Thursday, February 28, 2013

Chivalry in Action 

A friend sent me this link this morning, and I just had to share it with you. 

An example of chivalry of the highest order.

Check it out.

You'll be glad you did.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Foundations of Fencing

Lately, I've read several things people have written, about what they see as the foundations, or the "essentials" of fencing. One even titled his piece "The Essentials of Fencing Technique."

I find it interesting that everything I have read addresses fencing as if it is a collection of physical techniques. As if by being able to perform these moves perfectly, in and of itself, would make someone a skilled fencer.

It is true that technique is important, and that without it, it is not possible to be an excellent fencer. It is true that it takes many hours of patient practice in order to gain that level of skill.

But why is it that people seem to miss, or discount, the real foundations of fencing? Why is it that they always have a list of techniques (attacks, defenses, footwork, etc.) with a detailed description of each, and present those without any context, as if they stand alone? Why do they give lip service to the concept of tactics, without an apparent understanding what that requires?

I have thought much about how people often fail to understand the importance of context, of a system, but it goes beyond that.

I think the problem lies in how people see fencing, itself. Is it a game, a sport? Is it a skill? An art? Is it about being able to fight, to use a weapon? Or is it that which underlies all of those, a way of being, a tool that creates and focuses a person, so that whatever they choose to do is enhanced by their ability to act appropriately, in the moment?

I've decided to list what I consider to be the "essentials" of fencing. These should be very familiar to some of you- meaning anyone who has ever practiced here with us.

1. Balance
Physical balance is easily understood, if not easily perfected. It is, at the heart, the ability to move in any direction without shifting your weight first. A state of equilibrium, from which any movement is possible. It is, as one of my students has said, "not falling over." Not falling over, without having to stretch and strain to keep from doing so. An ease, a comfort, a position in which every muscle is ready to do its job.
Many people stop there, when discussing balance, as if the physical aspect is all that there is.
Even more important than physical balance is mental and emotional balance. Mental balance brings awareness of objective reality, and the ability to recognize the need to act, as well as the ability to act. Emotional balance reinforces mental and physical balance. It does not take much for emotions to create an unbalanced state in your body by stimulating your sympathetic nervous system. Fear, anger, uncertainty- all can rob you of your ability to maintain your mental and physical balance, and can prevent you from responding to what is actually happening in any sort of intentional, controlled manner.

2. Line
We tell students, at the start, that line is "the precise alignment of every body part with every other body part." This is about precision, about control, about moving only that which must be moved, about making each movement as small as possible while also as large as necessary.
The ability to HAVE good line starts with the ability to accurately self-assess, and self-correct. It is about good proprioception, awareness of your body in space. It begins with being able to FEEL what you are doing, without having to be able to see it, and then, being able to correctly make any changes necessary to match the "ideal" of position or movement. All practice must be done in this way, and learning to be that attentive during practice takes time and practice, itself. A student can only do what they are developmentally able to do, and many of our early classes are focused on learning this skill, of slow, careful, joyful, attentive, intentional practice and movement. Much more important than any particular technique, is the understanding of what underlies ALL technique, and the ability to function at that level both while learning, and while performing a skill under stress. 

3. Focus
Focus has two parts: mental focus, and visual focus. Visual focus is where you put your eyes, what you choose to see. Again, this is a learned skill, to maintain an active, intentional gaze, not allowing it to wander or become distracted. You must learn to process various types of stimulation and information, without automatically looking in their direction. Where your eyes go, your mind goes, and your mind must be able to maintain a fluid focus, being in the right place at the right time, with very little room for error.
Mental focus is a skill that must be developed, starting with a narrow internal focus while learning a new skill, and progressing to the ability to shift as necessary between the four types of focus: narrow internal, broad internal, narrow external, and broad external. Any error in focus can "trap" the mind, leaving you extremely vulnerable to an action that you cannot effectively perceive. In addition to the ability to change focus, you must be able to do so without conscious reflection, while under stress. You must be able to stay "in the moment" in order to be able to respond appropriately, without hesitation. It is your ability to remain focused and balanced that allows you to be the locus of control of both your own and your opponent's actions. Without that, there is no "fencing."

4. Distance
Distance also has two parts: the distance in space between yourself and your opponent at any given moment, and the distance you and/or your opponent move. In addition to being able to accurately and precisely perceive and control movement, you must also have an ingrained understanding of the connection between distance and time, both real time and "fencing time," as it applies to YOU and your abilities, as well as to your opponent's abilities. If you do not know how long in time or distance it takes for you or your opponent to complete an action, you can only guess, at best, when to begin any action, and therefore have no way of knowing whether it will be effective or not.

5. Attention to detail.
With so little requiring the level of detail that fencing requires, being able to function at that level is in no way natural, and is rarely learned. You must learn to strive for precision, and not settle for "good enough" or "close." It requires not only the understanding of how precise you need to be, and the focus to be able to perceive that level of precision, but the willingness to continue to learn, to improve, to perfect. That includes a love of intense, repetitive, practice; the time to devote to learning, and the ability to tough it out when things are challenging and seemingly impossible. Excellence requires a solid foundation. No slackers need apply. Trying something a "couple of times" and then getting on the strip to put it into practice is not fencing. It is playing around, and a waste of time, if you want any real skill.

6. Understanding of, and trust in, the learning process.
Everyone starts fencing at the same place: the beginning. Each person progresses at their own individual pace, determined by their developmental abilities, their learned abilities, and how much focused effort they contribute. Everything that must be incorporated must be so before it is possible to progress. Any attempt to "work on" something you are not ready for, for which you do not have the underlying skills, is not only a waste of time, but is detrimental to acquiring skill. 
Learning to fence is not a linear process. You will come back to the basic techniques time and time again, exploring and understanding them at a higher level each time. It requires several paradigm shifts, and the patience to allow those shifts to happen, rather than resist them. It requires an understanding that your mind and body learn in different ways, at different rates, and that you will intellectually understand things long before being reliably able to do them. It requires learning to recognize cognitive dissonance as a sign of impending change, rather than something to be avoided. 
You must have a teacher who is able to guide you through the process in ALL aspects, not just technique. You must learn real tactics, which is the culmination of all of the above, resulting in the ability to respond by feel to what is happening in the moment, without doubt or hesitation. Without balance, line, focus, distance and attention to detail, there is no tactics- and no fencing. Every lesson, from the very first, must be based on all of these essentials, or fundamentals. "Technique" and "tactics" must be taught in context, together.

With a solid foundation of these essentials, any "technique" is possible to learn and to use effectively.
Without this solid foundation, whatever "technique" you think you've learned has no value, no application, either in fencing, or in life.