sunnuntai 29. kesäkuuta 2014

Winning on defense 101 & preparatory actions

One of the complaints tournament fighting often gets is the lack of defensive actions and people protecting themselves, and only attacking instead. At this article we will look at ways of increasing your success in some defensive actions. But before doing this, one thing needs to be said.

Offense is a statistically better strategy.

I’m sorry to say it but it is true. If you look at hema competitions, or even Olympic fencing, over 50% of scoring actions are offensive actions ( as in attacks instead of parry riposte or counter attack ). The reason is simple, and understanding it is the key to making your defensive actions better. The one who initiates the fencing phrase always has the advantage. The other guy has to react to his fencing action, and reacting takes time. It’s like running a 100m race but the one initiating the action starts at the 30m line. This means that if the relative skill level, speed & strength are the same between you two, you will always lose unless the other guy fucks up. Early KDF manuals keep telling us to take the Vor, and there is a reason behind it.

Even in defensive actions, you want to be the one starting at the 30m line. All defensive actions should start from you initiative. A great fencer decides not only how his opponent will attack, but also when.  Preparatory actions play a huge role on this. If you don’t get to set these terms and the measure is right, backing up and retreating is a better choice than taking a parry riposte.

Let’s quickly categorise some fencing actions for the sake of better understanding this topic.

Ultimate actions: actions designed to hit or ward from a hit

Preparatory actions: all of the other fencing actions not designed o hit your opponent but which are done to for example: gather information from your opponent, maneuvering, directing you opponent  to do what you want them to, disguising you own intentions etc etc. *

Defensive actions by category: Parry riposte, counterattack & evasion ( for example nachreisen in the german tradition, atleast in my own interpretation ). Also in my opinion parry riposte is a technique that best works on a closer measure, where as counter attacks & evasions better work on a bigger distance.

So what we want to do is by preparatory actions to guide our opponent to strike where we want them to and how we want them to. Lets take an example. My opponent stands in Vom Tag, and I’m in left pflug. Now I step into distance, and while doing it change slowly to left ochs. Now if my opponent retreats, I simply repeat the same procedure. By doing this, Im slowly teaching him that I will transition from pflug to ochs, and eventually he will try to attack while I do this. But since this is exactly what I wanted, it is much easier to me to take a parry riposte after my invitation. Also I have drastically limited his possible choices of attack, since there are only so many ways one can attack from VT against ochs ( krumphaw being the canonical way, and unterhaw something that many people seem to prefer ).

And if he does not attack my preparation, then I will simply attack him myself out of my choice, and thus have the initiative. Thus I have maneuvered the game into how I want it to be played. His choices are limited to either attacking how I want him to, letting me attack how I want to, or retreating until he hits the wall / ring out / cliff or whatever. Your opponent should feel like what ever choice he makes, he’s gonna get hit. This way he will lose confidence in his own attacks, and start making stupid choices, and picking him apart will be very easy. Also from competitive point of view now you get to decide that what are the skills required that will decide the outcome of the match. Obviously with your preparatory actions you should steer the opponent to your own strong areas.

Now an important part of preparing your actions is to do them slowly . If I transition from ochs to pflug as fast as I can, this does not provide my opponent a tempo to attack. Think about. Let’s say your krumphaw reaches its target in 0.4 seconds, and It takes 0.2 seconds for you to recognize the stimulus, then the guard change has to last longer than 0.6s to be a viable tempo to attack. In reality it should actually be even a bit longer, as you want your opponent to attack to the opening that you provide, and it is not an opening if you have finished your preparatory action already.

Another advantage this gives is an automatic change of rhythm in your fencing ( obviously both the parry riposte / attack should be done quick ). This means that your parry /  attack will actually seem much faster than it actually is, which is much more important than the actual speed of action.
To make your preparatory action even more effective, you should be able to perform multiple finishing actions from it, while the preparatory action looks the same. For example in this case I could attack with a direct thrust, thrust feint and durchwechsel to the other side, or 2nd intention auswinden. This is much harder than it sounds. You want your opponent to keep guessing on which attack you will do, and that makes you succeed much more likely in all of them.

Back to he defensive aspect. Please note that while preparing your action, you don’t necessarily know that your opponent will act in first intention only. He might also feint his attack to your preparation and cut around. To be able to control this ( sort of ), notice in which distance you are doing your pflug à ochs preparation. The closer to you opponent you are, the more likely he is to attack with a direct  attack, and from a wider measure a 2nd intention is more likely. As I explained earlier, intention and measure are related.

Now we’ve covered one type of preparatory action in quite some depth. For those who are familiar with manciolinos 5 tempos to attack your opponent,  I think that you can use most of them as a invitation / preparatory action ( especially in sidesword, duh ) for the same purpose as the action I described previously. For example: from point in line guard lift your sword for a cut à creates a tempo to opponent to attack the handà if he does, parry riposte if not you get to attack. For those who are no familiar with manciolino: read it ;).

To sum up the points of this post:
-all defensive actions should start of your own initiative
-if they don’t and measure allows, retreat is better than taking a reactive parry
-you should prepare slowly, attack and parry fast for a rhythm change
-you should be able to perform multiple actions from the same preparation

Here’s a quick video of me and Eliisa Keskinen practicing the pflug to ochs preparation.

From the defensive actions this post has only so far covered the parry / riposte. I will later write about setting up counter attacks & one on nachreisen / retreats / evasions. Stay tuned for that!

*Note that this is not my own definition, but more or less as zbigniew czajkowski defines it.

keskiviikko 25. kesäkuuta 2014

Landing first intention attacks

Most people when they start fencing have trouble on landing simple first intention attacks. The key to landing first intention attacks is simple.

Time for you strike to reach the target < time for your opponent to perceive & react  to the stimuli accordingly + time It takes for them to perform a parry / retreat.

As time is relative to distance, this means that to land a successful 1st intention strike, you have to be relatively close to your opponent. Trying to land it from the very far reaches of your maximum passing distance is doomed to fail. Ofcourse the faster the actual fencing action is, the further away you will be able to land it ( up to a point ).

Obviously as you approach you opponent to get closer, they also have the choice to strike themselves, so getting close enough for the first intention attack to work can be a tricky.

As I see it, there are 2 possible ”tempos” in which you can attack your opponent with a first intention attack. First one is as he comes forwards and second one is when you catch him flat footed and he is not able to evade / retreat from your attack by stepping backwards. Lets look for a couple of ways to set up these situations.

Getting most historical fencers to move forward is actually relatively simple. Just open the distance by stepping backwards, and as you opponent rushes to close it, there is you tempo to attack. Not all fencers though come close enough for a first intention attack ( though nearly all will come close enough for a second intention attack, but that is not in the scope of this article ). With the good ones you need to make them close the distance to much in this scenario, which you can do by making them believe that you are still retreating, and turn your retreat into a half retreat*, and then attack. 

Catching people flat footed is harder. Most people are conditioned to retreat as you advance, so what you need to do is to recondition them in the fight to not retreat. Easiest way for this is to advance with a small jump instead of a regular advance ( though I recommend doing this only in flat surfaces ). A lot of people for some reason are very surprised by this, and lack the ability to retreat in their confusion. Good time for a vorschlag. This works up to a point.

There are a couple of more sophisticated ways to reach the same goal. If you are fencing someone who is very linear in his movement, you should condition them to stand still by moving sideways in a non linear fashion. Even if they don’t stand still, what they will likely do is unconsciously mirror you and move sideways to the other direction. Then move sideways ( or circulary would probably be a better term ) to the other direction. Now that they have been conditioned for non linear movement, switch your footwork to linear and close the distance. You will often find that they cannot anymore move lineary backwards.

Second way to reach the same goal is introduce a pause into your footwork. If your opponent mirrors you and pauses also when he perceives this, you have conditioned him to not be able to retreat, and can catch him flat footed now.

* ( If you step backwards so that you first move the rear leg and then the front leg, it's a full retreat. In half retreat you move only the back leg. )

lauantai 22. helmikuuta 2014

Go / no go

Go/no go

Often in class people ask how they should attack. The how part is usually easy, but when & why are much harder questions to answer, and require a deeper understanding of fencing. The choice of correct time is crucial for the success of an attack. Attacking at the wrong time generally leads to your opponents successful defensive actions. Thus learning when not to attack is very important. These situations usually involve  misjudging of distance / the tactical situation, choice of wrong fencing action and compulsive need to follow trough your fencing phrase when the situation is not right for it.

Go/nogo essentially is a condition clause during your preparatory step to striking distance, where according to your opponents reaction to your preparation you either follow trough with your original plan (go) or will not follow trough (no go ). Here’s a few ways to incorporate go/nogo to your training to help you deal with these issues.

Go/nogo exercise relative to distance:

As students initiative: Coach stands in vom tag, students starts in pflug outside of passing measure. Student steps into passing measure, and simultaneously rises his sword to vom tag. If coach stands still, student strikes with a zwerchaw. But if during the students preparatory step to distance, the coach steps backwards, the student cancels his attack plans and does nothing ( the student now should be out of measure for his passing attack to work ).

As coaches initiative: Student waits in vom tag. The coach starts outside of fencing measure, in any guard of his choosing. Both move freely, and at a time of the coaches choosing, the coachs switches guards to vom tag. Now this coaches switching of guards action will either bring him to passing measure of the student or not ( the coach controls the distance and nature of the guard swap ). If the coach is in measure, the student goes and attacks. If he is not in measure, the student simply stands in vom tag and does not attack.

Go/nogo exercise relative to tactical situation:

Coach stands in vom tag, students starts in pflug outside of passing measure. Student steps into passing measure, and simultaneously rises his sword to vom tag. If coach stands still, student strikes with a zwerchaw. But if during the students preparatory step to distance, the coach switches to any other guard, the student cancels his attack plans and does nothing.  

Some people might argue that the student could now switch his way of attacking relative to the coaches guard, but I do not think this is necessarily the best time to attack. In the original instance the student completes the motor program he has preplanned if the pre-requisites for the attack happen, in the latter one you would have to plan a new motor program after you notice the switch of guards. 

As coaches initiative: Student waits in vom tag. The coach starts outside of fencing measure, in any guard of his choosing. Both move freely, and at a time of the coaches choosing, the coach switches guards to either vom tag, or to some other guard. If the coach is in Vom Tag, the student goes then and attacks. If he is in any other guard, the student abstains from attacking.

torstai 6. helmikuuta 2014

Why the weighted afterblow?

Note: This is a guest post by Matias Parmala. I agree though fully at what he has to say on the subject.

Tournament rules get a lot of attention, and for good reason. While tournament prowess is not the only goal in HEMA, successful tournament strategies do influence the way people train, and thus the direction the movement as a whole takes. In this text, I wish to present some arguments in favour of the fully scored, weighted afterblow, and applying similar rules in double hit situations.

To begin with, I should state that I do not think using a tournament as a simulation of a swordfight is realistic. We have no way of knowing the damage each strike would do in reality, and the psychological situation is likely to be wildly different. Likewise, no reasonable modern ruleset can even begin to simulate the risk-reward profile of mortal combat. Hence, my premise in this post is that tournaments should be seen as a training game, designed to hone and test the skills of the participants. It can be a very open-ended and relatively high-stakes training game, sure, but fundamentally a game.

Most people accept that not all sword strikes are made the same, and whether weighting for target, or a more complex criteria, weighting allows rule writers to influence the style of fencing seen at tournaments. Some people will also point to the medical reality of damage different strikes against various targets would cause, but I think looking at the fencing the weighting promotes is a more interesting approach . Regardless, weighted scoring itself is not very controversial.

However, giving full points for the after-blow is quite controversial, giving them for doubles even more so. However, it has the following interrelated advantages:
-It causes parrying to increase you score, but does not punish failed parries
-Creates tactical considerations beyond simply hitting first
-Solves the problem of double hits

When I speak of weighted afterblows, I refer to ruleset where the score is weighted, and afterblows are as valuable as first strikes. Weighted doubles refers to a similar system, but without differentiating doubles from afterblows. When I speak of first-strike rulesets, I refer to rulesets where the afterblow is generally allowed, but will only reduce or possibly nullify the attacker's score while never scoring itself.

Under first-strike rulesets, you become relatively safe after you get that first shot in. You could score more by protecting against the afterblow, usually, but as long as you can keep hitting first and accepting the afterblow you will eventually chip your way to a lead. Weighted afterblow rulesets always include the risk of not only losing the score you made with the initial hit, but also of actually ending up as the losing side of the exchange. You can never allow your opponent to hit you; instead you must defend yourself at all times. Suicidal attacks only work if you can repeatedly get a high-value target in exchange for a low-value one, but this is quite difficult. Especially problematic is the situation where one fencer has the lead, and will use doubles and extremely risky first strikes as a tactic to maintain that lead. Under weighted doubles this is only possible if you go for the highest-value target, but if you predictably do that your opponent can and will use it against you.

First-strike rulesets also punish failed parries: if you try to parry and are unsuccessful, you are now on the losing side of the exchange with no chance to fully redeem yourself. Going for an attack instead of a parry would, in this case, have been a better tactic. I believe it makes a lot of sense to reward people for defending and trying to defend, and creating a situation where parrying is a larger risk than simply attacking does not do adequately do that. Under weighted afterblows, if you fail in your parry, you still get a chance to return your own strike for full points, and your opponent in turn has a very good incentive to parry that afterblow. Again: there is very rarely a reason to stop defending entirely and just go for a damn-the-consequences style first strike.

It's true that if your opponent strikes a low-value target you can simply abstain from parrying and go for a higher value target. However, an intelligent opponent will never give you the chance to do that when fighting under weighted afterblows; he knows that you can go for the high-value target, and thus has to be more tactical about exposing it to go for a different target. At the same time, the highest value is usually given to a target which is relatively hard to hit compared to, for example, the hands and legs, so mindlessly going for that is unlikely to be a successful tactic against a more diverse fencer. Note that this problem exist just as much under favouring the first strike, since if you have the lead you can just double and accept afterblows endlessly to maintain this lead. This interplay of different risks and rewards for various targets creates a rich variety of tactical decisions, versus just going for whatever is available if you can get there first, ignoring any potential threats from the opponent.

I should add that while some early Liechtenauer sources tell you to do things like attacking the nearest target without fear, they are also presumably giving advice for fighting with sharps, where the risk-reward ratio of ignoring an attack to go for a double is fundamentally different than in a tournament.

So why score the doubles? Because trying to punish the doubles leads to numerous problems and always has potential for gaming the rules in various ways. Giving a simple no-score, on the other hand, means they become the best way to get out of exchanges you don't like without risking losing points.

If you make both fighters lose, you are actually only punishing one fighter: the fighter who would have won. While we won't always know who it is, this means the fighter in the lead gets punished more, as does the fighter who cares more about winning than his opponent. At worst it means that I can knock out a skilled opponent from the tournament out of spite or to give my teammates an advantage. I think this is terrible sportsmanship, but most schemes for punishing doubles encourage this kind of behaviour. Also in the eliminators you either have to stop punishing them, or get situations where a tournament can be won simply by getting lucky, all your opponents knocking each other out.

The obsession with punishing the double in tournament rulesets seems to be an entirely modern HEMA concept. In Franco-Belgian the King always wins in these cases, in the Fechtschule they didn't care about the timing of the hits, Manciolino makes no mention of them, and classical fencers invented right-of-way to establish whose fault the double is, and gave score accordingly.

Again, if doubles are always a simple no-score, doubling to maintain your lead becomes a very attractive tactic. Right-of-way is one possible way to solve this, but I am not convinced it can be very well adapted to longsword, especially in the current judging environment. However I think it's vital to establish who is responsible for avoiding the double in every exchange.

Weighted scoring for doubles offers a way to do that. It does not perfectly answer the question of whose fault the double was theoretically, but it gives a good enough answer to create a tournament game where doubling on purpose is a valid tactic only against particularly boneheaded opponents. If you're hitting a 1-point target and your opponent a 3-point target, it's fairly clear who is using better judgement in the context of the tournament.

Any ruleset can be gamed in unfortunate ways. What fully weighted scoring for doubles and afterblows offers is an environment where a fencer can predict and counter that fairly simply, thus forcing his opponent to chance strategies and limiting the amount of gaming that is possible. Under these rules, it is never a good idea to attack a skilled opponent without thinking of defense, and in almost every situation there is a very strong incentive to keep defending yourself. They are not perfect, but offer one possible solution to the issue of promoting defensive fencing in a tournament context.

lauantai 1. helmikuuta 2014

Practicing switch-over reaction is a great way to reduce double hits

Have you ever been in a situation, where you both stand in vom tag, and you think to yourself “this is a great time to throw a zwerch”? Then a fraction of a second after you execute your brilliant plan your opponent throws his own zwerchaw resulting in a double hit. Been there done that.

There’s a way to prevent this, and it’s called training the switch over reaction. Switch-over reaction essentially is change of original intention during your strike, when you notice that your opponent is doing something you didn’t expect ( Hence the name switch-over, you’re switching from plan A to plan B on the fly ). Switch over reaction can be practiced during first intention or second intention attack.

Here are a few simple examples of how you can apply the switch-over reaction to your training:

As first intention: Coach stands in pflug, student waits in Vom Tag. When coach lifts his sword to vom tag, student attacks with a zwerchaw. Every once in a while ( like 1/6 – 1/10 ), instead of the coach just standing there and taking the hit, after going to vom tag he immediately throws his own zwerchaw ( during student’s action! ). The student should apply switch-over reaction, and on the fly immediately use countertime and take a parry followed by a riposte.

As second intention: Coach stands in pflug, student waits in Vom Tag. When coach lifts his sword to vom tag, student attacks with a right oberhaw – left oberhaw feint ( and coach ofcourse gives the appropriate parry for the first oberhaw ). Every once in a while, instead of letting the student succeed in his feint, the coach unexpectedly after his first “failed” parry tries to hit the student in the head / hands. When this happens, instead of following his second intention action trough, the student will switch-over to take a parry followed by a riposte.

Notice that when practicing switch-over reaction it is extremely critical, that the students intention firstly should always be on hitting his coach with his first or second intention action. The student should not “wait” to see if the coach will do something unexpected during his attack, he should always try to hit the coach. You want to train switching original intention, not doing an attack where you watch your opponents reaction and respond to that. Doing these exercises at speed helps you to keep your actions honest. Also the coach should use the “wrong” action rarely, because otherwise the student will learn to expect it, and will not try to hit the coach as his first intention as he should.

You can and should apply these kind of drills to other fencing phrases. Look at where you have a double hit problem and apply switch-over training there if it seems sensible.

torstai 23. tammikuuta 2014

Loose play vs practice bouts

For all of us interested in fencing comes a time when “freeplay” or loose play, is introduced to practice. But unfortunately for some of us there never comes a time when we get to do practice bouts. The importance of practice bouts is unfortunately often underestimated in HEMA, and most people don’t even understand how they differ from standard loose play. While practice bouts are not something you need to introduce to your training very early, they become a very handy training tool for more experienced students.

Practice bouts are essentially judged bouts ( you can use any ruleset you want ) where you count points. One fencer wins and the other fencer loses. Loose play is free-fencing without counting points. Let’s move on to analyze their positive and negative sides compared to each other, and look what they bring into your training.

Loose play:
+ a chance to introduce newly learned fencing actions to your repertoire
+ learning how to approach and solve frequent situations differently
- fencers don’t care if they are hit. Or if they hit the other guy. ( since you don’t lose points for failing a parry, you are not as eager in parrying. Same applies for offense)
- not caring about being hit results in lower speed and lower concentration

Practice bouts:
+ finding out your own strong points and weaknesses (“favorite strikes”)
+ higher level of concentration, higher speed of fencing actions
+ caring about being hit and hitting the other guy ( Imagine how much more you would care if the swords were sharp and you’d loose your head for a failed parry. Thus learning to care about not being hit is extremely important )
+ confidence boost for actions you are able to pull of successfully
+ higher level of stress, emotion and motivation
- fencers are not eager to apply actions that they are not 100% comfortable with. this may lead into a very limited repertoire. And limited repertoire means that it is easier for your opponent to figure out counter actions to your own actions.
- limited repertoire also means you are extremely predictable
- higher level of intensity means higher level of risk of injury for both participants
- needs more resources as you need a competent judging team. This also results in your getting less fencing time ( though I have to say that learning to judge is a valuable learning experience for a fencer, since it requires lots of similar skills as fencing does, like ability to perceive what is happening in a fencing bout )

Both of these training methods are obviously important for our development as fencers. Overusing either method  leads into some negative side effects. Doing both actively leads to optimal results.

maanantai 20. tammikuuta 2014

Characteristics of fencing as an activity & how to train

Regardless of what type of swordfighting you practice, it is quite a unique activity compared to other martial arts / sports / combat sports out there.  Compared to physical activities like acrobatics, running, swimming, dancing and other closed motor skill sports/activities, the difference is massive. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people train longsword as if it was a closed motor skill (closed motor skills are performed with very little attention paid to the environment / surroundings, because either the environment is the same each time, or the little changes in it doesn’t affect the performance in a meaningful way). People practice paired set choreographies for hours and hours and when their first free fencing time comes everything they’ve learned flies out of the window. Wonder why?

Longsword fencing is an open motor skill. You have to take into account all the external stimuli. Small changes in your opponent means you need to perform different actions. Some of the same actions work differently, or doesn’t work at all, depending on physical qualities of your opponent (you cannot strike a zwerchaw to the head the same way against an opponent who is 190cm tall, and one who is 150cm tall). And you won’t know what your opponent is going to do. You might know all the answers to all the different fencing situations, but you will not know what questions he is going to ask. Fencing technique does not exist in a vacuum, what and how your opponent does something affects how you perform your given actions.

Understanding the difference between open & closed motor skills is critical, because obviously the way you train has to correspond with what kind of motor skill you are practicing.

This means that if you want your students to learn fencing as an open motor skill, your drills need to have stimuli for what the students need to react to. This can start out as a simple strike executed to a previously announced stimulus (for example, “when your partner lifts his sword to vomtag, strike a zwerchaw). A simple reaction to a simple stimulus. Practicing like this is very important, since it practices all 3 phases of a sensory motor skill. Preparatory, latent & executive. And while this kind of practice might seem similar to practicing fencing like a closed motor skill (no stimuli), it is not.

The next level of difficulty is choice reaction to your partners previously announced actions. For example  “If I attack with a right oberhaw, respond with zornhaw ort. If I strike your leg, do an uberlauffen & if I strike with a bent arm, do a krumphaw to the hands”. You can start out with a few (2-3) big & clear actions, and as your abilities improve, make them smaller and faster. Or include more options. Choice reaction practice builds critical skills for fencing, like better perception of fencing, speed of reaction, concentration etc etc.

After you have spent time practicing longsword as described above for some time, and have acquired a large repertoire & a high level of successful executions of your fencing actions, you can practice both simple & choice reaction as an unannounced action. Note that this kind of practice does not really suit the regular “class” practice, unless you are dealing with very experienced students. Usually practicing unannounced actions like this works much better as a private lesson, where one of you clearly takes a coaches role, and at the beginning of the exercise explains that the lesson will involve no talking, the coach will only present situations for the student to deal with. This kind of practice in my opinion is extremely valuable as it requires the student to have high level of perception, reaction and concentration (How many times while fencing is your opponent going to yell “oberhaw!” and attack ;)?)

At this point of my post I think I should mention that if you are dealing with beginners, or generally practicing a new strike / defensive action, it is completely fine to practice it like a closed motor skill to get familiar with how the strike works and how you’re supposed to move your body. However there are 3 things to keep in mind. 1st: Avoid rhythmic practice. This will lead to a low level of concentration. 2nd: You don’t really have to repeat this kind of practice for long. The step up to a simple reaction practice is not big. People are generally able to handle things quicker than you would expect. 3rd: wear appropriate protective equipment. Especially later on when you want your students to go faster / as fast as they can.

I’ll end this post with a few remarks on speed and intention. Swordfighting by nature is fast, in all of meanings of the word. To be successful in it you need fast movements, fast reactions, quick speed of perception & awareness.  While practicing simple & choice reaction drills, speed of reaction is more important than speed of action. A fencer with good speed of reaction & perception, but only average speed of action, will generally perform much better than a fencer with great speed of action, but only average to low speed of reaction. It does not matter how fast your parry or strike is, if you react late to the given stimulus.

Now when I say that you don’t need to go fast while doing these drills, you should always try to hit your partner.  And for this you need to wear adequate protection. Not wearing enough gear is a sign of stupidity. Otherwise you risk injury for you or your partner. Another result of lacking equipment is that your actions will become completely unrealistic if you cannot hit your partner. What good are 1000 repetitions of a zornhaw ort if your partner pulled all his oberhaws short because he was afraid to hit you? Essentially this means you have never actually performed a zornhaw ort, because the conditions needed to perform the action never happened.

Practicing (in a useful way) with minimal equipment in my opinion is an advanced skill for experienced practitioners.