Fencing and Street Design

I’m going to write about street design for a short while, but trust me, I promise I will relate it to fencing. This will be especially relatable for people who grew up in a car-dependent suburban area like I did. If you did, I’m sure you have been on a street that is very straight with wide lanes and ample buffer on each side, maybe even a turning lane in the middle or multiple lanes of traffic on each side, and yet the speed is set uncomfortably low, like 35 or 25 mph (55 or 40 kph). Whether or not the speed limit is justified, drivers will scoff at it. They will wonder who could have approved something like that, and no one will ever follow it unless they see a cop on the side of the road. Even if you try to follow the speed limit, you will feel like you can safely go faster, and your speed will probably creep over it a bit unless you set your cruise control. 

This is where cops always caught speeders when I was growing up – they understood affordances better than the street designers

The problem here is that the language of the road design does not match the posted speed limit. If there are wide lanes and no obstacles, you will feel comfortable going faster, and it will be uncomfortable to hold yourself back to the posted speed limit. It’s similar to when you come to a door with a handle on it and a sign that says “push” – it is likely that a lot of people will try to pull first because they see the handle, and then they will feel dumb when they see the sign, but they are not actually dumb, it’s the designer who is dumb. 

The solution here is to actually think about the purpose of the street that you are building and design it in such a way that people will be comfortable going the speed that you want them to go. There are many ways of doing this, you can make the street less wide, change the material that the street is made of, encourage on-street parking instead of having parking lots, add trees to the side of the road, add planters and other obstacles, and more. If you are driving in this type of environment, you slow down because it is comfortable to do so, not because of a sign – driving fast becomes the uncomfortable option. It may be hard to believe for someone like me who grew up in North American car-dependent urban sprawl, but there are places where design like this is the norm – I personally experienced it driving in northern Germany and the Netherlands. 

So after all that – how does this relate to fencing? Basically, when you are teaching or designing games, the less you have to actively say, the better. This is a feature of teaching through competitive games in general. When playing Shouting Window, you don’t have to tell people that the squinter against longpoint is good, they will do it because it is a good choice given the environment that you’ve created. In the Falling Upon drill, you don’t need to tell the person in the low guard to wait for the attacker to commit and then disengage around, they will do it because it’s a good idea and works in that situation. 

You can also curate someone’s individual fencing this way during coached sparring. For example, often a beginner fencer who has just started sparring will attack low targets, because going low is difficult to parry, and even though they always get doubled, they are still hitting you, which to them is better than never getting a hit at all. An inelegant “speed limit” solution to this would be to simply tell them they aren’t allowed to attack low anymore. This can lead to frustration, because while you know that you are helping their fencing in the long run, from their perspective all you’ve done is taken away their only tool that works. A better solution is to create an environment where attacking high gets them better results than attacking low. This means you need to block or avoid all of their low attacks (at least double them), and let some high attacks through. This will be uncomfortable for you as the coach, but the athlete will most likely get the idea and stop relying on low attacks. 

These ideas are all examples of what James Gibson called “affordances.” They are invitations by the environment to take a certain action. The wide straight road invites you to drive fast, the door handle invites you to pull, and the fencing game (ideally) invites you to do whatever fencing action you are working on. It’s important to note that the invitation allows or encourages a certain action, but you are not forced to do it. You can still go slow on the road or push the door, and likewise you will often be able to find other paths to success in a fencing game. This is a feature and not a bug – we want athletes to explore their motor landscapes when playing fencing games.