Double Death Decisions


I hate double kills. It annoys me to no end when I see students do it, I hate it when it happens to me, and I find it inexcusable when I see it happen in tournaments.  And yet somehow despite my hate, they continue to happen.

Back in my SCA days, we tried a number of methods to get rid of them. We mucked about with the rules and training. We tried making double kills destructive, removing both participants from a tourney. The bad result of this, especially in single-elim tourneys (one received hit and you are out of the tournament,) was that the “good” fighters were getting knocked out by less experienced fighters…and by each other. It was not a satisfying method of determining who was the best fighter. Made tournament wins seem too much like luck and not enough like skill.

We also tried to change up training. Did the pushups for double-kill thing. Ran mock tournaments with different scorings for different kinds of hits. Tried using hit priority. Tried lots of things. Couldn’t really say anything had any more effect than just making us feel more bad…no, that’s not true.

What it did was make us feel more smug that the problem was always the other guy, not those of us with better training. We grew an ego that said that since we had done some training toward not double-killing, it had to be the other guys fault no matter what.

When I moved into teaching historical fencing outside of the SCA, we had the perfect solution. Good technical training in rigidly analyzed manual oriented fencing would clean the problem up. Obviously the historical masters were perfect, so if we perfectly apply their lessons, there will be no double kills because we will each be perfect. Except when the other guy does the wrong thing and we double kill. Damn it.

The joy in this approach, the practical result in observed fencing, is that as teachers and coaches we started to judge the two fighters when a double kill happens. We wanted one fighter to be more right than the other when we were assessing and giving feedback. So we judge on priority and technical choices to determine who had the better philosophy going into the exchange. Or to put it another way, there was a tendency towards favouritism of the more experienced student. Winning a fight is related to being able to explain yourself better afterwards, right?

After a while I just resigned myself to accepting that double kills happen. I geared my teaching more towards including right-of-way teaching on occasion. Mostly I just tried to move past my own grumpiness.

When I bought Maija Soderholm’sThe Liar the Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play” and got to spend time working with her system I started to pay attention to double kills again. Maija offered a new approach, not based on rigid technique, but on understanding the psychology of the fight itself. I started to re-examine the issue.

Observing two fighters one night, something clicked. A new-to-us fighter with experience in other styles was consistently double killing everyone. I was about to chew her out for not paying attention to her choices. I wanted to chew her out correctly, so I positioned myself behind her to see what she was seeing and try to figure out why she was making the choices she was.

Clarity. It was easy to see from her point of view. There was a clear opening. She’d manoeuvred herself to the right spot, had done all the right things, and there was a perfect opening. It wasn’t a rush to land a shot, to take a chance and get a lucky kill as I had previously thought and corrected other people on, but a logical process. Sadly the priority of awareness didn’t account for threat, but the opening was still a valid one by training.

The double kill pattern I’d been observing in historical fencers, and am still seeing in recent video footage, isn’t a result of risk-taking behaviour, but a result of training in what is right. It’s a logical consequence of the thinking they have been taught to do.

Valkyrie training has changed significantly since that insight. It will take a while till I see the results I want, but it’s happening. We are teaching students not to look for opportunities, not to think of potential techniques to fit into the puzzle the opponent is revealing. We are teaching them instead to be cognizant of all potential threats, and to work first on shutting down the threats. Movement, position, and bladework all fit together to do this.

Instead of just exploiting a transient opportunity, I want my students to put the work in to create a persistent opportunity in the opponent. Only when that persistent opening shows up do I want them to finish the pattern.

The nice thing about the work we’ve started is that it finally put all the pieces together for me to create an exam and ranking system that makes sense to me. I’ve never liked systems that unlock new material as you advance, when the new material does not require more significant skill development than that seen in new students. Ranks should teach and require skills that are unattainable without the work put in at lower levels, and we now have that.

The first rank exam a student takes asks them to demonstrate in sparring that they will not advance into a threat. Simple stuff, but not so easy for those of us who approach every bout with a full bag of tricks to try out. Common sense for new students, but some significant re-wiring for those of us in our second decade of rapier work. I’m seeing the results in my own fight game, and I hope to see results in students soon.

5 thoughts on “Double Death Decisions

  1. Chris Slee

    This seems common sense and I can see how, as an Instructor myself, we fail to do this. Help me understand the way this changes how you teach. Is it as simple as changing from the typical “if you see an opening, strike fast and hard” to introducing a circuit breaker “Setup the opening. Q: Am I clear and safe? If yes, strike now. If no, abort and restart at the beginning”?

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      Change the first question from looking for openings to “what is the opponents opportunity to strike?” and then shut *that* down. I see this as a complex problem with layers, so beginning students are expected to solve the issue of simple attacks on defense, and occupying the desired line by feint by extension. More advanced students will work on extending binds, compound disengage/counter-parry opportunities fed by decrease of measure, and move on to positional exits with cover.

  2. Will

    I taught fencing for fifteen years, then moved on to other martial arts training. And in my experience, taking a photo general removes almost all the context, and if the situation is at all ambiguous, there’s no way to tell from a still photo. But the particular photo you chose looks like under any traditional scoring technique, would be a double (if you both were in a continuing lunge instead of photo op or were leaning in to totally commit, etc.). but in terms of wounds, you’re probably the loser, unless you have extra finesse and she has a bit of luck. Intentional?

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      No double kill at all. Kaja has captured my point neatly between the sweeps and quillons of her rapier, and has levered my tip offline. Her tip is pointed into my eye, and mine is pointed over her shoulder.

  3. Davy Van Elst

    I agree with this article, you can only avoid doubles by using a different mindset, so great article!
    Do you have any specific exercises or methods to train this change in mentality?


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