Musing on Speed

“Now I say, that a weak Man, either by Nature or more Practice than a strong Man, may be swifter, and in course stronger in his Thrusts, and his Parades, by that natural Suppleness, or acquired Spring.” John Godfrey, A treatise on the useful Science of Defence 1747

Force is about the speed, or rather the acceleration of your actions. On its simplest level if Force is about Mass times Acceleration: it is much, much simpler to increase your capacity for acceleration than your mass. Of course good swordsman do both by engaging their whole weight however proportionately the richest pickings are in improving acceleration or speed as we perceive it, delivering faster actions.

This involves understanding that a big slow action might look "powerful" but the result in reality will be equally, or even less, forceful than a small but fast action. It's not about "strength v's speed" but "more strength through speed."

What's at work here is static strength v’s explosive strength. Static strength is about moving the heaviest weight possible, to reach maximum potential you do so slowly and evenly. Explosive strength is about getting as much force out as quickly as possible, it’s about making the fastest burst possible. Sword fighting rarely involves slowly and consistently pushing at things, those sword fighters who fantasize that this is what binding is about are doomed to eternal frustration.

So, we should train to be fast. But most people off the street can already hit fast, in fact we spend a lot of time slowing them down to learn better form. However in sparring their speed often brings them victory over slow fighters with good form. Thus leading to a lot of frustration especially if you've spent weeks, months or years drilling your perfect form at a snails pace to only get consistently hit by faster newbies.

My experience is that bad form, after a little practice at high intensity, is a great inhibitor of speed but the key point is that you have to be working at high intensity before this makes a difference. Correct guard positions are subtle positioning that allow you to bring more explosive strength to your actions through engaging your whole body, reducing reaction time by generating flow and having your sword automatically move into the optimum place. None of which matters if you're operating a full half or quarter the time of your opponent.  

Importantly its worth highlighting that physical speed is only one component of the "speed skill-set". The other is your reaction time: if you have to stop and think about your next action in terms of setting up your mechanics, timing and measure then it doesn't matter how fast you flick your wrist or turn your body.  Ironically training at slow speed actually makes you worse than the guy off the street because in their ignorance they are not having to do much more thinking beyond "hit the other guy."

Thus bringing me to the point of this ramble: your training must aim to quickly bring your swordsmanship up to the highest intensity while maintaining your form. Slow training should only be tolerated for as long as necessary to attain a basic understanding of mechanics because it breeds poor skills both in terms of reaction skills and physical explosive actions. You can be introduced to concepts such as timing, measure or mechanics at slow speeds but you cannot learn them. 


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