Today we maintain the fiction that winning is about superior blade actions not intended to score, offense, defense, and counteroffense. We define those actions by the blade work needed to score or avoid the touch: “I disengaged and hit him in 4th” or “I parried and riposted hitting her in 2nd.” It is almost as though the feet don’t count. And yet every practice or class or individual lesson we practice footwork in one form or another.
We even enshrine in our doctrine and in how referees call bouts this disdain for the role of footwork. Consider the following action:
- A attacks
- B pulls distance causing A to fall short
- B then takes over the attack and hits
Ever heard/seen that analysis? Of course you have. And this call is but one more example of diminishing the role of footwork. What is pulling distance – it is only a simple avoidance, something with only a good judgment of distance, not with any defensive art. The real fencing in the analysis is in taking over the attack. Italian fencing doctrine has historically recognized the parata di misura, the parry by measure (distance), with the following offensive action to hit by the parrying fencer being recognized as a riposte. The action above is thus:
- A attacks
- B parries by distance
- B ripostes
Our method of teaching footwork contributes to this. Footwork is a mechanical function that we must think about and be constantly vigilant to correct within narrow parameters of movement. You must step this far, the rhythm of the footwork must be so, etc. And yet, we never take the final liberating step of saying that the perfection of footwork exists only in practice. In the bout the exact mechanics do not matter – what matters is that footwork establishes the distance, timing, tempo, and cadence at which you cannot miss (given any level of proficiency with the blade) or at which the opponent’s attack cannot succeed regardless of the perfection of its blade work.
Practice, but only practice of the correct type, gives you that capability. What do I mean the correct type? There is a logical sequence to learning footwork:
(1) Learn the mechanics – master the fine details of how to do each footwork movement with reliable precision, balance, and speed and with no wasted motions and no tells or large signatures that are easily detected.
(2) Create the flow – master the art of combining footwork seamlessly so that each movement leads to the next without any delay (unless you need that delay for a tactical reason). Mechanical footwork introduces micro-delays that an opponent can exploit.
(3) Forget that you have footwork – your body will deliver smooth seamless footwork to the proper distance, in the proper tempo, with the right cadence on its own IF you have trained and achieved steps (1) and (2) and if you focus on delivery of the touch. You need to be focused on achieving the distance you need for a successful attack, and on the attack itself, not on how many steps you take.
(4) Understand the end goal – do you need to be faster than the opponent or slower, do you need to be closing or opening distance, do you need to be at one speed or varying speed to allow the opponent to create or react to openings, do you need predictability or unpredictability in movement, and how fast must your blade be moving at what point to deny the defense or the attack? Understand how to get inside and control the opponent’s OODA Loop and how footwork does that. Understand your own tactics and what you must do to implement them.
So how does this relate to our systems approach? First, you need a range of footwork that will serve multiple purposes and that you can learn. Footwork today offers so many variables (at least five or six ways to do a lunge, three to do a fleche, etc., etc.) that selecting the correct one imposes the same sorts of delay that we have previously discussed with blade actions). Second, you must work diligently to master the synchronization of your blade action with the footwork in learning the mechanics and creating the flow. Third, you must integrate your footwork in the process of automating your actions. And finally, you must practice in scenarios that allow you to make the tactical decisions that maximize the value of your system. If you are stuck in the mechanics, you have a long way to go …
So practice – footwork does not require much more than a hallway, a garage, etc. Make your mechanics perfect. Make your flow seamless. And then start forgetting about your footwork as you attack, counterattack and defend. Do maintenance work every chance you can, but in drills and practice bouts focus on the distance and timing and tempo and cadence, not the steps.