The following are the results of a game design challenge to design games which have the biggest discrepency between their apparent usefulness and their actual ability to teach sills.
When I heard about Karl Marius’s work on the Soccer Rondo I was intrigued. Games that seem like they are tailored to do a specific skill, feature a ton of use of the skill, yet are actually not training the core elements of the skill.
So I proposed a training exercise for the GD4H crew: we would each create 6 training games to compose a curriculum that looked somewhat “whole” (to the extent that 6 games can be) but would be the least useful for athlete development. But it wasn’t just about creating useless games, as creating a useless game that involves basically no fencing is trivial. The challenge was creating something in the spirit of the Rondo research, a game which on the surface featured learning of a skill but instead was very poor at teaching. Or, in other words, to create the biggest gulf between how useful it looked on the surface and how much it failed to deliver when analyzed with what we know about Ecological Psychology (Ecological Approach Primer) and fencing experience.
And so yesterday I posted my list of bad games. Now today, on April 2nd, I’ll actually tell you why they are bad. Instead of presenting them like my real curriculum. 🙂 Happy April!
I’m going to go through the process by which I made the games, which was the challenge of the whole activity. The idea was as follows:
- Identify the key affordances that need to be perceived.
- Identify the most important components of the skill execution.
- Identify the superficial actions being executed.
Then I try to kill 1 and 2, while maximizing 3 and not making it sound like a dumb idea.
1 – Direct Attack w/ Eyes Closed
The key to deciding when to attack is being able to perceive “I now have the affordance of hitting them in the face”; though technically I guess it’s “their face offers the affordance of being hit by my sword”. Which is both more technically accurate and a lot more fun to think about.
The other thing to consider is that all perception is based on continuous information. By closing the eyes, you rob the attacker of learning about the correlation between the sensory perception and the result. Aka they don’t get a good grasp for how far they can actually attack.
The reason I chose to have the defender moving is similar: if they were stationary, they would have a good perception of developing the sense for the affordances. While moving they have a harder time, and, most importantly, they are deprived of the most important piece of information: the action of the attacker.
In the original Direct Attack, the body motion of the Attacker is a continuous stream of information to the Defender, even if they try to minimize it as much as possible. This stream of information is what is going to tell the defender how attentive they should be to the parry. But in the eyes closed version they don’t have to pay attention at all, since the coach’s audio cue does that for them.
2 – Parries
When thinking about the skills that go into making a parry “good”, I came up with the following.
- Recognizing the attack affordances of the opponent
- Recognizing the incoming attack/target
- Having the structure to stop the attack
- Being ready to riposte
Most of the time we focus on #3: how does the body move into position? This is what our sparring practice is focused on. But examining it critically, I think that it’s also just a minor piece of the puzzle.
The first part is recognizing just where their opponent has the highest probability of landing a successful attacks. Before anyone does anything, the defender-to-be will already have their attention attuned to movements that indicate attacks towards the most vulnerable openings. If a defender isn’t aware of where they are most vulnerable to attack before the attack even happens, they have lost half their defense.
The defender must also be able to quickly perceive when a genuine threat has developed and action is required. The longer the time between the initiation and an appropriate action response, the more difficult a parry will become.
Though we don’t have data on HEMA, it’s pretty typical that the super-elite in a sport don’t really have mechanics that are that much better than other higher level competitors. Their ability to act based on information being leaps and bounds above average is what sets them apart. To that end, getting good at parrying requires a heavy active focus on #1 and #2. This game takes them both out in two ways.
The first way is that the defender can just straight up see which attack the coach signals. The second is more insidious, and would be present even if the coach was only visible to the attacker. And that is, if the attacker can’t know what attack they are going to throw, they won’t be acting like a person who is going to throw that attack. Which means we have broken any learning that maps the opponent’s actions to their ultimate attack.
The fourth point, ability to riposte, is also a critical aspect of parrying. If we were only concerned with defending against an attacker, we would fling our sword as widely and aggressively as we could. Which is what you see in any game where you only have to defend one attack. Now, depending on the context this could be ok. If the game is about movement, and the parry is just a check for who did the movement part better, we don’t really care. But if the point is to teach parrying, I would argue anything that doesn’t also involve a follow up action is not useful. When they do kinematic analysis of baseball players they find that “catch ball” and “catch ball and throw ball back” lead to very different movement patterns in the “catch ball” part. And the same is true for parrying.
3 – Distance
Distance is not a “skill” that people have. Despite me framing this game in an Ecological Psychology framework by using terms like “Differential Learning” it is still a pure traditional “Information Processing Approach” activity, with distance being described in terms of length. In reality, what people need to learn to do is perceive when they have the affordance of attacking or when they have the affordance of being attacked.
By focusing solely on absolute distance between the two, the participants are drawing their attention to the wrong signals. When evaluating measure in sword fighting, distance is just one small part: things like momentum (of legs, body, and sword) are far more significant. Not only does this not develop these skills, which is not good, it also instills the notion that absolute distance is what they should be paying attention to. Which is actively bad.
4 – Grappling
The core skill of being good at grappling in sword fighting is not the grappling itself. It is all wrapped up in the transition between out-fencing and grappling. And this game completely robs all the aspects of the buildup of the grappling engagement. By starting in a static bind we have eliminated the two most important factors:
1) Momentum: The bodies are neither closing nor separating, and the swords aren’t driving into each other like with real attacks.
2) Decision to commit: At this point both have already made the decision that they are grappling, or more accurately it has been made for them by the rules. In reality, the decision timing will be asymmetric, and the form of the grapple will change as a result. Additionally, there is always the option to not grapple, and instead try to perform cuts at close range. Since there is no transition involved there is no development of when the skill should be used, which is the most important part.
What also makes sword grappling interesting is that the option to disengage is a viable offensive move, unlike in traditional grappling where it is purely defensive. (MMA is a middle ground in this regard, as getting distance to strike is an option, but a single ‘strike’ doesn’t have the same comparative value it does in HEMA.) In that sense, this is like a much worse version of Grab or Go.
5 – Winding
Controversial statement: strong/weak is dependent on continuous information flow for the whole lead up and not just a sword feeling on the attack. It is also predicated on a committed and earnest attempt by BOTH fighter to hit each other.
This game has neither fighter earnestly opening with the attack, and it also forces the bind in situations where the bind makes no sense (no sacrifice throw mechanic). Also it so strongly favors the defender that committed direct attacks shouldn’t happen, meaning that anything you get for a bind can’t be a representative environment in the first place.
In addition, no one will ever go weak in the bind, because why would you?
Update: The above was written based on my coaching experience on how to actually train people to utilize the concepts of strong/weak well. I went back to the glosses to see if there was a reading that could imply that strong/weak is based on continuous perception. And was disappointed to read that it instructed you to feel for weak/strong by using your hands.
But in subsequent conversations with Steve Cheney it looks like this might have more to do with translation than anything. Here are Steve’s words:
In the passage about feeling and indes from the RDL texts, there is a phrase “zu hant” that is often translated as “by hand” or “by the hand,” including in my own book of translations. “Zu hant” literally means “to hand,” and it is understandable to translate it this way, however rather than being literal, it is likely an idiom meaning “immediately.” Grimm’s dictionary has an entry for the word “zuhand” as an adverb meaning “sofort, sogleich,” IE “immediately, right away,” and a sub entry under the “hand” definition for “zu hand” meaning “alsbald,” IE “immediately.”
In all cases of its use in RDL, “zu hant/zehant/zuhand” is treated as an adverb modifying “fühlen.” As a comparison to English, think about the phrase “the time is at hand,” in which “at hand” does not literally have anything to do with your hands. The phrase “zu handen” also exists which could have the sense of taking something by the hand, but none of the examples from RDL take that form, and the use case in the examples given in Grimm seem quite different from what it would be if it were used that way in RDL. Overall, I think all signs point to the meaning of “zu hant” in RDL to be “immediately” or “right away” rather than “by hand.”
So perhaps instead of “go use your hand to sense how hard they are pushing” it’s not so much of a stretch to think in terms of “perceive if they are conducting themselves in a strong or weak manner”.
6 – Chaining Attacks
When looking at chaining attacks I identified the following as important aspects.
Being able to mechanically move the sword to other openings: check. Most coaches tend to determine this to be the most important when planning practice.
Recovering from a properly committed first attack: not so much check. Especially the way this game is framed, the first attack is heavily de-emphasized. The whole thing is written assuming it doesn’t hit. And doing a follow up attack from a fully committed first attack is a completely different skill than doing it from a ‘token’ first attack only meant to set up the attack cycle. Which do you think is more applicable in sparring?
Predicting when they will parry-riposte: people tend to not want to let you just open up on them, they will try to attack back. Recognizing the signs of this and reacting accordingly isn’t a separate skill to performing multiple attacks, it’s intrinsically baked in. Or at least it should be if you’re training it properly. If you don’t then the skill will only be relevant against people who are turtling and letting you go to town on them.
Recognizing second intention openings: the game claims to be all about getting people to pay attention to their opponent to figure out where they should attack. However, any information gathered (if any) is going to be completely different from what would be useful information in an actual antagonistic setting. It is true that often people fail because they move their next attack to wherever feels natural for their body to go instead of where it would be the most effective. The wording treats “observing the opponent” as a generalized skill, whereas in reality being able to see where they have the affordance of parrying is a very specialized application. (And the positions and motions they do while only parrying won’t be representative anyways.)
This is in the spirit of the Rondo game that kicked it all off. “We want to develop passing skills, so make a game where they pass a lot”. “We want to develop chaining skills, so make a game where they chain a lot”. While the skill is being used a lot, it is robbed of key parts of the context that are required to make it effective when used in earnest.
If you got to the end and are thinking “so what, Sean just showed that these games have some unrealistic parts, I can do that with any game” then you have missed the point. It is true that every game has unrealistic parts, and pointing them out isn’t especially difficult. The point of this was that the games presented do not develop the core skills they are stated to develop. And that by looking at representative training design in a way we normally don’t, we can gain additional insight into what is, and isn’t, important to the execution of a skill for realz*.
*Take this term as seriously as the rest of the Ecological Psychology jargon in this article.