Tip High, Hands Low – External Cue Lessons From Cutting With Synthetic and Foam Swords

Today I finished building a new paper cutting stand which I described in: Alternative Cutting Stand Design For Paper. The details of the cutting stand construction are covered in the other article, as the name suggests. But in the process of testing I needed to do some bad cuts to test the stand. And it led me down a bit of a rabbit hole which highlights the effectiveness of certain focus strategies over the other.

So why was I trying to do bad cuts? A bad cut will actually put far more stress on both the test stand and the sword that strikes it. We all know scissors beats paper, so all and all I’m not exactly concerned with the steel sword vs paper matchup. What I was interested in was if a failed cut could tug the paper sideways enough to have a negative impact on this more flimsy stand design. Rather than using a good sword and trying to mess up on purpose, I instead grabbed a nylon synthetic sword to give it a swing.

Remember, this was still an active worksite and not a cleaned and staged photo session!

The result was… much better than I expected. There was certainly a lot of sound and paper flutter, but overall the cut was extremely ‘clean’ given I’m using a synthetic longsword with an extremely wide edge. Which got me thinking “what could I do if I really tried?”.

So I did a few more cuts really trying to put my all into the blade. And they all sucked. Hard. What could be going wrong? Well in the first cut I was focused on getting the point moving as fast as I could, kind of imagining it as a ball on a string or a baseball bat that was going to catch on the paper and throw it as much as possible. In the other, sucky, swings I instinctively focused on trying to command all the strength in my body to drive the sword as fast as possible.

Picture of the sword to break up text.

Which is an internal cue, driving focus internally to command the body to do something. Which is not how the body likes to be organized. I know a lot about biomechanics, but that doesn’t matter. That is a tool that should be used to describe a motion, not command it.

Instead I switched back to an external focus, of getting the tip flying through the paper at max speed. Instead of how hard I could press my hands on the hit. And voila! The cuts got better.

This is what happened when I focused away from my body and towards the tip.

Going Further

So now I’m challenging myself and of course I need to push the envelope. So rather than just the oberhau with the synthetic I decided to try my luck with the unterhau. This time I was trying to be completely focused on the tip acceleration, and not what my body was doing. And trust that my training is going to be activating the big muscle groups it needs to. So I told myself what I’ve been having success with lately when instructing students in unterhau.

“Tip high, hands low.”

Building the stand was already too much for my wrist injury. Being dumb and testing stuff like this was definitely not ok to be doing. 😬

And in the end it was a success! I have tried this cut with a foam sword in the past and failed, but not approaching it in any systematic way. (Remember, I don’t train anymore. I just sometimes pick up a sword and swing at things.) I was able to replicate it again on the second attempt as well, showing that it wasn’t just a fluke.

So now that I’ve got a good external focus I’m clearly going to challenge myself to the limit. Which means:

The foam longsword is next. I wasn’t expecting anything good, but keep trying until you fail, right? So I loaded up in front of the target and focused as hard as I could on getting to the tip moving as fast as possible while holding back the hilt as much as possible. And, what do you know, it sort of worked.

Obviously this is a pretty damn ugly cut for a sharp sword. But the fact that I was able to get something that looks cut-like was pretty amazing.


Obviously the cue “tip high, hilt low” isn’t a magic formula to learn to cut. The good results I had were based on a lot of prior training/ability I had before I showed up to work on the cutting stand this morning. The purpose of this article wasn’t to sell you on the magic 4-word formula to cut better. It was to showcase the difference in performance based on where you are attracting your attention. The conclusion holds for everything we do, and not just for cutting stationary targets.

External focus of attention > Internal focus of attention

Side Note: What Does That Look Like

So I don’t have a video of what the final cutting product looked like, but based on my good and bad cutting performances in the past I have a pretty good idea. Below you can see examples of both a good and bad cut performed in the same competition. Notice that on the good cut the tip is flying up high ahead of the hilt, whereas on the bad cut it is basically even.