This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 9th December 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
I think that fencing with a sword and driving a car involve some very similar skills. If you drive, then you may recognise some of these similarities. Putting some thought into these ideas may help you examine some of the ways you think about fencing, drawn from your experience behind the wheel of a car.
When you start learning to drive, just getting the car into motion can be very difficult. You have to put your foot down on the clutch, you have to put the car into first gear, you have to ease up on the clutch until you feel the “biting point”, you need to press down on the accelerator to provide enough revs to prevent stalling, you need to ease up some more on the clutch. And in between all of this, you need to be checking your mirrors, indicating, and turning the steering wheel to make the car go in the right direction.
There are several actions involved in just starting to move, and they all require different limbs to move in different patterns, yet with an overall coordination and sensitivity. It also requires the awareness and ability to differentiate between starting off downhill, uphill, on the flat in good conditions or on ice, and the ability and sensitivity to adjust your body coordination to alter the action so that it can be successful in this particular environment.
Eventually, however, you learn how to coordinate all of these motions so that you can perform them without thinking about it, and then you can make the car start moving whenever you want, with no difficulty.
This is very similar to fencing, when a simple action such as a cut from the dominant shoulder or a thrust on the lunge involves several component parts. With a typical thrust on the lunge, you must choose your target, be at the correct distance, choose your moment, straighten your arms towards the target, provide whatever opposition is required, drive your back foot into the ground, kick your lead foot forwards, land on your heel, roll smoothly onto the ball of the foot, stop the motion so that you do not overbalance, land the hit, then withdraw immediately.
For an action to succeed in fencing or in driving, all the components must be performed correctly, at the right time in the sequence, and with the necessary coordination. However, with enough careful practice, the component parts blend together until you can perform the overall action without needing to consider the individual components.
Feeling the “biting point”
When you want to start moving in your car, you need to coordinate the release of the clutch and the increasing pressure on the accelerator. Giving too many revs without lifting the clutch means that you go nowhere, but lifting the clutch too early, with too few revs, will make the car stall. You must learn to feel the “biting point” on the clutch, that special moment as you release the clutch where you must simultaneously provide the necessary pressure on the accelerator, or risk failure.
Similarly, in fencing, you can feel the pressure in the bind between two swords, and use this information to choose a sensible action to perform next. You can recognise that your opponent is putting more pressure onto your blade, and is trying to control the centre-line; you can feel when he releases pressure, and so you know that he wants to disengage and try something else.
By learning to identify this “biting point”, and learning how to play with it with the accelerator and with your own sword, you can improve your ability to control your car and control the bind.
When you are driving and you pull up to a roundabout (or up to a traffic light junction, in those countries which choose to ignore the wonderful device that is a roundabout), you need to assess what the other traffic is doing, before you can commit your vehicle into motion. Sometimes people are considerate, and use their indicators properly to show what they intend to do; sometimes people are inconsiderate, and don’t bother to use their indicators, leaving you guessing; and sometimes, people are idiots and use their indicators incorrectly, giving you a false impression of what they intend to do.
Since you cannot rely on receiving reliable information from indicators, the most reliable information you can gain comes from observing how the drivers position their vehicles. On a roundabout, if a car is hugging the middle of the roundabout, then the likelihood is that the driver wants to keep going around for at least one more exit, possibly more. If the car starts to peel away from the middle of the roundabout, and begins to point towards an exit, the likelihood is that the driver wants to take that exit to leave the roundabout. Similarly, at a traffic light junction, if the driver inclines the car to the left, chances are the driver wants to turn left; if the driver inclines the car to the right, chances are that the car will turn to the right.
Even going along a straight road, you can observe a driver’s behaviour to see what the car will do. If the car is behind you, but the driver is edging out to look around your vehicle at the oncoming traffic, chances are that the driver wants to overtake you, and so you can prepare for this. If the car is accelerating quickly and closing the distance from behind, again, the chances are that the driver wants to overtake, or at least to bully you into moving more quickly. On the motorway, with several lanes at your disposal, you might notice a vehicle ahead of you veering from side to side within their lane – in this instance, you might worry that the driver is not in full control of their car, and so you may decide to overtake and get past them, to move clear of the dangerous behaviour.
Similarly, in fencing, we can glean plenty of information just by observing how an opponent positions himself against you. By paying attention to his positioning, you can observe that he is likely to attack you, or that he is trying to escape. You can observe that someone is frightened and is therefore an easy target, or you can see that he wants to fight and is not giving ground. You can notice that a particular opponent always pulls into a high guard before striking, or that if he drops into a lower position then he wants to thrust at you.
Paying attention to how your opponent positions himself against you is a wonderful way to gain information about what he wants to do next.
Setting up the movement
When you want to make a tight turn to the right (perhaps to park the car in a busy but tight parking lot), you cannot always just turn the steering wheel to the right at the very last minute – sometimes, you have to set up the turn by going a little to the left, to give yourself more space in which to perform the turn.
Similarly, in fencing, you can’t always rely on doing the technique at the last moment; sometimes, you have to set it up with some other preparatory motions. For example, you might want to make a feint to create an opening, or use a couple of steps to take a new angle against your opponent, or maybe you step back a little so that he comes closer to you when he follows.
Just performing a technique by itself, with no set up, may result in success, but may often result in failure. Similarly, many people have trouble parking their car in tight spaces, because they don’t understand how to set up the necessary turns and approaches. Taking time to set up a movement properly will tend to result in more success when you go to perform the motion.
Double hits matter
In fencing, a double hit means you lose that exchange. In driving, a double hit means you have to involve the traffic police, maybe an ambulance and the fire service, and almost certainly your insurance companies. If you consider double hits in fencing to be as catastrophic as a double hit in a car, then you might find more inclination to fence with due caution and security!
It is quite possible to notice similarities between the activities of fencing and driving. Thinking of your own experiences behind a wheel, and with sword in hand, are there any other similarities that you can observe? If you think about other activities that you do, where speed, reactions, planning, and positioning are important skills, then what other similarities can you notice?
Finally, after considering these various similiarities between fencing and other activities, what can you now do to improve your practice of fencing?
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.