Being able to hit what you aim at is a key skill in a wide variety of sports: baseball, football, rifle and pistol shooting, basketball, Australian rules football, croquet, bowling, bowls, rugby, soccer, shurikenjutsu, sumo, mixed martial arts, etc. And it is a key skill in fencing. We have to get our point, or the blade in sabre, on target, reliably, when we create a scoring opportunity. And we have to intercept an incoming attack with either a counterattack or a parry when we need to. Do it accurately, and we score the touch; block the attack accurately, and we don’t allow the other fencer to score a touch. It is a pretty simple concept, and it is absolutely critical to success in our sport.
So how do we achieve accuracy? It is tempting in the midst of a drill or in the bout to think that the answer is speed. If we just go a little bit faster, we will surely be successful. I see this frequently in training sessions. Fencers do the drill correctly for two or three repetitions and then boredom sets in. Faster is the answer to boredom, so faster goes the fencer. But to get faster most fencers work harder, that is to say they execute with greater force requiring greater effort. And strangely enough, what happens? Yes, the attack becomes unmanageable, the parry crashes into space, and speed actually decreases relative to the amount of power exerted.
In the bout the answer is even more unfortunate. Now our fencer is convinced that if she goes just a little bit faster, she will get past the opponent’s parry, even though that opponent has parried the same attack, done faster each time, three times in a row. Or the fencer is convinced that if he does the parry just a little bit faster, he will intercept the incoming attack that has deceived that same parry three times in a row. And the result in either case is failure.
First, our accuracy improves as our understanding of truth under pressure improves. Accuracy is useless if we do not understand the tactical situation and adapt to either the opportunities or the threats we are facing. If we do not understand what the opponent is doing, our chance of whatever accuracy we have in our technique being successful is largely irrelevant. If we do not change to exploit opportunities before the opponent changes to remove those opportunities, our chance of whatever accuracy we have in our technique being successful is equally irrelevant. The fencer who best understands the bout and can adapt first to the changing situation has a significant advantage.
Second, accuracy does not depend on speed. Accuracy depends on mental control, practiced physical skill, relaxation, and the correct application of speed and force for the situation. Let’s take each of these in turn:
(1) Mental Control. You must be in control of your emotions – there is a range of excitation in which you are likely to excel. More excited than that, and your physical control is reduced. Less excited and you will be unable to react when you need to. You must be in control of your thought processes, fully focused on what you are doing, excluding non-productive thought, negative self-talk, etc. You must be in control of your OODA loop, able to execute to force your opponent to continually be behind in the decision process.
(2) Practised Physical Skill. Perfect practice does make perfect. Perfect practice eliminates the hesitations, movement deviations, incorrect positioning, and incorrect synchronization which results in a hesitant or inaccurate attack, overly wide or too narrow parries, etc.
(3) Relaxation. Exertion of greater strength than required for a movement more fully engages both the agonist and antagonist muscles involved in that movement. At higher levels of force this results in the muscles opposing each other, reducing the speed and control of the movement. No one is ever completely relaxed in a combat situation in any fighting discipline, but virtually every discipline cites the importance of relaxed, fluid movement.
(4) Correct Application of Speed and Force. There will be situations where you need to execute at the speed of heat, and there will be situations in which you may need to exert significant force. However, correct timing and accurate, tight movement reduce the need for speed, and proper application of leverage and the characteristics of the weapon reduces the need for strength. They are also much more difficult for an opponent to counter.
Where do we need accuracy this week? Two places. We need to be able to accurately place the blade on the target. Work slowly at this. Focus on smooth, relaxed execution, with accurate placement of the point or blade. If you are missing, slow down. Let me repeat that – if you are missing, slow down. Going fast to miss is just plain stupid. Effectively it is just saying I want to lose this one quickly so that I can lose the next one quickly also.
Second, we want to keep our blades in the target box with our points to the target. Work slowly on this. Use the mirror or your training partner to make absolutely certain that you are not threatening the ceiling or the floor or the walls with your blade and that you are not trying to protect an extra foot or so of space.
When you can do 100 consecutive hits with your attack on a specific placement on the target, you can speed up a little. When you can’t do 100, slow down. When you can block 100 consecutive attacks with a tight defense that leaves you positioned to hit at the fastest speed (in other words the shortest distance to target), speed up your parries. When you can’t, slow down.