The Art of Self-Control

“If you wish to control others, you must first control yourself.”

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

All of the techniques that we teach as part of fencing require a certain physical and mental discipline.  The physical discipline is in making your body perform the correct micro- and macro-movements properly, in the correct sequence, at the correct time.  The mental discipline is in learning the techniques’ strength and weaknesses, timing the appropriate moment, and seeing or creating opportunities to use them to your advantage (among many other things).  All of these require you to be in control of your hands, feet, weapon, position in space, and where you are looking.  Self-control is developed in fencing in many ways:

“This discipline calls for knowledge and practice: when practiced, it becomes knowledge.”

-Nicoletto Giganti

The first aspect of self-control is making yourself do all of the short-term work for the anticipated long-term gain.  Anyone who has rolled out of a warm bed early in the morning to go for a jog or do a few dozen lunges before starting their day has demonstrated that ability.  If you make yourself do a few dozen pasada sotos or crouching stop-hits after you are done on your run, you are showing extreme self-control.  Self-control means practicing when you don’t want to, when you are tired, and when you are busy, because you know it will help you improve.

“Do nothing that is of no use.”  

– Musashi

Another aspect of self-control is in not doing more than you have to do*.  In combat, particularly in fencing, success is about efficiency, not strength.  The combatant who uses less energy to maintain his or her threat to the other and hold a solid defense will win out over a less-efficient fighter.  Beginning students often flail about with their blades, wearing themselves out quickly. A talented fellow instructor, Emily Moore, charmingly calls this phenomenon “blade vomit.” This is not to say that a beginner shouldn’t have this problem – the body reacts to stressful situations by creating the “fight or flight” response and makes it hard to move precisely and deliberately.

However, the more advanced student forces herself to use minimal effort, often embracing movements that use the opponent’s momentum against them.  This efficiency and self-control is often how we evaluate an opponent – precise, controlled movements are the hallmark of a dangerous fencer.  It has been said that the lazy fencer is the successful fencer- she does what she needs to do to defeat this opponent and move on to the next, no more and no less.  Self control does not mean every attempted attack will work; even properly executed attacks often fail.  But even if a technique is ultimately unsuccessful, if it was picked and executed properly, then the fencer is acting with self-control.

 “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”  

– M. Musashi

Self-control is not necessarily about being better than your opponent, but to be better than you yourself were yesterday.  Fencers come with different talents, athletic ability, and temperament, and the winner of any one match might defeat that same opponent on a different day.  The true mark of self-control is holding yourself accountable for your own progress.  At its best, self-control means setting concrete long- and short-term goals and working toward them.

A fight is often about controlling your opponent.  You wish to make the opponent react to what you are doing, limit his options, do unexpected things, and shut down his strengths.  Until you can control what you are doing to make those things happen, you cannot expect to obtain that advantage over your opponent.  For example, if I can evade my opponent’s parry and create an opening to strike, I have controlled my opponent.  But unless I have my hand and blade positioned properly for the evasion in a way that leaves me positioned for a successful attack, then I have wasted the effort I spent to create the opening in the first place. This level of self-control allows me to both create an opportunity and properly exploit it.

*I should note that in-combat self-control differs from training self-control.  In-combat you may have an idea how long your lunge should be based on the distance to your opponent.  When training, you don’t know how many repetitions or practices will let you maintain endurance for a 25+ minute bout, so you do as many as you can.  And then one more.  And then another.  Pansy.

– Tim Maurer

"Although some of these actions may seem difficult to perform, none the less you should take care to practice them well, as all aid a man who heeds the points, lines, times, and measure that ultimately govern this activity."
Camillo Agrippa