the correct position > looking for and seeing the correct position

  2. The mnemonic you taught me about the rail was freaking awesome. Totally fixed that problem.

    The cognitive load discussion is extremely similar to what I was taught in pilot training - especially in instrument flight, managing mental work load is key. We are taught to deliberately use time slicing techniques, and what to do remove cognitive load when possible. So yes, this absolutely matches the formal training I got in that sphere of interest.

  3. This is very related to something I've been thinking about in terms of mental work-per-second. How does one "automate" a task in one's brain, to free up bandwidth for other tasks? In this case, it's relating a task to something that you already know how to do.