Aliveness – Stepping Stone or Red Herring?

In the Information Processing Approach (IPA) format of teaching an action, the coach first isolates the action from its context, sometimes breaking it down into its constituent movements, and then has the athlete repeat the simplified action. The hypothesis is that the athlete will gain “muscle memory” through repetition of the action, which they can then keep in mental storage, so when it comes time to use the action in a live setting, the brain can call upon the action and perform it automatically. In the context of longsword fencing, this comes in the form of solo or cooperative partner drills, in which one partner feeds an expected stimulus or physical cue, and the other performs the technique. If you have read any of my other articles, you probably know that I do not think this works very well. 

A potential solution to this issue is an idea that I have seen promoted in several places called “aliveness”. This idea was popularized by Matt Thornton, who developed it for MMA training. Here is an article that attempts to port his ideas into a HEMA context. This solution makes sense from an IPA perspective. If we believe the IPA, then we can’t abandon the idea of repetition until automaticity, but once something is automatic, we can then start to modify it based on the context. Information Processing based skill acquisition theory still admits that actions will look different when done in a live setting than they will when practiced in isolation. The difference is that in IPA they are seen as deviations from the ideal correct norm, and these deviations must also be practiced until automatic, otherwise they will increase the mental load on the athlete in the moment and therefore be too slow. 

This is where the idea of aliveness comes in. If you practice something with a higher level of intensity and more extraneous movement, then you will practice these deviations, and therefore be better at performing the action in a live situation. According to the article linked earlier, the act of doing cooperative drills is not abandoned completely – it is still listed as the first phase of training, called the “introduction” phase. This is followed by the “isolation” phase, which is where the idea of aliveness is inserted. Both fencers are given more freedom, they can move around, mess with timing, and possibly have more than one option for attack. The article generally refers to aliveness as an increase in resistance. 

The specific drill example the author gives pertains to the zornhaw: the feeder/coach side throws an over hew to the head, the student side counters with a wrath hew point. Both sides are allowed to move around as much as they want, and the feeder side is allowed to feint, and presumably is really trying to hit with the strike. This is a competitive game, both sides have a goal that they are trying to accomplish, so doesn’t that make it the same thing that we do when we play games in the constraints led approach? My answer to that question is no, though I will give this idea credit, it will definitely be better than just doing mindless empty reps of the action, since there is some variation between reps.

The reason it is still not the same as our constraints led games is that it is too steeped in the IPA idea of linear pedagogy. Yes we have a game with more freedom than more static rote drills, but think about what is going on – the student side must still perform the target technique, and the feeder side must facilitate that. There is no room for the student to explore their motor landscape, they are still trying to get as close to an ideal movement as they can. 

There are also clues that this requires buy-in from the feeder side too. If this was a real competitive game, the feeder side would easily win every time by getting so close that the student would not have time to defend, and the game would devolve into the feeder chasing down the student. This is addressed by the author of the article, who says the feeder might “game the rules of the drill” by getting too close, against which you can add an attack on prep for the student. This language indicates to me that the feeder is not intended to win; trying to win means gaming the rules. So even if the feeder is earnestly trying to land a hit, it is clear from a theoretical standpoint that their job is only to facilitate the student correctly performing the technique, and not to explore movement solutions that lead them to success. 

Another aspect of this game is that both sides have very few choices, and that may seem like a reason it is rooted in IPA, but it’s actually not. There are games that we play that allow less freedom and fewer choices than the game described above, and yet are rooted in the ecological approach; the Direct Attack drill is the clearest example. In the DA drill, neither player is allowed to move, there are set starting positions for each side, and each side only has one choice, so what makes this drill ecological and the one above in which both sides have much more freedom IPA? The answer is affordances. 

In the direct attack drill, both sides have a clear goal which they are earnestly trying to achieve, the attacker to land a hit, and the defender to defend. From the attacker’s perspective, they are afforded the opportunity to get their sword to their opponent’s head as quickly as possible. If they do not, they will fail. After each rep, the distance changes, causing the action to require a slightly different movement solution, but still offering the affordance of going as quickly and efficiently as possible. The attacker is allowed to arrange themselves however they want in order to accomplish this, though in this case people tend to arrive at similar movement solutions since the solution space is so limited. 

One thing I like to think about is the road analogy: the road that the cops like to set up speed traps on are straight, wide, and have low speed limits; they afford the opportunity of going fast, so no one listens to the sign that tells them to go slow. In contrast, a street that is narrow and is rife with obstacles and pedestrians does not afford the opportunity to go fast, and therefore people will tend to drive slowly on it no matter what the speed limit is. The Zornhaw game with aliveness is like the speed trap road, you are free to do and move however you want, but you are told that you must do a particular action in a particular way, and you can’t deviate from it even if it does not violate the rules of the drill. The direct attack drill is the road with obstacles, you are given task constraints in the rules of the game, and you are allowed to do whatever you can within those rules in order to accomplish your goal. 

This remains true no matter how many different technique options either side has in the aliveness drill. At the end of it all, the feeder is still accommodating the student, they are just adding more complexity and noise to the system. 

If you use CLA style competitive games in your practice, you can see all of the problems addressed in this article disappear. If the game is free enough, movement and aliveness will naturally manifest, because both fencers are trying to win. The problem of transferring technique from drills to free sparring disappears, because the fencers are getting the full range of environmental details when executing their movements, as opposed to a single movement cue which at best will be a small part of the overall picture and at worst be totally irrelevant. The problem of the feeder side gaming the rules to give themselves an advantage evaporates because there is no feeder side and student side, both sides are trying to win, and trying to game the rules is a good thing because it shows that you are fully exploring the solution space that you have been given to work with.