There are two broad kinds of footwork lessons: technical lessons and integration lessons. You need both of these types of lessons before your footwork will begin to work for you in sparring, and you also need to be training the right thing before it will begin to work for you!
This is just the same as for striking techniques, where there are technical lessons to teach the mechanics of the action, and then integration lessons to help integrate the technique into everything else that you are doing.
This article will give a brief introduction to my point of view on the matter.
A “technique” is an action of some description. We might normally think of techniques as the cuts and thrusts, but for the purpose of this article, any given kind of step will be treated as a technique, because it has moving parts that have to be performed properly.
A “technical lesson” is a lesson that looks at the details of a technique. In this kind of lesson, you typically look at how to perform the technique effectively, without too much chaos or context, so that you know how the technique should be done in an ideal world. This can also include information about how to perform the technique without injuring yourself in the process.
An “integration lesson” is a lesson that assumes you already know how to perform the technique, and therefore works towards integrating the technique into your repertoire of techniques you can rely upon in sparring. These kinds of exercise tend not to use phrases like “this is how you do it”, or “pay attention to this detail”, but instead use phrases like “use what you have learned to achieve this goal”.
What does footwork need to achieve?
Useful footwork has to include a variety of skills. To be “good at footwork”, you have to be able to do the following things:
- balance (and not fall over)
- change of direction
- display judgement in where and how to step
- work with different lengths of step
- position yourself to set up the thing you want to do
- chamber your body and sword ready to perform the strike
- recover your body and sword after performing an action
- display coordination between eyes and feet
- display coordination between hands and feet
- display coordination between torso and feet
- work with effective timing, so you reach the right place at the right time to do the thing
Using games for footwork lessons
I have written before on the idea of playing games like children to learn footwork skills.
If you think of any childhood game that involves moving, it will invariably tick many of these boxes and will address many of these skills. Consider variations of tag, or negotiating difficult terrain, or running an assault course, or racing back and forth across a field.
When you think of sparring, it is imperative that all these boxes be ticked (and all of these skills in place) in our footwork, so that we can rely on it under pressure! Therefore, any footwork exercise MUST address as many of the above elements as possible. If a footwork lesson does not address ALL of these skills, then the lesson is a waste of time.
Technical footwork lessons
Of course, there’s a time and a place for a technical lesson. Before you can integrate a good passing step or a good lunge into the rest of your practice, you must be able to perform a competent passing step or a competent lunge in the first place!
The technical lesson will be something like “these are the mechanics of the step, this is how we do it properly to achieve greatest effect while preventing self-injury”, just like you might teach a technical lesson on the mechanics of the basic cuts in your system, without worrying too much about context or chaos or intensity. Solo drills often feature quite heavily in technical lessons, as students learn the shape of the technique and practise producing that shape and motion correctly with attention on the details.
Once students can perform the footwork technique with competence in a sterile, ideal kind of environment, the lesson needs to become more complicated and less sterile, so that the students can learn to perform these correct footwork mechanics in a more appropriate context.
Integration footwork lessons
As with a simple technical lesson on a basic cut such as an Oberhaw, the technical footwork lessons can only develop technical skill in isolation. For the technique to become useful, we have to integrate it into everything else we do, and make it work in a more chaotic environment.
Thus, we need integration lessons – and that is why I recommend playing games to teach footwork. Playing games will address all the footwork skills in the list above, in a rather chaotic environment, but without the pressure of trying to do all the swordfighting stuff at the same time. They are perfect pre-sparring integration lessons!
Standing in a line doing footwork, as people so often do, is neither a technical lesson nor an integration lesson. This tends to be merely an exercise that the instructor hopes will help everyone improve, but it usually doesn’t help very much. It would be more effective to run a technical lesson OR an integration lesson. Look at the mechanics of the footwork technique in more detail, OR learn to do footwork in a more chaotic and less sterile environment such as a game.
When you think of any highly skilled martial artist, and you consider how they move, you will probably have the impression that they move very fluidly and fluently, with balance and grace, and can put themselves exactly where they need to be in order to defend or to attack. That sort of control of footwork is not so difficult to achieve. It just requires practice, and the right kinds of lessons and exercises to be teaching the right thing. You can bet that these very skilful martial artists did not learn their footwork by standing in line, doing “passing step! lunge! lunge! recover! another passing step! retreat!” for hours on end.
It is not difficult to learn competent footwork. We probably already have many of these skills, but just haven’t learned to apply them to fencing!
We already navigate streets and crowded areas on a regular basis in “real life”, requiring changes of direction, changes of timing, judgement and balance. We already walk or run on terrain that isn’t flat, requiring balance and stability.
Think about preparing a meal in the kitchen. You probably perform a variety of changes of direction as you go from cupboard to cupboard and from one work surface to another.
So, if you want to improve your footwork for fencing, you need to learn the right footwork techniques in an appropriate level of detail (technical lessons), and you need to learn to integrate all of your footwork skills into the chaotic environment of sparring (integration lessons). Play games like children. Run about and use your legs to convey yourself from place to place. Use your everyday movements to practise balance and coordination.
Take what movement skills you already have and integrate them into your martial arts, and feel the difference in what you can achieve!
If you are interested in having me visit your club, to help you with integrating footwork and you interpretation of sword techniques into the way you do sparring, then please get in touch and have a chat about hiring me to teach a seminar.
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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.