The fencing mind game is our key to a longer path in fencing. Once all of the physical aspects are put aside, fencing is a battle of minds and of wills, this is where the real battle is fought. In order that we are able to utilise this aspect of fencing various things are necessary and this blog will be addressing some of the important points about this and also examining how it is possible to seek the longer path in order that we are able to enrich our fencing experience. In this discussion I will be making particular reference to one most useful source, Maestro Nick Evangelista's book, The Inner Game of Fencing: Excellence in Form, Technique, Strategy, and Spirit the details of which will be found in a very brief bibliography at the end of the discussion.
With regard to development in fencing it is undeniable that the technical and physical aspects play an important part in the process. It is useless for us to be able to think about actions that we would like to be able to perform without the necessary skill to do so, but in this it is also important to look at the application of these techniques in practice. Fencing requires a degree of finesse and this comes about through the correct application of force in fencing, if we rely on pure force and strength this finesse can be lost. “Whatever you do, keep muscle out of your fencing game. It is the overbalancer, the killer of finesse.” (Evangelista, 2000:147). It is essential therefore that we consider what we are doing and how we are applying force in the use of technique, it is much more important to be able to perform the skill correctly, rather than substituting force for where technical skill is lacking. This is a part of the learning process and cannot be ignored. Only through the correct application of skills is it possible to see how they truly work and develop ourselves towards some sort of mastery of the art.
Mastery is an interesting word in and of itself, in some ways it is compared to perfection, though this is not the same thing. A technique can be performed perfectly but without mastery. Mastery requires us to use the skill at the right time and for the right reason in our encounter with our opponent, the perfection here is seen in the perfect performance whereas the mastery is the application of the skill to the situation. It is important that skills are practiced until they are known well in order that we are able to perform them when they are required in the situation, but this requires more than mere repetition of the skill in drills, it requires a situation in which they need to be performed and one way the sport fencing community achieves this is through the use of what are called conventionals.
“Conventionals have a way of illuminating the modus operandi of fencing. … conventionals were designed to provide the fencer with an analytical atmosphere, as opposed to a competitive one.” (Evanglista, 2000:8).
Conventionals provide particular situations that arise in fencing where the skill being learnt or practiced is applied to the situation. These need to be performed where both participants know their roles in the situation in order that the skill can be applied correctly and thus learnt in the fencing context. The use of such simulations allow us to see how the skill functions in a situation in fencing without the opponent directly opposing the skill. A great deal of practice is required for these to be useful, and even more experience is required in order that the same skill can be performed in a more antagonistic scenario, it is in this that mastery lies, but it needs to be not over a single skill but all of the skills learnt in fencing. Such pure technical skill developed in fencing, is of great use but it is the mind that also needs to be harnessed in order that we can seek to achieve mastery of the art.
The skills that are learnt and perfected in practice give us the technical tools that we use in order to defeat our opponent through their application in the encounter with them. This is only one part of the picture and it is important to realise this in order to truly progress and develop in fencing, we must also cultivate the skills of the mind in order that we can apply such skills correctly to the situation.
“no matter how good a fencer’s technical skill is, if he doesn’t know how to apply it effectively and efficiently, he’ll never evolve beyond a simple poker. The mind of the fencer is his most important tool,” (Evangelista, 2000:xviii).
It is the cultivation of the mind of the fencer that truly opens the options for research, investigation and development of the fencer. This is beyond the mere physical aspects of the game and delves into the mental side of the game which is how fencing can develop further than just the physical side of the game. While the physical side of fencing is important, it is the mere bare bones of it without the mental side.
The title of this blog implies that the fencing mind game is a long path, and truly it is. The physical side will supply some of what the fencer needs but in order to truly develop and become the best that they can be it is important that the mind is also developed. This is the long path that the true fencer will eventually seek and it exists far beyond the simple application of the skills to a particular situation. Unfortunately it is true that it is a long path that is not easy and will not eventuate with a great deal of work, this is what Evangelista refers to as the inner game.
“For those who find the inner game, only death interrupts the connection. Unfortunately the truths of fencing do not come quickly nor without much work.” (Evangelista, 2000:xix).
Development of the physical and technical skills of fencing merely consists of learning and practicing these skills and in some part learning how they are applied to particular situations. The development of the mind is not so simple. The development of the mind takes self-analysis, investigation and an attempt to find out the thought processes that are involved in fencing in order that they are better understood. It is about connecting with the mind of the opponent and using the information which is found there in order not only to defeat them but in some part to understand them in order to achieve this goal. While this is seen in the application of the physical skills, it is the process of fencing rather than the result which is the most fascinating,
"the process is what gives fencing depth, personality, and life. It is what makes fencing more than just racking up points. If you think this is true, you will end up finding a game in fencing that will take you to the end of your days and will never cease to fascinate you.” (Evanglista, 2000:88)
This is a long and slow process that will not come about without a great deal of work. This is the path that a true student of the blade will seek and follow in order not only to improve their skill but also themselves as an entire fencer rather than merely a physical one. The situation in the modern world is that people will seek instant gratification from the effort that they put in and few are willing to seek the longer term goal. This is mostly seen in dedicated intellectuals who spend a lifetime trying to understand particular aspects in their own fields, it is rarely seen in the more physical pursuits. “It is the rare individual who chooses some distant reward over instant results. Instant results are very seductive.” (Evanglista, 2000:109). This is unfortunately the same for most fencers, it is the win that they are after. The result at the end of the bout which is the goal, and not some far flung goal that so often seems so out of reach. There are no real trophies at the end of this path, and no tangible rewards in most instances. The only benefit that is truly gained through this process is a person's own development as a fencer and also as a human being. The long path will not only affect the fencer's fencing, but will reveal itself subtly in other aspects of the person's life. This is the path of the true student of the blade and in order to do this you must open your mind to the possibilities available to you.
It is important that we examine our art not through a single view. You need to open your mind to different possibilites in order to truly grasp what the real truths are in fencing. This means taking yourself out of your comfort zone and going out and challenging yourself and your beliefs. The answers that you will find will not always be what you are looking for and they may not always fit. This does not mean that they should be cast aside. This involves digging deep and researching the more theoretical aspects of the game and finding deeper meaning in the process of fencing.
“The teacher or student who hasn’t the time or inclination to delve beneath the surface of his game has robbed himself of something valuable to his fencing and his life.” (Evangelista, 2000:XiX).
As teachers we should encourage our students to investigate and discover for themselves. As students we should also do the same. Only through research and investigation of what we do through the broadest point of view can we see the entire picture. While one school of thought does not approach things the way that you do does not mean that their point of view is useless to you, it gives you a different perspective through which you can see what you do and others do.
“The history of fencing thought is a history of thought directed to a single purpose: how to most effectively place a sword into an enemy’s body to produce the most damaging results without being hit at the same time.” (Evangelista, 2000:2).
This means that anything which is written on fencing, be it sport, rapier or kendo can be useful to us if it is viewed correctly. Each piece of information and point of view is valuable and should be embraced for how it can show us different things. One of the places this reveals itself is in the discussion of fencing tactics.
Tactics and their application are part mind and part body. The mind must realise how it can apply the body to the situation and the body must recognise what the mind sees and be able to perform what is required of it. This is not a one-way street, not in the relationship between the body and the mind and not in the relationship between a fencer and the opponent. There must be a level of knowledge on the part of the fencer of not only what they want to do but also of what the opponent may do in response or what they might do.
"A fencer needs to be able to mentally connect to his opponent on the fencing strip; to make contact, to observe, to work in conjunction with, to blend strategy and technique into what he sees in front of him. This is what fencing is really about.” (Evangelista, 2000:xix).
If a technique is developed that relies upon the action of the opponent, it will not work without the action of the opponent, and it also must be the right one. Each technique performed in fencing is connected in some way or another and not only connected to the actions of the fencer who performs them, but also to the actions of the opponent. To each question there is an answer and a counter-point and a counter-point to this, each one is linked in a singluar manner one can lead to the next, and is reliant on the one before-hand. It is this logic that the fencer must see in order to be able to deal effectively and tactically with the opponent. “Everything, offensively and defensively, is connected by a fine web of logic and common sense. Ideas overlap, intermingle, play off of one another.” (Evangelista, 2000:xvi). To break this web is to invite disaster upon the situation.
Fencing has been described as an argument with statement, argument and counter-point. Just as an argument or discussion must follow a logical fashion so must the tactical thinking of the fencer. There is no point in starting with the statement and going to the counter-point without the opponent making the argument. This is where many complex actions and compound attacks will fail. This is where tactics lie in fencing. It is a relationship between the two combatants played out for a result based on the information gained by the fencers and used against the opponent in a logical manner. In order to be truly effective in fencing the idea of strategy and tactics are vital.
“Strategy is how you relate to your opponent ... This is the science of fencing. How successful you are in strategy will underscore your effectiveness as a fencer. A good strategic game adds much depth and variety to your fencing.” (Evanglista, 2000:192).
There is a science of fencing and there is an art of fencing. Both are related and both are different. “It is the art that gives us the ability to fight with control. It is science that unlocks the puzzle presented by one’s opponent.” (Evanglista, 2000:60). In this way the science of fencing is more about the purely physical aspects of fencing and the art is the more mental side of it. Another way to look at it is that the science of fencing are the skills that the fencer is given to use against the opponent and the art is how the skills are used against the opponent. In some ways it could also be seen that the science of fencing is how it appears in the manuals and the art of fencing is how it is actually performed, usually with much less scientific accuracy. This sets the paradigm between the art of fencing and the science of fencing, and how they are also intimately related. In order to truly understand fencing it is important to understand both these aspects of the game.
The science of fencing is a science in its truest form with theory and experimentation. This is most easily revealed in the examination of any bout. There is experimentation in the use of actions in order to form a hypothesis and then this hypothesis is tested against the opponent. In this way the science of fencing is not only a physical aspect of fencing but also a mental one and defines how two fencers relate to one another in their bout.
“The science of fencing is the mental side of fencing. It is about effectively relating to your opponent ... It is about figuring out the other guy, about manipulation, about the logical and practical strategic implementation of your art.” (Evangelista, 2000:194).
This is where some of the aspects of the tactical approach discussed above are revealed. This aspect of fencing is reliant upon the art of fencing in order to be able to be performed effectively.
The art of fencing is about the mental side of fencing, but more to the point about the mental side of the fencer in relation to themself. This is about the application of the purely physical aspects of the science of fencing on a mental scale. It is also about the discipline within in order to wait for the opportune moment and in order to perform the correct action at the correct moment in the correct manner. In this way it can be seen that it is important to master the science of fencing in order for the art of fencing to flourish.
“The art of fencing is about gaining control over your own actions. It is about self-discipline. It is mastery of form and technique, which leads to the effective and efficient maneuverings of body and weapon” (Evangelista, 2000:115).
It is important to realise that these two are related on such a scale and that neither can be ignored if the fencer truly wants to succeed in their art. The highest art of fencing is demonstrated in the application of tactical theory using the skills developed by the fencer in the correct manner in the correct form for the situation. In many ways it is difficult to remove one from the other and they need to be seen as a whole and it is the whole picture of fencing that allows us to develop a philosphy of fencing.
The idea of a philosophy for fencing will seem an alien point of view to some, but what these people do not realise is that they use a philosophy in their fencing without even realising it. The philosophy that you follow may be extremely simple, or it may be extremely complex, but the way that this philosophy is formed and its application to fencing is the important part, even if it is not clearly stated. “A philosophy will color both your approach to the learning process of fencing and your bouting.” (Evanglista, 2000:259). The philosophy applied and used by the fencer will reflect in how they do things and how they approach training. In the case of teachers it will affect how the students learn and what they consider important in the learning process. If the philosophy is about winning at all costs, this will be reflected in the performance of the fencers both on an off their chosen field. Where the focus is on the win, the philosophy may be lax in other areas such as sportsmanship which is vital in order that the fencer can grow as a fencer and as a person.
“Sportsmanship is the cleansing agent of fencing. It anchors the spirit, gives depth and meaning to action, and promotes growth. It elevates rather than demeans, supports rather than condemns.” (Evangelista, 2000:63).
We must consider how we reflect the aspects of sportsmanship both in actual fencing and in our relationships with other people, it will reflect a great deal of us. The importance of sportsmanship to the fencer is underpinned by their philosophy and their approach to fencing and learning. If the physical aspects are all that matters to the fencer then much of the mental aspects will be lost to them, and this can stunt their growth. Where the more social aspects of fencing are missing this can also stunt their growth and can lead to a lack of respect from their opponents and others who are observing them. All of these aspects hidden in the philosophy will reveal themselves in the encounter between one fencer and another. “On a fencing strip, the sportsman and the bore become obvious, as well as the master and the poker.” (Evanglista, 2000:268)
The long path has many important aspects and it was the purpose of this blog to highlight some of them and to bring them to light for discussion and thought. We must all consider where our path in fencing is leading us and also why this is so. If we really want to succeed and flourish as fencers who are complete in all senses it is important that we examine what we are doing in order to achieve this. The real way for the fencer to truly flourish is to examine and consider the long path and consider not the end result but the path it presents. This will determine how long our fencing careers are and what sort of fulfilment we are able to gain in the end. It should be noted that the long path is not easy and it is not simple, it asks a great deal of us in order to follow it, and seems like it gives very little back in the short term, but in the long term it demonstrates great benefits that will assist in promoting the best of us and encouraging us to search for what we seek, the mastery of the art, and the fulfilment it presents.
Evangelista, N. (2000) The Inner Game of Fencing: Excellence in Form, Technique, Strategy, and Spirit, Masters Press, Illinois, USA