Most SCA fencers hate drills. They come to practice to have fun fighting with their friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, this can be frustrating for fencers who want to take a more structured approach to improving their game. Drills generally involve a partner willing to stand there doing the same basic move a few dozen times, and it can be hard to convince others to give up their fun time to be a target dummy.
The drills laid out here are one of the possible answers to this problem. All of these drills can be done at a standard SCA practice without anyone else changing their play one bit. In these exercises, the fencer doing the drill restricts their own play to emphasize certain aspects of fencing which they desire to improve, while their partner just fights as normal. For most of these drills, you don’t even have to tell your partner what you’re doing.
These drills are intended as a useful and entertaining supplement to both bouting and standard two-person drills. They are not a replacement for either, just a way to sneak a little bit of structure into a casual practice.
Drill #1: Don’t parry
This drill is exactly what it sounds like: The fencer performing the drill is not allowed to let the opponent’s blade touch their blade. No parries, no beats, no contact at all either given or received. All defense is achieved by footwork, voids, and preemption.
It is absolutely essential to keep your blade on line and in a position to threaten the opponent. Presenting a credible threat is the only way to control distance in this drill. Meso tempo (counter-attacks in the middle of the opponent’s action) are very effective and useful here.
This drill is derived from a Russian Olympic foil fencing drill, and was actually the inspiration for this whole approach to drilling.
The purpose of this drill is to force the fencer to use all their tools to protect themselves, rather than just their blade. It’s also a great way to force lead-footed fencers to get used to moving around more. If you have a student who doesn’t use voids, this is the drill for them.
Things to watch
- Sloppy footwork. Just because you’re moving fast doesn’t mean you can’t move with precision. Don’t drag your feet, don’t cross your feet, keep your weight centered and balanced.
- Running away. This drill will force the fencer to move around quite a bit, but that movement should be aimed at keeping the fencer safe while staying in range for their own counterattacks. Merely staying out of range is nothing but a different form of failure.
- Leaving the blade off line. Even if you’re avoiding a particular attack purely with footwork, it will be very difficult to regain control of the fight unless your weapon is in position to make a quick attack or threat.
Drill #2: Don’t Move
The fencer performing the drill plants the heel of their rear foot against a solid fixed object such as a wall, tree, curb, or post. For the duration of the drill, this rear heel must remain in contact with the object.
This drill does require some minor cooperation by the opponent. Since the person doing the drill is fixed, the opponent has to take responsibility for resetting out of range after a bout, entering into range in the first place, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask your opponent to reset or adjust.
This drill can also be done without an object, but I strongly recommend doing it with a physical prop the first few times. It’s very easy to fool yourself that the heel is planted when it’s actually moving around.
This drill teaches a number of different things, not least that it’s possible to fence like this and survive. Many fencers instinctively take a step backwards when their opponent advances. They don’t really believe in their gut that bladework is sufficient to defend themselves. This drill instills that belief the hard way, assuming the fencer survives.
It also teaches range, since fighting effectively from this stance requires that the fencer be exquisitely conscious of the moment their opponent enters into measure.
Things to watch
- Attacking too soon. If the person doing the drill fires off attacks before the opponent is actually in range, they’ll give their opponent a great advantage and not have the opportunity to really learn what the drill has to teach.
- Creeping forward. It’s very easy for a fencer to cheat themselves by sneaking forward a bit, thus providing themselves with a little room to run away without going past the fixed object.
- Fighting too close or too far. Because the person doing the drill can’t control the range, some opponents will (consciously or unconsciously) try to game the drill by fighting outside of range or just overrun the static fencer.
Drill #3: Offhand Parries Only
The fencer performing the drill can only touch their opponent’s blade with their offhand. No parries, no beats, no contact at all either given or received with the sword. This drill works equally well with an empty hand, dagger, or any other parrying device.
Some fencers have a very tough time with this drill and are just unable to stop themselves from using the sword as primary defence. If necessary, the fencer’s sword can be replaced with a pool noodle or something similarly floppy. The idea is that the floppy weapon can thrust, but lacks the rigidity necessary to parry. This looks ridiculous, but it really does work. However, it should be viewed as an intermediate step to the full version of the drill.
This drill is almost a hybrid of the previous two. It is intended to beat out the reflexive use of the sword as the primary response to an incoming attack and to teach an instinctive reliance on the offhand. By successfully defending themselves with just the offhand, they learn at a gut level that they really can survive without committing their sword.
This drill also teaches the fencer to keep their offhand in position after a parry, since they’ll need it to parry the next attack as well.
Things to watch
- Keeping the sword too far offline. Many fencers, knowing their sword is the first response tool, take it completely offline. This slows the counterattack and makes it hard to take advantage of the opportunities provided by successful offhand parries.
- Staying in refused guard too much. It’s helpful to be in an offhand-forward guard for this drill, but not necessary.
- Becoming too defensive. The fact that the sword can’t touch doesn’t mean it can’t initiate a sequence with a good threatening attack.
- Hitting too hard. Because the sword generally starts farther back or offline in this drill, it’s easy to bring it forward with excessive force.
Drill #4: Attack first
The fencer performing the drill must launch the first attack in a particular exchange. The attack does not have to land, of course, but it must be a real attempt to hit the opponent, not just a throwaway feint.
This drill should not be done on every exchange. The fencer should randomly choose about half of their exchanges for the drill, deciding before they initially enter into range for the exchange.
An ideal opponent for this drill is actually someone who tends to attack first. Taking the first shot against a defensively-inclined opponent doesn’t really teach anything.
The primary goal of this drill is to break fencers out of a passive, counter-punching mindset. It forces the fencer to actively create holes in their opponent’s defenses, rather than waiting for openings to come to them.
A secondary goal is learning to control when your opponent can attack. Throwing your own attack is only half the drill. The other half is making sure the opponent does not attack first. Distance, threats, and quick shifts of guard are useful in keeping the opponent on the defensive until you’re ready to throw the shot.
Finally, this drill helps inculcate a certain attitude in the fencer, a willingness to say (at least in their head) “This is my fight. It will happen at my pace. You get to enter range when I say you enter range, you get to attack when I say you can attack.”
Things to watch
- Failing to present a real attack. One way to make this drill easier on yourself is to make a weak throwaway attack and then quickly return to guard, satisfying the letter of the drill but not the spirit. Don’t cheat yourself.
- Simultaneous attacks with your opponent. If the fencer fails to read their opponent, their attacks may happen simultaneously, leading to an ugly train wreck.
Drill #5: Drawing a specific movement
Before each exchange, the fencer chooses a particular move they want to draw from their opponent. This move can either be defensive (high offhand parry, body void to the left, etc.) or offensive (shot to the right thigh, hand snipe on the offhand, etc.)
Again, the fencer should choose their target movement before entering into range. Every time the fencer succeeds in drawing the target movement, they should choose a new target for the next bout.
Successfully drawing the target movement should be considered a half-victory in this drill. For full success, the fencer should be taking advantage of the response. For example, if a particular attack is drawn then that attack has to also be parried for the engagement to be considered a full success. If a parry is drawn, the fencer must successfully avoid the parry and continue the attack. Actually killing the opponent is gravy.
The primary goal of this drill is to help the fencer practice fighting at second intention. The opponent ceases to be random and becomes a puzzle to be solved. “I want to create situation X, so I need to do Y then Z…”
Secondarily, this is a drill about invitations. The fencer is driven to use a wide variety of invitations for different targets, and hopefully will learn to recognize the same invitations when they’re used against them. Ideally, practicing these invitations will also help the fencer appreciate the virtues of a good central guard as well.
Things to watch
- Setting generic goals. Since success and failure is judged by the fencer themselves, it’s important to set goals that are specific enough to be challenging. It’s too easy to settle for “I got my opponent to lunge”, rather than “I got my opponent to lunge in second for right shoulder.”
- Not changing target movements often enough. It can be easy to fall into relying on a few standard tools in this drill, rather than exploring the full space of possibilities.