The following is the third and final part of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as this and is preceding parts are quite long. This was the only way for the appropriate information to be included in the document as a whole, and to not drag it out into more parts. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is presented with more detail and new evidence.
Speed in Fencing
In fencing there are a lot of comments made about the speed of fencers; how fast they move, how fast their actions are, and so forth. The problem is that this becomes the focus and speed becomes overestimated in its worth to the fencer. Speed is only one attribute that a fencer would find an advantage possessing, but it is not the ultimate.
“While many fencers believe that speed is the most significant factor in a fencer’s makeup, this is not the case. To be sure, speed can be useful, but it is, in fact, subordinate to both timing and distance. ... A fencer who has taken the time to develop both timing and distance can easily take a “fast” fencer apart.” (Evangelista, 1996:165)
Speed is tertiary to the ability to control Time and Distance, and accuracy. If you cannot control the Time or timing of the bout, then the opponent will not allow you the time to strike them; if you cannot control the Distance of the bout, you will always be too close or too to strike the opponent; if you are not accurate, you will not strike your opponent even if you have the opportunity to. Develop the essential principles and how they apply and accuracy not only of your point and edge, but also in your actions as they will affect the principles by which all fencing is governed.
“A fencer who has been fencing for a longer period of time has practiced his actions a lot more than a newer one, thus they are closer to being locked in thus they are more automatic. Thus the more experienced fencer will seem faster when using these skills which have been practiced.” (Walker, 2019:281)
The experienced fencer has practiced more, thus they have more of their skills as neural pathways, thus they have to think less about what they are doing, thus they have time to plan what they are doing, and not just worry about what is in front of them. True speed in fencing comes from efficiency of motion. An experienced fencer has had the time to refine their skills and remove excess motions so their actions are more efficient. While some are also more physically adept, and developed due to fencing, this is not always the case. Simply adding muscle, power, strength and speed will not help.
“When people do that — add speed to mediocre technique — they just get more mediocre results. It's like the sign that says, "Drink coffee ... make more mistakes faster and with more energy!"” (Ox, 2016)
Accuracy of technique is always more important than speed. This should always be the focus of training. The fencer should always focus on getting their skills accurate and developing form before ever worrying about speed or strength. Adding these in too early will develop bad form. Speed in training may hide issues, but these same issues will cause the student problems later on. Caile (2017) addresses the same problem with regard to the Oriental martial arts.
“Fast, however, also can hide a lot of problems – especially bad technique. ... Too often, there are poor biomechanics ... things that can dramatically reduce power and efficiency.” (Caile, 2017)
Poor biomechanics are a real issue as they can not only lead to ineffectiveness in technique but this can also lead to strain on muscles and joints and future injury. Slow practice allows for the correction of issues thus the chance to prevent some possible future issues. Such correction should always been seen as adding rather than subtracting from the experience. Speed in training used to cover bad habits is not an ally.
“Fencing for the most part is a quick, energetic form of combat or sport, depending on what your weapon is. This means that the actions are quick and precise, and responses to actions are likewise. With this in mind, for some, it will be difficult to understand how practicing actions slowly will help them progress when in the end they are going to have to perform the same actions at speed. This is something which you will find will come from the greener students for the most part, but some advanced students as well.” (Walker, 2019:278)
The above appears as the second paragraph of my previous article on the subject of slow training, which can be found in A Fencer’s Ramblings (2019). That discussion was much shorter and designed to introduce people to the idea of learning through slow movement training, and all that can be learnt. This investigation is obviously much more in-depth, but the same issues still apply. There are those who do not understand the advantages of slow training and who believe that once a skill is learnt, then slow training is no longer required. This is evidently not the case as such slow training is used by high-level athletes in their regular training; it is a faster way to high-level skill presentation.
The Faster Way
“One of the most powerful training techniques for building high-quality speed was "slow training." It still works for Olympians, and it has been proven incredibly effective for martial arts (think Bruce Lee) and firearms training as well.” (Ox, 2016)
With such a lot of high-level athletes supporting the idea of slow training, it is surprising that there is so little knowledge about it and support for it in the swordplay communities. The broad spectrum of activities should be noted which were mentioned which use this method for training. In these situations, the development of perfect form and functions of skills is of great importance. Ox (2016) further describes the process in which such slow training was used.
“They developed and perfected their form at a much slower pace, and then speed came naturally. Ideally, they practiced at a speed that allowed them to do the same motion with perfect efficiency and form — exactly the same way, every time — until it became automatic and required no conscious thought to do.” (Ox, 2016)
When an action, or a series of actions is practiced at a slow pace, corrections can be made easily so the action can be corrected, thus less practice is wasted practicing the wrong thing. The athlete can then more easily practice the correct actions with accuracy knowing all of the elements involved, so every time that they practice the neural pathways are built more quickly and stronger than if they had been performed at speed. Fencing actions are no different.
“You might be thinking combat skills are different. They're not. In fact, the faster you intend to execute a given skill and the more stress you think you might be under when you execute it, the more critical it is that you practice slowly.” (Ox, 2016)
Each extra element which is heaped upon the skill adds a level of interference. The faster the skill is required, the faster the muscles are going to be pushed, the more accurate the skill must be practiced. When there is more stress in the situation there is going to be more pressure to perform the skill at exactly the right moment, which will affect how the skill is performed. All of these factors will affect the skill. Only a skill which has been practiced properly will achieve its goal.
While it would seem the opposite, slow training is the way to get faster, as frustrating as it is. “I know slow practice is frustrating and tortuous, but it really is the fastest way to get to a high level.” (Icasas, 2015). Slow training trains for precision in the skill and eventually that skill will have been practiced so that conscious effort is not required, it will just happen in response to stimulus. Pushing for speed rather than slowing down and being accurate will allow inaccuracies into your skills, “but slow training will help you get to the level of performance you want to achieve faster than always trying to push your speed.” (Ox, 2016). Simply because slow training is precise, slow training is practice for perfect, and perfect practice makes perfect.
“When learning new physical skills the mind works to automatically integrate them into a learned vocabulary of automated body movements. But if you learn technique too fast, the technique will likely be sloppy and imperfect. If you practice very slowly, you can concentrate, breaking each technique down into its individual parts.” (Caile, 2017)
Many try to cover bad form with speed. This is not just the case with fencing and swordplay, but also the same for other activities. Bad form means bad technique and this usually comes from practicing the technique too fast in its initial stage when the skill has not been learnt properly. Slowing down allows the skill to be learnt properly and practiced properly. Speed is a product of efficiency and proper form, thus it is something that will come later with practice.
Form First, Speed Second
“In the beginning, an aspiring fencer should focus on form rather than quickness. To try fencing with the alacrity of D’Artagnan before you are ready for it only confuses matters. When you have a solid grasp of what you are doing, when you can get your blade to go where you want it to go, then, and only then, add speed.” (Evangelista, 1996:165)
There is little point having speed if you cannot hit what you want to hit. Accuracy is always more important than speed. Accuracy comes from having proper form as it is form which places the body in the correct position to allow accuracy to occur. This is expressed in the variation in foot position and its effect on the thrust. Slowing down allows you to focus on getting things right so that you are in control of the actions. Focus on the skills that you are practicing.
“That’s why “slow” should be part of every practice. What this means is that you should practice various techniques very, very slowly, while intensely focusing on what and how you are doing it, paying attention to correct biomechanics, balance and form to try to eliminate any errors of technique.” (Caile, 2017)
Practicing slowly allows you to feel every movement of your body and to feel what the technique feels like. If you are wobbly in your technique, then it is likely that your feet or body are not in the correct position. Check the position of your hand; this will affect the position of the blade, by extension check the position of your arm and shoulder. These things can all be achieved at slow speed because you have the time to feel it. Work on one technique at a time.
“Master each technique slowly and carefully, without rushing or being rushed, and you’ll be fine. If your instructor, director and/or partner try to rush you, and you are not ready to move on, say “No!” and stay at slow motion until you are secure. You will be happier in the long run for doing that, and possibly healthier too.” (Girard, 1997:5)
Girard (1997) is discussing in the context of actors and techniques for stage choreography and choreographed fights. The same applies. Do not move on to moving more quickly with your practice of a technique until you are comfortable with it. Ensure that you can perform the technique properly and with the minimum of errors possible, stay at slow speed until you can. Only then should you speed up, “With slow training, the focus is on how many perfect reps you can do in a row, not how quickly you speed up.” (Ox, 2016). Precision in action is the aim of practice as there is no point in practicing something which is not accurate, as it will just have to be repeated with the correct action later on.
“Always start slowly, correctly and precisely. Ensure that your fundamentals are correct before worrying about speed and power. If you follow this advice, you will have a higher chance of developing correct historical fencing technique without injuring yourself.” (Farrell, 2014:278)
Some of the advantages of slow training have already been indicated above in the discussion. So that these advantages can be more clearly stated, they will be discussed in more detail. These advantages can be stated in different ways but in the end they mean the same thing. The idea is to bring some clarity to what the advantages are.
“The use of slow work allows us to see the body and weapon moving. This is something which is much more difficult to see at full-speed when bouting. What this means is that the combatant and any observer can see how the combatant is moving his or her weapon and body. This can allow a person to see where a possible change in footwork, body movement, or hand movement can make a difference to their technique. As a diagnostic tool, slow speed performance of technique is very useful.” (Walker, 2019:279)
Slow training has one of its greatest advantages in diagnosing problems. In the initial training stage, a teacher can easily pick up issues with a student’s technique and correct them before it becomes a bad habit. Slow bouting as a technique used in training, a student can see how to respond to an action and respond properly ingraining the proper response. Likewise repeating actions is possible as they are easier to remember and other options can then be found.
2 Muscle Memory
“Doing it slowly gives your body time to adjust to and memorize all those disparate movements. Repeating it slowly is like carving it into your muscle memory, creating a lasting impression that it can draw on at a moment’s notice, once you’ve practiced it enough.” (Icasas, 2015)
Each action in slow training is made deliberately from one position through to another. The body has the time to remember not just the first and the last, but each position through the process, meaning that the body is likely to remember the technique that is being practiced more effectively. The slow movements connect to one another to form a picture of a technique rather than a set of individual movements which do not seem that well connected. Such connections make the learning process faster.
3 Faster, More Efficient Technique
“If you incorporate “slow” into your practice, your technique will improve, unnecessary movements will be eliminated, and you will learn to better keep your balance through progressions of movement. Thus your technique will improve and you will become stronger and faster, the very thing you were aiming for in the first place.” (Caile, 2017)
Giacomo di Grassi, in His True Art of Defence (1594), states that every movement is accomplished in time. If a movement has excess movements made during it, the movement becomes inefficient. This is not good for a fencing technique. Slow training allows you to eliminate unnecessary movements from techniques, thus increasing the efficiency of techniques, thus increasing the overall speed of the techniques. This is because you can focus on the technique that is being performed more accurately than you can if it was practiced at speed.
4 Performance Under Stress
“But the benefits of slow practice goes beyond just eliminating wasted movement and getting faster. It also helps you perform better under stress.” (Ox, 2016)
When a person is under stress, their brain is flooded with various chemicals designed to deal with the situation. These put the brain on high alert. They unfortunately do not do anything for the performance of skills in a cold, calculating way. Too much adrenaline makes the hands shake for starters. Slow practice has made the technique which is being performed a normal action which is performed in response to a set of stimuli, nothing more. This is when the neural pathways have been built and are solid. This skill remains unaffected by these racing chemicals and their reactions within the body. The slow training of the technique also means that the relaxed situation in which it was practiced is transferred to the situation and the technique is still performed with the same deliberate actions, because that is what the brain and body have been told to do.
Unfortunately, slow training is not all good news; it does have its issues. Luckily most of these have more to do with the trainee rather than the method. “I do have to admit that it has downsides. Most of these are a result of coming into it with the wrong mindset.” (Icasas, 2015). Mindset is an important factor in any sort of training and must be taken into account. In examining the issues, some of the mindset that accompanies these will also be examined.
“I don’t have any stats to back it up, but after having taught martial arts courses and enrolled in a dozen more - plus learning musical instruments, rally driving, and others—I feel confident in asserting that this is where many newbies fall off the wagon.” (Icasas, 2015)
Slow training is not easy. It takes time and it takes control. The trainee has to be willing to take the time to slow down and look at exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it, and be willing to be corrected. Control itself takes time to develop and this is the key to staying slow, because in our high-speed, fast-car world, we are obsessed with how fast things go. The student needs to understand that the slow training is the best way, and is of the greatest benefit to them. Here is the mindset which is required: for great reward, there needs to be great effort.
“Different bad habits. In practicing slow, you may develop a whole different set of bad habits.” (Icasas, 2015)
If you do not focus on what you are doing you can develop a whole new set of bad habits which is the reason why focus is important when performing the actions in slow training. It is vital that you pay attention to the accuracy of your technique and not short-cut any of the techniques, but move through all of the movements correctly and accurately. The trainer should always be paying attention to the students’ actions, but the students should also be paying attention to their own actions.
“Stuck on “slow.” There’s a saying that goes, “you play as you practice.” This applies to slow practice in both positive and negative ways. Perform slow practice too often, or with the wrong mindset, and you risk performing slowly even when you’re trying to perform fast.” (Icasas, 2015)
Being stuck on slow is a matter of mindset. In training slow the focus is performing techniques to get them correct so they can be performed with speed and accuracy. If there is no progression toward increased speed then there is the possibility of getting stuck only doing slow training and thus when increased speed is required, there will be a problem. Branching training toward increased speed should always be included, but only once the technique is correct. Remember the reason for the slow training.
Needs to be Done Right
To be effective, “All it means is that slow practice needs to be done right in order to be truly effective.” (Icasas, 2015). The student and the teacher both need the correct mindset toward the slow training in the beginning for the slow training for it to be performed correctly. The focus is on getting techniques correct and then moving this technique on toward normal speed. This element always needs to be present in the mind of both student and teacher.
“Be mindful. Keep track of everything that you do. Notice any bad tendencies you may have and work hard to iron those out during your slow practice. Do an action at the regular speed, figure out where your stumbling blocks are, and use your slow practice to overcome them.” (Icasas, 2015)
The technique needs to be performed at speed once the technique is correct. Only then will you find out how you will actually perform it under some pressure. If there are issues found, then slow speed training can be used to eliminate these issues. This backwards and forwards play between normal speed and slow speed should form a part of your normal training to eliminate any of the errors that you might have in any of your techniques. Efficiency of technique is the key to improving speed.
“Don’t forget to push. Remember the original purpose of your slow practice: to improve your high-speed performance as fast as possible. Challenge yourself to increase your pace while still maintaining proper form and technique. Don’t stay frozen at the slow pace forever.” (Icasas, 2015)
Slow training is used for the increase of accuracy in technique. Once accuracy is gained in the technique, then it should be pushed a little for speed. Accuracy needs to be maintained. If accuracy begins to wane, then the speed should be brought back a little until the technique can cope with the speed, then it can be increased again. This method allows for an increase in speed while maintaining accuracy, but accuracy should always be the prime goal. The speed should be developed on the basis of efficient movement rather than simple raw power of the muscles.
In this investigation is a discussion of slow training and the theoretical elements which are related to it. The investigation has covered many different areas including neuroplasticity and other subjects in the area of neuroscience, but also areas of physical pursuits as well. Such areas are related because they all are focussed upon the same goal, the learning and retention of motor skills.
Initially, for the fencer, some of these subject areas would have seemed somewhat out of place, hence there was a discussion of the sources at the beginning of this investigation. Drawing sources from far afield enriched the discussion and demonstrated that the idea of slow training is not one that is new or is without foundation. Such evidence brought to bear means that the idea of slow training even for such an energetic and quick pursuit such as fencing is based in firm foundation.
To understand how slow training is of benefit meant that it was necessary to understand somewhat of how the human body and mind learns motor skills. This is where discussions of neuroscience where necessary. It was vital that these discussions did not delve too deeply so as to confuse the audience, but sufficiently enough to present sufficient evidence. There were presented various phases of learning and it was presented that slow training, when used during these phases is of great benefit as it reinforces the skill being learnt by the individual. Further this illustrated the important connection between the body and mind which often goes overlooked.
With the subject of motor skill learning established, the subject of muscle memory, or neural pathways, was addressed. This was directly related to the previous as it is through slow training that neural pathways can be better established in the trainees mind, and thus a greater connection to the body may be made. These neural pathways take time to develop and this is enhanced through the use of slow training because the focus is on the technique and the elimination of excess movements from the technique, thus to become more efficient. Repetition is the key to building neural pathways, but it is of greatest importance to repeat the correct thing.
The last sections of discussion were made with regard to speed and slow training. Speed was demonstrated to be only one attribute, and one which is not as important as other more elementary attributes which the fencer should cultivate. With this established then slow training was directly addressed. With all of the information previously presented such presentation is well-founded. This allowed a more practical approach, while keeping a theoretical basis to the discussion. The subject of slow training itself was discussed and how it was advantageous for the development of form, and the development of efficiency of movement which is the true key to speed. Practicing slow allows the body to remember better and corrections are more easily made. Such training must be made with mindfulness of what the goal of such training is and what the student is participating in.
The concept of slow movement to enhance learning is not one which is new. It is a concept which has been present in the Oriental martial arts and is demonstrated most clearly in Tai Chi, though it is also present in other disciplines. Western practitioners of martial arts and other activities also use slow training to enhance their skills due to the advantages which have been presented; such advantages can be embraced by the fencer if only they will put their mind to it. The most imperative element with regard to slow training is that the fencer must commit to the slow training, and be mindful of what they are doing for it to have its greatest benefit.
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