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Breaking flow, and how to avoid it

September 28, 2010

I’ve recently gone back to something that I used to do quite a bit: fencing. I stopped fencing when I started to get serious about practicing kenjutsu, around 2001, because it felt “fake” to me. Of course, from a combat perspective, it is fake, as is every other competitive form where you’re not trying to really injure your opponent. That said, like other forms of sparring, there’s plenty to be learned from fencing, so I’ve gone back to it to see what I can glean that will improve my skills.

The first thing that I learned is that in a “combat” situation, even a fake one where there’s no real chance of harm or even significant pain, I still tense up far too much. Not nearly as much as I used to, but still too much, and it slows my responses. OK, time for more training…what else is new?

More significantly, though, I found a “break” in my flow. In a combat situation, flow is the ability to move from one technique to the next with no gaps, what the Japanese would call suki. A suki might be an actual hesitation, or, more subtly, it might be a break in intent, where for an instant your mind is no longer focused on the situation and your responses to it. In that moment, your opponent can do something unexpected (such as attack), and you will be unable to respond.

The suki that I found in my technique is a fairly large and obvious one (the subtle ones are, for the moment, beyond my ability to perceive in a combat situation). A person’s mind can be in one of two states – reactive, or proactive. These map approximately to defense and offense, but in practice it’s not quite so clear-cut. When you’re being reactive, that means you’re just waiting to see what happens. You’re not initiating an action, and in this way you’ve yielded the initiative to your opponent. This is a problem, because it gives a sufficiently-skilled opponent the opportunity to control you – if you’re only going to react to what they do, then they get to choose the action, and thereby the reaction. For example, if they strike at your head, you’re likely to parry high, and they know that, so they can anticipate your action and take advantage of it.

When you’re being proactive, you may in fact still not be initiating an action, but you’re intending to, and that makes all the difference. I’ve talked about intent before, and it’s the essential element in maintaining flow. Without consistent intent, it is impossible to move smoothly from one technique to the next, because you literally have to stop and think, “what am I going to do now?”

So, finally, what’s wrong with my technique? What I’ve discovered is that when I’m attacked with force, my mind goes reactive for a second, which is to say that I lose my intent. What that means is that I can’t immediately respond to the attack, so if the attacker’s intent is solid, they can attack again, forcing me to respond again. This, obviously, is a recipe for dying – if I can’t recover the initiative, I can never re-establish my offense, so my opponent can freely keep attacking until I screw up my defense and they get me.

Now that I’ve figured this out, what am I doing about it? Well, first, I’m making an effort to maintain my intent, even when I’m not actually attacking. This is hard to describe, but it means maintaining an offensive mental stance even when I’m on the defensive. In other words, I’m not really defending, I’m just doing what I have to in order to set up my next attack, and that’s where my mind is. That way, the attack will immediately follow the defense without my having to figure out what to do after the parry is complete.

Second, I’m trying not to let my opponent drive the tempo of the bout. That means interrupting his (or her) attacks, making him constantly adjust position rather than letting him set up for an attack at his leisure, and forcing him into situations where he’s not comfortable. In particular, fencers tend to hate infighting, so I try to move in close as often as possible. This also helps negate the fact that most of the people I’m fencing are taller than I am, with a corresponding reach advantage.

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