A core tenet of the ecological approach states that fencing is mostly defined by a constant interaction loop between the two fencers: the decisions I make are based on my opponent’s behaviour, and these will in turn influence their next action. This obvious claim should not be news to most HEMA fencers (or at least, the ones reading this blog): fencing is often defined as a dialogue between two liars, and such an endeavour is hardly possible if both speakers are deaf. Not only do my actions depend on fairly subtle and ever-changing physical, mental, and tactical cues, but they also strive to achieve a tangible goal, be it a preparatory motion or an attempt to hit.
Nonetheless, HEMA and fencing coaches often rely on exercises that, despite giving the appearance of fencing through constant motion, fail to take this principle into account. Here are a few very common examples:
- Lunging on cue: the students stand in line and move according to various footwork patterns (either set in advance or orally described by the coach). On the coach’s signal, they must perform a lunge (or any other footwork action).
- The “leader, follower” footwork drill: a coach leads, a student follows and tries to preserve the measure between the two fencers.
- The “guard flow” drill: a defender keeps switching between guards; an attacker must strike them with the one of the five cuts of the Liechtenauer tradition in order to counter their guard.
The main flaw of the lunging drill is fairly obvious: the verbal cue that triggers the motion has nothing to do with the cues one would rely on in an actual bout such as the opponent reacting to a probing motion or moving forward. And let’s not mention the fact that the lunge achieves no other goal than the realization of a platonic ideal with a set length: a pure movement-focused pattern instead of an effect-oriented one.
The next exercise is just as flawed, but its issues are a bit more subtle. While the student does react to their environment (namely, the coach’s footwork), the reaction itself is not tied to any tangible fencing goal: should the coach change direction, there is no other reason to follow them than an arbitrary rule. The student has no agency over their own actions at all, no goal that pertains to fencing, and they cannot seek to influence their environment; not that it matters, because failure is hard to assess and not punished anyway.
The last exercise shares similar issues: the defender merely moves to another guard because they have been told to, and the quality of the attacker’s strike isn’t objectively tested in any way or form. One could argue that the defender is barely more than a glorified buzzer box in that case.
Well used, the constraint-led approach is merely a way to delineate a fencing problem and explore possible solutions. Poorly done, arbitrary constraints will be enforced that have very little to do with the stimuli of an actual bout. As a consequence, I would warn budding HEMA coaches against the use of external triggers, that is, triggers that are not initiated by one of the two fencers with a tangible goal in mind, lest your students are robbed of their ability to train a mutual feedback loop.
Or, to put it bluntly: your students are not dogs, do not ask them to answer cues and follow patterns that do not achieve any clear fencing goal just because you asked them to.