Action Capacities and Footwork

Recently the longsword classes at Athena School of Arms have been
focusing on footwork, with really good results. Most of our beginner
and intermediate students (roughly 6 months-2 years experience) have
shown significant improvements. This is a lot better than our past
attempts to teach footwork, so I wanted to take a look at what we did
differently, and why it worked so well.

I designed a warm-up focused on footwork, based on the ideas I talked
about in my last article. It includes footwork-focused games (mostly
variations on Sock Fighting), drills designed to improve action
capacities relevant to footwork (more on that later), and some
isolated exercises to develop footwork-specific fitness. We ran this
warm-up every class for about four months.

One likely reason this worked well is that our students are simply
getting more footwork practice than they have in the past. By fitting
it into our warm-up, we can spend a decent chunk of time on it every
class, without taking too much away from other topics.

But I think there’s a second reason, which is going to be my main
focus on this article: we worked on both skill and action capacities
concurrently. This combined approach allows students to improve their
physical capabilities (such as the speed at which they can accelerate
and change directions), while simultaneously learning how to use those
increased capabilities skillfully.

Action Capacity vs Skill

Action capacity is a bit of EA jargon that I’ve found useful lately
for thinking about different types of training activities. Rob Gray
defines it as “a physical or psychological ability that influences the
field of affordances for a given task.” As I understand it, this
encompasses some aspects of what we might call attributes (speed,
strength, etc), as well as coordination and motor abilities. It has a
lot of overlap with the 3P concept that Tea wrote about a while

Importantly, action capacities are task-specific, so “speed” and
“strength” are not action capacities, but “how fast you can swing a
sword” is. And improving general fitness doesn’t directly increase
action capacity, though it can be an important part of the process –
squatting more weight won’t immediately mean you can lunge faster, for

In contrast, Gray defines skill as “the ability to use information
from the environment to find and execute a movement solution”. So
action capacities influence the options that are available to you,
while skill is about navigating those options and finding the right
action. In order to maximize performance, we need to improve both
action capacity and skill.

For example, if your opponent presents an opening, whether that
affords you the opportunity to hit them will depend in part on how
fast you can move your sword. If your attack speed isn’t high enough,
that affordance won’t be present. Improving your skill could allow you
to create better opportunities to attack. Improving your action
capacity will give you the affordance of hitting in a wider range of
situations. Doing both will improve your performance more than either
one on its own.

Training for Action Capacity

Action capacities can develop to some extent through normal
practice. New students will gain fitness just by fencing, and
self-organize to move more efficiently. But for a student who’s been
fencing for a year or so, those improvements have probably plateaued,
and further development will require some dedicated practice.

In the footwork warm-up, we do this with a combination of:

  • Some isolated exercises for leg strength and endurance. These
    develop the requisite fitness.
  • Fencing-specific movements which help translate that fitness into
    improved capacity – for example, moving around in a low stance, or
    trying to cover as much distance as possible with a passing step.
  • Games to develop footwork-related skills.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that those
first two bullet points don’t sound very “ecological”. What happened
to representative environments and perception-action coupling? Well,
when we’re training specifically to develop action capacities, it’s OK
to use decoupled activities. We’re not trying to directly increase
skill so we don’t need the same kind of information-rich environment.
But other EA principles still apply – we want to use affordances and
constraints to influence students’ movements, promote variability, and
allow them to self-organize.

And importantly, we need to remember that these activities aren’t the
whole picture. Improved action capacities can potentially lead to
increased skill, but we still need to train the skill part with games
in order to realize that potential.

This concept is new to me and I’m still figuring out all of the
implications. But so far I’ve found it to be a useful way of looking
at different types of training activities. If you found this
interesting, I’d definitely recommend checking out Rob Gray’s new
book, “Learning to Optimize Movement”, for a more detailed look at
these ideas.