Tag Archives: Training

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.

Drill Spotlight: First to Ten

The first-to-ten drill is a fairly straight forward drill; two combatants fight a sequence of rounds, and the first person to win ten times (total) wins the drill. Simos are ignored. This sounds like regular sparring, but there is an important difference. In regular sparring, you should not be seeking to win; you should be seeking to improve. That means you are testing your opponent to see if your reads match their actions, you are trying out new shots or new setups to increase your repertoire, you are practicing shots you haven’t perfected, and you are, in general, performing actions that challenge you and increase your skill instead of performing actions that make you most likely to win. In this drill, you are trying specifically to win, putting out your best effort and choosing the options that are most likely to make you win.

This drill is an excellent tool for overcoming tournament anxiety. Generally, poor performance in a tournament results from succumbing to “nerves.” A fighter will focus so much on the importance of winning that he will lose focus, over-analyze his attacks, play overly safe, and otherwise fight in a different manner, and in inferior manner, than he normally fights. This drill provides the pressure of tracked wins with a defined end goal in a competitive environment and allows a fighter to grow comfortable in such situations. To accomplish this goal, the drill is best used sparingly, as a capstone at the end of a sparring session, so that the competitive nature of the drill is heightened.

The First-to-Ten drill also has the benefit of pushing both fighters to maximum effort, because it has both a winner and a limited timespan. It is easier to push yourself when you can see the finish line. It’s a good thing to do when both fighters are flagging and getting ready to take a break; it drives you to put in a last burst of effort and has the side benefit of getting in extra rounds of fighting with your opponent.

This drill also provides an excellent barometer for your progress. It is common for fighter to come away from a sparring session with a very vague, and often overly optimistic, sense of how they’ve done. Actually counting fights lets you determine an actual win ratio, and the competitive part ensures you’re both putting in your best effort instead of trying out new, less polished skills.

The final feature that makes me like this drill so much is that it is a good way for up-and-coming fighters to get noticed. If you go 8:10 against a warlord, he’s going to remember you. If you beat him, he’s going to seek you out at the next event for a rematch. Putting concrete numbers in your opponent’s mind about your performance and his makes you, and your encounter, more memorable.

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 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?


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.