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
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.
- Level 1 Fighting
- Basic Stance/Guard: When you are standing still, how you hold your gear, where your feet go, and how you hold your body.
- Basic Shots: The three basics of chop, high cross, and wrap, plus the straight stab. Throw and return to guard. Nothing fancy.
- Basic Blocks: Sword blocks sword side, shield blocks shield side. Nothing fancy.
- Basic Movement: Moving forward and backwards without dropping out of guard.
- Level 2 Fighting
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Level 3 Fighting
- 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.
- 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)
- Intermediate Range Control: closing on fast retreaters, keeping range open on fast closers. “Follow the Leader” and “Close on the Wall” are good drills.
- 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.
- 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.
- Level 4 Fighting
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I will answer them in my column.