Evaluating Techniques & Tactics for SCA Armored Combat
When you train, you should be teaching yourself to use certain techniques and tactics well enough so that when it comes time to use them in a fight, you will know which one to use and be able to do so correctly, competently, and without hesitation. You won’t even have to think about it; it will just happen.
A master craftsman would act in a similar manner with both their techniques and tools. They can look at the job, determine what must be done, reach out for the appropriate tool (usually without looking), pick it up, and use it with a high degree of skill.
Of course, the master would have ensured that all their tools were the best ones available.
So how should you select the tools (techniques and tactics) you will use in combat? Before you can learn how to use them, you should select those that are most useful and efficient. But how do you do that? You need a set of criteria to use to decide whether to spend the time and effort to learn a particular technique or tactic.These criteria must support the elements of a strategy – the “right things” you must do to achieve success.
Each fighter brings a variety of physical and mental qualities and abilities they can use to be successful. The physical abilities are easy to identify: you can be tall and have a long reach; you can be agile and move quickly, etc.
You should be aware that there is a trap for those who have superlative physical attributes. It’s easy to assume that speed, strength, or agility is all that is needed to succeed. This is certainly not the case. For example, if you’re big, strong, and fast but not trained to box, you won’t do well against an opponent who – although they are not as big, strong, or fast as you – is well trained in the techniques and tactics of boxing.
Without techniques and tactics, it’s not easy to determine how well you will be able to solve various problems in fighting…or even if you can. Remember, no matter how big, strong, or fast you are, there is someone out there who is bigger, stronger, and faster – and a master of the techniques and tactics of combat. Despite your undeniable physical advantages, you may need some help.
You need to learn proper fighting techniques and tactics.
Success comes from a balance of technique, tactics, conditioning, mental management, and various physical attributes. No single one of these is the magic wand. It’s critical to understand this balance.
I learned this lesson early. While in the army, I practiced at the local judo club with a fourth-degree black belt from Korea. We practiced nearly every week for two years, but neither of us was able to throw the other. I outweighed him by 70 pounds, more than half his weight. The combination of my greater size and strength, plus my skill (first-degree black belt) was balanced by his quickness and much greater skill.
Techniques and Tactics
There is no obvious limit to how much you can improve and refine your techniques and tactics. You can tailor them to your own situation, which allows you to maximize your advantages and minimize your deficiencies. You can further modify them to deal with opponents who have an advantage you do not possess.
But all techniques are not equal. Some are more effective. Others may be easier on your body. Many are riskier to use. A few will be very difficult to learn. Others require physical characteristics that you may not have. You will want to learn those techniques that are effective in enhancing your ability to fight.
But how will you make a choice? It seems reasonable to choose techniques that provide the most effectiveness at the lowest risk, that won’t hurt you when you use them. But how do you determine this if you don’t know the factors needed to make the best decision?
For good or ill, if you really practice any technique, you can usually make it work most of the time despite its inefficiency, even if that means using superior physical attributes to make it work. You must evaluate a technique to determine if it has flaws and risks that will make it less useful or even dangerous to you.
One popular method for choosing techniques is to copy successful fighters. When somebody wins a Crown, people will imitate the shape of their shield, the length of their sword, and some of their techniques. When you see a successful fighter, you should determine why they are so effective.
However, a fighter can be sufficiently fast and agile that they can win with poor technique. So if a slower and less agile fighter imitates these substandard techniques, they will be disappointed.
Here are some poor reasons people sometimes use to select techniques:
- It works for me.
- It feels good.
- That’s the way I was taught.
- We’ve always done it that way.
- The fighter who just won Crown uses it.
- I saw it at practice.
- It’s what the fight books say (I think).
- Everyone uses it.
- I saw it on YouTube.
So how do you determine which techniques and tactics you should use? An often-heard guideline is to “just use what works for you.” Unfortunately, almost everything feels good if you do it fast. Also, it may work for you until you can’t use your arm because of the injury it caused. That’s a poor criterion.
I suggest you use the selection criteria detailed below to judge techniques and tactics.
Performing any technique takes time, whether it is moving your sword, shield, or your body. You want each technique to operate as quickly as possible. You can also use techniques or tactics to slow your opponent. The combination of the time advantage from both of these is Effective Time.
Here are some factors that determine how efficient a technique will be in gaining you an advantage:
Biomechanical and kinesthetic efficiency – A kinesthetically optimum technique:
- Allows you to move your sword as fast as possible in the most efficient path, to transition quickly to the next technique, and won’t injure you when you use it.
- Will not produce a "tell" or a preliminary movement that can warn your opponent, which costs you time.
- Can require your opponent to make late decisions by looking like other techniques. This can cause your opponent to hesitate, giving you a time advantage – especially if they make the wrong choice
- Can allow late lateral movement that changes the attack angle. This may cause your opponent to hesitate.
- Allows smooth transitions between techniques, avoiding the delay caused by a clumsy transition. It can also produce a “How the hell did they get their sword there?” reaction.
Time can be lost or wasted by any of these factors:
- Lack of biomechanical or kinesthetic efficiency, such as using the arm instead of the core to supply power, causing the technique to be slower.
- Using a guard stance that requires you to cock your sword before, which will cause a significant delay.
- Maintaining a practice of throwing a series of single blow instead of a proper combination. This requires you to reset between blows. This wastes a lot of time compared to a smoothly executed combination.
- Pushing through hits, because you were taught to swing through a target. This wastes time compared to a more shallow strike, causes an over-commitment, and slows the transfer of power to the target
- Having "tells" or any preliminary motion before the execution of an attack will warn your opponent and gain them effective time. Some examples of "tells" include: Leaning, moving before the sword starts to swing, taking the weight off of a foot before stepping, and any rhythmic motion that your opponent can use to time your attacks.
If a technique takes more effective time, it causes you to accrue a disadvantage by:
- Making your offensive techniques easier to block or evade.
- Slowing down your defense, making it more difficult for you to block or evade your opponent’s attacks.
Tempo refers to gaining a momentary advantage of position, timing, or forcing your opponent to respond in a certain manner. Here are some examples of how to gain an advantage with tempo.
- Surprise, which can be caused by an unusual quality of the technique or tactic, such as starting its execution from out of range. In this case, your opponent may be delayed in their response because they don’t expect an attack. Surprise can cause your opponent to think instead of reacting, which delays their response
- Causing your opponent to respond in a way that makes it difficult for them to block or strike back quickly. One example would be the use a thrust variant of a swinging techniques that leaves you in a perfect position to throw a Wrap, but which delays your opponent’s response because of their hurried block when the technique changed.
- Causing your opponent to respond in a position that sets up the rest of your combination. An example would be to throw a series of blows from attack angles the pull your opponent to one side, then continuing the attack to the other side.
- Encouraging your opponent to attack in a manner that puts them at a disadvantage as the action continues. An example would be to leave a seemingly open target which pulls your opponent into the exact technique that will allow you to use a combination that is very hard to block.
You would be at a disadvantage if you executed a technique that:
- Requires a setup that warns your opponent, allowing an easy block. For example, if you must lean sideways to throw a blow, the "tell" caused by the lean will allow your opponent to easily block and respond before you’re ready.
- Places you in a position inviting a response that you have difficulty blocking. For example, your attack using a low wrap requires a strong commitment forward and down. The long motion allows your opponent to prepare a response to your attack before it even arrives. The over-commitment fatally hinders your block.
- Is ineffective against your opponent’s style, so you end up being constantly on the defensive. For example, you lunge forward with a mighty swing toward your opponent’s head. Your opponent is very careful to control distance, so they step back out of range, your swing misses and pulls you out of position, and your opponent starts chasing you with an infinite combination.
Tempo has a significant tie-in with perception. The better you can read the flow of the fight, the better you will notice and exploit chances such as these.
Simply put, this concerns your ability to efficiently attack or defend with as little risk as possible.
You will have an advantage if you use techniques or tactics that do one or more of the following:
- Start effectively from out of range. You can then use a Slide Step to enter, applying power to a Snap before you step. The Slide Step is executed by the front foot sliding forward just after the power has been applied to the sword. The Snap acts as covering fire while making your opponent respond.
- Move yourself into a position where you can attack your opponent, without them responding effectively. There is a technique called the Squared Circle which refers to a square drawn so each side is tangent to the circle around your opponent that describes the limit of their weapon range. You can move to one of the corners of the square, which causes your shoulders to reverse position to a degree. This keeps you out of range, but allows you to strike your opponent.
- Put you in a place that allows an easy continuation of your combination or a transition to a different attack. I have a technique called Parallel Circles. These are drawn around your opponent, so that the inside circle is where you have to stand to hit your opponent. The outer circle is where you have to stand to hit their shield. You can Slide Step into the outer circle while throwing blow. You can’t hit your opponent, but you can come close enough to cause them to react. You can continue your combination, moving around the outside circle until you step in for the kill.
You’ll be at a disadvantage if you set up in a dangerous position and use an attack that:
- Increases your vulnerability considerably but not your effectiveness. For instance, your opponent is using a glaive in a point-forward stance, and you move your sword forward in an attempt to tangle the weapon. You are now fencing a two-handed weapon with a one-handed weapon; good luck.
- Leaves you in a poor position to respond to your opponent’s return attack. For example, you rush in so you can fight at close range, but you overrun the distance and end up leaning back with your shield jammed in your face.
- Requires you to move into your opponent’s preferred attack range before you can use your technique. For example, you want to initiate the engagement with an Off-Side Snap. You move into range before swinging, so you will be able to hit your intended target. Unfortunately, your opponent is one of the premier practitioners of that particular style of the inside game: again, good luck.
Cohesion ensures that all the techniques you use are part of a systematic approach, allowing them to mutually support and enhance each other. This encourages the use of techniques and tactics that allow you to apply the basic principles and strategy of your fighting style to best advantage.
Adherence to this factor gives you an advantage in the following ways:
- Your techniques will all have a similar starting point, which doesn’t provide any clues for your opponent.
- Your techniques will all have similar transition methods, so most of them can transition easily to others.
- Unimportant variations in stance or sword position can be used to make your opponent respond unnecessarily.
- Your techniques look alike until too late in the execution for your opponent to determine which it is. For example, the Single Hip, which is my main off-side combination technique, has a number of variations in which the variation starts when the sword is 8-12 inches in front of my head, moving at full speed.
Departure from cohesion puts you at a disadvantage because it limits your style and gives your opponent more information to use.
- Some techniques limit the use of some of your other techniques and may require a “reset” before you use them.
- Some techniques or tactics can vary so far from your norm that your opponent is warned of your intent.
Every technique or tactic you choose to learn and practice must be potentially useful against the highest level fighters. This is not to say that if you use these techniques, you will automatically win. It means that you can develop your skill at using the technique to the point that it will be useful at the highest level of fighting.
This is contrasted with a technique that relies on taking advantage of your opponent’s inexperience or lack of knowledge. An example would be the use of an obvious feint. This would work against a novice, but would simply supply information to an experienced fighter.
Superior techniques give you an advantage because:
- The techniques and tactics that you perfect will continue to be effective as you progress, even to the highest levels. Your practice time will not be wasted. Techniques and tactics that are effective against high-level opponents will be effective against lower-level ones as well. The reverse is not always true.
- You won’t be trapped by using techniques that are easier to learn and give you early success but stop working when your opponents are better.
Inferior techniques put you at a disadvantage because:
- As your opponents get better, you will have less and less success. You will end up with an arsenal of ineffective techniques and strategies. This will then require you to retool your techniques or see your fighting career stall.
Biomechanics has to do with the physics of how the body works. The body is designed to take advantage of the principles that concern movement and force application. There is an optimal way in which your body works. If you strive to learn about how these principles work best in the body, you can choose techniques that take advantage of them while avoiding those that operate in violation of them.
If you use your body in the optimal manner, it will support you in making your fighting more effective without causing you to be injured by the techniques you have chosen to employ.
For example, the last time I was in armor was at the age of 71. I did not quit fighting because I was no longer physically capable of doing it. Instead, I had reached the point where I preferred to spend my time teaching and working on the further development of my system rather than actually fight. (All the lasting injuries I have are from judo. It’s a much rougher game.)
Biomechanical efficiency will improve the effectiveness of your techniques by speeding up their execution, allowing you to more easily access power and strength and to make your movements more fluid.
One of my friends is a fellow duke. We hadn’t been in contact for quite a while. When we met again, he asked me to train him to fight with his non-dominant hand. His shoulder had been injured to the point where he could no longer fight with his preferred hand. I agreed to teach him my techniques, but using his dominant hand. After a few weeks, he was practicing without pain and gave up the idea of changing hands.
If you disregard these principles, you will incur a disadvantage because…
- You may perform your techniques effectively, but not as well you would, using your body correctly.
Example: If you throw a Snap using your arm to supply most of the power, your blows will be slower and lighter than if you were using your core. It’s hard to test with big, strong people, but if you do a comparison of techniques with a 5 feet tall, 110 pound fighter, the difference will be profound.
- Your body may eventually become damaged. How soon this damage occurs depends on how far your techniques depart from the biomechanical optimum.
It you’re not trained in kinesthetics, it’s difficult to determine the biomechanical safety of a technique just by observing it. Even most belted fighters do not have the experience or training to do so. However, I strongly urge you to try.
Please remember that if a technique hurts you when you use it, or after you have used it a few times, there are two possibilities:
- You are performing the technique incorrectly.
- The technique is biomechanically dangerous.
Sometimes it’s both.
In either case, you should stop using the technique before you damage your body. Try to determine whether the problem is incorrect performance or the technique itself is at fault. If you can’t figure this out, don’t use the technique. This is not a situation where the phrase “no pain, no gain” applies. IF YOU HURT WHEN YOU USE THE TECHNIQUE, THEN SOMETHING IS WRONG. You should not try to “tough it out” or “push through the pain.” You have to fix what’s wrong before you continue.
The pain caused by fatigue and lack of endurance is acceptable. It hurts, but unless you’re a CrossFit fanatic who pushes too hard, it does not harm you. That’s the type of pain that you can try to overcome.
The dangerous pain is caused by overuse, by the stress from using an incorrect technique, or by performing a proper technique incorrectly.
I suggest that you continue to look for different and better ways of doing things and evaluate them against the factors listed above. You can refer to my article: “Biomechanics for SCA Combat.
A more thorough discussion is in: “The Bellatrix System – Techniques and Tactics for SCA Armored Combat”