Good habits can be a powerful foundation for the practice of any martial art. Good habits are a pretty good basis for life in general, and I’m sure no one would disagree with that! And yet, when learning martial arts, it can be tempting to dive ever deeper into details and justifications and complications and “edge cases”, especially when trying to recreate a martial art from a historical treatise.
Often, it can be beneficial for your practice (and your sanity) to step back from details and complications, and to consider what the broad shape of your habits are. Perhaps you don’t need any more details to become better at something, maybe you just need to go about the whole thing in a slightly different and more successful way.
We can often express a “good habit” in just a line or two. For example, we might easily say:
- It is a good habit to withdraw safely after hitting your opponent;
- It is a good habit to make sure you are close enough to be able to hit before attacking;
- It is a good habit to form the best structures you can with your sword, without letting yourself be lazy;
- It is a good habit to warm up properly before a challenging physical session.
It is difficult to disagree with such general statements. Of course, there are situations where it might be fine to “break the rule” and to do something else instead, but we can probably all agree that those situations tend to be a little less common and that these habits probably count as good general advice or good rules of thumb.
These good habits are quite easy to explain to students, and are quite easy for students to try to achieve in sparring.
They also provide simple ways to diagnose and explain problems: for example, if a student comes to me, frustrated with the number of double hits and afterblows that they experience in sparring, and they ask “what am I doing wrong?”, then I can answer quite easily that “you manage to hit well enough, but then you need to withdraw under cover after landing your hit”.
I don’t need to tell this fictional student that “your right guard is collapsed by 10° and therefore doesn’t provide enough cover”, or that “in this exchange you struck with a combination of this and that technique, which left you exposed in this place”, or even that “when you struck, you didn’t use enough body structure to blow through your opponent’s sword enough to both constrain the blade while landing the hit”. These responses are all focused on details, and it might be a bit more difficult for a student to take the advice and put it into practice in the next bout.
You can fence quite successfully and quite easily without worrying about details, just by following good general habits. The more “good habits” you have in your fencing, the better your fencing is likely to be.
If you think about someone you regard as being a good fencer, and think about their fencing (ignoring individual techniques, tactics, or movements), what are the general habits that you can observe? Do they have any good habits that you do not? Is there a habit you could bring into your own fencing that would improve what you do?
Just fence better
The advice “just fence better” is never going to be particularly helpful or satisfying for anyone to hear. However, that is essentially what all advice or solutions boil down to: learn to do something better, then integrate that into your overall performance, and your overall performance will be better.
So, if we rephrase the statement a little, and qualify it with useful advice, we end up with something like “you will be able to fence better if you learn to cover yourself after making your hits”. That is much friendlier and also much more useful, because it provides specific advice for how to achieve the better fencing.
Almost any technical, tactical, or strategic advice or instruction in our source material can be phrased this way. You can take any passage from your favourite source and ask yourself “how would this make my fencing better if I could do this reliably without having to think about it consciously?” And perhaps, by considering it like this, you will begin to see value in an instruction that just seemed odd, or fussy, or that seems to require too much thought in the middle of a bout – because by becoming able to do it without thinking, through the right kind of training, the difficulty evaporates and only the value is left.
For example, when I first began to fence with the broadsword according to Roworth, I had difficult with the idea of performing all my cuts “in opposition” to my opponent’s sword. It seemed like a huge amount of mental processing was required to modify every single cut I made so that it could turn towards my opponent’s sword and gain some cover. It also impacted negatively upon the quality of my cuts, because they ended up going towards my opponent’s sword instead of the targets I really wanted to hit.
But by slowing things down, by allowing myself to understand what the instructions were trying to achieve (gaining cover by having your strong between yourself and your opponent’s sword), and by doing exercises to improve this skill in isolation, I became better able to form my cuts so that I could gain a little cover from them. Now, I can throw cuts with opposition without thinking about it, and I’m often well-covered behind my own blade. I just had to work out what the advice was trying to achieve and then go through some exercises to improve my ability to achieve that goal in my fencing.
Essentially, I “became better at fencing” by following the advice in the source and learning a good general habit that is now an important yet unconscious part of my fencing performance.
Complicated discussions about details
We could diagnose any problem very mathematically, in terms of tempo and measure and angle and force – but just how useful is this for most people? I fear that it often leads to complicated discussions, and while it may arrive at the absolutely most perfect answer, it might not be an answer that many fencers will be able to implement easily to solve their recurring problems.
I have had many discussions over the years about precisely which angle is best for a descending cut. Should it be strictly vertical? Should it be 45°? Personally, I use ~30° for just about everything, but that may be personal preference. Does it matter as long as you can hit your opponent?
I think it does matter to some extent, but beyond that, it doesn’t matter even slightly. If you can achieve what you want to achieve, without being hit, then this is perfectly acceptable. Some angles may make that easier or more difficult to achieve; but thinking about the good habit sidesteps the complicated discussion entirely and simplifies the matter. I believe that good descending cuts should come DOWN onto the target (not across), should allow some cover behind the strong and the hilt, should be able to bring your edge onto your opponent’s flat., and should be able to cut through the target when it lands. That’s all.
In any given situation, you could map out that if an incoming cut comes towards you at 40° from vertical, then you gain a perfectly perpendicular intersection if you meet it with a 50° cut, and that it will be best if you meet your opponent’s half-weak with your half-strong. But, does it need to be this complicated?
If your opponent cuts at you at 30° from vertical, and you drop your own cut on top of it at 30° from vertical, displacing the incoming sword with your edge on top of your opponent’s flat, and with your strong and hilt providing cover against a hurried thrust, isn’t this quite sufficient in the vast majority of situations?
In the training hall, in the amount of time it takes to diagnose and map out a complicated set of details for one detail-focused repetition, we could have done another five or ten less detailed repetitions of a generally good habit that will help in the vast majority of situations.
Most of my teaching these days focuses on building good habits (on a basis of effective structure and striking mechanics). These might be good movement habits, good sword handling habits, good habits for initiating an exchange, good habits for escaping an exchange, the list could be extensive. But, in general, I try to teach good habits and don’t worry too much about the details (other than those details that are required for effective and safe body structure and striking mechanics).
When people learn these good habits, their fencing looks good. It looks cautious, it looks precise, it looks strong, it looks assertive. It also tends to look like the instructions written in our source material.
I can justify every good habit with copious quantities of details, but I don’t think those details need to be present in most discussions. It is important to be able to back up my statements and to provide evidence of how source material, science, and personal experience align – but it is most important that my students understand the lesson I want to teach, and that they become better fencers.
So, I usually try to focus on the good habits, the good behaviours, that will be generally useful. I try to help my students “get better at fencing”, one good habit at a time.
What are some of the good habits you think you already display in your fencing?
Are there any new good habits you think you might need to incorporate into your 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.