How Practice Works

We love fighting, right? We all love fighting. That’s why we do it. But are we good at fighting? Does being good at fighting even matter?

It does matter. For a start, being good at fighting – our style of mock-fighting, that is – means that we can be safer. We throw fewer bad hits.

Secondly, No-one likes being beaten all the time. Even if you, like me, put very little store in being the best, winning fights is fun.

At the Hundred Swords, we have two types of gathering – game, and training. The purpose of training is to get better at what you do, and the reasons we do it are the two reasons I mentioned at the top of this post – safety and effectiveness in games. So I encourage all of our players to use the time set aside for training, so that our games are more fun and enjoyable for everyone.

I am often saying things like “the more you do something, the better you get at it”. And this is sort of true. Repeatedly doing a thing makes you very good at doing that thing repeatedly. But for a skill such as fighting, you need to practice. And by practice, I mean a very specific kind of practice.

Deliberate Practice

You see, just doing something over and over again isn’t enough. If you really want to get good, you need to use something called deliberate practice. This stems from the work of a professor at Florida State University named Anders Ericsson. The whole idea is fairly complex, but it boils down to this:

You need to set a specific goal, you need to get immediate feedback, and you need to concentrate on technique rather than outcome. You also need to push yourself just a little bit more each time.

We all love to play within our comfort zone. It’s easy and we know how everything works and what’s what. But if we consistently stay inside our comfort zone, we never improve. The purpose of training is to make our comfort zone bigger – to extend it to cover more new situations and techniques.

When training, identify those aspects of your fighting that you are not satisfied with, and work on them. Find a training partner who is willing to work with you. Experienced fighters are generally more than happy to work with recruits – after all, the more people who can play well, the more fun the game.

Practice to address your weak spots. If you get hit in your left leg a lot, focus on that for a while. If you are consistently hitting too hard, concentrate on that. Set a goal, get immediate feedback from an experienced player, and work on the techniques. Start slow and get gradually faster. Constantly push yourself just a little bit outside your comfort zone – not too much at a time, or you will get overwhelmed.

Train for safety

Always remember that safety is our primary concern, so you should make that a focus of your training. If you find yourself doing a lot of unsafe shots, put a priority on that for a while. You should be in a position where you are good enough that your shots rarely go where you don’t intend them to, and on those occasions when they do, you instinctively mitigate the harm that they might be doing.

Train to pull your hits. Hit fast, but don’t hit hard. This can be tricky to get used to, but it is worth spending time on. No-one likes being hit hard. There’s a sweet spot where you can pull a fast shot back at the very last moment so that you hit firmly, but not solidly. Tap, don’t slap. Make sure you hit with a strong wrist – don’t “flick”. Practice this with an unresisting opponent at first, then spar slowly with them, concentrating on these firm but pulled shots. Gradually increase your speed until you can do a pulled shot at full speed.

Train for accuracy. Train to hit specific called points on your opponent’s body – say, the upper left arm. Practice several times with an unresisting opponent, making sure you hit that exact spot each time. Then spar slowly, aiming specifically for that spot. Don’t aim for anything else. Your training partner should leave that spot open occasionally so that you learn to spot when a location is vulnerable. Again, gradually increase your speed until you get to full speed. Then choose a different spot and do it all again.

Train for effectiveness

If you are new, use training to become safe and effective with a single-handed sword, or sword and shield, or two-weapon – whichever you feel most comfortable with. Do not be embarrassed about asking to train with a more experienced player. It is the experienced players who will push you out of your comfort zone and give you the skills that you need in order to be safe and effective in your play. Go slow at first – concentrate on good, safe technique and simple moves. Don’t try to use speed bursts or fancy feints. Just to the simple attacks and defences, and build up your speed gradually. Stop frequently and talk about what just happened. Think about and deconstruct the moves you have just made. Then start sparring again, using the technique you have just talked about. Above all else, remember that you are training for safety as much as you are for effectiveness.

If you are more experienced and have played a few games with just the simple weapons, pick an exotic weapon that appeals to you and start training with that. Borrow one to start with, and find a training partner who is experienced with that weapon. Again, start slow with basic attacks and defences. Push yourself just a little bit each time. If you find that you’re not enjoying that weapon, try a different one. And never forget to keep going back to the simple weapons from time to time.

Advanced players will want to keep training as much as they can to keep their skills honed. Skills will diminish over time – if you take a break or get complacent, you will suddenly find that you aren’t as quick as you once were, or that someone’s developed a technique that you haven’t worked out yet. You need to keep training in all the weapons you are qualified in.

Remember: a good fighter will practice a technique until they can do it right. A great fighter will practice a technique until they can’t do it wrong.

There is an excellent episode of the Freakonomics Podcast called How To Become Great At Just About Anything which goes into detail on Anders Ericsson’s theories and how they can be applied in other contexts. It takes only a little imagination to apply them to fighting.

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