Hard Starts

Fight1

Sometimes I don’t know how my students do it.

Fencing is a damned hard thing to learn. It’s demoralizing.

You have to be fit, and that’s a process that is quite daunting for some. Especially since the fitness we demand isn’t the normal kind that you can brag about to your friends. No easily recorded kilometres run or weight lifted, no records to compare from last week. You need to have an excellent posture that translates all the way from your spine to your toes and fingers, with no weak points between. That takes dedicated strength work and tenacious endurance…and you won’t see the results for years.

And the techniques are complex. The weapons are awkward. Throw on top of that our demand that you also excel at boxing and wrestling and you’ve got a very steep learning curve. Toss knife and cane work on top of that. And our training approach demands that you embrace the complexity and chaos, avoiding the comfort of familiar technique in order to embody the understanding of the combat principles we believe in.

But that’s just our style. Swordplay in general is a complex thing.

I watch the new students come in and start training, and I know the wall is coming for them. The first couple of weeks or months are usually okay. Everyone has fun and the rush of doing something different makes it all exciting. It’s easy because you feel like it’s new and you don’t demand much of yourself beyond just experiencing as much as you can.

The wall comes when you really let yourself try to do something. Usually it’s win a bout. You decide that you must have learned enough to hit someone, so you try to really land a shot in sparring before you get hit yourself.

I think this is one of the hardest things about fencing. In other martial arts, when…or even if…you start sparring and you lose against another opponent, you can sooth the ego a little by physically comparing yourself to the other person. You can lose because the other person is bigger or stronger, and that’s okay because you know if you train long enough you will figure out the magical trick to beat that.

The sword is a weird equalizer. Sure, there are physical advantages like reach and speed, but the thing is that those are conscious factors that you justify with logic. The animal brain doesn’t recognize them the same way as it does when the bigger ape picks you up, ignores your struggles, and swats you around. The animal brain can accept that. Don’t mess with the bigger ape just makes sense.

But on the other side of a blade, the distance tends to remove that subconscious threat awareness of physicality. Awareness of the risk of point contact isn’t so deeply layered in the nervous system. We also have a blade in our hand, so we tend to think the playing field is more even than it is. We think the conflict is between blades instead of between people.

But this is on a really deep level that never hits the conscious brain. Our conscious brain is busy weighing the value of the one technique we think we physically have down, against what we think we see from the opponent. We evaluate the other person’s movements and try to divine their intent, and we monitor ourselves to make sure we are ready to launch when the time is right. Then we go.

And get pezzed in the head. Dammit. What did we do wrong? Fix it and try again. Fail again. This is pretty much the first real step on the road to mastering swordplay, but sometimes it’s the last step someone ever takes on the path.

I’ve watched literal generations of fencers just give up at this point. Most who fail here just walk away, but some stay and never try again. They embrace the fatalism and just decide they can never get better, but they will still enjoy the activity. There are fencers out there with decades of experience who have never progressed beyond the first few months of training because of this internal decision.

The thing is that everyone hits this wall. There are exceptions…I know a few accomplished fencers who never even noticed this wall on their way to mastery. But the vast majority of us hit this wall sooner rather than later in our fencing career and it hits us hard. We all know that feeling that we are facing a wall so long and so high that we cannot even imagine a way past it. It’s a gut punch that I see people push past somehow. I’ve pushed past it in my way and I know what was required of me to do so, but I have no idea how other people find the drive to do so.

It’s so damned lonely when you hit it. That punch in the face of personal failure is deeply intimate. And worse, it’s not just a momentary thing. It keeps on hitting you week after week, sometimes month after month. But the decision to persevere happens somewhere in there. Something in the brain makes you decide to keep practicing even though you can’t imagine a single thing you’ve learned or been exposed to that will make you any better. Some tiny act of faith nudges you to keep moving forward.

I like to think it’s good modeling from coaches. Having coaches of all different body types and dispositions can be very encouraging. I think it helps when a student can see or imagine that a coach has struggled like they are struggling, and that coach’s performance while fencing can encourage them to continue.

I often find myself somewhat flummoxed as to what to say to a student when they hit this point. I know I am most likely to lose a student at this point, but I also know that they have to find their own way past it. And I know that all the tools we have given them up to this point should enable them to do so. They have to make the choice themselves though. I often tell them to tough it out, that we have all been through it, and that it gets better.

I want nothing more than to see them show up at the next class after that talk, because if I do see them, I know they’ve got it made. They’ve pulled themselves through a damned tough personal place, and have the tools to take their training as far as they want now. But every time I give them that talk, I know I may never see them again. And that hurts. It’s a hard training moment and I’m sure any coach knows it well.

With all that said, I’ve been thinking this morning about what advice I might give in future. While the problem might be mainly one of philosophical basis, there are certainly some common physical expressions that can be addressed. What we are really seeing is the transition from uninformed outsider to novice, and the issue should be addressed at that level. I haven’t really run across any good explanations of what should be expected of a novice or initiate fencer that deal with this particular quirk.

I think I would talk to the student about realistic goals. Our first sparring rank asks students to demonstrate an ability to parry and riposte. I can ask a student to focus on the small goals of first just learning to parry some of the incoming attacks, and then working on simply observing when they think they might see an opportunity to riposte. I can easily build a detailed progression for a student that works up the chain towards being able to successfully parry-riposte during an engagement.

I will also need to really examine the physical cues of mental processing that I see in students, and work on progressions for those as well. The common hesitant rock-step, the awkwardly withdrawn arm, the flailing off-hand or the head nods. These are not so much items of bad posture to correct as much as they are physical tics that denote mental processes…too much thinking going on. Learning to calm the mind is easy when you’ve put the hours in and have experience, but more valuable lessons are learned when you don’t have that experience. I can find a better way to teach some of the relevant skills I know.

Lots to think about. I really do admire the courage of people who put themselves in that place over and over again, without having the coping skills in place to deal with it. It’s a kind of toughness that doesn’t get recognized enough.

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