You already know that I’m an advocate of slow speed fencing. However I also know that slow fencing is often difficult for new adopters who frequently jump in speed and tension as their attention swings around inside the encounter. Today I want to share an idea that can help you stay slow and develop your overall fencing brain while doing it.
Slow fencing is not about winning, it’s about learning and conditioning one’s body in order to be an effective fighter in a complex situation. Before you can worry about scoring in the slow environment it is essential that you develop the skills of “slow”, “flow”, and “observation”.
Slow: The ability to stay slow and not suddenly spike in speed.
Flow: The ability to continue movement from one action to the next without adding tension or stiffness, and pauses in rhythm that come from them.
Observation: The capacity to take in everything going on between you and your opponent through all your senses.
In my experience, those students who focus on winning and not getting hit in slow work (and in other types of fencing) tend to react more impulsively, have a hard time going slowly or staying relaxed, and are often the least aware of what is actually happening in the exercise.
They also take a much longer time to develop the ability to flow and move fluidly and powerfully within the changing environment of combat. They are always a step behind, reactionary and not strategic.
To new fencers in the school, when we first introduce them to slow fencing, I tell them to put on an attitude of curiosity instead of one of competition. Approach each bout in slow combat exercise with a question. For example:
- How does my opponent respond to this attack?
- What types of attack do they do most often?
- How close can I get to them and protect myself?
- How long can I maintain control of their sword?
- What leads to the loss or win of a particular crossing or contact?
These questions act as instigators of curiosity and as challenges that push your ability to observe and to enact combat objectives outside of hitting and not being hit. When you approach with a non-competitive question you are able to focus more on observation, flowing, and staying slow. Being struck or striking your opponent fade to the background and you can pay more attention to the overall fight.
The reality is that at full speeds a reactive desperation to parry or an opportunistic desire to hit at all costs often create tunnel vision and lead to unwise actions, overextension, and exaggerated movement. These are all leading causes of losing bouts — not winning them.
It takes time and practice to get good at slow work, but like a mantra in a meditation a question can give you an anchor for refocusing your mind and staying grounded in the objectives of the practice. When you find your mind anxiously leaping to move to defence or strike into an opening, relax and refocus on answering your question, on observation and curiosity.
The best fighters use tone and speed only when the opportunity most calls for it. In this way they become strategic and surprising to their opponents.
Remember, “slow is smooth; smooth is fast.”