Before we get started there is something to get out of the way.
No matter what, you should not do anything that isn’t safe given the equipment and experience of the participants. Nothing I am advocating is a reason to exhibit behavior that is unsafe for you, your training partners, or competitors.
Look how big and bold that is! If it helps any potential straw-man builders you can imagine that disclaimer as a footnote appended to every sentence.
Let’s imagine we are going for a drive. All of a sudden a large easy to draw block jumps in front of us and covers the whole road.
What to we do? Push the brakes and attempt to stop the vehicle before impact. As we know, the car won’t stop instantly, it takes time and space to do so.
This is fairly easy to understand, and the principles apply directly to the ability to control our sword strikes. Now let’s imagine we are parked a short distance from this wall and want to get our car as close to it as possible, in the shortest amount of time possible. You would (more or less) hit the gas as hard as you can, and then when you are the exact right distance you switch and hit the brakes as hard as you can. The speed of the vehicle now looks more like this1.
There are many things that can change this. How good are you at estimating your stopping distance, and how much buffer do you need? How much time do you need to move your foot between the two pedals? How good are your brakes themselves? All of these have parallels to fencing, and they are a product of the strength, coordination, and (most importantly) the training of the individual delivering the strike.
This is why you can see experienced martial artists perform freeplay at very high speeds while still being relatively safe. They have learned exactly how much time they need to decelerate their blade before impact, and have trained to make that very short.
Now let’s change the goal a bit. Instead of stopping the vehicle before impact, we want to blast through it, doing as much damage as possible. The parallel to swordfighting is obvious, with a sword we want to deal as much damage to the opponent’s body as possible with our attack. The red line represents what would happen if the car didn’t slow down.
In addition to not slowing down, look how much shorter that red line is. Why is that? Because you don’t lose speed and get to the target much quicker. Let’s take a look at what that means from a martial arts perspective.
1) Less time and space to defend
As it should be obvious, your opponent has less time to react. The situation can easily occur that they have the opportunity to defend against a blow that was intended to stop before contact, while they would not have time to defend against a blow that was delivered with intent.
2) More demanding structure from your opponent
Let’s suppose you do get the parry in. You will find it massively different in terms of what sort of strength and structure is required to receive the blow.
Force gap is somewhat of a misleading term, but it captures the essence of it being more difficult to deal with a blade that is coming at you faster.
3) Body structure
This one is a little harder to capture in a simple graph, but fairly intuitive. If the opponent has already started arresting their blow before they make contact then they are in effect helping you make your parry.
To explain it another way, imagine you want to push a car backwards.
Wouldn’t it be much easier if the car was already giving it some gas in reverse? If a fighter has begun to decelerate their weapon they are engaging different muscles and consequently have a different structure. It’s not the same as just receiving the same strike with more or less applied power, it’s like using a different gear.
The Myth of Control
When I say ‘Myth of Control’ I am referring to the idea that it is possible to have enough control to deliver strikes of realistic intent, and yet still be able to arrest the motion right before contact*. By definition if you are adding something for safety, you are no longer using identical form. The blade interactions are no longer the same.
(Unless you just have really weak striking mechanics to begin with, but that’s a story for another day.)
*Or contact light enough not to injure and unprotected person, yada, yada, yada….
The Truth of Control
Does this mean that utilizing and training good control isn’t important after all?
This isn’t to say that there is no value in activities such as no-gear sparring. This is a great activity, and I would encourage everyone to engage in it at an intensity suitable to their experience and level of control.
This is to say that such an approach creates a very distorted view of how the weapons interact when they strike each other; specifically the level of force required required to defend, and time available to do so. This isn’t always a huge deal in and of itself, as practitioners who are used to dealing with higher speed and force impacts can recognize this and know what was and was not realistic about the intent they were fencing at. After all, everything we do has artefacts, and it is about complimenting them with knowledge and experience gained from other activities.
What is problematic is when this is used as a single basis for creation and validation of interpretations. I have seen so many instructors proud to explain their brilliant techniques, only to have them fall apart when someone started swinging a little harder.
So practice your control. It’s truly a wonderful sight to see to fighters exchanging quick and precise bladework while being able to stop the finishing blow a hair above the opponent’s body. Just be aware the exchange may have gone much differently if it was performed with cuts thrown in earnest.
Appendix A – Please don’t comment that:
So you are saying all fighters should be trying to clobber each other as hard as possible all the time?
No. It’s a bad idea to swing harder than you can control, and tends to be self correcting as you get hit a lot. But all else being equal, making your strikes more difficult for your opponent to deal with is always a good thing.
Good cutting mechanics is about finesse, not hitting hard!
This is true. I understand cutting very well, I both instruct and compete in cutting events at a high level. However most of the good aspects of cutting mechanics emphasize getting the blade to hit as hard as possible, while having your body not swing so hard. Good structure and good tip rotation make it easier on your body, but the sword itself is delivering much more energy. Additionally I don’t know of a single cutting instructor worth their salt who would say that given the same quality of form, a cut delivered with more force wouldn’t penetrate deeper.
Parry a strike that would elegantly cut through a tatami mat, and a strike that was intended to stop before contact and you will feel a massive difference.
Why are you advocating constantly hitting people super hard all the time? That is disrespectful to our training partners!
There is nothing saying that every blow has to land at high intent. Should an opponent be out of position and are wide open neither of you gain anything from smoking them with a stiff blow. Additionally you should NEVER be attempting to hit anyone harder than the level of intent they were prepared to engage with.
The key takeaway here is that you need to be aware what and how strikes intended to stop before contact can distort things.
Doing it this way is so unsafe! There will be injuries.
“No matter what, you should not do anything that isn’t safe given the equipment and experience of the participants. Nothing I am advocating is a reason to exhibit behavior that is unsafe for you, your training partners, or competitors.”
– Sean Franklin, top of the page
No matter what, you always strike with enough control to not be a danger to yourself or others. Not a difficult concept.
1 A vehicle will typically accelerate about as third as fast as it brakes, not equally as has been shown in these sketches. The human body follows some crazy non-linear acceleration and deceleration profiles depending on the exact movement and configuration of the body at that given instance in time.