Developing Tactical Senses

This is the second part in a series on Awareness. Part 1 explored how to develop your ability to recall and diagnose what’s happening in combat through three games. In this post I’m going to delve into the second definition of awareness:

Feeling, experiencing, or noticing something (such as a sound or sensation).


Being able to perceive in a precise and accurate manner is essential to a tactical response in combat. For my purposes the definition I use for tactics in martial arts is:

Conditioned response to threats and opportunities as they develop.

“Conditioned” is the important part of this. Within an environment that develops as quickly as a sword fight there is no time to actively reason your way out of it. You enter with a plan and then your conditioning comes forward to execute appropriate tactical responses in the situations you encounter.

There are three parts to successful tactical response:

Perception: Can you identify a stimulus when it occurs, in a timely enough fashion, to be able to respond to it at combative speeds?

Appropriate Response:  Do you choose the appropriate response to accomplish your combative goal against it?

Motor Program: Do you execute the response in a well-ordered and efficient manner so it can successfully meet its objective?

The tactical response chain begins with perception. If you read the situation incorrectly or too slow, you’ll never make the right choices in time.

The Eyes Are Too Slow

If you’ve ever played the coin snatch game, you know that it’s rather difficult to stop someone from grabbing a coin from your hand. One of the primary reasons for this is when you rely on your eyes to perceive the approaching hand, and then send the command from your brain to your hand to close, the communication loop is too slow to prevent the coin from being snatched. This is true for returning a tennis serve or parrying a sword blow, as well. Relying simply on watching the ball or sword come toward you will not be fast enough for correct action.

Observation of Pre-Movements

The way that a tennis player gets to the right part of the court and successfully makes a return against a 140mph serve is by quickly analyzing the movements leading up to the serve that give away the power and placement. The same powerful observation skills are at work in a seasoned martial artist.

Multi-Sensory Perception

The picture of your environment is informed through your brain's ability to powerfully synthesize data from all of your senses. In a martial environment the senses of sight, touch, and sound are all creating your combative picture, often more than you might expect.

Observation Oriented Sparring & Drilling

In an open sparring environment it is very easy to become inwardly focused and thus have a reduced picture of your opponent. This most commonly happens when you are:

  • Focusing on your body’s movements and mechanics.
  • Trying to consciously think through the fight or are struggling with other internal dialogs.
  • Single-mindedly seeking an opening or executing a rigid plan.

Designate a time within your practice for observation-only practice. Slow fencing, scaling speed fencing, exercises like immortal/immortal as well as tactical drilling can all be pursued with your core aim being the opening of your perception. Focus on:

  • Staying relaxed. Just as a relaxed muscle is faster to react, so is a relaxed mind. Bring your internal attention to your breathing while continuing to take in your environment with your eyes.
  • Keeping a fuzzy focus view. Don’t become fixated with your eyes, keep a soft gaze that takes in your whole opponent.

Developing Feeling

Touch generates a super-fast reaction due to the fact that the sensation doesn't have to travel back to the brain to be processed. This is achieved through a Reflex Arc that takes the haptic feedback directly to the spine and out to the motor system without higher level cognitive processing.

You can hone the use of this system through focused tactical drilling (drills that give you A or B type selections based on a stimulus) and games that narrow combat experience to the tactile realm.

Three Pressures Exercise

Ability to respond to pressure in the crossing of swords is a central part of swordsmanship with all weapons. There are three core types of pressure: 1. stable or light pressure, 2. lateral pressure, 3. downward pressure.

This Duello.TV Scholar lesson for Sidesword describes appropriate tactical responses (applicable to longsword as well) and at 8:57 examines how to drill them tactically:

Sticky Sword

The sticky sword exercise is a useful way to play with the pressures while bringing the skills closer to the combat environment. This exercise should be practiced with appropriate protective gear for the speed you are going.

  1. Join swords at an even crossing with your partner in the middle of your blades.
  2. Attempt to strike with a cut or thrust while maintaining contact at all times with your partner's sword.
  3. If you lose contact or change to the opposite side of their blade reacquire contact immediately.
  4. If you strike without having contact, your hit is invalid.

Stay relaxed. There is a middle ground you need to find between having enough tone in your muscles to feel through your weapon and being relaxed enough that you can respond quickly to pressure changes as they occur.

The Sound of Conflict

As we have explored, the visual system is by far our slowest combat sense, our haptic system is a bit faster (about 40ms), but by far our fastest system is hearing. The Ear's Don't Lie episode of Radio Lab, featuring researcher Seth Horowitz, digs further into this subject. Here is a small transcription:

"Hearing is our fastest sense. (Who knew?!) Horowitz says that it takes our brain at least one-quarter of a second to process visual recognition. But sound? You can recognize a sound in 0.05 seconds. And our brain is so adept at hearing the differences between sounds, we can sense changes of sound that occur in "less than a millionth of a second," according to Horowitz's book. Why this need for auditory speed? It's our evolutionarily-shaped emergency response system. It let our ancestors hear a twig snap in the woods at night, when all was supposed to be quiet and they couldn't see. Yet, for most of us, we're wired to tune out non-essential sound, so the world doesn't feel like a sensory overload."

Having done a fair bit of training while wearing various levels of head protection—from heavily padded helmets, to lighter fencing masks, to no head covering at all—I myself wonder how much my ability to react is altered when my head protection impedes my ability to perceive? There is so much data in the sound of contact between two blades, my opponent’s shoes on the floor, or even their inhalation before the exertion of an attack or defense. Being able to hear in your protective equipment is undoubtedly an untapped advantage. It is also further evidence that if you want to perform at a high level in an at-speed environment, you should make sure you are training in equipment and under conditions that match the combat environment you'll be entering.

Keep an eye out next week for the final part in this series on combative awareness.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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