Training to Relax for the Very Tense

Being relaxed is a key component to good fencing. Relaxed muscles are quicker to respond, easier to adapt and change, and more capable of feeling connections through your weapon. Yet, so many of us have a difficult time being relaxed or even being aware of our current state of tension. In this article I'd like to present a pathway for discovering and cultivating relaxation in your own swordplay practice, even if you tend to a very tense person.

Discover Relaxation

Being relaxed for many of us takes a conscious effort, yet simply thinking "relax" might have the opposite effect. Under stress, it can be difficult to identify one's current state of tension or changes in it. The first stage to bringing greater relaxation into your fighting is curiosity.

Curiosity itself can be relaxing in nature. It is non-judgmental and interested. To effectively bring it into sparring, I recommend starting at slow speeds. This is less mentally taxing and will allow you to bring your internal perception toward the state of your body. Your goal is to identify when you are relaxed and when you are tense and become aware of when that changes. Look to the symptoms first. Are your hands tight or loose? Is your jaw clenched or relaxed? Is your breathing quick or slow?

If you have a difficult time identifying your relaxed state while fencing, try light wrestling with a helpful partner. Light wrestling can be a more perceptive state because you do not have any intermediary tools between you and your partner. Your partner can also do two things for you: 1. Remind you to relax both through their words and physical cues (like tensing and relaxing with you, or giving tense parts of you a bit of a shake, or simply saying "relax"). 2. Being aware of when they sense changes in the state of your muscle tension and telling you ("you feel like you tensed up there.").

The goal at this point is not to exert control over your state, but simply become aware and observant of it. Answer these questions:

  • Where do you feel tension in your body? (arms, neck, jaw, chest, etc)
  • What does relaxation feel like? (in your muscles, in your breath, in your mind)
  • When does it change? (when I feel lost, when I feel challenged, when I feel competitive)

You do not need to answer these questions on a piece of paper for them to be useful. Nor do you need to limit yourself to only these. Feed your curiosity to develop a holistic sense of what relaxation feels like. Once you have that sense, it's time for stage 2.

Give It A Name

My friend Guy Windsor is the first person who turned me on to this technique from the book Zen and the Art of Tennis. When you discover the feeling of the right way to move, generate power, or, in this case, be relaxed, penning the symptoms of that state into a list of properties or techniques can be difficult, and generally, not useful. Instead, when you become aware of your state of relaxation, give it a name. On a holistic level, what does it feel like to you? Students of mine have labeled this state "gooey", "fluid", "supple", but even the name "Fred" will do. Giving the whole experience a name can make it easier to grab on to, identify, and cultivate, without having to see it as a list of symptoms.

When you're next drilling, sparring, or exercising, ask yourself how "Fred" is doing? Are you experiencing that state or something else? You can also empower your trusted coaches or training partners to check in on this state by calling it by name.

Cultivate It

As your comfort builds with identifying your relaxed state, it's time to begin actively moving toward it. Make finding "Fred" the purpose of a portion of your training. During that training, take other success objectives off the table and simply move toward that state. Don't be hard on yourself. Use the same curiosity as stage 1 but with a bit more intent. I recommend looking for it in drills, slow sparring, and fast sparring. Figure out where you find it easiest and really seek to understand it and fully open up to it there. Once you feel that you can find that state reliably in easier places like slow sparring, it's time to...

Put Relaxation Under Pressure

Relaxation and pressure might seem like polar opposites. They are in a sense. Perhaps that's what started you on this journey. However, as I stated at the outset, the best fighters are those that are capable of keeping calm under fire. The state you're seeking is at once relaxed and focused. "Readiness" requires mental presence and physical ease.

Once you feel you can find your relaxed state in easier practice begin to use tactical drills, scaling speed exercises, and psychological pressure exercises to put your new state under stress. The goal, in this case, is not technical but one of developing the discipline of being relaxed but present. As you feel that state leaving you, use some conscious energy to bring it back. If you can't, then bring the exercise down a pressure-notch and restore your calm. When you've found it again, turn up the heat while seeking to maintain your calm.

By moving up and down the ladder you can gradually cultivate the ability to keep your relaxed state even under extreme pressure. It is partly acclimatization (getting used to the pressure) and strengthening the mental ability.

How Long Does This Take?

This really depends on the person and the circumstance. Some make great headway in a day and can move from stage one to stage four in a session. Others need much more time simply to discover what relaxation feels like.

Don't worry too much about the full journey at this point. If you feel that a bit more relaxation could do you some good, then commit to making 5-10 minutes of curiosity oriented practice a part of your routine this week. Share your goal with a training partner you trust and enjoy the experience.

Regardless of where you are, let me tell you, the journey is worth it. Be patient with yourself and know that every person starts this journey at a different spot. Just like developing martial skills, the more time you can devote, the faster you can progress. Yet, even a small amount of time adds up if you are able to make it on a regular basis.

Other Avenues

Do I recommend other, non-fighting, avenues of cultivating relaxation? Certainly. I'm a big advocate of meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices that have an aim to reduce stress and promote relaxation. These can be great places to discover and name your state of relaxation. You can then use that new awareness to help cultivate that same experience in your martial practice.

I wish everyone well in their meditative practice this week, whether that's in lotus position or fighting position.


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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