From free fencing to drills

free-fencingA little over a month ago I sat at the Helsinki airport, warming up the writer in me by typing the previous blog post. My idea was to try blogging on the go about the HEMAC Dijon event I was heading to. But it turns out there was no time nor a decent internet connection so I didn’t get to write anything – but it also turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, event I’ve been to.

It is not really fair to rank the events on a best to worst scale though, as the experience is never the same for every participant and you sort of only get out what you put in, to quote the title of my Swedish friends’ promo video from couple of years back.

What did it for me this time (apart from the overwhelmingly friendly atmosphere, quality workshops and some superb demonstrations of which I might write later in more detail) was the amount of free fencing I did. The amount of activity in general was unusual, on my first day I woke up at seven, started working out and practicing and finished over twelve hours later. I got a lot of good fencing in with various weapons, and while I felt I was slightly underperforming on Saturday, I really got into speed again on Sunday.

Much thanks to my friends from Sala d’Armi Achille Marozzo, I got a chance to face excellent swordsmen non-stop for three to four hours. This may sound silly, but during this period I somehow surpassed myself mentally and physically. Physically I got to the point where normally the arm and shortly after it the whole body becomes tired and starts to suggest stopping, but I pushed through. What helped me was that I genuinely wished to fence more, and as such it was a positive feeling that helped me overcome the tiredness. I stopped when I felt like I was satisfied, not when I felt I couldn’t carry on any longer. I don’t know how it looked to someone looking at it from the outside, but do I even need to care? No points were counted on those fights and all of it was just for the pure joy of fencing.

Mentally this weekend and these hours spent fencing did something to the fears I have had towards free fencing. For now I’ll spare you from a deeper dive to these issues, but some of my posts regarding competition might render an idea if you truly are interested. But to keep the story simple, I got rid of my dislike of longsword fencing almost completely, as well as my problems fencing with less experienced people. Perhaps surprisingly, all of this happened while fencing mostly with sidesword and against what I’d estimate as equally skilled or more experienced free fencers than myself.

Having returned to Finland and getting back to speed with regular classes I noticed that I was feeling an ever greater urge to fence with my people, and so the time allocated for free fencing during each class has steadily been growing. This is now possible as in every class the percentage of those with full, adequate free fencing kit is greater than that of those without kit. Those with lacking equipment either do drills, watch others, fence with plastic swords or get individual attention from more experienced practitioners who enjoy instructing. It is possible for me to get my own training done during this time as well since there usually are enough people around that I trust can keep everything safe and under control just as well as I could.

Regular training shouldn’t be only geared towards free fencing though – and even for me personally it is right now extremely important it doesn’t mean I should run classes only according to my own cycles. Of course it has an effect, especially since I just don’t have the time and energy to plan every class in advance to the best of my ability. Learning specific skills, conditioning and drilling is just as important. With this in mind I’m constantly thinking how my own emphasis on free fencing could bring something back to other exercises, and indeed sometimes it does.

During yesterday’s training I experienced yet another enlightening moment. We were doing a simple drill where fencers pair up with the role of the agent being to provoke with a feint (cut or thrust) and then, as the patient parries (in this case from porta di ferro stretta) he evades the parry and strikes with a thrust. This was followed by the patient, after having been hit with the thrust, delivering a strike the agent had to parry just to make sure the recovery from the thrust was done in a safe and alert way.

Then we did the same exercise in a way that if the patient was allowed to parry the thrust following the feint as well, and if successful, the exercise would continue as free fencing until the engagement was over. This automatically generated the following conditions:

  1. The agent and patient (attacker and defender) were decided beforehand.
  2. The attack was always the same, with a few variations (feint by cut or thrust, followed by a thrust).
  3. The patient could choose not to enter the free fencing by only doing the parry, thus continuing with the previous drill.
  4. If patient managed to parry the thrust and wanted to strike, the free fencing would have to be very decisive as the engagement would be over if the fencers would again retreat out of measure.

In essence this felt like the perfect way to bring a simple drill and free fencing together. An added benefit in this drill was that both fencers would have to plan their fencing always two or three steps ahead, since the free fencing would only start after the initial drill. And it was never certain that it would go beyond the drill.

At least I found this to be a very effective way of answering the ages-old problem of bridging the gap between drills and free fencing. We will be experimenting with this more during the summer.