Creating Mental Space

One of the things I took with me when I got seriously involved with fencing in the SCA is a background in Oriental martial arts. I studied and taught Shaolin Kempo Karate, a discipline that, like most commercialized oriental martial arts, overemphasized drilling and under-emphasized practical application. Teaching 1What’s more, when I started fencing in the SCA, it was under the supervision of Sir Guillaume le Fort. A diligent instructor, Guillaume began each fencing practice with, what seemed to my younger self, and interminable session of footwork and parry exercises. Suffice it to say, these experiences instilled in me the value of structured training.

Years later, when I assumed the role of fencing instructor in my local SCA group, I felt naturally inclined to treat the discipline as a legitimate martial art. As new members joined, I started offering special training sessions, and eventually fell into a routine of setting aside about 25% of our regular practice time for structured drills.

That’s actually not a lot of training compared to other WMA groups. However, most fencers I’ve met in the SCA received nothing more than some cursory instruction before being thrust into gear and tossed into into the sparring ring, with no regular training afterwards. Unfortunately, this appears to have fostered a culture within the SCA that steadfastly defends the right to trade the tedium of structured practice for a fencing career plagued by bad habits, stagnation, and mediocrity. I’ve dealt with more than a little flack for going against the grain, which is what led me to write this note in the first place.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not entirely adverse to training. Great! But while some recognize that training is a necessary part of learning efficiently, few fencers I’ve discussed the subject with have really considered why or how it actually works. As I see it, learning a new physical discipline can be broken down into instruction and application (i.e., practice). Structured training brings instruction and application together in a way that provides context while limiting the scope of the overall activity. This makes it easy to learn techniques, because you’re less likely to be overwhelmed or sidetracked.

There's always room for humor in teaching.

There’s always room for humor in teaching.

Learning to fence is a lot like learning to drive a car. What begins as a series of mechanical actions—buckling in, checking your mirrors and blind spot, flipping your turn signal, shifting into drive, re-checking your blind spot, turning the wheel, letting go of the brake, gently applying gas (NOT TOO MUCH!), and then turning the wheel back and you roll onto the street—eventually becomes a single technique of “pulling out from the curb.” You have to perform each mechanical action before it becomes second nature, and you have to execute each technique before it becomes automatic.

Driving proficiently isn’t a single process, it’s method of stringing many techniques into a logical sequence that accomplishes the specific goal of getting you where you need to go. What’s more, negotiating traffic and all the hazards of the road requires you to be able to think about a whole lot more than just the individual mechanical actions involved with driving. That’s why, when you first take the wheel, you learn to drive under controlled conditions, with an experienced driver there to coach you along the way.

The way training actually works is by reducing the impact of each mechanical action on your cognitive capacity. You see, your conscious mind has a finite capacity for processing decisions, similar to the way a computer has a finite amount of RAM. Each conscious decision you make takes up some of this mental space. Through repetition, mechanics and techniques become automatic, because they no longer happen on the conscious level. This leaves you with more mental space in which to make decisions, such as which technique to execute. To go back to our driving example, eventually, the act of pulling out from the curb literally requires no more mental space than just shifting into gear did the first time you took the wheel. Teaching 2The payoff is that, with the added metal space this affords you, you’re able to execute such vital tasks such as looking ahead and scanning for danger.

Learning to fence well works the same way. You start by learning the essential mechanics (e.g., footwork, parries, etc). Next, you learn to combine simple mechanical actions; for example, “cover and advance” become the simple technique called “finding the blade,” or “extend, lean, step, and recover” form the basic technique called “lunge.” Then you pair these simple techniques, gaining the blade and lunging into a a single tactical element—a basic attack—which you train until it becomes virtually automatic.

Eventually, you’re able to combine this with other tactical elements, becoming an increasingly efficient, effective, and proactive fencer. More importantly, the more you train the techniques, the more readily available they’ll be when you need them, and the more mental space you’ll have left over for assessing the fight itself.

But what are the consequences of not deliberately training, relying instead on pure application (sparring) to develop your techniques? If you’re extremely lucky, nothing. Eventually, through enough repetition, much of what you do will become automatic, and you’ll develop mental space, proactive tactics, and even some degree of reactive intuition.

More realistically, you’re going to develop a lot of terrible habits. After all, many people who drive regularly aren’t actually good drivers, and they rely on the diligence of others to dodge them when they recklessly swerve through traffic. What’s more, the good habits you develop through sparring alone are likely to come much more slowly and without the understanding that will help you reach your potential.

The real question is: why would you willingly choose to spend an extended period of your fencing career growing at a stunted pace with limited results? If you want to be a truly competent fencer, you owe it to yourself to take training seriously.

I wrote this well over a year ago after a protracted discussion with other leading members of the fencing community in the Society for Creative anachronism. This article was exclusively targeted at SCA fencers who come from a tradition that treats regular training and drilling as purely optional and places a heavy emphasis on sparring.

I’ve met more than a few good fencers in the SCA and discovered that few of them have ever stuck to this model, and the ones who do are almost exclusively attribute fencers who make the most of the rules. In retrospect, I believe that the sentiment in this article is wholly applicable to many WMA groups as well as the SCA.

Written by Phil Selman

Known as Warder Philipp Reimer von Wolfenbüttel in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Phil is a lifelong historical fencer and martial arts instructor. He specializes in I.33 sword and buckler and avidly enjoys late-period Italian rapier (primarily Giganti).