People often talk about control in the practice of martial arts, in the sense of “controlling your blows” or “controlling your power”. HEMA is no exception, and there are certainly many advocates for the use of control while fencing. One thing that makes matters a little difficult, however, is that there are often a variety of different understandings of what “control” actually means, and what controlled fencing would look like.
I am definitely in favour of training in a controlled fashion. I have written previously that we have a responsibility to our training partners, to keep them safe and unbroken, and being in control of our actions is a large part of that.
However, I don’t think control is necessarily limited to being gentle, or fighting softly. In this article, I would like to share my idea of what control is, and how to work towards achieving it.
I believe that having control is having the ability to do exactly what you want to do, in the way you want to do it, and to hit exactly the target that you wish to strike with exactly as much force as you wish to use.
This can include hitting gently, but it can also include hitting hard. If I am truly in control of myself and my sword, I should be able to dial down the force with which I am striking, or dial it up if the situation calls for that. When I’m fencing with minimal protective gear (just a mask and gloves) then I fence in a friendly, gentle fashion, to avoid the risk of injury. In a tournament setting, where I need to up the ante, I have to be able to do just that.
It can include “pulling” my blow so that it lands gently. I do this regularly when fencing with newer students – there is nothing to be gained by walloping a new student (or, indeed, anyone) so hard that they don’t want to come back to the club. I should have sufficient control to land the lightest, gentlest touches.
It can include striking all the way through a target. When test cutting, the objective is to use the sharp sword to cut all the way through the target medium. Anything less than that is a failed cut, because it was not sufficiently effective. I have written before about the value of boolean data and being unable to hide from boolean results. If I cannot control myself to produce the right kind of motion and acceleration to put the sword through the target then I am lacking the right kind of control for this activity.
Hitting exactly the target I want to hit is also important. When I attack my opponent with a thrust, I’m not just pushing my sword forward in the hope of landing a hit; I am picking a target (such as left shoulder, throat, nose, whatever) and doing my very best to place my sword upon that target. If I fail to do this, then it means I did not have sufficient control to direct my sword to the desired target. In terms of fencing safely, being unable to hit my target makes me a hazard, because who knows where my sword will end up? In terms of tournament fencing, being unable to hit my chosen target and accidentally hitting somewhere else might be the difference between landing a 5-point strike and getting only a single point. Clearly, it is much better to have control for targeting!
Having the control to do exactly what I want to do might sound a bit strange. It may seem that any action I produce is what I mean to do; but that is not always the case. I might have a habit that I always default to doing when under pressure; then I am a creature of habit, and I am not in control. I might be struggling to perform exactly the right footwork for the situation; again, this means I am not sufficiently in control of myself to direct my feet at the same time as my sword. For me to regard myself as being in control of myself, I need to be able to choose my techniques and motions and carry out my choice exactly, even while under pressure, and I should be able to make the conscious choice to change my motion into something else as the situation evolves.
I also said that having control is having the ability to carry out my desired action in exactly the way I want it to be done. If I have a great opportunity to send out a cut to my opponent’s mask, and I manage to control myself and send the cut to the target … and then the sword turns uncontrolledly in the air and slaps with the flat, then I did not have sufficient control to carry out my choice of action successfully. If I send out a cut and intend it to land flat, then landing flat is not a problem; I should be able to perform my cuts so that they land in exactly the fashion I want them to land. Similarly, if I want to step in a certain fashion, I need to have enough control of myself to be able to make that step in that fashion, and not end up lurching wildly.
Only by exhibiting control of every aspect of my own motions, can I have proper control over my sword.
If I am in control of both myself and my sword, then I can control my opponent’s sword.
If I am in control of myself, my own sword, and my opponent’s sword, then I can control my opponent.
Once I can control myself, my own sword, my opponent’s sword, and my opponent, then I am in complete control of the fight.
Over course, that is all much easier to say than to do in practice. Nonetheless, it is an excellent goal towards which I can aspire for my own training, and one that I try to communicate to all of my students.
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.