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  • Writer's pictureIan

Fencing with Frame Data: strengthening insight by drawing parallels with existing skills

How do you learn a new skill? When you get new information, how do you transform knowledge into insight?

When we replicate phrases or motions that we have been shown, especially in response to the appropriate stimulus, we might say that we have learned something. At that point, we know what to do, but what helps us bridge the gap and understand why? Why is that response more or less appropriate to that input than this other one? When I explore that question, do I reach the same conclusion as my peers? my instructors? the authors of my reference sources?

When learning in a vacuum you have to build a foundation of building blocks by rote memorization & repetition before there is enough to start drawing connections. “This word means this”, “This phrase means that”, “These are the basic guard stances with a longsword”, etc. Soon enough, you can connect the dots between disparate learned things and begin the truly rewarding part of learning: gaining insight. “Stepping with this foot during that action gives me greater reach”, “This movement is faster than that one, so it could be more reliable to thwart an opponent’s attack”, etc.

Something interesting happens though when you have existing experiences in other fields: you find yourself borrowing insight from unlikely sources and splicing that onto your knowledge in ways that can surprise and delight you. Knowledge from other contexts supercharges your learning and you can enter that ‘gaining insight’ phase much faster than you would have otherwise.

When I started learning to cut with a longsword, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the fundamentals of ‘good form’ from paddlesport transferred to the structure of cutting. In hindsight, I maybe should have expected that there would be some cross-over; there are a lot of shared movement conventions across different athletic pursuits and they generally converge on human biomechanics. There are only so many ways that we can recruit our muscles to generate or resist movement, and there are definitely stronger and weaker combinations.

What do these two activities have in common? More than I realized.

(Image 1 photo credit: Darren Calabrese/COC)

That’s not what inspired me to write this article though – what tickled my fancy was actually finding a cognitive crossover that sped up my tactical growth in sparring. This art has both physical and mental components, after all. We were taking some time in a historical rapier class to discuss the concepts of measure and tempo and partway through the explanation a little voice in my head said, “This is the same as spacing hitboxes and using frame data!”

I hear you say, “Ian, you’ve lost me,” but stick around for a moment! I’ll explain. You’d be forgiven for not knowing where this epiphany comes from; after all, this is a meeting of two niche hobbies of mine. I happen to be a casual gamer, and I’ve spent a bit of time in arcades playing games like Street Fighter and Tekken. Video games like those (broadly referred to as ‘fighting games’) typically pit two players against each other in a video-game fight where different buttons and joystick movements cause the game characters to perform different actions. Competitive players of these games have made a study of knowing how many frames of animation happen between pushing a button and having the corresponding action happen on the screen (frame data), and they’ve also dived into the behind-the-scenes workings of these games to find out how the game determines if a hit has been scored. (This is done with ‘hitboxes’ and ‘hurtboxes’.)

(Ranney, 2018)

For some gamers, the quick thinking learned for spacing hitboxes and playing around frame data gives a shortcut to train their brains to quickly process measure and tempo.

(Image modified from an image posted by the Highland Sword Fighting Guild to Facebook, 2018)

So where does this tie into fencing? The concepts of ‘frame data’ and spacing using ‘hitboxes’ in that video game context are sort of analogous in that context to understanding the ‘tempo’ of movements and ‘measure’ in a fencing context. Aha! I’ve learned this before! Here is where the magic happens – just like my athletic background gave me a muscle memory shortcut to speed up my acquisition of movements in fencing, now one of my hobbies has given me a shortcut to speed up and inform my decision-making in sparring. My mind already has a decision-making framework that I can co-opt and apply to HEMA, until it morphs further when my HEMA experience gives me enough insight to grow again.

That is what I wanted to write about. As a HEMA beginner, much of one’s time and effort in learning the art is focused on replicating the motions, so it can be easy to forget that there are also mental shortcuts we can use to speed up our tactical progress when we make the jump from drills up to light sparring. Even an affinity for conditioning rock-paper-scissors opponents (or perhaps especially that kind of tactical acumen) gives us pre-fabricated thought processes we can plug into our HEMA practice to speed up that journey from information to insight. Our past experiences give us a collection of puzzle pieces that we can assemble into the full picture of our HEMA abilities.

While I might be able to contextualize HEMA tactics in my head in terms of pokes, blockstrings and frametraps like in my video games, the metaphor that works for you could be entirely different. What outside experience can you draw upon to enhance your HEMA journey?

Sometimes the right pieces to keep building your HEMA self are already in your hands.

(Illustration by Yusuke Nomura for the manga Blue Lock)

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