I was looking over an old notebook about a month ago, from back when I started rapier fencing. One day I had taken a bunch of notes after talking to a bunch of the really senior fencers, and watching them bout against younger and newer fighters. One of the things I wrote down stuck in my head, and this weekend I saw even more examples of it.
We just wrapped a lovely weekend workshop run by Cst. John Irving on knife fighting. It was a good opportunity to expose some of our newer students to shock knife work, and a chance for everyone to get exposed to John’s finely tuned stress environment training.
The thing I had written down in my notebook years ago, was that experienced fighter tend to be very still, while new fighters are all over the place. At first I thought that must have been a bit of mistake on my part to note that, since Valkyrie’s focus is almost entirely movement based. But over the last few weeks, I’ve been observing students learning and sparring, and seeing a little better what I meant by that.
New fighters are unsure about what they are doing, and are constantly evaluating their own decisions as they make them. This tends to result in frequent twitches and movements that go nowhere…the physical expressions of the thoughts that die in the mind before being acted on. The experienced fighters tend to either choose a technique and then patiently wait for an opportunity to use it, or simply relax and trust that they will do the right thing when the time comes.
Now how this actually plays out doesn’t translate to literal stillness on the part of the experienced fighters. Watching closely, I see that they are never really still…there is always motion taking place. It’s a truism in fencing that you should always strike at a still point. Good fencers never present that still point, so they are always idly moving in arcs that tend to not repeat. It just appears still because they are not making sudden or quick motions.
The idea for the experienced fighter is to never have even a split second where you cannot instantly launch an attack, and because of that requirement the movements tend to be restrained to opportunistic arcs.
The new fighter always moves, and it contrasts because the character of their motion is frantic and sudden, which means a tremendous amount of effort is spent in recovering from bad positions that you have put yourself into with wide or sudden motions. Footwork tends to be reactive and instinctive, which means it’s almost always backwards, which is a tactically poor choice. Instinct has no place in sword work. At least not at this level.
So watching the knife work this weekend, as John ramped up the stress levels and the shock knives continued to provide some hefty reinforcement of why bad choices are bad, I watched a change come over all the students.
They moved more like experienced fighters. As the weekend wore on, they moved more like accomplished and experienced fighters. When they chose to attack, it was often with exceptionally smooth mechanics, with a recovery and escape built in. Their out of contact movement was refined and showed their focus on the consequences of not paying attention. It was clear that their minds had been stripped of extraneous concerns and decisions. They were intent on not being hit, and finding a way out of the situation…which generally meant doing great harm to the other person. As a result, their movement was athletic and almost animalistic. Fantastic to see.
I’m looking forward to working with the students that were there this last weekend, and seeing how that movement pattern continues and whether it can be sustained during more normal blade work.