PERCEPTION AND CENTERING
It is important to be totally within yourself to fight. If you are moved by outside forces, you lose control to the extent that they move you. If you commit mentally to a direction, to an action, or to an inaction, it can be as detrimental as a bad physical movement. For instance, if you are expecting to hit your opponent in the leg while blocking his head blow, you are likely to be completely foiled if he or she is successful at blocking your blow, while striking for your leg instead of your head.
You should strive to be totally ready, but not ready for any specific thing. In that way you will not have to stop committing to a mental pattern before you do what you need to do. Also, if you are not watching for a particular motion or situation, you will notice any others that occur.
Think of your mental approach to fighting as a three-position switch. The three positions are forward, reverse, and neutral. If you are in reverse, mentally, and you have to change to forward, you must first go back to neutral before going forward. This can cause a fatal hesitation. This is a very simple analogy, since during a fight there are numerous ways in which you can commit or anticipate. During a fight, the switch has a multitude of settings, not just three. There is still a neutral, though, and that is where you should stay, unless actively doing something.
Try to make the whole fight a single entity, so that any movement is noticed and acted upon. Act as if the fight is a dance, where your partner's actions influence yours, and vise-versa. Waltzing is a good analogy. In this dance, pressure from your partnerís hands indicates directions of movement. One movement leads to a set of other movements, so a degree of anticipation is quite possible. Fighting is like waltzing three feet apart. The movements of your opponent's body, sword and shield act like the hands of your dance partner to push or pull you. Try to get to the point where you can feel a swing push you out of the way, or pull your shield into it. Try to get to the point where the motions of your opponent's body draw your sword to the openings towards which these motions lead.
Well over half of the information in normal discourse is through body language. It is likely that we are all adept at receiving and processing the information presented by this medium. During combat, no information is passed by speaking or through facial expression and tone of voice, so we are left with body language.
It is important to pay attention the motions in your opponent's actions. Motions can include gross movements, like a molinet', or subtle things, such as a small rotation of the sword hand before a swing. They can include obvious movements, such as leaning into each step of a forward walk, or things less obvious, as a slight weight shift back during the block of a leg blow.
Any of these can provide the evidence to tell you what the next move will be, thereby allowing you to start your defense or counter-attack before your opponent actually starts to perform the attack itself. It is also important to pay attention to the patterns in your opponentís movement or lack of movement. These include the habit of standing motionless too long, walking in a repeat pattern of steps, waving the sword up and down, swinging the shoulders from side to side, or attacking with the same sequence of blows, time after time.
Any of these can provide very usable information about timing and intent.
In the case where you opponent is waving his sword up and down, it is quite possible to time the points in the pattern of movement where it is impossible to swing the sword forward. In this example, one such point is halfway through the downward movement of the blade.
In the case where an opponent has not moved for too long, subtler cues, such as a slight slumping of the shoulders, indicate that the intent has shifted momentarily to not moving, rather than readiness to attack or defend. A quick attack at this moment can often succeed.
In the martial arts, as well as in many sports, after the physical techniques have been mastered, the game becomes mostly mental. The perception and anticipation so important in fighting cannot be achieved unless the mind is centered, as well as the body. I have known several fighters who did not perform up to their potential, despite possessing remarkable physical gifts, and being technically adept, because they never managed to master the mental game. They would always succumb to "tourney jitters", or "psych themselves out".
The state of mind that I prefer to employ is a calm, but very intense, attentiveness. By calm, I do not mean relaxed. Fighting requires me to "turn things up a notch", thus the intensity. What I mean is being free of concerns and distractions, while being focused on the business at hand. I try to turn myself into a very sensitive receptor of cues, being ready to instantly react properly to any stimulus.
There are several ways of dealing with this. The method I find most effective for me is to practice the mental game in other settings, where the pressure of a tournament is not present. The main venue for this is on the practice field, and usually during exercises, rather than actual sparring. However, it is also important to be able to bring this mental preparedness to the tourney field. A useful method in helping with the translation is to include some events in practice that are also present in tourneys. When one of these events occur in the tourney setting, it will help to call up the state of mind you worked with in practice.
Use a standard salute every time you engage in a practice exercise that involves a partner. This will associate the act of saluting with the unpressured calm intensity that you should employ in practice. When this same salute is used in a tourney setting, it will act as a cue for you to get in that same frame of mind.
I like to include a motion of my sword that eventually moves in towards my stomach, pulling me into my center. I follow this with a sweeping motion of my shield which pulls my opponent into me, as if he or she was a dance partner, and a simultaneous backward sweep of my sword, as it moves to my shoulder, to pull me into the dance.
I don't claim any great knowledge of this area of endeavor. However, from what I have heard, the state of mind that I try to achieve for fighting is similar to the one used in Zen meditation. If you have some sort of meditation exercise with which you are familiar, use it. Personally, I prefer the "active" meditations, where the meditation is incorporated into some sort of movement. Performing Karate katas is a good example. The exercises listed below are some that I have found helpful in this respect.
- Slow work is great. It is better with a partner, but can be done with a pell.
- Repetitive movement exercises, like alternate step-punches in Karate are good. It is best to construct very short combinations that are circular in that you end up in the same position from which you started, so that the exercise can be repeated.
For instance, the first move could be a standard snap. The second move could be an overhead return with a shield block at the same time. Since you can snap from this position, the movements could be repeated. More complex sets can be devised, incorporating stepping.
Don't get too complicated. Also, try to write down a description once you figure out a good one.
- Breathing exercises are good. The one I use is described in appendix D.
- Learn to play Go. The importance here is not to learn the mechanics of the game, but rather to develop a feel for, and a perception of, the flow and pattern of the game. Go is a very abstract analog of fighting. The flow and patterns are similar, but in Go they are simplified, and they move slowly.