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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I will answer them in my weekly column.