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I Am Slow

I am slow. So I study speed.

The first advanced Fiore class every month is a freeplay-based session, in which we use freeplay and related exercises to expose specific weaknesses in individual students, for them to work on, and general weaknesses in the group as a whole, which sets the theme for the next month of classes. This month we are working on speed. The first indication that this would be necessary was that almost none of the students present could get their freeplay kit on in under 120 seconds.

Speed, celeritas, is one of Fiore’s four key virtues that a swordsman must possess. The others, for non-Fioreista readers, are audatia (boldness), forteza (strength) and avvisamento (foresight)). There are two key models for developing speed available to us. These are the sporting approach, and the musical.

The most obviously applicable is that of sports. High-level sportsmen, in games like tennis and fencing, must be quick. This is trained mostly by repeating explosive movements, to encourage development of type II fast-twitch muscle fibres, and to task those muscles with the motion desired. In this model, actions should pretty much only ever be trained at speed. If you do the action slowly too often, you end up training to use type I “slow twitch” fibres instead, and the maximum speed of the action is diminished. This sort of thing tends to emphasise gross motor movements, such as extending the arm, rather than fine motor movements such as manipulating with the fingers. As Johan Harmenberg writes in his must-read book Epee 2.0, “only simple movements are used (even an action like a disengage is not very common in a World Championship final)” (p28). He attributes this to the stress that the fencers are experiencing. At this level, “the pressure is so intense it is impossible to describe” (p 43). Harmenberg won the epee world championship in 1977 and Olympic gold in 1980, so may reasonably be assumed to know his stuff.

In music though, speed of execution is attained through getting it right at slow speeds first, then letting the phrase get faster and faster. A good example of astonishing speed of execution can be found here:

Wynton Marsalis playing the carnaval of Venice by Jean-Baptiste Arban. If music’s not your thing, just scroll ahead to 2.40, where he plays the 8th variation so fast it sounds like there are two cornets being blown- one for the tune, one for the accompaniment. The fine motor control is just dazzling. I have been taught to play this (though I never got close to this level of execution) and can attest that is is simply appallingly difficult to do. And under the stress of the performance, even worse. But the advice I was given (and every musician I have ever met would agree) was to get it absolutely accurate slowly first, and then speed it up. As my teacher Mr Foster wrote on my sheet music- “go at the speed of NO mistakes”.

We find a remarkable similarity between training to play a musical instrument, and combat shooting. In shooting al actions are trained slowly first, to become smooth and efficient, and then speeded up. I’ve been shooting pistols since I moved to Finland in 2001, and I have never, ever heard an instructor tell a shooting student to hurry up. Not only because mistakes can cost lives (just like in a sword fight) but also because shooting requires fine motor control, which if speeded up too soon becomes inaccurate. In both areas, music and shooting, the goal is to enable the practitioner to execute complex motor skills under high levels of stress.

I can attest to the stress of performance: I played the trumpet at school, and developed an absolute phobia of playing solos, despite being a member of several bands and orchestras. Though I was never under any direct physical threat (there were no beatings for splitting a note, nor would anyone have shot me for fluffing a phrase), I was at times incapacitated by fear when a solo was coming up. I never actually vomited, but it was pretty damn close. Yet, I still did them. And while they were never perfect, and I could always play a lot better in practice than performance, I was able to produce a passable result. The training worked. The level of stress is probably much higher for a professional musician, as not only his ego but also his career rides on the quality of the performance, and much higher still for a soldier or policeman facing an armed assailant, but the process is the same.

In both these areas, you’ll hear the phrase “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. In other words, get the action right slowly, and let it speed up as you practice. Keeping it smooth will allow it to become fast.

We can summarise then by saying that if you think of swordsmanship as a fine-motor-control skill, the musical/shooting model is best. If you think of it as a gross-motor-control skill then the sporting approach will work best. In my experience, students training to win tournaments should emphasise the sporting approach; students training to recreate historical duelling arts should emphasise the musical approach.

It is of course possible, and often desirable, to do both- swordsmanship for sport or murder have some overlap, and for those elements of the sporting game that are improved by fine motor control, use the slow-smooth approach, and for those elements of the martial art that involve improving explosive power, use the sporting model. For example, if a student is having difficulty lunging with sufficient speed to take advantage of tempi that he ought to be able to strike in, the critical skill for the instructor is to diagnose the problem; are the mechanics of the lunge at fault? If so, then slow it down and smooth it out. If the mechanics are ok, then apply drills that develop the raw speed of the lunge. Just don’t try this with a disengage- it’s so much a fine motor skill that trying to speed it up by making the student go faster will just make it clumsier and slower. Get it smoother and smaller to make it faster.

In swordsmanship, speed serves two functions: damage and timing.

Damage first: The speed of the sword determines how hard it hits. E=mv², so the energy available for damaging the target is proportional to the striking mass and to the square of its velocity. Double the mass of the sword and you double the impact; double the speed and you quadruple the impact. This assumes of course that to make the sword go faster you haven’t made the motion less efficient, so energy is wasted on impact. There is a huge difference in practice between the amount of energy technically available, and the amount actually delivered into the target.

I believe that the sword should act as a labour-saving device. Its function is to destroy certain types of target, and it should require less effort to do so with the sword than without. So there is limited virtue in simply making the sword go faster and faster to hit harder and harder; at some point, there is sufficient energy to do the desired damage, so additional speed is wasted effort.

Now Timing: the purpose of speed is to ensure that your strike arrives before your opponent’s parry, and your parry arrives before his strike. It is therefore proportional to the motions of your opponent. The key skill here is to be able to adjust the acceleration of the weapon, rather than attain a specific top speed. There is a lovely section on this in Karl Friday’s excellent book Legacies of the Sword, on pages 74-5. Especially the graphs showing the different rates of power applied to the weapon by beginners versus experts. The graphs look like this:

The key point is that the expert can accelerate the weapon quickly; the total force exerted is actually a lot less. But the weapon is moving fast enough when it needs to be. The key to this kind of skill is to eliminate inefficiencies in the starting position, minimise the tension in the muscles about to act, and develop perfect mechanics for the strike itself. The importance of early rate of acceleration over final speed attained is elegantly demonstrated by this exhibition at the Heureka Science Museum in Vantaa, in which two tennis balls are rolled down two slopes. One slope is straight, the other curved. Though both balls are moving at the same velocity when they get to the end, the ball on the curved slope always arrives first as it has a higher rate of acceleration at the beginning of its movement compared to the other. They would both hit with the same force, but one would arrive long before the other.

The easiest way to reduce the time in which an action is done is to make the action shorter. So, a great deal of speed training, training to do an action in less time, is to eliminate any extraneous motion; to pare the movement down to its absolute minimum. To take a beginner’s marathon and create an expert’s 100m. There are several ways to do this, from the obvious: select a starting point that is closer to the end point; to the more sophisticated: tuning the path taken between those two points. In general, the sword-hand should move in the straight line from A to B. But sometimes it’s the middle of the blade that does that, sometimes other parts of the weapon or wielder.

In practice, it is useful to be able to adjust the path, and the rate of acceleration at various points on the path, for best effect. To simply hit hard, make sure the sword is at maximum velocity at the moment of impact. But to make the hit more likely to land, adjust the acceleration pattern and the path taken to best fit the tactical circumstances. Easier said than done. It is always slower to lift a heavy weight than a light one. So speed training is also about reducing unnecessary tension, making the action as smooth and efficient as possible, expending the least possible force to get the job done.

So, as we would expect with a medieval virtue, cultivating speed for its own sake, simply going as fast as possible, is a route to ruin. It takes an essential quality that should exist in equilibrium with others, and makes a vice out of it. This is a common theme in medieval thought (and should be still today). That which is virtuous when in balance becomes vicious when done to excess. Excessive courage leads to foolhardiness, excessive strength leads to stiffness and slowness, excessive speed leads to weakness and overextension, excessive judgement lead to cowardice.

In the case of speed, emphasising raw speed over speed in proportion to your opponent’s movements, leads to getting hit through being over-committed and over-extended. It is also hell on the body because explosive force applied to the joints is only safe when the motion is being done perfectly.

In every discipline there is usually an optimum balance between youthful vigour and the experience of long practice that can only come with age. A sportsman usually peaks between the ages of 20 and 40; a concert soloist somewhere between 35 and 60. A martial arts instructor normally peaks somewhere between 50 and 70. Fiore says he was about 60 when he wrote his book. So cultivate speed carefully, getting the mechanics absolutely right before you put a lot of energy through them, and make sure you develop the muscular support of your joints to absorb any slight errors. Muscles and bones last forever- the weak spot in any mechanical system is the joints.The syllabus wiki has some of the school’s joint-care curriculum uploaded, including wrist and elbow exercises, knee exercises, and joint massage. I do these a lot, because I intend to hit my peak in about 15 years, and need to make sure my joints can handle all that energy. Which brings me on to strengh, forteza, which I’ll write about next month.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

7 Responses

  1. Aside from Harmenberg’s book, what should one read, and what sort of expert should one ask, to learn about this speed-first approach and why people think it works? The only success I have ever gotten in learning a physical skill has been by building from slow, simple movements to fast, complex ones but I have no background in competitive sports. I’m not sure that I believe that the stress of competition is uniformly worse than that of combat …

    1. Maybe I’ve been meeting the wrong fencing masters, as all that I’ve met demand slow and perfect (skill) before speed. And of course, eventually perfect at high speeds and variable conditions.

      A recommendation for reading:

      “At first, pupils should execute various actions slowly and in very easy conditions, then more quickly and in more difficult conditions.” and “In the first stage, as far as technique is concerned, the main task is very good mastery of basic fencing actions and the gradual introduction of their application”.
      —Zbigniew Czajkowski – Understanding Fencing, the unity of theory and practice

      A very good book. I warmly recommend.

      And when reading Harmenberg, it’s important to note he is mostly talking about the top of a fencers carrieer and advanced tactics, and demands no changes to beginning (5years or so) of a fencers training: “The objective of these first years should be to give the fencer as wide a repertoire of classical movements as possible”, except that for intermediate fencers with only 2 years of experience, footwork could already be done also in bout-like footwork (see chapter 9).

      1. Certainly, I have seen people with a strong sporting background recommend the “slow is smooth, fast is ****ed” principle for all martial arts students today. I am always interested in learning more ways to skin a cat, but I don’t have the skills to research this myself.

  2. Just thinking that donna guard positions do not encourage maximum accelerations in the beginning of the strike because the sword kind of has to go around your head. For this one could draw a conclusion that it is ment for slow initiating actions and strikes. I remember that perhaps a year or so ago on the class it was explained that it is for timing the step assosiated with the strike but is it really? What do you all think?

  3. Pingback: Bunnies, bloopers, and slow work. - Box. Wrestle. Fence.
  4. The first time I came across the ‘Power Law of Learning’ was many years ago in regard to speed of moving the cursor across a computer screen. Basically it states that the speed of the motion depends on the 2.5th root of the number of times it’s been executed. Boils down to: do it 5X and you’re 2X as fast as when you first do it; do it 100K X and you are 100X as fast. (If you have the strength and flexability to do so.) From Tai Chi; 7/10 of your practice should be slow & 3/10 fast; but all movements should mindful and accurate.
    Hope this is of some help to someone. 🙂

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