How to Practice Predicting Your Opponent

"That is a really inefficient way to attack. What are they doing?" I think as my opponent winds up some particularly arduous looking strike. "Ah. Hitting me."

This is a scenario I have encountered on many occasions in my development. I've entered into combat with an opponent expecting a particular type of response, only to have them defy my expectations. They may do something that is foolish, inefficient, or simply unorthodox and I find myself taken off-guard because I had not properly understood what I was facing and I left too many options open to consider.

In the final part of this series on awareness, we look at the "understanding" side of awareness. Being able to recall a fight and bring your full tactical sense to bear is important to an effective response; however, you cannot approach each opponent as a blank and unknown slate. There are simply too many possibilities to manage efficiently.

Reducing to One

Hick’s law tells us that the more responses a person has to a stimulus, or the more stimuli they must process for a response, the longer it takes to cycle through those options and react.

You can respond the fastest when there is only one stimulus and only one response to that stimulus. So how do you take something that can feel as chaotic as combat and reduce it to a small number of possibilities?

  1. Employ a strategy that reduces your opponent's options.
  2. Prepare yourself for the option your opponent is most likely to choose.


When a boxer brings up her hands, not only is she bringing her weapons closer to be able to attack and defend, she is also reducing the targets that are available to her opponent. The screen of her arms force her opponent into predictable lines and thus makes her counter attacks easier.

Placing your sword in a position that only leaves openings on one side means you only need to use one type of motion to defend against all attacks. Similarly, putting your sword on top of your opponent's sword (when theirs is extended) cuts off one route of attack for your opponent and forces them to get around your weapon to find a target. This creates a similar reduction of options and predictability of outcome.

Constraint is a core part of all good combative strategy. Where things get more complex is when opponents do not respond to your constraint as you expect them to.

Managing Expectations

Fighters make decisions based on their own strategies, psychology, and experience. Some are aggressive, some forward-motivated, some deceptive, some lumbering. Every fighter is going to face a given constraint in a different way based on their knowledge and attitude.

When you put your weapon in the path of your opponent's, some may attempt to move around your sword to find a target, where's others may try to clear your weapon aside. Understanding which choice your opponent is likely to make allows you to narrow the options you need to consider and thus speed up your reaction time.

The Robot Game

In the robot game, your partner takes on the role of a simple combative robot. They devise a simple program that they execute without deviation. For example:

  • Program: whenever my opponent steps into my measure, I attack with a thrust and then recover with a parry.

Your job is to determine the robot's program (preferably while not getting hit doing so) and then creating a strategy to defeat it. For bonus points, after you've defeated the robot you can describe what you believe their program to be.

After you've played with simple one-line programs, try programs with two:

  • I always move to stay just outside of my opponent's measure.
  • Whenever my opponent changes guard, I enter and attack.

This game will help you develop your ability to quickly gain an awareness of your opponent's approach and apply a strategy that reduces the options you need to manage.

How Humans Are Like Robots

This game might seem overly simple, but once you add three or four parameters to the program the robot becomes as sophisticated as most humans are when under pressure. Because one's reactions need to be able to happen at such high speeds everything you are doing is a conditioned program of sorts. A good parry or counter-attack is a type of flinch reaction. And like a flinch, a human is inclined to give the same exact response to a stimulus even if they realize that reaction isn't serving them.

It is easy to have your awareness only extend as far as the point of your sword. A good fighter is building an understanding of their situation as soon as they see their opponent and their environment. Making a conscious practice of this awareness will help you build a base for much faster and intuitive response to combat stimuli.

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.
Read more from Devon Boorman.