Friday, March 11, 2011

Graduated School

Here’s the foundational principle of all fencing lessons.

Training generally incorporates one or both of two simple objectives: 
1) to diminish sensitivity/awareness/responsiveness, or “de-sensitize;” or
2) to heighten sensitivity/awareness/responsiveness, or  to “sensitize.”  

For example, we want to “desensitize” the student to meaningless actions, no matter how suddenly, quickly or forcefully they are made, and we want to “sensitize” the student to the subtle cues that reveal the opponent’s true intentions.

A cat who once lived with me, Niger the Great, by name, was the master of “cool” and a perfect example of the kind of desensitization I’m talking about – though I certainly didn’t train him.  One day my black lab puppy was making a goofy fool of himself, cavorting all around Niger in mock aggression. Niger sat as immobile and calm as the sphinx while the silly hound did his capering – out of distance.  Unfortunately for the pup, his distance perception and control was not as precise as the cat’s. As the dog ventured just a tad too close, Niger shot out one paw in a stiff jab reminiscent of Larry Holmes in his prime. One jab. Just one.  Nailed that pup right in the eye and sent him whimpering to a neutral corner, shaken but not too badly injured.
Gave that cat some respect after that, I can tell you.
And it was an excellent fencing lesson for me.

There is no finer example of sensitization than a good horse.
My partner doesn’t need spur or leg or even rein. Sometimes all I have to do is turn my head and look where I want to go – and he goes there. At the same time he can distinguish that from any random turns of the head, just looking at the scenery as we ride along.

Whether we want to sensitize or de-sensitize, we employ graduated exposure, ie, progressively greater or lesser “cues.”
To sensitize, you begin with the greatest possible stimulus or “cue,” one that is easily perceived and recognized by the subject, then gradually diminish the cue until it is as subtle as possible.
To de-sensitize, you start at the opposite end of the scale with the smallest cue your subject can perceive, then gradually increase the stimulus until it is the maximal cue that you can give.

Here’s how the process works.
Suppose you’re not comfortable with heights but for some reason have joined a volunteer fire company. Ladders are in your future.
You might set up a 24-foot extension ladder and step up onto the first rung, and then step back down. You do this as many times as it takes for you to be completely comfortable on the first rung. You might go up and stay there a while, sing a song, have a coffee.
Then you go up TWO rungs and repeat the process. When you’re completely comfortable with TWO rungs, go up to THREE.  Then four and five and so on.
You might, if you’re clever, use positive reinforcement for each success – maybe a bite of carrot cake, or some other treat.
This is progressive de-sensitization by graduated exposure.
We do this with horses all the time.
I do this with my students all the time, too.
The main difference is that horses are a lot smarter, learn a lot faster, and seem to never forget once they’ve learned.

Suppose your goal is to “sensitize” your student.
Let’s say you want your student to learn to slip under a left hook.
You start by exaggerating the set-up for the punch in slow motion so that your student perceives it easily and has all the time in the world to deal with it.
Little by little you increase the speed and decrease the amplitude of the preparation, until you’re throwing a serious punch.

Two quick fencing-specific examples:
Suppose my objective is to sensitize my student's hand to make a thrust as early as possible as the line of engagement "opens."
From an engagement in sixte, I might give the cue (opening the line) so big that I'm practically parrying quarte with my hand on the floor. It's an opening the student is highly unlikely to miss. Over time, I make the cue smaller and smaller. Eventually, the student correctly perceives the opening when my weapon just slightly lessens the pressure of the engagement.

I want my student to have sang-froid that a reptile would envy, remaining calm and composed enough to make the smallest possible parry. I need to disconnect his/her startle reflex.
I begin in slow motion, with very little aggressive energy, fixing my student's hand in the right position until it is reliably correct. I then gradually increase the amplitude, speed, force and energy of my attack (even shouting or stomping my foot on the attack) until my student's parry cooly remains EXACTLY where it should be and not one bit bigger.  This is the "auto-pilot" level of skill.

The most important parts of the process are:
Start Easy. Select the proper “size” cue. If you don’t, you and your student will both get frustrated.
Go slow. Progress by the smallest increment possible. Take whatever time it takes.
Review. Each training session, start at the beginning. As your student adapts, you can progress to the “real thing” sooner and sooner. But the early reps are still excellent practice and a warm-up, and good confidence-builder.

I should mention that feedback or "reinforcement" is vital -- on EVERY repetition.
It should be both tactile (the action is successful) AND verbal.
When making corrections, do it in a positive, confidence-enhancing manner.
Praise your student for ANY degree of progress in the right direction.

Good horsemen call that "rewarding the try."

Try it.


  1. It's amazing how good training carries across so many disciplines.

    Another good post Maestro. I heartily concur.

  2. Thanks, amigo!
    I knew you'd understand the connections here immediately.



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