Donít Look at the Fish!

A Discussion of Psychology in SCA Rapier Combat

By Lord Kevin OíShaughnessy, Esq.

Member of the Beaver Academy of Offense

"The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemyís useful actions but allow his useless actionsÖ" from "A Book of Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi

"I looked at the fish." Unknown rapier fighter shaking his head and walking away from Alexander de Seton

In war defeat is said to be a condition that first occurs in the mind of the (preferably enemy) commander. The same can also be said for the field of SCA combat. Now, while the "thrust" of this paper is about SCA rapier combat, it is also applicable to SCA armored combat. Fencing is fencing, whether it be stick or steel. There are things that can be achieved in each that cannot be done in the other. Victory and defeat are still the same for both, however. I particularly want to discuss the victory where your opponent defeats him/herself, preferably with your help.

George Silver, in "A Brief Introduction to my Paradoxes of Defense" speaks of the four principals or "governors" of a true fight:

    1. Judgement
    2. Distance
    3. Time
    4. Place

The first governor is Judgement, which is to know when your adversary can reach you, and when not; and when you can do like to your adversary. Included in this is knowing the skill and abilities of your adversary.

The second governor is measure. Know how to maintain your distance for attack or defense,

The third governor, time, has several definitions besides Silverís. It can be said that knowing how to time your movements with your adversaryís is crucial for victory.

The fourth governor, place, has many definitions as well. It concerns both knowing the field you fight on and knowing when you want to advance or retreat from your adversary. Silver teaches that it is "of twofold mind" with the third governor, time.

In the following discussion I want to show how to warp and twist your opponentís Four Governors such that they become their own worst enemy. Suffice to say, it may prevent you from suffering the same fate. Traditional teachings in the books written by the historical Masters of Defense consider many of these techniques to be "Falsings" another word for feints.

Let me briefly discuss a "feint". Traditionally it is a movement or false attack designed to trick your opponent into reacting in a predictable manner. Since it relies on your opponent "falling for it" as it were, it therefore requires a certain level of cooperation from your opponent. Not all opponents are very cooperative. One of the primary teachings of the Beaver Academy of Offense is: "Never make a feint that wonít work as a real attack." If I twitch my wrist in order to make my opponent jump it may or (more likely) may not work. But if I make a compassing step and move in while executing a high attack at my opponentís face, my opponent will almost certainly respond by raising his/her guard. If he/she does, I break my wrist, dropping my sword tip down over my opponentís guard and striking at the chest or belly. The key here is, if my opponent doesnít raise a guard, I continue the strike to the head, scoring a lethal shot. It is both a feint and a real attack.

The place to defeat your opponent is inside their mind. The things to attack in order to do that are your opponentís Four Governors. Judgement, Distance, Time and Place. I will attempt to outline some ways to "attack" your opponentís Four Governors.

A Short History of The "Fish"

A couple of years prior to writing this I was trolling through Rapiernet archives looking for useful tidbits of information. I came across a section on Silly Parrying Devices in SCA Rapier Lists. One of the silly devices discussed was a large, boffer fish with large holes in it. It was described as a "Swiss Pike". Upon reading that I was compelled to make my own pike, sans holes. A couple of weeks later I showed up at a Rapier practice with a large newspaper-wrapped object. In front of a curious crowd I unwrapped my first "Rapier-Pike", a duct tape, foam and PVC-pipe Northern Pike, appropriately colored and about 34 inches long. Laughter and scoffing ensued, but I was surprised when, using the pike in combat for the first time, it was effective. Amazingly for something so silly looking, it worked well. In retrospect it shouldnít have surprised me how effective the "rapier-pike" actually is. It has more mass than a schlager bladed rapier, so it resists being pushed out of the way. The fins and square faces on the fish tie up blades and provide blocking surfaces. The silly sharp-toothed grin I put on them is also very distracting. The bright colors of the pike catch the eye and draw it away from your weapon, making your attacks more effective since they arenít being observed as closely. (Cloak fighters do the same thing when they wave and loop their cloak around). The silly, distracting appearance of the fish gave rise to the (now) well-known phrase: "Donít look at the Fish!" I have since made several of my "Rapier Pikes" for various Beaver Academy members and a few select others.

Attacking your Opponentís Judgement (Getting them to play your game)

In "A Book of Five Rings" Miyamoto Musashi describes a technique he calls "To hold down a Pillow". This technique is described as "encouraging your opponentís useless actions and suppressing their useful ones". This technique taken from a Japanese book on Strategy can be well applied in SCA rapier combat. Making your opponent "look at the fish" is one application.

There are several ways to make your opponent "look at the fish". Some of the classic, simple ones include foot-stomping, ducking your shoulder, sudden shouts, etc. The have the advantage of being quickly executed, but rely on "jarring" your opponent out of his/her standard mindset (however briefly). It is more effective if you can gradually "ease" your opponent out of their regular mindset, especially if you can do it to them without them realizing it. Following are some ways I have seen that done.

Distraction by Substitution (Look at the Fish)

First, of course, there is "The Fish". It is big, bright green, with white spots and a red mouth with big white teeth. All done in duct tape. It is large, garish, annoying and, in the right hands, effective. Why can it be effective? Besides what was mentioned in the section on the history of the Fish it boils down to ("Mmmmmmm! Fish boil! Droooool" Ė Homer Simpson) the fact that it is darned distracting. That big green and white thing being waved in your face. You almost canít help but look at it. And when you do, Poink! Youíve been got!

The tactic employed by using the "Fish" is nothing more or less than distraction by substitution. Stage magicians and sleight-of-hand artists do this all the time. Rapier & cloak fighters use this technique as well. The concept is simple: "Hey you! Look at this swirling cloak/garish fish and not at my boring, hard-to-keep-an-eye-on sword. No, really! LOOK AT THIS!" Simple but very effective. Hand puppets (like the infamous MONKEY) can also be used in the same manner.

There is a second level to this. Not only are you drawing your opponentís attention to something other than what they want/need to pay attention to (Distraction/substitution) but you can actually disconcert your opponent and make them step out of a "Combat" mindset and into an "Observer/participant" mindset. You can actually attack their Judgement (Silverís definition) and therefore weaken their defense, because you have them thinking of the wrong things at the wrong time. You arenít so much seizing the initiative as you are causing your opponent to hand it to you gift-wrapped.

Another example I saw of distraction being applied (albeit unintentionally) was a large flowing cloth favor tied to the left arm of a fencer I was observing. It was tied to his bicep, was about six inches wide, and hung down below his elbow a good twelve inches. When he made defensive moves with his off hand or just moved around it fluttered and waved a lot. It certainly caught the eye, and probably even drew the eye to it, possibly at inopportune times for his opponent. I donít think anyone else besides me was aware of the potential effect the favor had as a distraction. And no, I donít think it provided an unfair advantage in any manner. The color of your clothes or the paint on your buckler can be equally distracting.

The Rigid-Parry Device as a Perceived Threat (When it is clearly not)

Stand back and observe two people fencing when one or both are using rigid parry devices. Say, for example, they are using batons (canes, scabbards, sticks, fish etc.). A common way of using a baton is to hold one end of it like a sword, with the other end pointed towards your opponent. Holding it in this manner allows you to more easily parry your opponentís blade at range. Simple and effective. But observe the person facing the person using the baton in that manner. That person will unconsciously treat the baton as an active threat, staying at range from it as though they could be struck by it. This occurs even with no threatening gestures being made by the baton user. This causes the person facing the baton to stay at range, such that they are more easily targeted and struck. Note that if they advance on the baton-user then the baton-user MUST withdraw his baton to avoid touching his opponent. But the person facing the baton rarely thinks of that.

This is common behavior I have observed in diverse fencers (myself included). It doesnít matter if they are facing batons, bucklers, fish or whatever. The tendency is to stay outside of the extended range of the parrying object, as if to avoid being struck by it. People get closer to bucklers, but still tend to hang back further than needed.

Knowing that the normal reaction for most fencers is to hang back from batons means that you can use this behavior to your benefit. Remembering that though you cannot make threatening gestures with the rigid parry device you can still use it to attack your opponentís weapons and, more importantly, your opponentís personal space. Subtly moving your rigid parry device closer to or further from your body can make your opponent unconsciously adjust their range. If you can get your opponent to play that game (YOUR game) then you can set them up for shots at will. Thus you attack their Judgement, at least as far Range and relative threat level goes.

Speech and Concentration (Talking your opponent to death)

Human beings are verbal animals. Speech is one of our most important and basic biological abilities. We are hard-wired for it in our nervous system. Thus Speech can be another tool to attack your opponentís Judgement. The procedure is simple: Talk to them. When they listen, kill them.

Most fighters and fencers that I know cannot carry on a conversation whilst in the midst of combat. It is a valuable skill to develop. It actually helps you to disassociate your conscious mind from the task at hand, allowing your hard-to-distract unconscious mind to take over and do what is necessary. People do this all the time while driving, often not paying any conscious attention to their surroundings, yet arriving at their destination safe and sound and having caused no accidents.

Because most people canít talk and fight at the same time they are vulnerable to someone who can. If you can keep a line of chatter going while you fight you can use your opponentís natural instincts against him/her. It is a normal human reaction to look at the face of the person talking to you. In fact, it is so ingrained that it is hard not to give attention to the person talking directly to you. Therefore, when someone talks to you during combat, you tend to look at their face, not their sword. If you can get someone to do that to you then you stab them.

Another factor involved in talking your opponent to death involves another unconscious action performed by people being talked to: they come closer to you. I have observed this on many occasions. Two fencers are facing off at a safe distance from each other. One fencer starts up a conversation while they both circle at range. When the other fencer starts responding to the conversation they involuntarily move closer to the fencer doing the talking. This is not a conscious attempt to close range, rather it is an automatic response where you feel compelled to come closer to the person talking to you in order to converse in reasonable tones from a reasonable distance. I have seen people get as much as a foot closer to their opponent without realizing it. Poink! They just got stabbed. And rarely do they know how it happened.

Another Example of a Rigid-Parry Device as a Perceived Threat (When it was not, at least on that Listfield)

A fencer told me of a situation that occurred that completely destroyed his concentration in combat. His opponent faced him using a regular SCA rattan broadsword as a rigid parry device. This fencer told me that just seeing that in the hands of his opponent (who is a heavy armored combatant as well as a rapier combatant) made him nervous. His opponent did nothing wrong in his handling of the rattan sword as a rigid parry device. He made no overtly threatening gestures with it. But every time his shoulder or elbow dropped as he parried with it he scared the willies out of his opponent (the fencer relating this to me). He easily defeated his rattled opponent, who told me that he was defeated inside his mind before the bout had barely started.

Since the match was all in fun, there was no problem. I do think that consistently trying to purposely exploit that kind of nervousness on the part of your opponents would be less than honorable. But it is an excellent example of how you can attack someoneís Judgement.

Attacking your opponentís Measure (Come closer, I wonít hurt you)

While many of the above-mentioned techniques will affect the distance maintained by your opponent, they arenít specifically attacking your opponentís sense of Measure. There are a few straightforward ways to cause your opponentís sense of Measure to be misled.

The Receding Elbow (See, my sword point is no closer to you than before)

The point of a sword is a threat. However, the real threat lies behind the sword point. Specifically, the person holding the sword. That does not change the perception that most fencers have, going into a bout, that the point of the sword carries the greatest danger. Many, many people focus (in one fashion or another) on their opponentís sword and itís distance from themselves. While you do have to be aware of the distance between you and your opponentís sword, it is far more important to be aware of the distance your opponent can move his/her sword.

A method of using your opponentís focus on the point of your sword to your advantage is to bring your elbow back, slowly, as you and your opponent circle each other. While you do this you have to keep your sword tip at the same relative distance from your opponent. What will happen is that you will slowly close the range with your opponent, but your sword tip will remain the same "safe" distance away from your opponent that is was before you started circling. When you are fully cocked for the shot you make your attack, and since your range is much closer than your opponent realizes you will probably hit.

Realize, of course, that this is a risky move. You are putting your body in harmís way by closing the range with your opponent. If they understand the trick (Yes, it is a Trick. All Falsings are Tricks) then it wonít work. Experience has shown me that it works quite often.

Attacking your opponentís Time (The beat goes on.....Now)

Attacking your opponentís sense of Time is a harder and more subtle thing than you might think. DiGrassi states that all attacks come in time, which means that it takes time to move a sword through space and strike your opponent. The shortest distance is traveled in the shortest time. Thus, thrusting was preferred to edgeblows.

We all have experienced the time compression feeling in a fight, where neither you or your opponent seemed to be moving very fast, and the bout took a while to finish, yet spectators (or even video tape) said the bout only lasted 15 or 20 seconds. The human mind is amazing in its ability to change its perception of the speed of passing events. The mind develops expectations on how events will proceed. You can take advantage of these expectations of the timing of events.

Change the tempo (Shall we dance? Iíll lead.)

If you donít like the tempo of the bout try to change it. You may find that your opponent wonít adapt well to these changes. If your opponent is a hard driving BAM BAM BAM fencer, try, through defense, footwork and even conversation, to interrupt the flow of attacks. If your opponent is a counterpuncher, try hanging back and forcing them to come at you. If your opponent has a raider-style of combat (step in, attack, step out, repeat as needed) then change the flow of their attacks by, for example, stepping into them when they try to step out. They may find that very disconcerting. Or not.

Go S L O W (Yes, I said S L O W)

People develop expectations, especially in combat. You KNOW that the attack has to come in fast, because, well, you just know it. Itís obvious that you would block or parry it otherwise. You can use that preconceived notion to your advantage. If your opponent is very keyed-up, even jumpy, then try extending a slow, and I mean sloooowww attack at them. It may very well slip in below their awareness, because they do not perceive that slow movement as an attack. I have seen that done, and done it myself, on more than a few occasions.

Attacking your opponentís Place (Öand That Castle sank into the SwampÖ)

To attack your opponentís sense of Place is the most difficult. The obvious concepts of taking the high ground, having the sun at your back, forcing your opponent to the edge, etc. all fail to pass the fairness and honorability test. What you can do is try to keep your opponent from remaining in a comfortable mindset (the one where they are most efficient).

Since your ground is normally a flat, roped off area there is not much terrain to exploit. What you can do is observe how your opponent moves. Are they linear attackers? If so adopt circling, compassing footwork. Do they like to use fancy footwork? Donít move much, or at best just in a small circle.

Twist your opponentís expectations. Start off standoffish, then suddenly attack in a flurry, then become standoffish again. In a confined area move around as much as possible (but donít be rude about list ropes and nervous marshals). In a roomy area pick a confining space and stick with it. Pretty much just be contrary to how you opponent expects the space to be used.

I know from recent experience that the sense of Place also involves a vertical dimension. I am six feet tall and am about on par in height with most of the people I fence. I was somewhat taken aback when recently fencing with people who are taller than me by about a foot. I was stabbed, literally, on the top of my head. My sense of Place did not accept people standing on flat ground with me striking me from above. I did not have proper defensive techniques developed to handle those attacks from that angle. That is something I will have to work on, and is a good example of how subtle your sense of Place really is.

How NOT to Attack Yourself (ÖI think I can, I think I canÖ)

I said earlier that defeat is said to be a condition that first occurs in the mind of the (preferably enemy) commander. You must guard yourself from allowing defeat to occur first in your own mind. Many times I have seen someone step onto the field, look at their opponent, and say: "Oh, great! Iím gonna get creamed!" When they say that, they usually do get creamed. In Oriental martial arts this is referred to as letting your opponentís spirit overcome your spirit. In Western martial arts it is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see defeat in your mind before you even cross swords, you will be defeated. If you see victory in your mind before you cross swords, you may be victorious. There are no guaranteed successes, only guaranteed failures. It is possible to do everything right, and still lose. Combat is funny that way.

In "A Book of Five Rings" Miyamoto Musashi teaches that when you engage in combat the best "Attitude" is "No Attitude". Remove preconceptions from your mind. He refers to the concept as "the Void". In modern sports it is sometimes referred to as being in "The Zone". No one can teach you how to reach this mental state, you must reach it yourself. I have only been there a few times, but they are memorable. Cherish those times when they occur, because at those moments you are really part of a "bigger universe".

From a practical standpoint, always step onto the field telling yourself, "I can do this." Never try to predict what your opponent is going to do at any given instant. You will be building plans in your mind; setting preconceived notions of what to expect. They will be wrong. No Battle Plan survives contact with the Enemy. Believe in yourself and pay attention to what is happening, not what you want to happen.

Conclusion (Where Kevin tries to convince you that he is NOT advocating being a Flaming Butthead)

We donít walk out onto the Field of Combat with the intention to lose. We want to win. Of course, we want to win Honorably. If you believe that the above mentioned tactics are underhanded, dishonorable tricks, then by all means donít use them. Be aware of them, though, so that if someone tries to use them on you then they will fail.

I believe there is a place and time for every stratagem I mentioned (and the unthinkably vast number I didnít) in the realm of SCA combat. Many of the concepts I discussed take skill to use properly, and conversely will get you defeated if done poorly. I personally have tried most of them, with varying degrees of success. Ultimately combat comes down to a matter of Will and Skill. In SCA combat the real winner is the person who is most Honorable. And you are not a true loser if you learned something. In the vast majority of combats (both stick & steel) that I have witnessed there were no Losers, because all parties behaved with great Honor and did, indeed, learn something.

Remember, if you learn just one new thing, immediately teach it to someone else. You will then have learned another new thing: how to Teach.