Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.

Conclusions

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 glen@malletofprovidence.com and I will answer them in my column.

Ask The Champion: Training in Isolation

Dear Champion:

I am having trouble improving as a fighter. Many people at my park do not wish to fight against me anymore, as I have discouraged them. My goal is to ascend to Warlord, and eventually Sword Knight. I do not have access to veterans able to teach me the proper ways to improve, but have been doing everything I can to train in my free time. What can I do, as someone who does not always have time or money to travel to more experienced fighters, to improve my fighting so I can be on par with top fighters and warlords?

Unascended

Dear Unascended:

That’s an excellent question, and one with many answers. I’ve spent a lot of time without access to a better fighter locally, so I’ve had to find a lot of ways to overcome the same obstacles you are now facing. I’ll group these methods into local improvements, learning from less skilled fighters, training yourself, train others, getting remote training, and maximizing your travel benefits. I encourage you to do all of these things. Also, go to SKBC.

Local Improvements

Attitude. As you become a better and better fighter, it becomes more and more important that you be nice. Extremely nice. After you murder someone ten times in a row, the only thing that will keep them fighting you is your positive and fun attitude. Little things like a sincere, “Good shot” every time someone kills you, and complementing people whenever they do something cool or interesting, can keep people fighting you.

Play Down. You can also play “down” in ditching and battlegames. I’m not saying throw fights or let people win. Never do that. However, if you’re unstoppable with sword and board, your florentine probably needs work. Work on that for a while. If it’s a single sword ditch or game and you’re dominating, switch to your off hand. Don’t mention that you’re playing down, don’t get upset if people are overjoyed to finally beat you; remember, be nice and don’t rub their face in their inferiority. Also accept that you’ll lose a lot more than you otherwise would; your goal is excellence and improvement, not victory. Not only do you get much-needed practice, but other people get to win, which will keep them coming back.

Find a sparring partner. They don’t have to be better than you. They don’t even have to be competent. They just have to be willing to spar with you. If they are willing to do drills with you, even better, but you just finding a regular sparring partner is pure gold. Training up some competition will make you better. Take the long view.

Learn From Less-Skilled Fighters

You can learn from inferior fighters, and they don’t even have to be training with you. They could be the guy you face in a battle game, or your regular sparring partner. This takes a lot of mental discipline, but at the Warlord level the game has a very large mental component anyway; learn it early.

Shot Discipline. If there is a shot that always works on someone, stop using it. Pull it out once every day or two just to keep it from getting rusty, but just mark off that that shot works, call yourself a winner, and start working on making a second shot work. Then a third. And so on. If you can kill someone three times in a row with a shot, you’re done using that shot on them. This will force you to learn new shots and perfect new techniques, instead of relying on your current repertoire.

Free Drilling. There are several drills you can do with inferior fighters, and you don’t even need them to know you’re doing it for it to work. Block-X is a drill where you do not throw any shots until you have blocked X shots from the person you are fighting. It’s good if you normally win through aggression. Pick-A-Shot is a drill where the only kill shot you throw is one you choose before you engage, and you have to figure out the setup you will need to throw that shot and survive. CBE is a drill where you Close on an opponent, Block their attacks, then Egress out of range without throwing a shot. Draw-A-Shot is a game where you attempt to bait your opponent into throwing a specific shot, and you can not throw a real shot (feints are allowed) until they throw that shot, and your kill shot has to be a specific counter to that shot. These drills all work best if you don’t tell the other guy what you are doing.

Train Yourself

Keep a journal. Jot down a few notes whenever you fight someone new. What worked, what didn’t, what they did that worked, and a rough description of how they fight. If you have particularly interesting or challenging people you fight, make regular updates to your journal.

Take video of yourself fighting. This is one of the most useful tools for the rising fighter. Be merciless in your self-critique. The first time I watched video of myself fighting, I was amazed that I ever won anything. Invite critique from others. Make notes and add them to your fight journal.

Watch other people fight. Skilled or unskilled; it does not matter. You can watch videos of fights, or just random people fighting while you’re getting a drink or sitting in Nirvana. Try to predict what each fighter will do and what they should do. Compare results to your predictions. Being able to read other fighters is a critical skill.

Drills. Get a pell. Do pell drills. Find some open space. Do footwork drills. Do more footwork drills.

Improve your cardio. For almost everyone, improving their cardio is the best thing they can do to improve their fighting.

Think. This one is pretty generic, but constantly thinking about and analyzing your fighting is your most useful training tool. “How can I throw this shot on this guy?” “How can I make that guy do X?” “How can a land a shot in THAT area that none of my shots target?”

Train Others

Teach. Whether it is your sparring partner or people at the park who want advice, teaching others is an excellent way to learn. Training is an excellent way to force yourself to reexamine concepts and clarify them to yourself so that you can explain them to others. Watching the guy you’re fighting for flaws, figuring out how to exploit them, and how you would correct them is a critical skill for all top fighters. Teaching people, even newbies, will start honing this skill.

Get Remote Training

Videos. There are a lot of videos out there. Some are crap. Many are excellent. Brennon and Spyn and Brett have all put out a large quantity of quality videos you can find on Youtube.

Connect. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people online. I get about one question a week from random people asking for fighting advice on Facebook. For more visible fighters and warlords, I expect they field several a week. If you have a specific and precise question, we’re generally okay with taking a few minutes to answer it. Though sometimes those few minutes are a week after you first send me the question.

Maximize Your Travel Benefits

Ditch in the deep end. This is not only good practice, but it can help you network with other fighters. Half the people I know in Amtgard I met on the ditch field.

Network. When you go to events, spar with other fighters. Most top fighters are always willing to stop ditching to spar with someone who asks, and anyone standing still holding weapons is a sparring partner waiting to happen. Make new friends and meet new people. These are the people you’ll be talking shop with and asking for help later, and if they know you they’re more likely to be there for you.

Talk shop. Everyone who is any good loves to talk shop. Theory, amusing anecdotes, style analysis of people they’ve fought, how awesome they are; fighters absolutely love talking about this stuff.

Ask questions. Be Specific. A good fighter is always willing to explain how he killed you, how a shot works, how to defend against something they did, or what you did wrong. That’s fun for them. However, it is annoying when someone simply asks, “How do I fight florentine?” or something equally generic. I have well over a decade’s worth of fighting knowledge in my head. I can’t sit down and tell it to you. Where am I supposed to start? (The answer is I’m going to start with the very basics, so if you’re a newbie, good question! If you’re not a newbie, you’ve wasted both our times.) More specific questions show that you’ve already put in the brainwork and aren’t expecting to be spoon fed, and are easy to answer. You can keep asking more questions.

Test Yourself. When you find good people, now it is time to try out or talk shop about the new things you’ve worked out on inferior fighters. Sometimes you’ll find that a shot that works on bad fighters is suicide against a good fighter. Sometimes these shots can be modified and salvaged, other times you have to write it off as “only works on bad fighters, but works every time on them.” I have a few of those.

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