Category Archives: Theory

Control, Not Aggression

I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone told; “You need to be more aggressive.” The result of this advice is that the fighter starts to close distance with other fighters and swing more.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem too bad; the fighter is getting into range and throwing shots. Those seem like much better options than not being in range and not throwing shots. The problem is that “be more aggressive” does not fully define the problems that need to be addressed, what is causing that problem, nor does it offer the optimal solution to those problems.

There are two specific problems that tend to be defined as “not being aggressive enough.” The first problem is range control. The subject fighter is not controlling range and is ending up at the worst possible range. The second is fight control. The subject fighter is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter and allowing that person to set the timing and pace of the fight.

Range Control

When the subject fighter fails at range control, he or she is getting trapped at a non-optimal range, usually within the reach of the opposing fighter and outside his or her own reach. This can be due either to the superior range control abilities of the opposing fighter, or, more commonly, due to both of them being bad at range control and the subject fighter not making any effort to alter the default range the encounter happens at. In the second case, this can be due to ignorance of the correct range, or a disinclination to get any closer to the person swinging sticks at them.

Telling the subject fighter to be more aggressive results, at best, in him or her charging closer, where “closer” is a nebulous undefined thing that is simply “nearer than he or she was fighting at.” Identifying the actual problem and the cause allows the fighter to be educated and understand what they need to do to improve. Failure to do so results in a fighter who charges recklessly forward to “be more aggressive.”

The correct answer in this case is to discuss ranges and range control. Explain the concepts of “out of range”, “in range of one fighter but not the other”, and “in range.” The second choice is usually the one the subject fighter is making; they need to be taught that this is the range you never want to be hanging around at*. This discussion usually brings to light why the subject fighter is unwilling to close to “in range.” This reason could be fear of getting hit, fear of running into the other person, simple ignorance that they should be closing that far, or some other reason. This reason can then be discussed and resolved.

For example, a fighter I worked with recently was hanging out in my ideal range and allowing me to hit him at will. This happened even when we started out of range and I allowed him to close and set the range. I stopped our sparring, demonstrated that he was unable to hit me even if I stood completely still, and that I could still hit him. I then stepped back to where I could not hit him, and indicated that this was his “out of reach” range. Then I stepped forward until I was just in range of him. Comparing these three ranges allowed him to see where he should and should not be fighting. He had been unwilling to get closer because he was concerned he would get hit. Illustrating that he was already close enough to get hit from where he had been stopping, and that stopping there just meant he couldn’t hit me back, encouraged him to choose his ranges more carefully.

Fight Control

The second problem that gets hidden under the bushel basket of “be more aggressive” is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter. The subject fighter allows the opponent to choose when to attack or throw shots. The subject fighter is then told “be more aggressive”, which is translated as “throw more shots.”

The issue with this solution is that “throw more shots” is not the same thing as “control the fight.” Throwing shots, simply for the sake of being “more aggressive”, does not mean the fighter is taking control of the fight. It means the fighter is acting, but does not specify the reasons for the action, different choices for taking action, or how to choose specific actions. In the very worst case, the now “aggressive” fighter falls for the baits of the opposing fighter and is “aggressively” ceding control of the fight by doing exactly as his or her opponent wishes.

This highlights the difference between “fight control” and “aggression.” Controlling a fight means that the fighter determines not only his or her own action, but also provides the stimulus that the opposing fighter reacts to. Ideally, this gives the subject fighter control not only of how he or she acts, but also how the opposing fighter acts. This control is not as simple as “throw a shot”, nor does it often take the form of throwing a shot; a fighter could bait a shot from the opposing fighter, controlling the fight by controlling the shot the opponent throws. This would then be used as a setup for a block and a specific riposte that the opposing fighter’s attack opened up. Given that it is all too often fighters with less range who are being told to be more aggressive, and that drawing a specific shot is an excellent way to close range safely, telling these fighters to “be aggressive” can actively hurt their success rate.

The correct course of action is to tell the subject fighter to take control of the fight. If the opposing fighter acts in a way he or she is not ready for and has not chosen to invite, the subject fighter should disengage so the fight can proceed on his or her own terms. When the subject fighter is ready to engage, he or she should engage with purpose and with a specific intent. That plan may not work out; no one wins every fight. Taking control of the fight is what is important and what will lead to long-term success.

Failure to differentiate between “be aggressive” and “control the fight” will also often mask the underlying reason that the fighter is not taking control of the fight. Often the reason is either an ignorance of how to proceed, specifically not having any idea of what shot to throw, or an unwillingness to proceed. “Nothing is open” is the most common phrase I hear when discussing why a fighter is not taking control of the fight. This opens the door for teaching the fighter something they can do, which will often begin to resolve the lack of fight control.

An unwillingness to proceed is often accompanied with the explanation, “If I do X, I will get killed by Y” , and expands into an endless loop of option and how that option could fail. This indicates that the fighter has begun to think about fighting in greater depth, but has gotten locked in an endless cycle of move and countermove. This provides an opportunity to teach the fighter more about controlling the fight. “If X will get you Y, then why not fake X to draw Y, block Y, and do Z? Controlling the fight is not about hitting the other fighter first, it is about making the other fighter play along with your plan.” It may also be a chance to remind the fighter that every move has a counter, and that getting stuck in the endless cycle is a good way to do nothing and cede control of the fight. I’ve sometimes had to tell fighters, “If you get locked in the cycle, force yourself to execute your third plan, even if it seems likely to get you killed. Sometimes breaking your mental lock is more important than finding the perfect plan, especially since there is no perfect plan.”

Be in Control

Fighting well does not require aggression. Fighting well requires control. A fighter who charges in instead of controlling range, or who just throws whatever shot looks inviting, will definitely find some success if previously all he or she was doing was just standing at the worst possible range or soaking shots without ever throwing any of his or her own. However, this is a limited success that will ultimately stunt his or her growth as a fighter. Control, choosing to always be at the best range and choosing to control the fight rather than react to it, is the ultimate path to success as a fighter.

*I make the assumption that the person being told to “be more aggressive” in the range-control scenario has less reach than his or her opponent. Since that is what always happens, I find this to be a reasonable assumption. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to deduce how to teach range control to the fighter with greater reach.

The High Cross

High crossing isn’t inherently bad, it is just a terrible opener. The idea that high crossing causes you to leave lanes open is accurate, but it is incomplete. If you open with a high cross, you are definitely leaving a lane open; you’ve done nothing to close that lane and will probably get killed if your opponent is competent. You could double cross and bring your opposite side gear over to block the lanes your first cross left open, but that is usually just ugly. There are certain circumstances where this works, especially if you’re using a punch instead of a strap shield, but as a general concept it is a terrible idea.

However, physically blocking a lane with your equipment is not the only way to protect a lane. You can also protect a lane by causing your opponent to choose not to exploit it. The most common example of this is feinting an attack to cause your opponent to form a block. Since your opponent is blocking, your “open” lane is now as well protected as it would be if you left your sword in position to block.

You can also protect a lane by physically rendering your opponent unable to attack the lane. This typically means that your opponent is off-footed or otherwise unable to physically perform the appropriate strike. One way you can cause this condition to come about is by body fakes, but it also often happens organically as part of the evolution of an engagement. Spotting when your opponent has entered this state gives you the opportunity to throw otherwise risky shots like the high cross safely. Put another way, you can opportunistically throw the high cross when your opponent screws up in a way that makes them unable to retaliate to your open lane.

Alternately, you can block a lane with your opponent’s equipment. The most common form of this is to get them to block their weapon motion by getting them to use their shield to block their sword side by feinting a sword-side attack.

You can defend a lane by physically blocking it with your equipment, causing your opponent to be unwilling to throw into the lane either by feinting or by making them think it is an uninviting bait, causing your opponent to be physically unable to attack the lane, or by clogging the lane with your opponent’s gear. All of these conditions can be achieved during the course of an engagement, but none of them are present at the beginning of an engagement. Thus, the high cross, which inherently leaves a lane open, is not suited for use as an opener at the beginning of combat, but can be used successfully as combat evolves.

The Role of Speed in Combat, Part 1: Perception

“So Fast.”

This is one of the most common compliments I hear about top fighters, but it is also one of the most inaccurate. Most top fighters do not have reaction speed any greater than that of the average player. Some are even slower than average. Yet the perception of “so fast” persists. There are a number of reasons for this. Today we’ll look at the first one.

What may be the largest factor in this perception of speed, ironically, has to do with speed of perception. As a fighter becomes more skilled, they are able to perceive more information about their opponent more quickly. As a fighter grows more practiced, he builds up a “language” of body movements. By “chunking” the individual information components of opponent position, muscle movement, and balance into the “words” of this language, the fighter is able to rapidly process and understand a large body of information. Whereas a novice unschooled in this language might have to read the individual letters of “elbow lift”, “slight torso rotation”, “sword shoulder pulled to the inside”, “hand back”, “weight shift”, and a host of other letters, the experience fighter reads “beginning to high cross.”

This is something well documented in all areas of expertise. Chess players learn to read boards so that they can instantly recognize a pattern of play. (1) Tennis players learn to read opponent position to predict where a return will land. (2) Mostly, this is a subconscious learning process that the expert cannot easy verbally express to those who do not have the language. To demonstrate the utility of this type of language building, there is a classic example from natural language. Consider the letters “oeos ni mts tmhh eaglndse“. Without looking back, how many do you remember, in order? You don’t have a “language” for that. Now consider the letters “glen is the most handsome“. Now how many letters can you list off, in order? All of them. Because you have a “language” for that that let you chunk the data into manageable chunks. Same letters. Fighters have, over much time, built up a language of movement that they’re reading when they face an opponent.

There are a number of important implications of this language. The first one is that, the better someone knows the language, the less information to have to provide to convey a message. This is due to the anticipatory nature of expert perception. (3) Because the expert has tools for chunking their perceptions into manageable numbers of data elements and they have an ability to predict what the message will be. As a side effect of this, they will focus on the area where they expect new activity or information to occur. In fighting, better fighters understand the language of fighting better, so they can predict what the message will be with less information. Which letters are missing from this: “sf_e l_ _j as_i” How about now: “jle_ i_ s_ fas_“? Having the language makes it easier to get meaning before all the information is in.

A second implication is that the anticipatory nature of expert perception makes is susceptible to being misled. When you are trying to sell a feint to another fighter, the better the fighter the more minimal the feint has to be. It also can make it easier to sell fakes in some cases. If you’ve heard “jlee is so fast!” enough times, you’re going to jump to that conclusion when you see “____ i_ so ____!“, when this time I was tricking you and the message is “tato is so huge!“.

The logical question from those seeking to join the ranks of top fighters is, “how do I learn this language?” The answer is simple: effort and immersion. First, the student of this language must make an active effort to learn it if they want to accelerate their learning. Focus on why your opponent is doing as well as what they are doing. Make an effort to predict your opponent. Fight in a manner that requires you to predict your opponent’s actions, as opposed to the manner that just lets you “win.” Talk to your opponent about what happened and what they did and what you noticed them doing. Expert instruction that highlights key aspects of reading an action can also be extremely beneficial.

Second, do a great deal of fighting. Developing proficiency in reading this language will take thousands of hours of practice. Just being told about it is not sufficient (4), and too much explicit instruction can impose a cognitive load that can actually decrease performance. (5) In simpler terms, if you give people too much to think about they’ll botch it because they spent too much time thinking instead of doing. Guided practice is the best approach. Lots and lots of guided practice. However, it is still important to ensure that you have the fundamentals of fighting down before you start trying to work on your perceptual skills. (6)

Top fighters are not particularly faster in reaction time or movement speed than other players. They are benefitting from superior skill. Foremost among those skills is an ability to rapidly perceive and anticipate what their opponent is doing. This is due to the expert having built up a “language” that allows them to process information about the opponent’s movements in a smaller number of easy-to-process “chunks” of information, rather than having to process every element of the opponent’s action separately, which would impose an impossible cognitive load. Developing this language is the result of long hours of exposure and effort at reading an opponent. This development can be accelerated through the use of guided learning with an expert who can highlight key cues as the student practices perception and action.

(1) Chase, William G., and Herbert A. Simon. “Perception in chess.” Cognitive psychology 4.1 (1973): 55-81.

(2) Shim, Jaeho, et al. “The use of anticipatory visual cues by highly skilled tennis players.” Journal of motor behavior 37.2 (2005): 164-175.

(3) Ferrari, Vincent, André Didierjean, and Evelyne Marmeche. “Dynamic perception in chess.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 59.2 (2006): 397-410.

(4) Williams, A. Mark, et al. “Developing anticipation skills in tennis using on-court instruction: Perception versus perception and action.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16.4 (2004): 350-360.

(5) Smeeton, Nicholas J., et al. “The relative effectiveness of various instructional approaches in developing anticipation skill.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 11.2 (2005): 98.

(6) Ward, Paul, and A. Mark Williams. “Perceptual and cognitive skill development in soccer: The multidimensional nature of expert performance.” Journal of sport and exercise psychology 25.1 (2003): 93-111.

Ask the Champion: Dealing with Tracers

Dear Champion:

How do I deal with tracers? With some fighters, as soon as I throw a shot, they throw a shot. So I end up with a lot of simos. Sometimes I kill them and just lose an arm, sometimes they kill me and I just wound them. If I don’t throw a shot, they just wait for me to throw.

Tired and Traced

Dear Tired:

Excellent question. Tracing is a common problem that fighters have to deal with. People who trace can end up being difficult opponents to deal with for mid-level fighters, despite the tactic being a dead-end for fighting development. There are several approaches you can take to dealing with opponents who trace.

Initial Assessment

Before you can develop a tactic to deal with someone who traces, you need to know they’re a tracer. If you’ve fought them before and already know they trace, then you can skip this part entirely. However, you’re eventually going to be in a situation where you’re fighting someone new and you don’t know if they trace or not. There are three methods for detecting tracers.

Die. You can just hope they’re not a tracer, throw some random shot, and get killed if they trace. Most people who are tracers do it incessantly, so now you know that they’re a tracer. Also, you’re dead. Sadly, this is known as “losing” in Amtgard, so I can not recommend this method.

Feint. If you throw the beginning of any traceable shot, which is to say a shot that a tracer has an opportunity and opening to counter-attack into as soon as they see you start to move, a tracer will immediately twitch and start their counter-attack. They usually won’t finish it, but that twitch reveals their nature.

Play Safe. Throwing a safe shot, where you can cover yourself against the primary counter-attack, allows you to expose a tracer without getting killed by their counter-attack. This usually means throwing a low probability shot that you don’t expect to land, but your goal was to determine the nature of your opponent, not to win.


Once you know you’re facing a tracer, there are many strategies for killing them safely. The biggest weaknesses of a tracer are that they are both predictable and controllable. It is typically apparent what the tracer will throw when you make your attack. Additionally, you have complete control over when the tracer will attack; they will throw their shot the moment you swing, and not a moment before. With these two factors, you can select from a variety of strategies to defeat the tracer.


Block with your secondary equipment. In situations where you have a second piece of equipment, you can block the primary return with that equipment as you throw your shot. Not all shots are safe to accomplish this with, nor are all primary returns blockable this way.  If a sword-side hip-wrap is going to be the primary return, you can’t effectively block that with a shield. Conversely, while lunging florentine, it is fairly safe to guard your sword arm with your non-attacking hand.

As an extension of this idea, a single sword user can block the primary return with their off-hand instead of using their hand to guard the secondary return. However, this is a poor choice for facing a tracer, as this will result in the loss of a limb, leaving you an arm down against the next opponent.

Defensive Transitions. An alternate method to block a tracer is to throw a shot that has a quick transition into a block of the primary return as part of the return to guard. (Remember that in general, when you throw a shot, you should almost never be recoiling through your outgoing weapon path to return to guard. Returning to guard along a path that leads through or begins a block against the primary return is usually the best practice and allows you to quickly block ripostes. If the opponent doesn’t throw the primary return, you do not need to complete the block and can continue back to a guard position or transition to block the slower secondary or tertiary return as needed.)

If you choose a shot that has a very short motion between the completion of the shot and the beginning of the block of the primary return, it is possible to both land a shot and block the tracer’s counter-attack. This is a high-risk option, however, as most tracers throw a shot that lands almost instantly in time with yours. An example would be throwing a back-handed chop to the top of an opponent’s arm through the outside lane, ending with the palm rotated upwards and the blade parallel to the ground. This leaves you under the opponent’s weapon, inviting the tracer to throw a quick downward chop as the primary return. The return to guard begins with collapsing the elbow with the elbow pointed down, which immediately puts your weapon in place to block the primary return as soon as the elbow begins to bend.

Weapon Manipulation

Weapon Jamming: Instead of blocking the attack of a tracer, it is possible to preemptively interfere with their weapon before they begin their attack. One option is to jam their weapon as part of your attack. This allows you to control the opponent’s weapon and prevent them from launching their tracing counter-attack. An example of this can be seen in hand-matched single sword, by throwing a flat horizontal chop to the opponent’s torso through the inside lane. As part of the chop, the aggressor closes range and strikes the blade of their weapon just above the handle against the middle of the opponent’s weapon, with the blade parallel to the opponent’s chest. The aggressor then uses this weapon as a fulcrum, continuing the motion to strike the opponent in the chest while pushing their weapon towards them and slightly to the side. Obviously, this will only work against opponents whose guard leaves their sword somewhere close to vertical.

Weapon Beats: A less aggressive form of weapon manipulation is to make a beat at the opponent’s weapon. The intent is to disrupt their reflexive motion, forcing them to spend a portion of a second regaining control of their weapon before they can counter-attack. The aggressor then uses this time window to land a strike without being hit. With a beat, the attacker’s blade should stop as soon as the defender’s blade is struck. You are knocking the blade aside, not pushing it aside. It should be noted that the tracer will often still attempt to counter-attack, even though the resulting shot will be late. An example of this is a standard lefty attack against a sword and board righty. The attacker beats the opponent’s blade two-thirds of the way up with a backhand beat (palm facing to the attacker’s shield side) to the inside (shield side) of the blade. As the defenders sword is knocked to the outside, the attacker changes the strike to a vertical chop to the defender’s sword shoulder or upper sword arm.


Partial Shots: The fact that a tracer is going to start their counter-attack as soon as they detect that you have begun your shot gives you a great deal of control over the fight. By beginning but not completing a shot, you can force the tracer into action. The degree to which you complete the partial shot will also give you additional control over whether the tracer completes his counter-attack or attempts to abort it partway through. Often a simple but pronounced twitch will cause the tracer to start his counter-attack, abort it, and then reset. By preceding your actual shot with this sort of feint, you can often land your shot while the tracer is still resetting from his aborted counter-attack. A more pronounced feint, where you complete more of the shot, will often draw the tracer into completing his counter-attack. In this scenario, since you did not commit to the shot, you are in position to either open range to avoid the shot, or, preferably, block and riposte.

Off-Target Shots: Another method of drawing the tracer into premature or inopportune action is to throw an off-target shot. In this scenario, instead of striking the opponent, you will deliberately miss. This allows you to keep the motion of your strike and use it to either continue moving out of the way or to flow through the attack into a block. An example of this can be seen in hand-matched single sword. In a scenario where the tracer is going to counter-attack with a vertical chop at your arm when you attack their sword arm (a common tracing tactic), you can swing just past their arm on the outside lane and continue moving your arm down. In this case, you will be dropping your arm at the same time the tracer is swinging at it, allowing you to keep moving your arm out of the way of their sword. You would then roll your wrist in a loop, transitioning from palm to the inside to palm up as you bring your hand back up after evading their strike, landing a back-handed strike to the tracer’s sword arm or sword-side body.

Noncommittal Shots: Another way to draw a tracer into action is to throw shots without committing to them. Such a shot has little chance of landing effectually, but it looks a great deal like a real shot while providing the advantage that the attacker has not committed themselves to the shot and is therefore less exposed. A classic example of this is a strike to the back of the hand. In the scenario where an attacker is facing a florentine fighter, it is a given that crossing the body to strike the unmatched arm will draw a strike from the florentine fighter’s hand-matched hand to the attacker’s sword arm. If the attacker instead strike at the back of the florentiner’s unmatched hand, the attacker does not expose as much of their arm by reaching for the arm, nor do they get as close to the opponent. The attacker can instead bounce his strike off the opponent’s unmatched hand and immediately transition the motion into an aggressive block against the matched hand’s expected vertical chop counter-attack. Blocking this vertical chop aggressively will open the florentiner’s hand-matched shoulder for a riposte by the attacker.

Overfeint: Feinting can also be taken to an extreme. Instead of making one or two feints and then throwing a shot, continue feinting different shots until the tracer’s brain short circuits. This does run the risk that the opponent will elect to stop tracing and just hit you while you’re throwing your eighth feint. This sometimes has the benefit of breaking the tracer out of “trace mode” so they stop tracing and become a more interesting opponent, but most tracers are monomaniacally dedicated to tracing as a fighting style and have no other modes.


Open Range: While any fool who says “the best block is to not be there” should be ignored until they stop getting their fighting advice from Karate Kid (part 2, at that), evasion is still a valuable tool in any fighter’s toolbox. Opening the range as part of your shot allows you to complete a shot out of range, which makes it harder for a tracer to strike you. The classic example of this is the retreating chop. The attacker begins with a simple chop from within range, and as part of his strike retreats. The weapon should make contact with the opponent while the attacker is in retrograde motion and is at the very limit of effective range. This means that, the moment after the strike lands, the attacker has left effective range. The tracer is left to strike empty air as the attacker opens the range and returns to guard. This type of action can be difficult to pull off and requires good footwork and range control, but opens up a variety of new attack options.

As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to and I will answer them in my column.

Ask the Champion: Overcoming Overthinking and Uncertainty

Dear Champion:

I often find myself not doing anything because everything I can think of will get me killed. I have been taught a number of different shots, but I avoid throwing them because I’m terrible at them. What should I do?

Overthought and Outfought

Dear Overthought:

The answer is really simple: throw a shot. Like most simple answers, though, this one isn’t very useful without some context. So let’s look at the different scenarios when either overthinking or a lack of confidence is causing you problems; being unable to choose a shot, lack of confidence in a shot, and a lack of confidence in your strengths.

Being Unable To Choose a Shot

The most common form of over thinking leads to freezing up in combat. Ironically, it often starts to afflict fighters as they become more knowledgeable and skilled. The fighter begins to think through their attack plans and anticipate the responses of his or her opponent in place of raw newbie aggression. However, it turns out that there is a counter to every move. There is no such thing as a guaranteed shot. So the fighter gets locked into a loop of, “If I do X, he will counter with Y and then hit me with Z. So I better not do that. But if I do A, he will counter with B and hit me with C. So I better not do that.” The fighter will enter an endless cycle of this, since every move has a counter, and end up doing nothing.

The short term solution to this is to give yourself a count; after your third discarded plan, you have to do the third one. You don’t get to try to figure out a fourth plan that will ensure your victory. You don’t get to pick one of your earlier plans (and then procrastinate longer while you try to pick one of those three.) You just execute Plan Three, even if it seems doomed to failure. This will accomplish two things; first, it keeps you from standing there until the other guy decides on his plan, and kills you. Second, it teaches you the important lesson that just because a shot has a counter, doesn’t mean the other guy is going to do it, or do it correctly. You will find that your “discarded as a doomed failure” plan sometimes leads to victory.

That second lesson is the long-term solution: learning that you are not seeking the guaranteed win (because there isn’t one), just the plan with a good chance of leading to victory or survival. This lesson is something that is easy to understand intellectually but hard to internalize so that you can act on it. Doing something, anything, is usually better than doing nothing.

Another tool you can use is to talk things out with the other fighter. Go ahead with your plan, even if it seems horrible. If it works as planned, hooray! If it does not, ask the other fighter about his thought process. What was he expecting, what was his reaction, why was that his reaction, whether he has any alternate suggestions, and what would he have done in your place. This discussion can help you reach the long-term goal of understanding that there is no perfect plan, give you confidence in your planning, and help you devise better attack plans. Good fighters love these sorts of theoretical discussions.

Lack of Confidence in a Shot

Fighters often artificially limit their shot selection to shots they are good at or that they know will work. This is a fine thing to do in a tournament and a terrible thing to do anywhere else. The fighter believes that he or she is unable to throw the shot correctly, and, rather than throw it incorrectly, the fighter chooses not to throw it at all. Often this is done under the reasoning of “not wanting to practice it wrong.”

There is no way to learn to throw a shot correctly without first throwing it wrong. Many, many times. There is no shame in screwing up a shot; every single good fighter has completely botched every shot they can throw. It is how they learned in the first place. A fighter needs to practice throwing a shot, failing, and trying to figure out what went wrong, over and over and over and over and over. That is how you get good at something.

When you are sparring or ditching, that is precisely when you should be throwing the shots you are bad at. Do not hold off on throwing a shot until you feel you’ve perfected in on a pell. Do not avoid throwing a shot because you know it won’t land simply because you’re bad at that shot. Throw it and get some practice in! If you are doing it wrong, or think you are doing it wrong, ask someone to give you critique on your shot. The more you have practiced it, even “wrong”, the easier it will be for you to understand and incorporate their feedback.

People also sometimes avoid throwing shots they think they are bad at in order to avoid being embarrassed, especially in front of their instructor. If someone has taught you a new shot, throw it on them the next time you fight them, even if you’re still awful at it or haven’t had a chance to practice it much yet. That’s the best way to show them that you valued their instruction and advice. If you get it wrong, this also gives you grounds for asking for help refining it. No one expects you to master a shot the first time, but they do expect you to keep trying it out.

Lack of Confidence in Your Strengths

Fighters often talk themselves out of victory by convincing themselves that the other person is better (which may be true) and then failing to play to their own strengths. Often a fighter will change their fighting style.

The most common way this manifests is in switching to a passive, rapid-retreat and arm-snipe fighting style. I recently saw an up-and-coming fighter, who had just fairly conclusively demonstrated that I could no longer get one-shot kills on them, at all, due to rock-solid primary blocks and counters, completely abandon this hard-earned skill-set in favor of trying to keep the range open, evade shots rather than block, and then trace arm snipes at the opponent. I wanted to jump up and down and scream.

There is no easy solution to this, except to remember to always fight like you and not suddenly change your style just because you’re facing someone who you think is better than you. It is perfectly acceptable to adapt your style because you have an alternate skill-set that will better defeat theirs, or because you are testing out something new or learning new stuff. It is not okay to change your fighting style out of fear of defeat.

The best way to do a self-evaluation and check if you are doing this is to decide if you have ceded control of the fight. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to this, but there are several scenarios where the answer is “you are probably letting uncertainty rule you.”

If you’re being passive instead of using a specific concrete plan (not get hit and snipe arms is not a specific or concrete plan) to control the fight, you’re letting uncertainty rule you. Figure out a plan and put it into action. Even if you want to snipe an arm, you should have a plan to control when they throw a shot, what shot they will throw, how you will avoid getting hit, what shot you will use to hit the arm, and so forth.

If you are spending all your time retreating and evading instead of engaging and blocking, you’re letting uncertainty rule you. There are definitely times to open range, and there are times when evading is better than blocking, but if that is all you’re doing then you are probably avoiding the fight instead of participating in it. Sometimes a fighter will be doing this in order to maneuver into more favorable positioning, but often the fighter is telling themselves they’re “maneuvering” but they don’t have any plan behind their maneuvers except “don’t get hit”.

If you normally fight a certain way, but not you aren’t doing any of the things you normally do, you’ve probably let uncertainty change your fighting style. If the person you were fighting was a low-skill fighter, would your overall style be different? If so, you’re letting uncertainty control the fight instead of yourself. Pretend the person you’re fighting is a fighter who is just a little bit less-skilled than you. Now do what you would do in that situation. You will probably find more success than you were having.


Overall, the answer to all of this is “be yourself” and “just do something.” You do this by accepting that you can not win them all and that there is no shame in failure. You ultimately need to learn to embrace failure (which sounds easy but is ultimately very difficult) because failure is an inevitable side-effect of learning.  So go out and try those new shots. Mess them up. Bop people in the head. (But not me!) Accidentally fling your sword across the field. Lose ingloriously because your plan failed. These failures are the hidden fees and surcharges that you have to pay in order to become truly good. It will all pay off eventually.

As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to and I will answer them in my column.

Ask the Champion: Choosing Something to Work On

Dear Champion:

I have a laundry list of things I need to improve; footwork, stance, guard, shot accuracy, shot selection, feints, baits, combos…. I’m overwhelmed. Where do I begin and how do I go about improving in a smart and logical fashion.

Overwhelmed in the Wetlands

Dear Overwhelmed:

That is an excellent question. The answer is not going to be the same for everyone, but hopefully I can give you some guidance that will help you find the best answer for you. There is a general hierarchy that will serve as your framework for deciding what to work on next; guard, stance, footwork, shot accuracy, shot selection, feints and baits. However, you can’t simply work through this linearly, developing the perfect guard before learning anything about your stance, then perfecting your stance before you learn anything about footwork. That just doesn’t work. It would also be intensely boring to spend months practicing your guard instead of fighting. Instead, there are a couple ways to decide what to work on next; the “what am I doing wrong?” approach, the “what am I not doing?” approach, and the “what should I be doing?” approach. We’ll look at all three.

When a newbie first shows up, you show him how to hold his sword, how to stand, and show him a couple basic shots. Then you turn him loose. When he comes to you for help later, you are generally going to have one “biggest mistake” he is making, and fixing that will give him the best improvement for his efforts. He may be only throwing one shot, he may be throwing his one shot incorrectly. He may be holding his shield far too low. After he fixes that, you find the next big problem, and so on.

This is one method for finding where you need to improve; find a flaw and fix it. What is the one thing that gets you killed most often, or what is the most common way you get killed. Isolate that and you’ve found the next thing you need to work on.

As you become more skilled, you need to start finding gaps in your fighting instead of flaws, i.e. figuring out what you’re not doing at all. Do you only throw shots to certain quadrants of the opponent? Then you need to develop some shots that attack the quadrants you are neglecting. Do you always move around to the shield side of your opponent? You need to develop some moves that require moving around to the sword side. Analyzing what you do, then comparing it to the set of “everything it is humanly possible to do” can help you find gaps in your skills.

A third method in deciding what to work on is to take a holistic approach and figure out what your fighting development path should be. That is no one true path, and I’ve never actually sat down before and charted out a full fighting development path (and I’m very glad your question got me thinking about this!), but here is a rough estimate of what your progress path should look like. If you’re behind in something, that is probably the area you should work on next. This isn’t a hard and fast ordering; if you start doing great stabs as a newbie, awesome. That just means you don’t have “shots” as an area that needs tons of work until you get your other areas up to speed.

  1. Level 1 Fighting
    1. Basic Stance/Guard: When you are standing still, how you hold your gear, where your feet go, and how you hold your body.
    2. Basic Shots: The three basics of chop, high cross, and wrap, plus the straight stab. Throw and return to guard. Nothing fancy.
    3. Basic Blocks: Sword blocks sword side, shield blocks shield side. Nothing fancy.
    4. Basic Movement: Moving forward and backwards without dropping out of guard.
  2. Level 2 Fighting
    1. Basic Ripostes: Learning to throw a good basic shot as an immediate riposte after blocking a shot. The goal is to exploit people’s failure to return to guard.
    2. Basic Range Control: Keeping out of the Danger Zone and controlling when the opponent is in yours against static and near static opponents. Basic footwork drills like two-step are useful.
    3. Intermediate Stance/Guard: There is more than one guard and stance. You should be trying others, and returning to your guard through the highest probability return after throwing a shot. (Hello, Block-Strike)
    4. Intermediate Shots: Stabs and other more complex shots, such as the darkside. These shots require more precise weapon control (pocket stab) or have multiple motions that need to be done in order to complete the shot (darkside).
    5. Intermediate Blocks: Blocks that violate the sword-side/sword-block rule. Aggressive or weapon controlling blocks, blocking in the opponent’s space or other opportunity-specific blocks.
    6. Intermediate Movement: Moving laterally while maintaining stance and moving at angles. Transitioning from one stance to another while moving without exposing yourself. Footwork drills composed of multiple movement types are really your friend. You should begin experimenting with cross-steps and lateral movement.
  3. Level 3 Fighting
    1. Basic Feints and Baits: Start with the more obvious baits: exposed shield shoulder, cross both feint, et cetera. These should be fairly safe moves and only require a few basic movements.
    2. Intermediate Counterattacks and Ripostes: Counterattacks that jam the opponent, Throwing more complex shots as ripostes, how to draw attacks you can riposte from. (Overlaps with feints and baits)
    3. Intermediate Range Control: closing on fast retreaters, keeping range open on fast closers. “Follow the Leader” and “Close on the Wall” are good drills.
    4. Advanced Shots: You start building new shots that fill in holes in your attack space repertoire. You may start wasting time with spin shots. “Shots”, “movement” and “feints and baits” start to blend together.
    5. Advanced Range Control: You should be able to move rapidly in any direction and be able to control range control to within an inch or so. Partner stop and go drills, “Follow the Leader” with multiple movement types, laterals, angles and cross-steps.
  4. Level 4 Fighting
    1. Elite Fighting: You don’t need a roadmap at this point. You should also start teaching at this point, since teaching will force you to develop a better and more cerebral understanding of your own fighting, which will in turn make you a better fighter.

As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to and I will answer them in my column.

Ask the Champion – Footwork

Dear Champion:

I often hear people say that footwork is important to being a good fighter, and several times I have been told I need to work on my footwork, but no one has ever explained to me exactly what I should be doing or how I can get better at it. Can you help me out?

Feet of Clay

Dear Feet of Clay:

The term “footwork” often is used to mean several different but related things. These things can be broken down into three categories; where your feet are, when you move them, and how you move them. Let’s take a look at each of these categories, what you should be doing and why, and address how you can improve them. I’m going to focus on things that improve these aspects of footwork specifically, not general ability exercises like ladder drills. Sit back and pop open a Coke, this is going to be a long one.

1) Where Your Feet Are

Where They Start

Where your feet are breaks down into two subcategories; where your feet start and where your feet stop. Where your feet start is usually referred to as your “stance.” A correct stance has your feet slightly more than a shoulder length apart, with your knees slightly bent, your weight centered between your feet, your knees above your toes, and your lead foot pointed toe-first in the direction you plan to move and your back foot 45 or 90 degrees off from the direction of your front foot. You want your feet slightly further apart than your shoulders so you have a leg far enough outside your center of mass so you can push of with it easily and effectively to initiate movement; feet too far apart and you don’t have enough “spring” in your initial movement, too close and you don’t have enough leverage to rapidly initiate movement. The knee bend prevents you from having to waste a lot of time bending your knee to launch into a step and keeps you loose; a straight leg really increases the time it takes to initiate movement and a too bent leg will just make you tired. Centered weight makes it easy to shift in any direction and will also, combined with keeping your feet from getting too far apart, increase your traction on inferior surfaces; if your pushing foot gets too far from your center of mass it is much more likely to slip. Having your knees above your toes shifts your weight more towards the balls of your foot and gives you an excellent skeletal position to gain maximum leverage with your thigh muscles when you straighten your leg. Unlike standing on the balls of your feet, which will only serve to rapidly tire out your overworked calf muscles, this is a position you can hold for a long time. Don’t let your knees come out past your toes; that much bend will slow the process of straightening your leg, costing you reaction time when you want to start moving. The lead toe pointing in the direction of movement takes advantage of the whole point of knees: bending in one direction. When you step forward and then need to stop, your knee bends and your mighty thigh muscles absorb all your kinetic energy. If your toe is not pointed in the direction of movement and you do that, your collateral ligament absorbs some of the energy, and it is a lot less durable than your thigh muscles as well as a lot worse at helping you slow down, so you are going to halt your movement slower than you want and increase your chance of injury. Your back foot is at an angle in part because your knees only bend backwards and this gives you a better launch platform for forward movement. You will be pushing off on the side of your foot and your big toe is going to get a workout. The other reason is that having your foot at an angle increases your lateral stability and makes it easier to initiate lateral movement. As a final note, your feet should not be in a straight line, one behind the other in your direction of movement, but rather offset somewhat, because in Amtgard you are going to have to move more than just backwards and forwards.

The best way to correct your stance is with a lot of time in front of a mirror, dropping into stance, fixing it, then trying again. Likewise, if you attend a regular fighter practice, it is worthwhile to encourage other fighters to mention to you when your stance is wonky. You can also do random spot checks on yourself throughout the course of your normal day of fighting.

Where They End

After you have initiated movement and completed the movement, your feet should end up in the same arrangement they started in. It doesn’t matter if you backed up out of range of a charging fighter or advanced to kill someone retreating from you. Too often, I see fighters who end up leaning back with most of their weight on one foot, leaning way the heck forward (your mom was right: keep your back straight) and balanced on one foot, with their feet crossed up and close together, or some other arrangement that is wrong and robs them of the ability to initiate or change their movement. Almost always, this problem is caused by not doing enough movement; instead of taking another half step forward, they lean far forward over their front foot and then end up having to lift their back foot for balance, or they back up almost far enough, then end up having to lean out of the way.

Resolving this issue is nothing more than a matter of observation. When you fight, stop and check where your feet are; if you’re out of stance, try taking another step or half step in the direction you were going to reset your feet. In fighter practice, having a third party who calls “freeze” whenever someone ends their motion with bad foot positioning can highlight situations where your footwork is bad. Practice completing your footwork motions before you start swinging or doing anything else. (This isn’t something you’ll want to make a fighting style, but it can help you overcome bad ending foot positioning. Once it becomes second nature, you can resume multitasking.)

2) When You Move Your Feet

When you move your feet is usually referred to as “range control.” In this case, it is the “how” of range control. The “why” of where you should be standing and the “when” of when you should adjust your range is a whole different topic. For now, let’s just talk about keeping control range. The simplest answer is that when your opponent advances, you retreat, and when your opponent retreats you advance. It turns out, though, that learning to do this is hard. It is not sufficient to be able to judge your distance to within a foot or so; fighting often comes down to critical range differences of a fraction of an inch. (When you “just barely miss” that warlord, it’s usually not because you almost got him; it’s because he moved just far enough to get out of range and then stopped because he was totally safe.) Why range control matters is pretty obvious; you need to be able to know when your opponent can’t hit you and when he can, and when you can’t hit him and when you can, and you need to be able to maintain those types of ranges (there is often more than one “can/can’t hit range) and switch between them.

There are several good drills for practicing range control. One requires a partner, one can be done with a partner or with a group, and one you can practice alone. The first drill is done with full equipment. Two players partner up, starting just far enough apart that they can stand in guard, extend their swords, and cross the blades. One person leads and the other person follows. The leader initiates movement, moving forward or backward by small or large steps, with single or multiple steps. The follower attempts to maintain the same distance and keep the weapons crossed at the same point. The leader should adjust the tempo to challenge the follower, but not to lose them; the goal is training, not some sort of competition. The two players then switch roles and repeat the drill. Starting slow with a single step, then letting the follower catch up before initiating the next movement is recommended for beginners.

The second drills keeps the leader/follower mechanic, but works on more general range control. The follower (or multiple followers) start on a line, while the leader starts fifteen feet in front of them, facing them. The leader initiates movement, forward or backward, and the followers attempt to match it. After a long string of movements, the leader should end his round back where he started. The followers should, but rarely do, end their movement back where they started. If they end too far forward, they are probably failing to keep range open enough when pressed. If they end too far backward, they are likely retreating too far when pressed, though they may also fail to be pressing enough when the opponent retreats. As always, remember that drills are training tools, not competitions; don’t try to game the system to win. As a more advanced version of this drill, the leader can also include lateral movement.

The third drill addresses controlling range on the attack, and can be done solo. Start out of range, facing a wall. Your job is to close the range quickly, stab the wall, and retreat back to your starting point. You should be attacking from just inside range, so your stab at final extension just barely hits the wall. Repeat. This drill addresses controling range when you close, so you do not over or under close, as well as rapidly reversing direction. You should end up in a proper stance both when you make the stab and when you finish retreating out of range. Vary the distance from the wall from which you start, so that you must practice closing and retreating different ranges. Using tape lines can help you check and see if you are retreating farther than you intended or not far enough. Remember to check your stabbing tip for legality after you finish this drill.

3) How You Move Your Feet

This is a topic that people often overlook. Everyone has been walking just fine for years, so how hard can proper foot movement be? The answer is “pretty hard.” You don’t walk when you fight and your feet are not arranged in a normal “walking” stance. The goal of moving your feet correctly is to be able to make quick movements and to end movement quickly, as well as to be able to rapidly change direction. This often requires moving in a very specific way, as opposed to just walking.

The most basic form of “moving your feet” is the shuffle step. The front foot is lifted just enough to clear the ground and extended as the back leg is straightened, pushing off on the side of the foot (specifically the semasoids and first metatarsal head and the hallux, or the “big toe and the big toe mound” to normal people). The forward leg lands after near but not complete extension, toe facing in the direction of movement, and the forward knee bends to absorb the force of forward motion. The rear foot slides over the ground after the forward foot lands, coming forward to return to stance. Notice that both feet never leave the ground. Hopping is wrong. The process is reversed for backwards motion. The distance of the initial step is varied to close shorter distances. Multiple shuffle steps are used to close longer distances. Don’t just start taking long leaps forward; take multiple steps. This gives you more control and more ability to quickly terminate your forward motion in response to changes by the opponent.

The second form of movement is the cross step. In a cross step, you take a semi-step forward. Movement is initiated with the back foot, which is brought forward and crosses past the front foot by a short distance. It is critical not to take an actual step, as this will disrupt your foot placement. The rear foot should be kept at a 45 or 90 degree angle (45 is sufficient in most cases) and the step past the front foot should not be a full normal stride. The foot is then planted and the former forward foot is brought forward as in a shuffle step, with the fighter again finishing the movement in stance. The movement can be done in reverse to move backwards. The purpose of the cross step is to rapidly cover distance. It is much faster than the shuffle step for covering ground, but suffers from the drawback of not being as easy to stop or reverse direction. The purpose of keeping the rear foot at an angle as you step is that it prevents your hips from rotating (and then causing your shoulders to rotate in turn) which would open up your stance as your feet crossed and make you vulnerable to a well-timed attack.

The drill to practice this movement is boring, but important. I’ve fenced at two different universities, and practices always contained a fairly large amount of footwork drills. Movement is life. Find a long length of ground you can move over. Start at one end, with your full gear. Pick a pattern, such as shuffle, shuffle, cross step. Advance across the length using that pattern; shuffle, shuffle, cross step. Stop. Shuffle, shuffle, cross step. Stop. Et cetera. When you get to the end, do the pattern backwards to return to your start point; backwards shuffle, backwards shuffle, backwards cross step. Stop. Repeat. Do it a couple of times. Pick more complex patterns as you become more practiced; shuffle, backwards shuffle, cross-step, shuffle. Eventually you should be mixing forward and backward motions in your pattern. This drill gets you used to the general mechanics of movement, gets you used to controlling your own movement instead of being reactionary (like the other drills), and, when you mix forward and backwards movements in your pattern, gets you used to changing direction. The “stop” part of the pattern is also very important; it teaches you to control the end of your movement and not just rush off in one direction. Never skip or skimp on the “stop” move.

4. Conclusion

Plan to do these drills a lot. At one practice, we did movement drills for an hour straight. Start slow and stop if your knees or joints start complaining. Movement is one of the most important and under-practiced parts of fighting in Amtgard.

As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to and I will answer them in my weekly column.