If I could only ever do one thing to improve my fencing, it would be slow work with a competent partner. It’s the mother of all good technique, it’s the best teacher there is. In one bout of slow work, I can find my focus for my personal drills and exercise for the next week. I can learn where my posture is off, how my habits are leaving openings, and what things I should be developing as new attack skills. It’s simply the most important skill there is in martial arts, and it’s easily the one people screw up the most.

The things I’ve done to try and make people do slow work correctly are numerous…Forcing everyone to move on the same count, bringing doumbek’s to class and playing at different speeds to entice people to follow the tempo, rants, explanations, grabbing someone’s arm and physically moving it at the right speed, peer pressure, observation, grading, gentle touch feedback, yelling, dropping my defense and staring at my partner while they speed up and hit me…

The truth is slow work is hard. People that are good at it hate it, because we know, more than anything, it’s physically painful. What is easy at speed is excruciating when done slowly and deliberately. Lunging and recovering at one-tenth speed is an excellent exercise in posture and balance, as well as shoulder endurance. But mostly we hate it because of the people that try to win at slow work, the same way they try to win at working out. “I grunted louder than you! My sweat is more prolific! I win! Worship me!” Or whatever the thought process is…

I usually tell people not to try to win at slow work, because that’s what it seems like they are trying to do. They move slowly…until they decide there is something they want to do. When that happens, they go from exaggerated slowness to just a hair under full speed. It’s frustrating for both people, I’m guessing. For the person doing the drill correctly, they don’t get a chance to develop the range they were looking for, because the moment they start to work a slow parry, the other person has done a rapid disengage and planted the sword point on their chest. Any attack is met by a magically speedy block or evasion and another rapid thrust. I can only imagine it gets boring and confusing for the winner to be suddenly having the best fencing experience of their life, and wondering why it’s not like this when it’s at full speed…

What I’m trying to do now is change, a little bit, my language around this essential drill. Slow is a relative thing, I know I’ve had people in the past complain on occasion that I’ve sped up in the middle of slow work. It’s a thing we can all do from time to time. And often people don’t understand exactly what slow is, and may really believe they are going slow. Or they get frustrated about not being successful, or not really understanding what I, as an instructor, want from them in this drill. Frustration disconnects you from your body, and makes for jerky actions and reactions.

Tempo work is a phrase I’d like to start using more (separate from tempo drills, which are specific family of full-speed timing-based action drills). When I call for tempo work, what I want from the students is for them to work on moving every part of the body at a consistent tempo. If I’m going to throw a punch, as an example, I need to co-ordinate a number of actions. I want my left knee to bend ever so slightly, my right heel to start to lift and rotate. My shoulder will start to slide forward, my abdominal muscles will start to control my pelvic tilt while my butt muscles start some rotation. My lats tighten down to get the shoulders co-ordinated and to prep for hand rotation, the infraspinatus clamp to guy the spine for the coming weight shift, etc…

I want all this to happen in a proportional tempo. This is slow work, tempo work, this is my chance to work on how all these different actions time together.  If my hand outreaches the movement of my knee or hip, I’m losing part of my kinetic energy transfer chain. I’m losing efficiency and total power. If this is happening at slow speed, it’s probably happening during a fight as well. Why? I can listen to my body, get deep inside myself, and hear what is going on. Maybe in this case I find something feels off in my left knee. I deduce that I’m making an error in the placement of my left foot. I need to place it a little more forward. Now I know that I need to spend some time on footwork drills to increase my punching power.

And that’s just my first punch. It’s a partner drill, so while I’m thinking about all this, trying to listen and get my tempo down, my partner is reacting to what she sees. I can see her moving to block. Sure, I can pull back my punch and do something fancy, because I see what’s going on. But here’s the trick. If my tempo is correct, if I’m successful at moving each atomic element of my movement chain in proportional synchronicity…it’s not going to make sense to me to pull my hand back. Even at slow speed, I am as committed to that punch as I would be at full speed. That’s the key test. When you get to that point, you are doing slow work right.

And this is our second point of value in this drill. I’m committed to my punch, I’ve coordinated my tempos correctly, my punch is moving and my opponent is countering it. I can’t change the punch. I’ve got a million things to think about…and time to think about them.  I’ve got time to pay attention to my opponents counter, time to think about what’s going to happen. She’s going to block the punch, and I can’t stop that. And I can see that’s she got her right hand starting up on a nice big cross to my jaw. That’s gonna suck. But my weight is still shifting…if I pick my left foot up a little, and step just right, at the right time, I’m going to juuuust pull my jaw free from that counter. As a bonus, my left hand will be in a perfect position for an uppercut to her liver. Beautiful. Would I have seen this counter if I had pulled my right hand back? Probably not.

Of course my opponent will see what I’m doing and react, and that will be the start of our chess game. Done correctly, it’s going to play out just like a full-speed, full contact sparring session, with the difference of us having time to think about what is happening. We will both learn new things about our fighting style and our opponent, and walk away with things we want to work on. It’s a true cooperative competition. By focusing deeply on our own tempo, and being consistent with that tempo, we can try to beat each other, while giving each other opportunities to learn and improve. For my money, there is no better drill for fighting.