CLA Class Example – Body Language and Deception

This is a writeup of a class I ran recently which I think makes a good
case study in using the Constraints Led Approach to teaching. The
focus was on using footwork and body language to manipulate the
opponent’s responses. It was based around playing Finnish Chicken (a
game which, coincidentally, has inspired some other articles about CLA
coaching), with some additional constraints that I hoped would draw
out the ideas I wanted the class to work on.

The Plan

My lesson plan going in was pretty simple:

  • Play a few rounds of Soviet Foil to people paying attention to their
    footwork and distance
  • Play a block of Finnish Chicken without any additional constraints.
  • Add the goal: “Try to make your approach so scary that the
    opponent parries without you attacking”
  • Change the goal to: “Try to be so casual in your approach that the
    opponent doesn’t realize you’re attacking until it’s too late”
  • Play for one more block, mixing both of the above approaches
  • Free fencing, trying to apply the same ideas

We specifically played the “ratchet” version of Finnish Chicken where
fencers aren’t allowed to back up. We use this game pretty regularly
so the students are familiar with it, and there’s a fairly stable club
meta which is reasonably balanced between offense and defense. So we
had a good starting point from which to destabilize things and
encourage experimentation with new strategies.

The extra constraints were framed as a “soft” goals rather than fixed
rules of the game. The students weren’t expected to use the prescribed
strategy on every exchange, only to try to make it work some of the
time. I often incorporate this kind of tactical advice or sub-goal on
the fly when running a game, but I hadn’t really used it as a core
part of a lesson plan before. It seems like an idea that’s worth
exploring further.

To give credit where it’s due, this lesson plan was written jointly
with two other instructors at Athena, Joe Giuliano and Julie Olson. I
think the original idea mostly came from Joe.

The Class

We played a few rounds with the first constraint and then stopped to
discuss. The students shared some strategies that had worked for them:
some had good luck with a fast, steady approach; others favored a
sudden jump forward with a sharp stop right at the edge of measure. So
far, this was about what I expected. But they also made an interesting
observation: often the opponent would respond to an aggressive
approach not by defending, but by attacking early.

This hadn’t occured to me before the class, it makes sense: if your
opponent is approach quickly and you know their goal is to scare you
into parrying, then attacking them instead is a logical way to disrupt
their plan. But it wasn’t always successful – in fact it seemed like
the most successful strategy overall was to approach aggressively,
draw an early attack, and parry.

So for the next block I leaned into these. I talked a bit about how
the aggressive approach could be used either offensively, to make the
opponent parry early; or defensively, to draw an attack and set up
your own parry. And I suggested mixing up both strategies in order to
keep the opponent guessing.

That went pretty well, and I saw that people had a more luck achieving
the original goal of drawing an early parry. Then we moved on to the
second constraint: “Try to be so casual in your approach that the
opponent doesn’t realize you’re attacking until it’s too late”.

This had a similar outcome: sometimes people were able to sneak in
close, but other times a casual approach would cause the opponent to
think you were not prepared to defend, encouraging them to attack. So
again we did another round with the goal of using a casual approach to
set up both offense and defense. People caught on pretty quickly and
we didn’t need to spend too much time on this.

Then we got to the last block of Finnish Chicken, where I had planned
to tell people to mix up aggressive and casual approaches. But now we
had another variable that wasn’t in the plan: whether to try for an
offensive or defensive action. So I threw that in the mix as well and
told them to try all four combinations of aggressive/casual and

This worked out really well. Where the class as a whole had a started
with a fairly stable and predictable approach to Finnish Chicken, I
now saw them getting really creative, actively using their footwork
and body language to set things up, and playing with deception and
second intentions. Of course, not everything they tried worked – some
of it failed pretty spectacularly. But everyone was having fun
regardless, and I think they were learning a lot from their failures
as well as their successes.

When we got to the sparring section, I told everyone to try applying
the same ideas they had just worked on, but otherwise took a pretty
hands-off approach. They had to make some adjustments, and not all of
their tactics from Finnish Chicken transferred over, but by and large
they were able to apply the same concepts and find ways to translate
them to the more open-ended environment.

What Makes This CLA?

The CLA can make use of many of the same activities and teaching tools
as traditional approaches to coaching, which can sometimes lead to
confusion when discussing it. A single drill or lesson taken in
isolation may just look like “normal coaching” if you don’t know the
motivation for it our how it fits into the bigger picture.

So let’s break down this class in terms of the CLA. Rob Gray outlines
four main pieces:

  1. Destabilize the existing movement solution or attractor
  2. Encourage exploration and self-organization
  3. Amplify information and invite affordances
  4. Provide transition feedback about the effectiveness of the search

The students in this class had some stable strategies for Finnish
Chicken, but the extra instructions in each round helped break them
out of those patterns. Giving them a goal, but not a specific method
for achieving it, encouraged to them to experiment with different
approaches and find their own path to success. And the later rounds in
particular, where they were encouraged to mix up different strategies,
brought out a lot of creativity and problem solving.

Finnish Chicken is a great information amplifier, which may be why CLA
nerds are so obsessed with it. In regular fencing, getting an opponent
to flinch with a body feint, or momentarily stealing some distance on
them, may not be decisive and is typically only one small piece of a
larger and more complicated exchange. But in Finnish Chicken it’s the
whole game, so every time it happens you notice it, and you tend to
have a pretty clear idea how it was set up since there isn’t much else
going on. That worked really well for turning up the volume on some of
these subtle aspects of footwork and body language.

Finnish Chicken also plays very quickly, so you get a lot of exchanges
in a short period of time. That’s probably helpful for transition
feedback, since it gives you more chances to pick up on patterns if
you’re trying something new and the results are still unreliable.

So to sum up, I set up a game that amplified information about the
ideas we were focusing on, gave feedback, and provided affordances for
the students to try out new things. Then I changed the constraints to
destabilize existing patterns, encourage exploration, and guide
students toward effective strategies. This was an iterative process,
so even though I went in with a plan I made some adjustments along the
way to adapt to what the students were doing.