Kill em all: How to be a winner

I stabbed this one guy in the face maybe fourteen times. It was the same technique, over and over. He’d line up his shot on me, aiming at an opening he saw, and charge in. I’d twist my body just a little, roll my sword palm up as I extended it, and wham…Right into his face. In frustration he would speed up, trying to get his shot in before my counter attack. Because he kept going faster, my shot to his face just kept hitting harder and harder.

Eventually I called the bout off because I was getting physically sick. At least one of my shots had caused a concussion on my opponent, and all he had done was angrily shake it off and try to come in even faster. I don’t have it in me to lay that kind of hurt on someone…not in what is supposed to be a sport.

I can hurt people. I can do it accidentally, and I can do it intentionally. When its called for, it’s a thing you do, you deal with the aftermath. When it’s accidental, it sucks. You feel like crap unless you are a sociopath. Most people feel like I do. Humans are cooperative creatures and we find killing and hurting each other extremely difficult, despite what media might tell you. For some reason no one ever wants to report on good cops, nice people, things just going the way they should for everyone…it’s the rare things that attract attention.

In unarmed combat sport, hurting someone has strange gentlemanly rules to it. Punching each other in the face is fun. At worst, it’s a dominance game. Instead of having the biggest peacock feathers, we knock someone out. We don’t really, in our hearts, want to hurt them. We just want to establish our place in the pecking order. Fighters revel in taking more punishment than the other guy, almost as much as they revel in dishing it out.

But break someone’s arm? Gasps all around. Hit someone who’s unconscious, or unable to defend themselves? Hey hey, none of that now. Someone might get hurt. Go back to punching each other in the face. Let’s not be savages, here… It seems strange to non-fighters, who can only imagine a punch in the face as being a life-altering experience. When people like me get walloped in the face, our first reaction is usually a grin…it’s playtime!

With swordplay it’s different. We don’t use sharp swords, but we do use steel swords. There is no escaping the fact that hitting someone with a piece of steel is not a safe thing. Ever. There is always risk. Every organization that does steel fighting has some set of rules in place to alleviate that risk. On one extreme we have full steel armour and weapons that probably won’t kill the other guy. On the other extreme we have…don’t touch the other guy. Some groups use foam or other weapon simulators. Most try to find a balance between armouring up and allowing freedom of movement.

In order to achieve this balance, they rely on one important factor: Cooperation. Each fighter that participates agrees to be complicit in an implied agreement of safe performance. Which is to say, they agree to try not to hurt each other. And in this agreement lies the key to landing yourself lots of wins without needing a lot of technical skill.

Bluntly, if you want to win, care less about hurting your opponent. If the other guy is constrained by his desire to be careful while fighting, and all you care about it hitting him before he hits you…who do you think is going to win the fight? I’m not talking about speed here, either, but intent to hurt. You need to be deceptive to your intent as well. Adopt guards and mannerisms that disguise what you are about to do. Be prepared to ignore shots, too. As much as you can, plan to hit your opponent more than once, especially if they hit you at the same time as your first shot. Immediately strike them back. Confusion is your friend. People will doubt themselves if you are bold enough. Be quick with an apology if you get caught, no one will want to believe you are intentionally cheating the system. When they do start to catch on over time, you can throw in the “martially sound” straw man argument, and make everyone feel inferior for not using your approach, carefully putting aside the fact that you are playing a different game altogether.

Of course, eventually people will react. They will get frustrated and angry, but your bullying will shame them into keeping quiet. They will react the way people do, by trying to mimic your actions. And what do you do once they’ve peed into their own pool, and you aren’t winning as much anymore? Rest on your laurels. Be smug about your successes, and stay out of the pool. Leave behind a group that batters and bruises each other and doesn’t even know why, except that it’s the way things are.

It’s not, of course, a guaranteed way to win. A correctly trained fighter will see what you are doing, and shift from a balanced play of equals to a defensive game. This will capitalize on your over-commitment, and allow him to move into close play if the rules allow it. Expect to receive pommel, elbow, and knee strikes until he figures out your timing and reach…and then the real pain will arrive. He’s able to do this because he is no longer playing a sport, but fighting a martial art. He’s stepping up a level above you, by responding to your intent to hurt with an intent to kill. Lucky for you the weapons aren’t sharp.

All of the above, by the way, completely sucks for your average fighter. Way before that crap happens they just start to hate sparring, hate training, and wonder why they are bothering. Who the hell wants to spend time getting hurt and frustrated doing something you thought was going to be fun and challenging? No one wants to pay money to be bullied. No one wants to give up something they started to love because they are being shamed into feeling weak when they complain about being hurt.

Bruises and pain are a part of learning swordplay. You have to trust your gut about things. Getting hit hard from time to time should have an honest feeling to it. It’s supposed to be like getting caught in the rain with friends…you feel a little foolish but you just laugh it off because you are all in it together. If your instinct is anger or blame…something is wrong. What is supposed to be a supportive system has turned abusive.

Swordplay is a beautiful and complex art. It takes serious dedication to get good at it, and it becomes a part of your life. Respect that. Only allow good things into your life. Sometimes it’s gruelling, sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating…but it should always put a smile on your face. There is a secret Society of Fencers out there, people who only know joy in their fencing and permit nothing to spoil that. You never know when you might join them…

4 Comments

  1. I like what you’re getting at here, but I think you focused too much on the negative in this post. The last two paragraphs are perfect, I just wish more of this post had focused on the beautiful art that fencing can be and less on the brutish rhinoing that some people do.

  2. I think the negativity fits…It’s a larger issue in the WMA world than it is in the SCA. The SCA has a standard that generally works, and occasionally falls apart. The WMA world has no standard yet, so you frequently get clashes of people playing completely different games and wondering what the other persons issue is. And of course, you get the sociopathic a-holes in both worlds that everyone seems inclined to give a free ride to.

    I think the good art that you, I and others know so well deserves a full post of it’s own. I’m just waiting on the right lead in. I also have a proposal that might solve some issues, but it needs more fermenting in the back of my brain before I share.

  3. One aspect you missed–or perhaps didn’t strike on as hard–is the person who uses the expectations of cooperation and safety in another way: they make the other person responsible for their safety while they are only concerned with scoring the touch. The person who, either consciously or otherwise, expects you to pull a shot or yield ground or what have you, and thus create an advantage for themselves by relying on their opponent to following the intent of the rules. It’s not that they are necessarily intending to hurt the other person (although I think a lack of awareness of the possibility can enter into it), but rather that they aren’t concerned/aware of being hurt in their quest for victory. The blades are blunt, I have gear on, and the other guy doesn’t want to hurt me: how can I use this? It’s a turn on the theme you tackle above, but an important one nonetheless.

    It’s also one of the most frustrating things I have found that mid-level fencers* can face, and one of the mind sets that can be most easily adopted if people aren’t careful. It’s also one of the hardest hurdles to help them overcome. If they are doing everything “right” in terms of intent, but their skill and awareness isn’t yet there, those loses sting that much more. To know that the other person is adding one more has mark to their “W” column by using the expectations of the system against them can be galling. The key, of course, is training–the eye, the hand, perception, reaction, options and intent–but the gap between knowing and doing is a long, frustrating slog–some days more than others. I’ve seen more fighters than I care to mention let that slog push them away, which is unfortunate. As you say, this should be about joy first; our roles as teachers and mentors it to try to keep that joy there, even (especially) when it seems hard to come by.

    * = I specify the mid-level fighter here because they are often the ones who have developed enough of an awareness to know why they are losing, if not how to overcome it. Newer fighters, bless their hearts, usually chalk up the loss and “another one” and move on, not knowing they were played.

  4. Hey Doug! Good points, I know the mindset you speak of! As Tomas alluded to above, I was focusing on a particular negativity. Sadly your comment has reminded of many, many examples. I’d forced myself to forget those people, but I’ve certainly seen more than one of them work their way all the way to the last W of a big tourney. The most eye opening part for me is when otherwise good, respectable fencers comment on that person’s “technical skill.”

    When I was teaching at Academie Duello, I developed a body of drills specifically for dealing with such people. “Flinch” and reaction drills triggered by circumstances. Against a normal fighter they would yield an arm hit, against the charge-in fighter, a stiff shot. I’ve got them written down here somewhere…

    I think the best way to promote the joy of fencing is to lead by example. Sadly it seems sometimes that the ones best able to show that example are the ones who’ve moved away from leadership roles, for one reason or another.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.