Everyone has been struck a too hard by their opponent before, and indeed the same could be said of ourselves in the same situation. This blog, as noted by the title will focus on calibration in the execution of the thrust. The thrust is the primary attack in many forms of fencing and knowing the correct calibration so that we do not injure our opponents is important and is something that needs to be discussed. This blog will address various details with regard to the execution of the thrust and examine how we can minimise the chances of over calibrating our thrust, or in more simple terms hitting too hard.
The two root causes of over calibration in the thrust comes from a problem with knowledge of distance or from the technical execution of the thrust. Each one of these will be addressed with some pointers about how these can be improved and why there may be problems. The last part of the blog will address some problem solving suggestions as to how we ourselves can prevent over calibration and how we can fix the same problem in our students. Time and distance are the two root principles of fencing and any flaw in them will be expressed when we come up against an opponent. In this particular case it is distance which needs to be addressed.
Knowing your distance is about situational awareness. Knowing your own distance with a thrust, and also the distance to the opponent. This particular element will be affected by other things going on during the bout such as movement and each one of these elements needs to be addressed in some form. The lunge is equally important in this equation but at the moment it is the thrust that will be the focus as the lunge is simply a thrust with a forward step added to it. The same elements which will be raised apply equally to the lunge as they do to the thrust.
The first element is your own distance. You need to know how far your point will be away from your body at the full extension of your thrust. If your opponent is within the distance of your thrust it is important that you realise this and do not extend to your full length, otherwise you will strike your opponent too hard. This is the first element, and is forms some of the basis of the others. Once you know your own distance you can move on to the examination of the opponent. You need to be aware of the distance to your opponent in comparison to your own thrusting distance, as stated if they are too close you will over calibrate if you fully extend your thrust. Thus both elements need to be taken into account at the time that the thrust is made. The final element of distance that needs to be taken into account is movement. Both combatants will be moving, during the bout and this will change the distance between you and your opponent. This is most easily seen in the use of the retreat in response to a thrust. You need to be aware of your own movement during the execution of the thrust, but also the movement of the opponent, especially if they close distance as you are thrusting.
The elements described above; your distance, the distance to the opponent and movement, all form a part of situational awareness and it is a lot of information that you need to assimilate in a short amount of time. Situational awareness is also important in order to be aware of the environment. For the classical and sport fencers, this means being aware of your position on the piste. For the Renaissance fencers it is being aware of any boundaries or obstructions that may be present on the field which you are using. These elements also need to be taken into account, but for different reasons. Situational awareness is something which is important as you need to know the distance elements in a very short amount of time, in fact when the thrust is delivered, and even a little before it is delivered. With the awareness of distance discovered, the next element that needs to be addressed is technique.
The correct performance of the thrust, and indeed all skills in fencing is vital. For the current discussion, the correct technical execution of the thrust is vital to correct calibration. Technique is vital to the correct execution of the thrust and it is something that needs to be examined in some detail. It seems like a simple action, but there is a level of skill in it. The thrust must be examined in some detail in order to see how it works and how this may affect our end result.
Accuracy is an element which extends from proper technical performance of the thrust, and while it is not the focus of this discussion it does have elements which are important. An accurate, but slow thrust is substantially more important that a fast but inaccurate one. The accuracy allows us to hit the target that we are aiming for and this can be important in calibration in order that we hit the target at the correct distance rather than some closer one by accident. Thus it can be seen that accuracy in the thrust can be of great importance in its execution and calibration of the thrust. In order to investigate this the technical detail must be addressed.
The thrust is not merely shoving the point of the weapon at the opponent and this must be realised at its most base level. There are various elements which come into play in the execution of the thrust and only if all of these elements are combined together properly will the thrust be executed properly. Each one of these elements can affect the calibration of the thrust, some will more than others. Each part of the thrust needs to be examined in order to understand the action properly and be able to do it properly.
In the execution of the thrust the point should move in a straight line from its starting position to its target with very little deviation. This will ensure that the point has travelled the shortest distance to its target. This is important for accuracy and also speed. A change in direction of the thrust can also affect calibration as the point may gain more velocity, or it may change the distance. Thus it is important that the point travels in the shortest line to its target.
The thrust must be performed as a simple extension of the arm toward the target. This keeps things simple and efficient and leaves the least amount of room for errors in its performance. In some ways it is better not to think about hitting a target merely extending the arm and thus the point into a position into space which happens to be occupied by the opponent. In this way your mind does not think about hitting a target and focuses more upon the correct execution of the action, and this will help you a great deal. The primary muscles that should be used in the performance of the thrust is the shoulder muscles. The arm should be lifted by these muscles in order to push the point toward its target. The wrist and elbow should be merely used to direct the point toward the target. Thus it can be seen that the correct execution of the thrust involves the movement of the shoulder more than any other part of the arm. This keeps the action simple in its performance. Problems in the execution of the thrust will be discussed further on.
Speed is an element which gets too much focus made of it. A fast thrust is useful, but only if it is accurate, and thus we should aim for accuracy more than speed in the performance of the thrust. A slow thrust is easier to control, whereas a fast thrust is harder to control because the mind starts to focus more upon the speed of the thrust rather than its execution. This can be one of the causes of over calibration. At slower speeds you are able to focus more on the performance of the thrust and making sure that the target is struck and with the correct calibration. Going too fast is one place which will have some discussion in the problem areas which arise and can cause you to hit too hard.
There are many problem areas in the execution of the thrust and as teachers and students we should be aware of them in ourselves as well as our students. Some of the problem areas will be highlighted here, with some solutions to these problems discussed in a later part of the discussion. The first problem that will become present is what is called chambering the thrust. This involves one of two actions. The first form involves the bending of the elbow before the thrust is performed. The thrust is then pushed toward the opponent using both the shoulder and the elbow. This form of thrust will tend to be very hard in its performance due to the extra muscles put into play. The other form of chambering involves swinging the arm backward a little before the thrust is made, once again this can lead to over calibration due to the extra velocity added to the thrust. Swinging is another problem which will surface both on its own and also with chambering the thrust. Simply swinging the arm is no good, this often comes from practicing the thrust without executing each on singularly. Simply swinging the arm releases a great deal of control and as with chambering it can lead to hitting too hard.
Attempting to deliver the thrust from the elbow by its simple extension, or driving the wrist forward, are both problems that can lead to inaccuracy and over calibration. The first results in a snapping action which creates a great deal of velocity and very little control. This performance method can also lead to the fencer developing "tennis elbow" and similar problems with the joint. Driving the wrist forward is related to throwing the thrust. This is very much simply attempting to throw the point at the opponent. Due to all of the force being at the front, the over-balancing and over-extension in the action will lead to a high velocity and also hitting too hard. These problems often result from the fencer attempting to thrust faster than their technical skill at their current level will allow them to safely. This is a problem where because the speed is the aim of the thrust, technique gets left behind and the fencer will attempt to muscle the thrust through to its target. The overt use of muscle is what leads to the over calibration in the thrust. Use of the wrist in this method can also lead to "scooping" the point, where the point of the weapon dips downward or is pushed upward before the thrust is made. This leads to an inaccurate thrust and the creation of velocity which can lead to over calibration in the thrust.
Various problems have been highlighted in the delivery of the thrust. Each one of these problems has a solution to it in order to correct the problem which is present in the fencer, but the first thing that needs to be done is being aware of the problem. The opponents of the individual will realise the problem as they are being struck too hard, but the fencer themselves may not realise what this is or think it is their problem. Where the fencer does not realise, they should be approached in a friendly manner and be made aware of the problem. Once the awareness of the problem has been made the next step is to see what the problem is exactly. This involves close observation of the fencer. It is possible to see the problems in a bout, but it is much easier to do in a drilling situation. The fencer should make some thrusts against a stationary target in order to examine the thrust and see if it is a technical problem, and then against moving targets to see if it is a distance issue. Once the root cause has been found it is then possible to look at problem solving. As with any other technical skill in fencing the best way in order to improve the skill is to use drills.
Distance drills are very easy to set up. The fencer should stand at a distance away from a stationary target and then approach it. Once they think that they are at the correct distance a thrust should be made. This should be done slowly at first, and then speed up. A further drill involves the use of two combatants who move toward one another and the fencer who is the focus will say "Stop." when they think they are at the correct distance. A situational awareness drill involves the fencer closing their eyes and several people moving about them once they stop the fencer should open their eyes and say who is at the correct distance, too close or too far away.
Technique drills involve focusing on the thrust itself and how it is performed. In these drills a stationary target should be used in order that the distance does not change. Depending on what the problem is will depend on what should be the focus of the drill. Where it is one of the other joints leading the thrust, in extreme instances these joints can be immobilised so that the fencer does not use them. The teacher should be watching the fencer perform the thrust and giving corrections as they are being performed. This should be done until the fencer can perform the thrust without the problem surfacing in the thrust. The thrust should be performed at very slow speed at first so that the fencer can focus on what they are doing. As they get more comfortable and are able to perform it properly, the speed of the action should be increased. The increase in speed should stop once the fencer is focusing too much on the speed rather than the technique as this is the limit of their technical skill, at this point in time the speed should be then reduced until the fencer is able to perform the action properly again. In all cases, the focus should be on technique rather than speed.
In most forms of fencing, the thrust is the primary attack and thus it is important that it is able to be performed without the opponent being struck too hard. This involves the thrust being performed at the correct distance and using the correct technique. Distance and technique are the two root causes of over calibration in the thrust and need to be examined in some detail if we are all to improve as fencers. As we progress, consideration of the thrust is often left behind, but it is of great importance that we come back to this most basic skill on a regular basis in order that we can refine our skill and ensure that we are performing the action properly. If problems arise in the performance of the thrust, go back and see how it is being performed and fix the problems. These problems need to be fixed as early as possible in order that they are not allowed to become habits. It is never good to strike the opponent in a bout too hard, this is a consideration that should be made by all fencers no matter what weapon that they are using.