Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Footwork for the Competitive Fencer

2015 Edit
This is my most popular post, possibly because it might have a good title for search terms, but it also needed a bit of editing. The idea is sound and I have applied it to different types of fencing, not the specific forms, but rather footwork being the foundation of swordsmanship. I believe that all martial arts rely on having a firm foundation in the basics.

Even though I am less competitive in general I still had issues with people and their distance causing them and me to have injuries when they were insistent on burying the foil much too deep. Really it is much more pleasurable to fence with someone who gets touches that are just over to pound of pressure it takes to push the foil's tip.

As it gets to winter and we are settling in to our new area I will definitely have to look into fencing around the area more. I do have longer term injuries, possibly from right after this was written, that bother my knee. However, I notice that fencing correctly often keeps my knee from hurting. Just as not having a death grip on the pistol-grip means my hand doesn't hurt as much.

I certainly hope that over the last 4 years the people who have read this post are still out there fencing with a good foundation.

A building's foundation is often the deciding factor in whether the building crumbles or survives a catastrophic event, and how long it will survive over the years or millennia.

Footwork, the  fencer moving the feet and legs, is the foundation to one's fencing. Bad footwork can lead to collapse under an onslaught by the opponent, tripping and meeting the floor. It also steals attack opportunities where a lack of directional change skills means a fencer just has to ignore an opponent's opening. And finally, bad footwork can cause injury over time, knee, ankle, or foot problems that may permanently take one out of the game.

A fencer looking for a club should be watching for a few different things during practice and bouting that should raise flags, if you are lucky enough to have choices of where to fence:

  • Hard hits - Are there many times during bouts where a fencer has to unbend a sword from a 90 degree angle? Grimaces that turn into grin-and-bear-it? Post fencing bragging about how bad bruises are going to look?
  • Missed opportunities - Is a chased fencer so far down the strip when their opponent stops they have walk/run just to be back in the bout?
  • Sloppy fencing - Are the blades just clashing because the steel sounds nice?
As much fun as it is to tease the Epeeists about being the problem, it really isn't their fault. It might be that the club really doesn't care about the basic foundation of fencing, and learning from them will need a huge dose, not a small pinch, of salt.

Who cares what the feet are doing as long as you get the clashing of swords and the satisfying 'beeeeep' of an ambiguous point scored? Right?

But for those who actually want to progress in their fencing, and maybe even compete at a level they are happy with, there is much to practice to get a solid and flexible foundation. Running stairs, squats, calf-raises, leg-press, the list of exercises to train for strength and explosiveness in footwork goes on, so does agility training. I will not cover those as they are not specific to fencing and can be researched thoroughly. I might do a post on that later.

First, basic footwork, just back and forth. This is to keep smooth, correct footwork, not a race to how many lengths of the strip or gym can be done. Take the time to pause and adjust what falls out of form. The feet should be mostly 90 degrees with the heels in-line, the front toe pointing straight down the strip. The heels should be approximately directly under the shoulders. Keep the knees bent and let them be the shock-absorption between feet and hips. They should, at most, be directly over the toes, any further over and long-term injuries are possible. The hips should be rotated to allow the torso to be at the desired angle with the strip. And finally the back should be as though sitting in a chair, not hunched forward. I only mention the back because it will cause over-balance if in a weird position.

Do 60 to 70 meters of this slow, smooth, checking footwork in each direction. Try to keep the head and shoulders level, not bobbing up and down. Use a point on the far wall and focus on keeping that from bobbing. Of course too far and you get parallax issues.

Now do patterns. 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 2-2, and so-on, mix it up. The focus of this practice is not just the patterns, but also the change of direction, known in fencing circles as COD. COD is extremely important in throwing off an opponent. Another thing to think about is shifting tempos. Try slow, slow, fast for a retreat, advance, advance and many others. This footwork should mostly be done without pauses, not because pauses are not important, but because pauses should be controlled movements, or lack there of, be aware of them and if unintentional then it needs to be removed. Standing still without realizing you are doing so will quickly lead to a situation that could have been avoided. But a pause can also be used to great effect as a lure for your opponent.

After getting more comfortable with this then start fencing ghosts, add in lunges and parries. At first go slow working on form and warming-up. Then start to pick up speed and explosiveness. Use your mobility to its greatest effect.

Lunges are an important part of footwork. A lunge of the correct distance will help to bring the point on target, but a sloppy lunge will definitely allow the opponent a better opportunity.

A good lunge is a combination of two things:

  • A push by the back leg
  • A kick by the front leg
The kick gets the front foot to where it needs to be for the lunge and the push powers the whole action. One should end up with the back leg straight and the front lower leg 90 degrees with the floor. The knee too far over the toe means it is harder to get out of the lunge while putting strain on the knee joint. And too far behind the ankle can mean a collapse inward that can cause knee cap problems. To get out a lunge backwards the back leg needs to pull and flex. If it does not flex then it causes the fencer to stand up, effectively trapping the fencers for a few precious moments while they get their fencing form back.

Partner exercises should be fun and start getting you in the mind of distance, but not in this post. They way of being a good partner is to give feedback on what you observe, positive criticism would be good, so that both of you can improve. A few different ideas for exercises:

  • Step for step. Match footwork with your partner as they lead the exercise. Watch carefully their feet at first, but when comfortable you should be able to see the whole body including the feet without directly staring at any one piece. After a few minutes stop and trade feedback, then switch roles.
  • One partner comes on-guard and starts to do advances and then retreats, about 10 each. The other partner walks holding their foil at eye height. Watch for bobbing or rocking. Give feedback and switch roles a few times.
There are many more ideas out there and I will get into more drills and exercises with the distance drills with partners.

Fencing on the Strip
I know that everyone wants to get out there and have a grand-old-time, but if your footwork drills are lacking then it is hardly likely that you will keep good form when under pressure. Last night Tom Lutton definitely showed me that I could be doing quite a bit more footwork practice as well as distance and timing. Given, he is an A rated fencer and has very good form, so not to listen to him would be folly. Some more advice and teaching he gave to us is not to pause in your footwork, either move or do something, do not just hangout in the most dangerous zone, and especially bad if you stop moving. Lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is that with practice the footwork should become second nature, then distance and timing comes more easily and can be built on a solid foundation of footwork, not to mention building bladework on that solid foundation.

This Last Week or So
I have been running and walking for cardio exercise. I haven't started to do any drills at home, need to add that to my routine. A bit tough to do when it is raining outside and inside is so small. Not really an excuse. Would like to know what you are doing. Cardio, strength, drills?

Monday, November 07, 2011

If Fencing, Learn to Fence!

When I was growing up practicing meant sitting on the hard piano bench and maybe playing, but mostly waiting for a half-hour to roll by. Homework was a once or twice a school-year occurrence mostly consisting of a science fair project or some other large project, even through high-school. So I do not have a stellar record for discipline and practicing, but I am beginning to see the purpose.

Right now there is a severe lack of discipline in our fencing group, everyone wants to fence, by which they mean sparring, not learning to fence but just beating each other about the head in hopes of landing a point. It isn't that bad, but it is getting worse. I am not the most disciplined person in the world, but somehow my meager practice and discipline stand out over most of the rest of the group.

A Call for Discipline
We could all use more discipline as a group. The good thing is that there does seem to be a bit of warm-up discipline, most fencers will jog around the gym a couple times and do high-kicks and side steps. This is a good thing to keep up, however, it should be slightly expanded for most to include arm stretches and individual footwork.

The point of the warm up is to get muscle groups working together and warmed up. This may help to develop muscle groups for those who don't do anything else throughout the week, but for someone in decent shape the warm up will do nothing but get the blood, muscles, and bones moving. If a fencer were to commit a solid thirty minutes to working on cardio, muscle group strengthening, and fencing specific individual things such as footwork and point-control, then and only then would I say that is a start.

In fact I would say that 30 minutes once a week of intense individual fencing practice would be for those who plan to never go to a tournament, who enjoy fencing just for fencing, but who need to maintain a level of activity and skill in order to keep up with those who plan to be competitors.

The leisure fencers should also work to maintain their bladework and distance skills by doing partner practices for about 30 minutes a week as well. This is to keep from injuring their fellow fencers. This is a sport based off of three weapons, there will certainly be injuries and bruises, but they can be lessened by in large by good form and decent control.

Competitive fencers, or really any fencer who plans to go to a tournament, even if they claim just to be fencing for fun, should be held to a higher level.

Cardiovascular Condition: Should be able to maintain intensity through a 3 minute fencing period. For direct eliminations, or larger tournaments, should be able to maintain 3 of those periods with 1 minute breaks in between. Smartly choosing intensities and tactics for different bouts in order to conserve/be ready for all day fencing. I run 5 to 10 miles a week currently, but I have very little good experience and knowledge at correctly choosing intensity and overall tournament strategy. I feel stronger and more energetic on the strip than I have for nearly 3 years before I picked up running again. I would suggest anything from power-walking for 2-3 hours a week to running 5 to 20 miles per week.

This could get very long pretty quickly so I will be writing up several more posts of what a competitive fencer should be doing each week in order to advance beyond just talent. I know this is hard for some to take as it seems that I am just pointing a finger, but truthfully it is something i need to consider to. Some questions we can ask ourselves: Do I want to get better? What bad habits should I try to eliminate? Do I want to be fencing as strong at the end as I was in the beginning?

Until next time work on some cardio. Next time is footwork.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

AI Class is Really Interesting

So the week after getting back from Colorado and Wyoming I started an interesting free class: an AI class offered by two professors from Stanford. It is an intro course but even from that I am learning quite a bit.

I just finished homework #3 all about machine learning. It was quite in depth with derivations of equations to get the equations needed to answer the questions. It is well put together and usually makes sense. My one complaint is when a huge long equation magically appears. I am happy that they edited the videos to be a bit shorter and the sound isn't choppy at all, it's just that those huge long equations that I might need later just appear, fade-in, drop in like it came as a pre-assembled part. I have to pause the video to be able to write it down and hopefully not forget what it is about, although Prof Thrun does a good job of explaining all of it, if quickly.

I unfortunately did not manage my time right to get Homework #2 done, but this last week I managed to get #3 done with time to spare. But I have to seriously start in on the videos tonight probably after fencing, otherwise I will be doing all of them last moment. I hope they posted them already.

This class also helps me to know if I am ready to do online courses from somewhere that I will have to pay for. I believe that I am not burnt out as I was when I finished college, but I definitely need to carefully keep track of my time before it comes to get me. Let me know if you are taking it too.

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