The contents of this post reflect my own opinions only, and not necessarily those of Maestro Ramon Martinez, Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, or the Martinez Academy of Arms.
“You did 100 lunges? Okay, do 100 more. But this time do them right.”
This is what a former sport fencing coach of mine said to me back in my Olympic-style days, when I was in high school. I’d injured myself somehow (I don’t remember exactly what the injury was, probably a wrist-sprain) so that I couldn’t fence, but I dutifully reported to class to practice footwork all night just the same.
I decided to do 100 lunges as part of my practice that night. I was very impressed with myself once I finished, and I reported it to Gary Murray, who was my instructor at the time. He stayed straight-faced, and gave me the line written above.
My heart sunk, but it was an invaluable lesson. And even though Coach Murray gave that line to me entirely within the sport fencing context, it is a lesson that is indispensable to the training of a classical or historical fencer, as well.
It is not enough merely to practice. You have to practice correctly, to train your mind and body to fall back on proper mechanics and proper tactics. Because when all else fails, your body and mind will rely on their training. If you’ve trained improperly, when the chips are down your neuromuscular system will fail you. It has to, because you’ve given it no opportunity to help you succeed.
Maestro Ramon Martinez explains the concept in a different way: train the way you would fence, and fence the way you have trained.
At a fundamental biological level, learning fencing is about training the brain to perceive and execute specific movement patterns, and learning the ability to recognize how and when to apply those patterns. In so doing, the bones, muscles, cardiovascular system, etc. adapt along the way, as an additional benefit. As a teacher of anatomy and neuroanatomy, I’d look at it this way: every time you perform a movement, your neurons are encoding specific motor and tactical programs. In other words, little bits of programming code within a software system in your brain for “how to fence.” Your neurons only have the information they receive from your senses to write this program. Your senses of touch, vision, proprioception (our body’s sense of its own positions and movements), balance, and to a lesser extent, hearing. Your neurons can’t do this coding in the abstract, as if from a book or instruction manual – they don’t work that way. So if you are constantly feeding them the wrong information, how can you expect them to write the proper program?
And this program is vital, because in the thick of things your conscious mind is simply too slow to drive things properly on its own. It needs help from the more subconscious motor programs that we encode into ourselves. We commonly term this “muscle memory,” and it provides intuitive, effective actions. It is based on this muscle memory that, given a certain set of tactile and visual cues, my muscles can accomplish a parry-riposte on a lightning-quick attack even before my conscious mind is able to really perceive the action. This aspect of motor learning is what gives advanced martial artists and athletes the seamless, rapid, and naturally flowing sets of movements that set them apart from novices.
Yes, quantity is important. As Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Our brains are hard-wired to learn based on repetition. Therefore, the number of hours and repetitions devoted to a task will hone it and refine it. They will also help provide you the physical fitness to achieve your goals, which is a vital part of being an effective fencer or any other martial artist. But the lesson I got that day from Coach Murray, and continue to get from the Maestri Martinez, is that quality of each movement is equally vital. Otherwise bad habits develop: bad habits of movement, bad habits of posture, bad habits of attitude, bad habits of focus, bad habits of tactical choices.
Or to finish simply, I’ll paraphrase Maestro Martinez again, with a slight modification: train the way you would fence, so that when the pressure is on, you can fence the way you trained.