If you owned a car that could only drive at one speed, say 37.7 miles per hour, how useful would that be? Or maybe one that could only drive at 99 miles per hour, regardless of the speed limit? What about an airplane or a boat or a motorcycle or a bicycle? On a day-to-day basis in our lives we routinely use mode of transportation that vary their speeds based upon conditions, and that have relatively wide (for the technology) ranges of possible speeds. Why then do we move our torsos, weapon arms, and weapons up and down the strip at one speed? It is not a technical application of velocity for success.
First, two terms that are important:
Speed is a measurement of movement in any direction. It is defined by the equation: speed = distance divided by time. This is an important measurement in fencing, especially when we talk about economy of movement. The Time-Speed-Distance problem is why your large movement is slower, even though executed as fast as you can move, when compared to a much less fast but more tightly executed slower movement. Practically this allows the lateral parry to defeat a large disengage or an opponent to derobe your beat executed with a large cocking motion.
Velocity is speed in a specific constant direction. As a practical matter, speed by itself can be all over the place.
This discussion is focused on footwork velocity. For the purposes of the discussion we are defining footwork velocity as movement in two directions, forward (toward the opponent) or back (away from the opponent) on the strip. This is an oversimplification, and we will look at some variants in a future blog.
I propose that constant velocity is dangerous in fencing. If you move forward at a constant speed or if you move backward at a constant speed, you allow the opponent to do several things:
(1) to vary their speed to either open or close the distance for their tactical purposes,
(2) to determine the rhythm of your movement so that it can be disrupted, and
(3) to predict where you will be to regulate their attack, attack into preparation, riposte, or counterattack.
None of these are desirable outcomes. So, if we want to attack or create footwork traps to push or pull an opponent into our blade, we have to be able to vary velocity, both speed and direction, quickly, smoothly, and without warning.
There is a caveat to this. In the right of way weapons, variations of speed or direction which the referee perceives as lacking intent, may lose right of way. For example, the widely accepted “rule” that you cannot attack going backwards could be applied if you pulled distance against a feint of counterattack, and then resumed forward motion, because you gave up the attack. Some referees assume that the fastest movement or the movement that covers the most ground or takes the fewest steps started first and thus has the right of way. Some referees assume that slowing down loses the right of way. Fence the referee – how your referee is going to interpret the rules (or invent new rules) determines how you have to fence.
In the ideal world, the fencer needs to be able to both speed up and slow down while maintaining or changing the direction of movement in both attack and defense. Some examples:
(1) The simplest example is speeding up or slowing down the speed of the blade and/or the speed of the lunge. If the phrase is being fenced at high speed, a sudden deceleration can cause an opponent to overspeed a reaction leaving a clear path to target. And a sudden explosion of speed, especially slightly inside the standard distances, can get inside the opponent’s OODA loop and their ability to react.
(2) The most obvious example in the attack is the accelerating attack with a series of progressively faster advances accelerating into a total body movement lunge timed for the point to arrive with maximum point hit speed in the critical gap for scoring (in other words moving as fast as possible in the last 8 or so inches of the attack). Each speed change forces the opponent into a changed tactical situation, overwhelming their decision cycle.
(3) In second intentions and countertime a slow recovery or a slow pull against the feint of counterattack can achieve two goals: to draw the opponent to commit to their riposte or counterattack, and to effectively collapse the distance against the opponent’s action.
(4) In defense the perception of an increasing speed of retreat can cause an opponent to rush the attack, or a slow retreat can draw the attack which is then either parried and riposted or pulled and taken over in a fast reaction.
So how do we develop the ability to manage velocity?
First, footwork, lots of footwork, mind-numbing amounts of footwork. Legs bent, sitting down in a good guard position. But just doing footwork will not solve the problem …
Second, work on making the footwork flow with seamless transitions between steps. Footwork cannot be Step, Step, Step, each a complete advance or retreat with a miniscule pause between. Footwork has to be Step-Step-Step in a flow.
Third, keep balanced with weight in a neutral position, so that you can …
Fourth, work on smooth and instantaneous transitions in direction without having to stop your legs and the inertia of your body, and then go the other way.
Fifth, practice lunges at various speeds from painfully slow to as fast as possible … and make each lunge a total body movement lunge.
Sixth, integrate the lunge into footwork so that you flow step-lunge.
Seventh, then work on changing speed gradually, accelerating or decelerating.
Eighth, add explosive action to start, accelerate, lunge, change direction lunge.
Ninth, when you think you have it mastered continue to practice weekly for the rest of your fencing life. Absent continual practice, this skill set will decay rapidly.