Monthly Archives: June 2014

Ask the Champion – Minimized Movement

Dear Champion:

I am a large fighter and I’m taller than average. Typically when fighting smaller fighters, I see them leaping and darting around. Even at my thinnest, I am just not build for such maneuvers.  Do you have any suggestions on resources, specific fighting styles, or advice for someone who doesn’t fit the average mold?

Girthy Giant


Dear Giant:

Your question boils down to two related areas: how can you maximize your economy of motion so you don’t do as much extraneous dancing around as some players do, and how you can still be effective with minimal or inferior footwork.

The answer to both these questions depends on your fighting goals. If you want to reach the warlord level, not all of these solutions are going to work for you. While not all warlords are going to be as physically mobile and kinetic as someone like Diego, even a warlord with extremely conservative body motion, like Brennon, still does a certain amount of movement to gain and retain tactical advantages. If you don’t aspire to warlord (not everyone who wants to become a better fighter has to aspire to being the best fighter; Amtgard has room for all skill levels) or you want to advance to the top reaches of fighting, but still have some “down time” options for when you’re tired and feeling less energetic, all of these options become feasible.

There are two reasons for movement; controlling range and creating openings. If you’re fighting multiple opponents, movement is also used to convert the fight from a single many-on-one fight to a series of one-on-one fights, but there’s no good way to do that without a lot of movement, so we’re going to ignore many-on-one scenarios for this discussion.

Range is controlled to get into range for your own attacks and to get out of range of your opponent’s. As a taller person, getting into range is not as big of a problem as it would be for a shorter person; in order to get into their range, your opponents will probably have to get into yours. You can increase your benefits here with equipment changes. While long swords are never going to become dominant in fighting as long as people can close, you can probably go a bit beyond the standard 36″ sword without too much trouble. Wyldecatt, a warlord up in Tal Dagore, once explained to me his theory on sword length, and how the ideal sword should be the length from your spine to your out-stretched fingers, which in his case was 39″. He backed it up with a bunch of martial arts experience, so he probably knows what he’s talking about. On the other hand, I won the tournament and I use a 35″ sword, so your mileage may vary.

Another weapon combination that will help you increase your range is the short sword and downspear combination. With a typical 5′ downspear, you’ve got pretty good range and are going to be the bane of florentiners everywhere. On the flip side, giant shields are actually useful against downspears, so they’ll be a bit of a problem. My downspear percentage at a game like Dagorhir (home of the giant shields) isn’t much better than my single sword percentage. Warlord Brett of the Emerald Hills is one of the best people to ask for downspear tips, and he’s a pretty approachable guy. Downspears also help create openings without requiring footwork; people get so focused on defeating the downspear as they transition forward through its range that they forget to switch threat priorities when they cross from the downspear’s threat range to the short sword’s threat range, and then you hit them in the shoulder.

Without switching equipment, there are some stylistic things you can do to control range with minimal movement and generate openings. Adding “stall” shots to your repertoire can help. Stall shots are shots that are not intended to inflict wounds on the other player but instead are intended to force the other player to move to counter them in a way that arrests his movement. The most obvious is a swipe at the leg above the knee. You don’t even have to actually be in range to hit them; just be close enough. (Don’t bend at the waist to throw the shot, though, or you’re giving up your precious range by moving your shoulders closer to them, which is bad.) Many fighters will move back when faced with a swipe at their leg. (Some will jump. Shame on them.) Another common tactic, which is also used just to create an opening, is a strike to the opponent’s sword hand. You’re not extending far enough into their threat space to really risk getting hit, but they’re still going to block the attack, which will often stall fighters or encourage them to open range. It may also draw a predictable riposte, which gives you an opening to block and riposte yourself. Finally, sometimes taking a small step forward will cause opponents, especially the most jumpy one, to retreat far more than you advanced, again opening range.

If you’re not moving much, opponents are ultimately going to close, so it behooves you to learn to deal with that too. Learn to “grind”, which is fighting up close and personal, face to face. A lot of fighters are going to be reluctant to close if, when they close, you take a small step forward and get right in their grill. (Remember not to crash into them or knock them over. Dag or Bel players reading this may feel free to worry less about crashing into them, but should keep in mind that shield bashing ties up your shield when you need it most and has, almost universally, let me kill the basher when people do it to me in those games. Precision of movement is always important.) Torches are good people to learn this style from, since it is the only thing they know how to do. But they do it very well. Dome shields are going to be superior to flat shields if you do a lot of grinding because you can hook them over your shoulder without angling them.

If you are fighting florentine, you need to remember to collapse and widen your guard when you get to grinding range; hardly anyone (but a few will stab you a lot) is going to throw a lot of stabs when you’re close enough to kiss them, but they’re going to throw a lot of outside chops and some outside wraps. Warlord Tato, or if you’re out in the barren East, Warlord Gilan of the most excellent Winter’s Edge, provide excellent examples of this when they close to grinding range.

Another way to “deal with it” is to do a lot of block-strike. The ability to block and immediately riposte with a strong return is very important when you’re not willing or able to open range. Even a little bit of regular block-strike is going to up your game. Many people are going to close in and swing, and a surprising number don’t have a plan after that. Blocking that initial swing and riposting with any sort of shot vastly increases your chances of winning compared to simply blocking. The way you block in these circumstances is also going to potentially create openings you can exploit; an aggressive sword-side block forward, for example, is going to create better opportunities than pulling your guard back and tight to block.

Shot precision is also going to be critical. As a larger guy, you’ve generally got a range advantage. If you can snipe at a momentary opening quickly and precisely, you’re going to be able to take people out before they get into range. The best way to develop this is with a lot of pell work with a light sword. Using a light sword lets you get used to moving at a high speed while targeting specific locations on the pell.

Finally, don’t be afraid to switch up your stance. Transitioning from sword-forward to shield-forward (and vice-versa) when someone advances on you completely changes the makeup of your defense, which will force them to either commit deeper or pull up short, depending on what shot they were planning, which will often screw up their attack plan.

That was a lot of data and a number of suggestions. Don’t try to follow or process all of them. Pick out a few that appeal to you and go with those. You can always come back and get more ideas to work with in the future. You have a number of options to choose from; just like going to Baskin-Robbins, don’t try to eat all 31 flavors at once. Also keep in mind that, while all these suggestions and substitutions can help, none are as good as having good footwork.

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