Thursday, June 27, 2019

Move Slow, Learn Fast: Another Look - Part III


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.

Slow Training

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)

The Advantages

          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.

Diagnostic Tool
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.

     Bad Habits
“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.


Caile, C. (2017) “Viewpoint: The Power of Slow” in [Accessed 19/03/2019]

di Grassi, G. (1594) His True Art of Defence ..., I.G., London (

Duke, T. (2015) “Changing Neural Pathways” SportEds.Com (Jun. 25), [Accessed 10/4/2019]

Evangelista, N. (1996) The Art and Science of Fencing, McGraw Hill, New York

Farrell, K. (2014) Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick, Fallen Rook, Glasgow

Girard, D. (1997) Actors On Guard: A Practical Guide for the Use of the Rapier and Dagger for Stage and Screen, Routledge, London

Halo Neuroscience (2016) “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Motor Skill Learning” (Mar. 17), [Accessed 10/4/2019]

Halo Neuroscience (2016a) “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Hyperplasticity” (Feb. 25), [Accessed 10/4/2019]

Icasas, P. (2015) “Practice Slow, Learn Fast” in How to Suck Less, [Accessed 19/03/2019]

Ox, M. (2016) “Slow in practice means fast in combat” in MultiBriefs: Exclusive, [Accessed 19/03/2019]

Petrosino, J. (2018) “Training to Build New Neural Pathways” in Elite FTS: Columnist (Aug. 19), [Accessed 10/4/2019]

Saviolo, V. (1595) His Practise In Two Bookes…, John Wolff, London (

Walker, H. (2019) Un-Blogged: A Fencer’s Ramblings, Sword and Book Enterprises Pty Ltd, Brisbane

Windsor, G. (2013) The Swordsman’s Companion: A Modern Training Manual for Medieval Longsword (2nd ed), Guy Windsor, Helsinki

If you are interested in obtaining a pdf-version of the entire document for ease of reading and research. Please feel free to contact me at, with the subject line "Slow Training - Another Look"

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Move Slow, Learn Fast: Another Look - Part II


The following is the second of three parts of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as these 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. Unlike my regular blogs, while the first part appeared on its usual monthly date, the following parts will appear one week after one another so that you are not kept waiting too long for the next part. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is now presented with more detail and new evidence.



Motor Skill Learning

“neuroplasticity is what allows for the acquisition and retention of motor skills. By motor skills, we are referring to finely coordinated muscle movements such as batting, putting, and free throws.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016) 
          The same category of movements also apply to all those found in fencing. The following part discusses the science behind the acquisition of motor skills and how they are implanted in the brain. There is enough science presented here to demonstrate the basis for these ideas, but not so much that to confuse the issue. To this end, only a single source has been used to keep things simple, though other sources during this investigation will refer to the same processes.

Motor Skill Learning: Two Phases of Learning

“Motor skill learning is defined as the process by which movements are executed more quickly and accurately with practice. Motor skills are acquired over multiple training sessions until performance reaches a plateau. There are two phases of learning: a fast phase and a slow phase. The fast phase involves rapid improvement over the course of one single training session. The slow phase involves small, steady gains that develop over multiple practice sessions, eventually reaching a stable peak.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
           In the acquisition of a skill this plateau is the sign that the skill has been learnt as the skill level does not increase for a period of time; at this point in time the basics of the skill have been acquired. The ascent to this plateau is marked by two phases, as noted, a fast phase and a slow phase. The acquisition of the essential skill happens rapidly, the accuracy in this skill occurs over a longer period of time. It is in this second part of the process that most will get frustrated.
“In your subsequent practices, you begin the slow process of gaining accuracy so that the vision in your brain matches the movements of your body.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016) 
          The slow process of gaining accuracy in a skill is what bogs many down and also discourages many. Here, many will want to move on to the next thing because they have the basics of the skill, thus think they have learnt enough. The important thing is to stick with the practice and gain accuracy in the skill so that it can be performed properly and so that the brain retains it accurately. From a slightly different point of view, skills are gained in a three stage process.

Three Stage Axis of Acquisition

“In addition to the division between fast and slow, motor skill acquisition can be separated into stages across another axis:
 1.     Encoding
2.     Consolidation
3.     Retention & Recall.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
The three stage axis of acquisition presents a slightly different approach to the previous acquisition of a skill, but gives more detail about some of the specific processes involved. For skills in swordplay, this approach is more useful when examined. The encoding stage is when the skill is learnt, the consolidation is when the skill is more deeply processed, usually in the mind so that it becomes a part of normal process, and finally the retention and recall is the final part where the skill becomes a part of the individual so that they can call upon it without conscious thought, thus having built an appropriate neural pathway, or muscle memory.
“Encoding overlaps with the fast learning period and refers to the process by which a motor skill is converted from an experience to a construct that is stored in the brain. The majority of encoding will occur online — or the interval during training sessions.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016) 
Encoding is the first stage and is where the skill is initially learnt. The skill must be learnt properly in this process. Slow training is most useful here because the body can move through the action slowly and thus remember each movement in intimate detail, rather than rushing through the action, possibly missing some of the nuances. It is also here that mistakes can be made if the learning process and the skill is not the focus of the student.
“In contrast, skill consolidation happens offline — or the interval between training sessions. Sleep is a critical offline period; it’s when the majority of skill learning is consolidated in the brain. Consolidation can be thought of as an intermediate phase between fast and slow learning.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
           Consolidation happens after the class has finished. If the student goes over the skill in their mind with a vivid image of what they have learnt, there is a likely chance that they will remember what they have learnt and it will be stored properly. The mind most definitely has its part to play in the process. The moving image of the skill which is given by the brain, or to the brain, is the one which is going to be repeated, thus a vivid image remembered from the class is best for the process. Thinking about fencing, helps your fencing. 
“The last stage of learning, retention, occurs simultaneously with the slow learning phase, during both offline and online periods. The result of retention is the commitment of the learned skill to muscle memory and the ability to retrieve this memory at will. Muscle memory refers to the ability to perform a skill without any conscious effort.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016) 
The last stage of learning is retention. Once retained a skill can be corrected, but it takes a lot of work due to the effort put into placing in into the muscle memory as it is. This is the reason why practice must be made accurately initially and where slow training has an advantage because corrections can be made more easily as they can be more easily seen. Once retained, a skill is then used without conscious effort, it is simply applied to the situation at hand; this is the goal of muscle memory. A different part of the brain is used to operate the skill as the skill is moved toward muscle memory. 
“Once a skill is committed to muscle memory, the motor cortex is less involved, and activation switches to lower-order processing areas such as the cerebellum where subconscious motor memories are stored. This reflects the behavioral shift that occurs as the motor skill improves — i.e. less and less reliance on thinking until the skill can be completed with no conscious effort.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016) 
          The advantage for the fencer is that  they do not have to think about how to do the action, just doing the action, or in some instances not even that. The fencer’s mind is then free to think about other things such as observing the opponent to see what they are doing, and planning ahead for their next series of actions. This is where much of the advanced fencer’s speed comes from, a lack of conscious effort applied to skills.
          Understanding the learning process allows a person to see where and how they need to apply themselves. The use of slow training techniques in a training routine allows for skills to be learnt in an intimate way allowing for an accurate retention of the skill. This aids the learning process, even if it would seem to slow the process down somewhat. In the end the fencer will have learnt the skills much more effectively than if they had rushed through and only used drills at speed.

Muscle Memory

 “studies have shown that even elderly people can generate new neural pathways and increase their capacity for learning and memory. Simply put, our brains are malleable, moldable, plastic. Thus, it makes sense that this phenomenon of rewiring the brain is known as neuroplasticity.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016a)
           Neuroplasticity was discussed previously. There are elements of neuroscience which cannot be avoided when discussing the subject of memory, more so when discussing the building and retention of skills. Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon which occurs every time a skill is learnt, and this does not matter whether the skill is a motor skill or a more mental skill.
          What is most interesting is that this investigation began simply focussing on training and methods using slow techniques, it has branched out to include such subjects as have been included due to the research which has been performed on subjects in sport. “Pop culture calls it "muscle memory." Science calls it "neural pathways."” (Ox, 2016). While not knowing it, many practitioners of the arts of the sword had been discussing the subject of neuroscience, in layman’s terms admittedly, without even knowing it. It is these neural pathways which will be the focus of this part.

Old Pathways

          Neural pathways form an important part of our everyday lives that we take for granted. We walk, we pick things up, we move things, all sorts of activities, “it's just a fact and a consequence of the neural pathways ingrained in your brain that have made these things second nature.” (Petrosino, 2018). Neural pathways make activities part of our second nature, they make skills so that we do not have to think about them, we just do them. This gives us great advantage because it allows us to be thinking about other things while doing something else. Of course, it is not all that simple. Old habits are hard to break.
“In the gym and in training, most people’s defaults are to go to whatever movement pathway has become their autopilot. I mean, heck, that's even true in life. People take the same routes to work, and they default to the same behaviors when stressed, etc.” (Petrosino, 2018)
           Everyone has at least one habit that they would like to break. Of course that means that they have to fight against the neural pathways which have, for the most part, been unconsciously written. For those who are participants in sport or other activities, these habits may be a part of the activities, in which case the neural pathways have probably been somewhat more consciously written, but also in some cases there is also some unconscious activity. In either case the task of re-writing is difficult.
 “The brain is an amazing super computer, capable of directing and coordinating complex motor and mental skills. Once a movement pathway becomes embedded into it, however, it becomes very set in its ways.” (Duke, 2015)
           Luckily, due to neuroplasticity it is possible to write new neural pathways, or even re-write old neural pathways. The brain is most definitely malleable in this respect, and this is a good thing. It means that we can get rid of those bad habits.

New Pathways

“The science community has done a lot of work in recent years showing that the brain can both make new neurons (neurogenesis) and new neural pathways (neuroplasticity). Neural pathways are just a series of neurons connected by single or bundled fibers that connect to send signals from one region of your brain to another or to the rest of your nervous system. Hence, these neural pathways allow your body to consciously and subconsciously carry out activities.” (Petrosino, 2018)
           What this means is that all of those poor neurons that most of us killed in our late teens and early twenties with the consumption of alcohol are not lost, they can come back. You just have to encourage them to do so, and this means using your brain. This is not the focus of this investigation to gain knowledge. The focus is on the gaining and the development of neural pathways for skills. For neural pathways, that involves the training of both the body and the brain, and both need to be involved in this process for the most effective result. Petrosino (2018) describes three stages of making a new neural pathway.
“To make a new neural pathway, you go through three stages: cognition, association, and autonomy. The cognitive stage is where you learn a new thing, like a new way to squat, by watching, doing, and thinking. It's the introductory phase to the new “motor pattern.” It's a hard phase because you need to figure out how to do the damn thing without reverting to old patterns. In the associative stage, you start doing the new thing more. This stage is where the newly learned motor pattern starts to become more natural. However, in this stage, the new skill/pattern/thing isn’t natural yet, making it somewhat frustrating. The final stage, the autonomous stage, is where you finally do the damn thing without consciously thinking about it. It’s the stage we all want to get to immediately but need to go through tons and tons of repetitions to get to.” (Petrosino, 2018)
           The three stage model presented, describes a process for the development of a new neural pathway, or a new skill. It resounds much like the process that was given in the previous part of the investigation about motor skill learning, with little surprise. It is the association which will take the longest period of time as it is here where the repetition will come in, slow training will be most useful in the cognition stage, but also useful in the association stage to ensure that the skill is correct and practiced correctly. For the improvement of a skill the same process applies, but more focus needs to be applied.

Improvement of a Skill

          While Duke (2015) is discussing the acquisition of a skill in his discussion, if a person wanted to improve a skill, the same process actually applies, but there more focus is needed, “not only is performing repetitions of a new movement a key in learning it, but to both feel and see the movement will only make your swing hologram more vivid.” (Duke, 2015). His discussion uses a golf swing as an example, but the same can be applied to any skill. You need to feel and see the movement which is being made, and this needs to be performed slowly so you can see and feel exactly what’s going on.
This idea of Duke’s is further developed to include, “Eyes-open, slow-motion swings will increase your visual awareness, and eyes-closed swings will further enhance what you are feeling.” (Duke, 2015). To enhance the two different senses he focusses on one and then blocks out the other so that the individual can focus and find out exactly what they are doing. All the actions are done slowly.
The whole idea of both the slow-motion with eyes open and eyes closed is so that the brain can register every movement of muscle, joint and bone so a firm image of what’s exactly going on can be formed in the brain. With this image of the perfect form this is the target, without it, what is the target? Or as Duke expresses, “If you don’t have a vivid image and feel for your movements, what are you expected to recall when you hit the start button on your golf swing?” (Duke, 2015). This same approach can be applied to the skills of swordplay, and any other skill, and used to both improve the skill as well as learn it.

Neural Pathways: Easy to Establish, Hard to Develop

“I’ve been told it only takes 30 seconds of consciously thinking about something to build a new neural pathway, and that might be true. But it takes hours of repetition for it to become second nature.” (Petrosino, 2018)
           Neural pathways are relatively easily built, but it takes quite a bit more effort for that neural pathway to become developed and significant. It is a pathway which is being built, if it is not used particularly much, it will be present but not particularly prevalent, active thought will be required to use that particular skill. The way something becomes second nature, thus to be built into muscle memory so it is second nature, is through repetition, and lots of it.
“To make stage combat a safe practice, it must be ingrained into the actor’s muscle memory through constant repetition. By slowly repeating mechanics, a thin layer of “potential habit” is placed in one’s physical and mental memory. The mind and body begin to make the actions more natural; this is known as kinesthetic learning.” (Girard, 1997:5)
           Kinesthetic learning is essentially learning by doing. It is learning through doing a physical activity. In this particular case it is learning through the repetition of the skills which the individual wants to learn. In the case of an actor it is the directions of the fight director, in the case of a swordsman, it is the techniques of swordsmanship. These are learnt through the practice and making them more natural to the person who is using them. The more natural a skill can become the more likely it will be used.
“it is much easier to engrain a movement pattern if it’s natural, or in accordance with the laws of nature. The point here is that the more things we can “let” happen in the golf swing, instead of trying to make them happen, the less tension and compensations are required. It will also be easier to develop and consistently use these new neural pathways.” (Duke, 2015)
           If an action feels awkward because it is biomechanically unsound, then it is less likely that the person is going to learn it. If it is biomechanically sound then the student is more likely to retain it and practice it as taught. There must be some leeway in teaching of physical skills for physical variance, because everyone is not built the same way. An action which is more natural to a student is the one that they are going to learn. This is also assisted if the skill can be connected to something they already know. The brain will protect those skills which we use the most.
“In fact, neuro science shows us that when you practice something over and over, exactly the same way, you not only create a neural pathway in the brain, but it also gets surrounded by an insulating sheath of cholesterol called myelin. This insulating sheath protects the neural pathway from the performance-robbing effects of adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals that are released in extreme stress situations.” (Ox, 2016)
           Not only does practice reinforce a skill in the sense that it reinforces the practice of the skill but it also protects the skill on a biochemical level. Meaning that even the body gives the individual benefits from practicing. Old skills should be practiced as much as new skills to continue their protection, but as this is a discussion of new neural pathways, these will be the focus. How much practice you put in is not as important as regularity and what you practice.
“we know we can considerably speed up the process of creating a new neural pathway if we are constantly refreshing the correct movement. Ten minutes a day verses 1 hour a week will yield faster results. Note that I said “correct movement,” not “correct positions.” Without getting too deep into the rabbit hole of neuroscience, the Holonomic brain theory supports that people learn motor skills not by linking a progression of positions together like line-by-line computer code, but instead by storing the entire movement as a neural 3-D hologram.” (Duke, 2015)
           Practice needs to be regular and movement-based. Short periods of practice each day are better than large practices in single lumps each week. The idea is to keep the skill fresh so the brain will remember the skill and be reminded what it looks like, so the motions are reinforced. Previously old skills were mentioned as needing practice as well as new skills, and this is very true. Old skills should always be re-visited so that they are reminded and remembered. Thus practice needs to be continued.
“If you continue to practice, the optimized brain-muscle output will be maintained and so will the skill, but if you neglect practice, the functional connections will become less synchronous, resulting in poorer performance. So, there really is a reason why your mother always told you that practice makes perfect. It all comes down to neuroplasticity.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016a)
           Practice is important for the maintenance of all skills. Anyone who has played any sport or been involved in any activity over a period of time will have noted that if they missed practices over an extended period of time that their skills waned. It was not that they had forgotten how to do things, just that they were not as sharp as they were previously. Practice is vital to continued proficiency at high levels, but the practice must be effective and it must be practicing the right things.
“It takes about 500 repetitions of an action to put it into your muscle memory, but you must practice it accurately. Any mistake you make in the action will also be practiced into muscle memory as well and it will take 50,000 repetitions to remove a mistake from muscle memory, so it is best to do it right the first time. Any action which is placed in your muscle memory can be performed without thought, this means you will react quickly to the stimulus given by your opponent; another reason why you must practice accurately and why your partner must give you the correct stimulus when you practice.” (Walker, 2019:241)
           The problem is that a person may practice a skill over and over again, but if they are not focussed on what they are doing, errors can creep into their practice. This means that these errors can become a part of their skill, thus a part of their neural pathway. Meaning that they have done their practice, but they are not perfect. With this in mind, a saying needs to be modified, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Each skill that is practiced, needs to be practiced so that it is practiced the same way, consistency is vital, with one another, and with the form that is intended. A veteran player or swordsman will have done their practice so established their pathways, thus they will have much more difficulty in correcting their mistakes than a beginner.
“This is why more experienced students have such difficulty correcting their form – they have so integrated technique into muscle memory that unless they are concentrating on what they are doing in terms of improving their technique, they just revert to what they have done all along.” (Caile, 2017)
           The best way to avoid problems with form or practice is to avoid the mistakes to begin with. Practice accurately in the beginning and there will be no issues to deal with in the later stages of your career. One of the ways to do this is to have a training buddy to watch you and assist you with your form. Another way, or a way to add to this, is to move slowly, taking the time to get it right before moving more quickly.
“It’s also really important to start slow. When you do a motor pattern fast or under a heavy load, this makes you susceptible to reverting to old neural pathways and complicates your neural learning abilities. However, if you slow movements down, and work on doing them right, it will be much easier to make them turn into second nature. Then, once it’s actually natural to you, work on speeding movements up or making them heavier.” (Petrosino, 2018)
           When you are learning a new skill it is easy to develop bad habits. When you are re-learning a skill, or improving a skill it is even easier to revert to bad habits. Speed in the execution of practice will only enhance the chances of you reverting to bad habits, and often without you even noticing. Old habits are easy to fall into; natural ways, which may not be the correct way, are also easy to fall into. Take the time perform the skill properly and slowly until it is correct and you can feel what it feels like. Focus on the movement.
“Even in training and especially for drills the movement at slow speed is very useful. Corrections to technique are more easily made at slower speed than they are at faster speeds. A student can develop a lot of muscle memory by moving slowly because they can focus on the movement of individual parts of their body in order to make the technique being performed more efficient. A trainer can see the movement of each part in slow speed and make corrections to engagement and position of the student in order that they are learning the correct techniques.” (Walker, 2019:279)
At slow speed the technique can be corrected more easily. At slow speed it can be felt more easily, and can be felt if it is wrong more easily. Speed will cover up mistakes, but while this will result in no correction, it will result in bad habits and incorrect movements. It will also result in having to repeat training to improve. Speed is not an ally in many training scenarios. Don’t be hasty. Don’t rush. Take your time and do it properly.

The end of Part II
The Bibliography will be found at the end of Part III.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Move Slow, Learn Fast: Another Look - Part I


The following is the first of three parts of this subject. I will apologise to my dear reader as these 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. Unlike my regular blogs, while this part will appear on its usual monthly date, the following parts will appear one week after one another so that you are not kept waiting for the next part. This is a subject that has been spoken about previously; it is now presented with more detail and new evidence.




          Those regular readers of my blog, “A Fencer’s Ramblings”, or those who have bought my book, Un-Blogged: A Fencer’s Ramblings (2019), will note that this subject has been discussed before, with a similar title. This investigation is a much more in-depth discussion of the subject with evidence from neuroscience and other subjects supporting the findings.
          The subject of slow training is one which is of interest because it forms a vital part of discussions of many different forms of training in many activities. It has great advantages to those who engage in it as it allows the participants to focus on the techniques and hone the accuracy of these techniques to ensure that the correct methods are remembered. The subject of “muscle memory” appears in the subject of training in many disciplines and also is evident in the area of swordplay, and will be discussed in some detail here. Slow training enhances the process of gaining “muscle memory” and aids the participant in gaining the correct techniques.
          The bibliographical discussion aims at describing the sources which have been used throughout the investigation. Demonstrating the relevance of the sources to the investigation, even though they come from a wide range of disciplines not necessarily related to swordplay. Such a discussion reinforces future arguments and discussions which are made throughout the investigation.
          All too often participants focus on the physical aspects of training and forget the connection with the mind. This part of the investigation is intended to highlight the important connection between the body and mind before a deeper discussion of the operation of the connections is made.
          A discussion of the process of learning and integrates some of the points made in the connection between the body and the mind. It introduces some of the important aspects of neuroscience which are applicable to the learning of motor skills. Such information is made in a format which it is easier to understand than a deep discussion of all of the aspects of neuroscience applicable. The focus is its applicability to motor skill learning and this process. This information is most useful in understanding muscle memory and how it works.
          Muscle memory is a concept which has been discussed by sports practitioners and theorists for an extended period of time, i.e. the idea that if a person practices something enough it becomes almost a natural reaction. It is only more recently that science has discovered that this is actually the case, and that there are actual structures in the brain being built. The discussion of muscle memory examines some of the concepts and then discusses how old techniques are difficult to remove and new techniques need to be repeated in a constant and consistent fashion to be embedded.
          For some speed is an obsession in fencing. It would seem to be the prime motivator of their game. Speed is an asset, but it is not the only way in which a fencer should attempt to succeed. There are other elements of fencing which are more significant. The development of accuracy of technique is always a greater asset as when this is developed it is of greater use. The best way to develop this is through slow training.
          Slow training is challenging and it will seem tedious to some, but it is actually a more efficient way of training for speed than just attempting to perform actions more and more quickly. Slow training develops precision in the action. This precision leads to efficiency and it is here that true speed is developed. Slow training takes actions and examines them closely, removing issues so that the most accurate action is practiced.

Bibliographic Discussion

          Seven of the articles which have been used in the following investigation concerning slow training, and will be discussed below, are not directly related to fencing, swordplay. It could be claimed on this basis that there is nothing appropriate to be read about the subject, which would be incorrect. To find information about the subject of slow training and its related subjects it is necessary and useful to look a little further afield to address the subject properly.
Icasas’ (2015) “Practice Slow, Learn Fast” on his How to Suck Less website is a blog discussion about slow training and its advantages as taught in the Oriental martial arts. He gives the reasons for slow training and the reasons why it is important to the development of the student. There are a lot of similarities between the Oriental and western martial arts in their methods of training. Further, the ideas which Icasas presents are applicable in their form and application due to the commonalities of the core principles, the same of which can be said of all martial arts.
          Again, Caile’s (2017) “Viewpoint: The Power of Slow” on the website gives a discussion of the advantages of slow training in the martial arts. This is focussed on the martial arts of the Orient and is aimed at promoting the use of slow training for the promotion of accurate techniques. The same applies here as all forms of martial arts are based on Time and Distance, thus the methods of training also have much overlap as well. It is the foundation principles which can be used to examine the development of skills.
           Ox’s (2016) “Slow in practice means fast in combat” on the MultiBriefs: Exclusive website is an article about firearms training and the use of slow training in combat training. It describes the advantages of slow training in an actual situation and discusses the use of the same training in other sports as well. He also connects some of the appropriate terminology with regard to brain function. This connection between the common language and the appropriate medical jargon is most useful, then there is something to build on, as will be seen in the following articles. The importance of accurate actions in combat with firearms cannot be understated. These principles can be applied to the use of the sword, having the commonality of both being weapons and both having precision in their actions for high levels of skill. This latest article would seem to be stretching the field of possible research to its limit, associating firearms training with swordsmanship, but the principles of training remain the same. Adding knowledge from modern medicine to understand what is actually happening in the brain can only be an advantage, thus even further afield the net can be stretched.
Petrosino’s (2018) “Training to Build New Neural Pathways” on the Elite FTS: Columnist website is an article related to weight-lifting. It discusses the use of the brain in gym-training for the development of neural pathways for the development of correct training patterns and techniques. This is a discussion of the deep connection between the actions of the body and the development of the neural pathways which control those actions. This mental approach, applied to weight-lifting, can be applied to fencing. The information about brain function increases understanding of the processes involved.
Duke’s (2015) “Changing Neural Pathways” on the SportEds.Com website is a discussion of neural pathways and uses the action of practicing and developing a better golf swing as an example. It discusses how neural pathways develop in the brain and what is required to overwrite old ones and properly develop new ones. Neural pathways are what are commonly referred to as “muscle memory” as can be seen it is actually in the brain not in the muscles. The golf swing is used as an example but a thrust, cut or parry could also have been used, and the same would still apply. Simple skills need to be developed and focus needs to be maintained to truly retain skills.
Halo Neuroscience’s (2016) “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Motor Skill Learning” and “The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Hyperplasticity” (2016a) are both primarily promotional material designed to promote the training programs and products which are presented by Halo Neuroscience. The former discusses how the brain attains and retains skills, describing some the actions of the brain using the appropriate jargon associated. The latter discusses information about how the brain operates in the acquisition of motor skills and the development of neural pathways. These both have a general sport focus. Both of these articles discuss the development of skills which is appropriate to the discussion. The information about how they are developed is most useful as it gives understanding how and why the skills develop the way that they do.
Girard’s (1997) Actors On Guard: A Practical Guide for the Use of the Rapier and Dagger for Stage and Screen is evidently a manual designed for fight directors and actors. Its information is related to the subject as it addresses weapons and subjects which are clearly associated with swordplay and its use. The information from here is about the training of the actor in the use of these weapons.
Evangelista’s (1996) The Art and Science of Fencing is a fencing manual addressed to the modern fencer and as such is directly addressing the subject of fencing, but may seem not so much to the historical fencer. What needs to be made clear here is that there is a commonality which is present between arts of the sword, regardless of its form. Such information about is training is thus useful to all scholars of the blade.
Two sources which will be used are directly applicable to those who study the historical weapons are Windsor’s (2013) The Swordsman’s Companion: A Modern Training Manual for Medieval Longsword, and Farrell’s (2014) Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick. The information drawn from these directly addresses the training of historical weapons and thus is most appropriate for historical swordsmanship. In the same category of appropriate address is my own recently published, Walker, H. (2019) Un-Blogged: A Fencer’s Ramblings, which directly addresses both the subject of historical swordsmanship and also the concept of slow combat and its use in training. Indeed this investigation is a direct expansion of one of the articles found in this book, and used in this discussion.
In this discussion it is vital that information is drawn from as many sources as possible to present both theory and practice of slow movement training to demonstrate its application and advantage. This discussion of the sources is designed to point out the applicable nature of training methods of other sports and pursuits to historical swordsmanship. Of necessary nature is the theory presented to reinforce the practice which is presented throughout the various pursuits noted and, of course historical swordsmanship.

Mind and Body

“Bringing mind and body together on the fencing strip is the ultimate goal of fencing. ... A blending of thought and action supercedes all true effectiveness on the fencing strip. Touches, therefore, become the expression, the outcome, of superb fencing,” (Evangelista, 1996:169)
           Fencing as only a physical game is very limiting; it is actually a game of mind and body. Both have their parts to play for the fencer to achieve their goals. To be sure many of the skills of the fencer will be written into the fencer’s muscle memory so they do not have to think about these actions, but the mind still has its role to play. There are still observances to record and plans to be made. The problem is that many people forget the mind and only look and the physical aspects and not only in fencing.
“All too often, I see people missing the importance of thinking about the muscle-brain connection when it comes to training. And that’s a bit of a shame because creating neural pathways that allow you to train and move correctly is a component of making gains.” (Petrosino, 2018)
          Petrosino (2018) is discussing gym training and weight-lifting and a person would be surprised that there would be any involvement of the mind at all in that particular sport. Parallels can be drawn between fencing and the points that the author is making, in both cases neural pathways, what most people call “muscle memory”, are a function of the brain, not the body. They are written by the actions of the body, but they have to be conscious actions to be written correctly and accurately. The actions have to be thought about; mind first, body second.
“it is important from the beginning for you to establish the habit of “think then do.” What this means is that you visualize and understand a technique or action before physically committing to it. Think about a technique, know what you are about to do is right, and then do the action.” (Girard, 1997:6)
          The idea of thinking and then doing is presented here by Girard (1997) in his stage fighting manual for the use of rapier and dagger, meaning that it crosses over to an area which is familiar to fencers and those involved in swordplay. For the actor, this idea is used because it means that they are thinking about what they are doing first, and then doing it, for safety reasons. The fencer can apply the same sort of approach for training purposes, and tactical reasons; visualising what they want to perform and what the correct timing is and then performing the action. The mind element in skill acquisition cannot be avoided; this is how skills are gained, not by training only the body, but by training the brain.
“neuroplasticity is what allows for the acquisition and retention of motor skills. By motor skills, we are referring to finely coordinated muscle movements such as batting, putting, and free throws.” (Halo Neuroscience, 2016)
Motor skills, like the ones used in all forms of swordplay are gained through the virtue of neuroplasticity. Only through this can we create and modify neural pathways to learn new skills and to correct mistakes in others learnt previously. To reject the use of the mind in the pursuit of swordplay and to rely on the acquisition of skills through purely physical means is a limited approach. Understanding the reasons for this is an even greater asset.

The end of Part I
The Bibliography will be found at the end of Part III.