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.
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 FightingArts.com 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 IThe Bibliography will be found at the end of Part III.