by Pamela Muir
Intellectually, we know that being able to relax during drilling or free play will improve our performance. However, that concept falls into the category of things easier said than done. For some of us, the concentration and determination we employ in a drill sets us up to tense our muscles. Are you the type of person that clenches your jaw while problem solving or hunches your shoulders while performing a task that requires fine motor skills? Chances are you are tensing your muscles when you drill as well. Free fencing or competition not only stress tests your skills, but may also put stress on your attitude or mind set and be reflected in the tensing of your body.
I have been through all of that. From the very beginning, as I was starting to learn the arts, my personal determination to do it right resulted in a constant tensing of the muscles, usually reflected in hunched shoulders. My instructor would repeatedly need to admonish me, “Relax! Put your shoulders down!” This would result in my determinedly holding my shoulders down, so that now my muscles were still tense, but in a different position.
So my shoulders are down, but my muscles are still tense. Why isn’t this an improvement? Because, physiologically, tense muscles are going to slow and impair your ability to correctly perform a technique with the correct timing. Let us look at the timing issue first. Say you are standing in a guard, and you are concentrating hard on keeping your guard absolutely correct. You are creating a tension that results in your muscles being engaged. For whatever it is you need to do next, you are going to have first disengage, or relax, your muscles so that you may move from your guard and then reengage them to perform your action, whether it is a cut, thrust, parry, or a guard change. You are essentially turning a single tempo action into a two tempo action. It is going to take longer to disengage your muscles and then perform the action than it would to perform the action from a relaxed guard position
That brings us to the second issue, it is difficult to correctly perform the technique with your muscles pre-tensed. As an example, try the following experiment. Stand in guard with weapon in hand and deliberately tense up your muscles as much as possible. Holding that tension in place, slowly perform one of those actions mentioned above, cut, thrust, parry or change guard. Did you feel the resistance? If you did it slowly, did you notice a point where, if you had done it quickly, you would have caused yourself pain? Instead of fighting your opponent, you were fighting your own body.
Try another experiment, from as relaxed a guard position as possible, thrust into a target. Repeat this a few times so that you get consistent results. Now from a tensed guard, while keeping the tension, thrust into the target again. How did the tension change your results? It is easier to achieve accuracy with a relaxed starting position.
So now that we have established that relaxing contributes to better fencing, here is the hard part. How do we relax? As I have found from personal experience, simply telling yourself to relax is not enough to achieve it. “Relax!” and “Don’t worry!” are commands, that no matter how well intentioned, do not work with only the issuing, even to yourself. Techniques that have helped me relax in fencing include tension transfer, visualization and self confidence.
Tension transfer allows you to give yourself permission to be uptight, but you store the tension in a smaller muscle group. Most of us tense up in the shoulders, which raises them up, or in the jaw, notice how clenching your teeth still applies tension to your neck and shoulder muscles. Instead of clenching up a large muscle group, find a small set of muscles that are not directly involved in your art and deliberately keep them engaged. I have found by curling up one of my pinkies as tightly as I can, neither myself, nor my instructor, will notice tension elsewhere in my body. This deliberate tensing in a small muscle group forces a relaxation in others. Furrowing the brow also works, but that is best left for solo drills.
Rather than storing your tension, perhaps you would prefer to visualize yourself somewhere that holds no stress, such as a lying on a warm, sandy beach, smelling the flowers in a rose garden, strolling through the autumn woods, or sitting by the fire on a cold, snowy evening. Taking your mind elsewhere, but leaving your body behind to handle the drill or the fight is not as hazard prone as it may sound. It is very similar to driving and discovering after traveling for a ways that you do not remember the last few minutes of the road, yet you trust that you have not left a wake of destruction behind. (Please note: I am not recommending you daydream while driving.) Of course, just as in the driving example, you cannot completely take your brain away, but you can trust your body to respond as needed. This works best for free fencing or a familiar drill.
The best relaxation technique is self confidence. If you have complete faith in yourself that you will be able to perform the action, if not the first time, then within a finite number of repetitions, there will be no tension to dismiss. It is true for any fine motor skill that you have developed, whether it is needlework, touch typing, or handwriting a grocery list. If you know you can do it on a level that you no longer need to actively think about it, you can perform the action without conscious thought, your muscles will not clench.
As an instructor there are ways of helping your students to be able to de-stress and thus to become better fencers. You can advise them by giving them specific relaxation techniques: tension transfer, visualization or others that work for you personally. What absolutely positively does not work is to tell the student “Relax!” The surest way for you to help the student achieve relaxation is to boost his or her self confidence. Try sincerely delivered praise. “You did that well!” “You internalized this technique quickly.” “I know you will enjoy this.” “Excellent, have you done this before?” An even better method is to demonstrate your own confidence in the student. Use him or her to help you demo or drill. Engage the student’s help in instructing a new student or reviewing a technique for a returning student. On my personal journey, it is the show of confidence by my instructors that helped me to have confidence in myself.
It is along the personal journey that the most important point of all is found, the simple joy of the expression of the art. Find that within you and express that to your students, that is where you will find it nearly impossible to hold onto stress and tension. Release that tightening feeling and delight in the flow of your art.