Sunday, October 30, 2011

Playin' it safe

"Every decisive action changes the battlefield."

note: this is about sparring/competition, but i'm gonna use words like "fight" and "fighting distance" because it's easier than saying "competitive bouting situation" and "sparring distance" or whatever term would be emcompass combat sports in general. also my use of "you" switches at will between a theoretical "you" in a fight and a "you" in charge of training a group of the first "you"s. whatever!

It's hard to get people to take risks in a fight. The main problem is this: the default fighting distance is safe. You're as close as you think you can get without risking yourself, whatever the compromise is between wanting to hit and wanting to get away that you are comfortable with. You don't even have to think about it, your body just *knows*. Without experience, it's probably wrong, but nonetheless, it *knows*. So here's the thing: you're in a safe place, but in order to hit the other person, you gotta leave that safe place. And... you don't want to. What you really want to do is be able to hit the other guy without leaving your safe place. So you feint, you stomp, you bait, you do everything you can to make the other guy come a little bit closer and open up so you can just hit them. But they don't, because nothing you're doing actually matters to them because you're sitting way back there in your safe place. When they do get close enough and you finally swing, it's because they're already swinging at you and you hit each other. Simultaneous hits. Sad tuba noise.

What the deal is:

"Every decisive action changes the battlefield." Anything you do that actually matters is going to change the situation. Is going to take you out of your safe place. You'll occasionally be able to catch the other guy making a mistake out of nowhere, but that is relying on your opponent to make an unforced error. The higher the skill level, the rarer those are. Relying on unforced errors is extremely passive and generally not tenable unless you have a fortress to hang out in. You gotta get out there, take some risk, create forced errors, make your own openings. Create your situations instead of reacting to situations.

Let's fix it!

So you got a bunch of timid fighters, won't attack, won't take risks, and you resolve to train this out of them. You start the training montage sequence. You're working targets, getting faster, learning how to find openings, getting stronger, attack attack attaaaaack! And then, in the fight.... more simultaneous hits. Except now they're hitting and getting hit harder.


Yeah, I know. What happened? Here's the thing: the physical act of attacking was never the problem. The real problem is mental confidence. The question that weighs people down is not "What if I don't hit?", it's "What if I get hit?". And, faced with that question, most people will stay in their safe place rather than attack. Even if, objectively, it means they get hit more. It's a feeling thing, not a fact thing. You can't really talk them out of it.

Let's fix it! part 2: the fixening

You want to get them to attack? Work defense. Work it into their bones, massage it into their reflexes. Have them block and block and block. Have them step forward and block. Have them swing and miss, then block. Have them swing and get blocked, and block. Have them swing and hit, and block. Convince their bodies that, no matter how things go wrong, they can deal with it. (even if it's not true) In saber fencing, parrying is hard. The weapons are so light and fast, and the rules of right of way favor the attacker. Nonetheless, lessons in saber fencing are heavily weighted towards parrying. You do it at the start of every lesson, and work random parry-ripostes in everywhere. You got to. For the feelings.

And then...

They will attack. They always wanted to. They just couldn't because their conservative subconscious didn't like the odds. Now that they've learned some different statistics, and they like their odds better.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

feinting at the critical point.

Close range = able to hit by extending arm
Medium range = able to touch weapons, hit arms if they're extended.
Long range = just barely unable to touch weapons.
Out of distance= anything more than that.

In fencing terminology, a feint is a simulation of an offensive or defensive action, so it doesn't actually finish. Feint a stab, finish with moulinet = a compound attack (attack preceded by one or more feints or attacks on the blade). If you finish an attack, but intended from the start for it to blocked and to hit with a second shot, that's called a second intention attack. If you start a stab, intending to finish or moulinet depending on your opponent's response, that's what we usually call an open eyes action. The timing and distance setup is slightly different for all three.

Feints are most effective at the critical point as you are transitioning into close range. From medium range, there's time for multiple feints before a shot hits. From close range, while you're feinting your opponent is probably just hitting you. depending on all the other situational stuff and setup.

There are two levels to combat sports- there's the mental game and the baseline, physical reality. For example, medium and long range feints are totally possible, but they're about setting up the mental situation. It's about choices and setups. But there is also a baseline, physical reality. There is a distance and position at which it is physical not possible to parry. The time it takes the blade to travel to the target is less than the time it takes for the visual stimuli to trigger the reaction and the block to arrive. This is where the idea of "action beats reaction" comes from- action time for the attacker being < reflex + action of the defender. Generally, this is true at close range, depending on various setup factors. It is generally NOT true at medium range- the time it takes to step and cut is greater than the time it takes register the attack and move to block. Somewhere along the line between those two positions is a critical point- the point at which it becomes biologically impossible to start a block. So when I say that feints are most effective, what I mean is that they are closer to that critical point. They are butting right up against that hard, physical reality where it becomes impossible to block. The idea of recovering from a feint is possible with mental-type feints, but not feints at the critical point.

What is usually meant by "high level" is full speed through trained, efficient paths. Any sort of conscious decision process becomes way too slow. You've prepped your brain, your reactions are trained, and once you get in close, you're gonna do what you're gonna do.

If you slow down enough that you can make a decision to finish or not finish, you have to move further away from that critical point. Instead of getting into that hard physical reality, you're playing more of a mental game. That works at all levels from medium distance or further back, but at closer distance, it only works if your opponent is playing too. If they're more of a more pure physical speed mindset, it fails. Feints that change intention depending on the reaction they cause are harder to pull off the faster and more trained the opponent.

When I say that at medium range, there is time for multiple feints, what I mean is that there is, physically, time to do them. There is, physically, moving at top speed, (depending on various other factors, etc) time to do two feints (not "a lot of feints") as you attack from medium distance. and on the other side, the same. during an attack from medium distance, at top speed, there is generally extra time for the defender beyond the stimulus-response and action. So the defender could, for example, feint a counterattack and still be able to parry. Or feint a parry in a different line before closing the one the actual attack is coming on. Or sit and do nothing until they make a parry at the critical point for parries.

The "best" compound attack (using a feint) relies on knowing your opponent will parry and when, and so can be done at full speed. A second intention attack can be done knowing what your opponent will do, but not exactly when, since you don't care if their parry succeeds or not. So those both rely on prediction and not reflexes (on the part of the attacker). An open eyes attack, on the other hand, has a decision point where somewhere along the line you are deciding whether the feint becomes a real attack or if it is going to disengage to another line. Good reading skills matter here, but not prediction - if you could read or predict before you started, it would not be an open eyes attack.

If my feints are indistinguishable from my attacks - right up to the critical point - then you can make the block... 50% of the time. But you're guessing. That's what feints should do- they should FORCE the defender to make a choice without certainty. Whoever is committing before that critical point gives the other person more opportunity to make an informed choice. If I can make my attack so the feint is at the critical point, but after that I could hit three different targets, then my success rate goes up to 66% if we're both picking randomly. If I can make my attack so that I can read your parry and attack the opening line, my success rate goes to %100 if I can get to that situation. Which means the real game changes to the defender not letting that situation start.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

not any sort of combat or competition, just playing with staying mobile and not locking down when things are swinging at me.

on the swinging side, playing a little bit with the flip shots for when the opponent gets too close (there's a good one around :20)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

drop step, structure

starting from my comment on this post and then continuing on to other related thoughts.

As a fencing coach, I work hard to teach hit before the foot lands, because hitting before the other guy does is very important. I file teaching to hit as the foot lands under bad/mistaken fencing. It causes other problems or lockups, too, so I really like drills to disassociate hand/foot synchronization (one blade action per step, briefly, to let them feel what they want to do, two blade actions per step to introduce new timing, and then three blade actions in two steps to really break their head open and put it together in a new way).

More likely culprit is our conscious mind. I read an article that mentioned that our brains will synchronize sound and visual stimuli before we're aware of it- up to 100ms and we will perceive them as simultaneous. So if you are seeing a lunge demonstrated and the timing is close, it's going to read as simultaneous. When students start working on it, I often found it easier to evaluate by not looking at them and instead just listening to the thwack-thump.

I was first taught the drop-step concept as a drop with both legs, "elevator down". This had the effect of usually breaking structure in the person you're attached to, and then chambered the body for a powerful upwards strike (or hook, with a bit of direction). Stick work had the same structure in it, elevator down with a downward stroke, then power back up. That work with the drop as chamber led me to use a front-foot drop as a preparation for a fencing fleche. Fleches work best from a low positition with the body tilted way forward, almost falling, so the legs can rocket the body forward with a mostly straight spine alignment. The interesting part of that is that when you pick up your front foot you have to wait until it hits the ground to start the attack. It feels like it takes forever and is incredibly obvious- I have to fight myself not to start early. but it makes for the most blindingly out of nowhere fleches I've done.

Matt Campbell (forgefighting) taught me a sequence of power hitting he learned from Sayoc Kali. It's basically a series of structural forms that allow you to hit as hard as possible- meaning full body-weight plus driving force from legs plus gravity on the downward shots. They're all the kind of shots that it's hard to practice in a competitive setting, in part because they'll do serious damage regardless of protective gear. They will also damage you if any link in your structure chain is off. The first one he taught (the "Plumber's slap") is a full body hook with a step, hitting with the palm. He warned us beforehand that in almost every class it's taught, someone ends up trying it with power before they're ready and damaging their bicep. And, sure enough, despite careful stretching, minimal force form work for a couple classes, one guy messed up his bicep somethin' fierce.

All these full body effects rely on being able to chain structure solidly all the way through your body- your legs can create the power, but if your elbow lets it go it never gets into your weapon. I've been working with my training partner Basil on his power structure. He's got a lot of athletic training- some good Muay Thai, he can murder a Crossfit workout- but he's never had much of the more flexible or eccentric kinds of movements. So I've been hitting him with the Sonnon stuff- weird crawls, strength and flexibility things, Systema exercises, aikido, silat ground/low work. Getting stronger in positions that are imperfect, yielding and pulling form back to center, collapsing and then restructuring to push back. and then I've found the most useful thing to be the aikiken stuff. The sword with a two-handed grip lets you push and play with structure in ways that are easy to feel.

It's been interesting reconstructing technique. I haven't been attending aikido classes in awhile, but I'll take a step, or a weak seam in his power structure, and then say, okay, there's going to be a takedown there, and there's going to be a sword technique, what are they going to be? It feels good to have my different backgrounds and knowledge coming together in new ways.