If there’s one way that my teaching differs from others’ it’s that our practice is integrative. We don’t study fencing and nothing else. We study fencing and everything else. We explore the connections between the sword and diverse other arts, sciences and disciplines, and the ways in which foundational principles and lessons learned from sword practice, manifest in a wide variety of other fields.
In my opinion, it is only the ability to apply what you have learned from fencing to non-fencing situations that gives fencing relevance, even importance.
After all, we don’t fight duels anymore, do we?
Back in around 1964, Bill Medley & Bobby Hatfield (The Righteous Brothers) had a huge hit with a song, penned by the team of Barry Mann, Phil Spector and Cynthia Weil, called “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.” Here are some lines from the lyrics:
You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.
And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips….
Now there's no welcome look in your eyes when I reach for you.
And now you're starting to criticize little things I do.
It makes me just feel like crying, (baby).
'Cause baby, something in you is dying…..
As you can tell, this is a plaintive and poignant song about love and heartbreak.
It’s also a song about Early Pattern Recognition.
As I’ve noted elsewhere Early Pattern Recognition – EPR, for short – is the fighter’s stock in trade. Let’s define those terms.
For our purposes, a “pattern” is an inextricably-linked sequence of events which must occur in a particular – and therefore predictable – order. There may be many events in the sequence, or there may be only a few. There must be at least two.
To “recognize” the pattern means to know what the individual events are that make up the sequence and in what order they occur.
By “early,” we mean being able to accurately predict the final event in the sequence from recognizing the preceding ones. How early is early? It depends. If there are 10 events in a sequence, recognizing the pattern after event number 5 is earlier than recognizing the pattern at event 9, but later than recognizing the pattern at event 3.
Ideally, the pattern includes a sine qua non event. That is, some event that indicates the nature of the pattern, always indicates the nature of the pattern and never indicates anything else. If X, then Y and always Y; and if Y, then X and always X. In practice, all patterns are not perfectly clear or perfectly reliable. Nor is the race always to the swift or the battle to the strong, as Damon Runyon noted, but that’s the way to bet.
The earlier you recognize the pattern, the more time you have to respond. That is, with “advance warning,” you can select, prepare and execute your preferred response from among a wide range of possible responses, and act appropriately and adequately.
Without advance warning, you are re-acting to your opponent’s action, always playing “catch-up,”and forever allowing your opponent to be the locus of control of your behavior, rather than the other way around. “Catch-up” means relying on the speed of your startle reflex.
If one runner starts the race before a second runner, that second runner will have to be much faster than the first in order to compensate for the first runner’s head-start and get to the finish line before him. It isn’t impossible. Drawing one card to fill and inside straight isn’t impossible, either. It’s just not something you bet the ranch on.
Early pattern recognition is a specific type of situational awareness which M.R. Endsley defines as "the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future." EPR simply means that the perception, comprehension and projection occur at or near the beginning of a sequence of environmental changes. Or you might say that situational awareness is what allows early pattern recognition.
Here’s an example from music:
I bring in a new song for the band to play.
The first guy I show it to looks at, walking through it as he talks through it. “Let’s see…,” he says, “The first measure is C; second measure is C, too; third measure is C; and then the fourth measure, that’s also C; fifth measure is an F; sixth measure is F; then the seventh measure is a C and the eighth measure, that’s C; the ninth measure goes to G; the tenth measure is F; the eleventh measure is C again and the twelfth measure goes d minor to G.”
He’s absolutely right. He plays it through correctly playing concentrating on each measure in turn, eyes on the page.
The second cat I show it to says, “Four measures of C, two measures of F, 2 measures of C; one measure of G; one measure of F; one measure of C and one measure two beats of d minor and 2 beats of G.”
He’s absolutely right, too. He plays the tune through only occasionally glancing at the page for reference.
The third player I show it to says, “Standard 12-bar blues in C with a II-V-I turn around. Cool.” After that he plays the piece flawlessly without referring to the page at all, concentrating instead on the more important issue of getting the brunette seated at the bar to buy him a drink.
All these musicians had pattern recognition. But only the last player had the early pattern recognition that I’m talking about. And you can see the obvious benefit in this context.
I suppose I should use a fencing example next.
Every sword cut has two phases: the preparation phase and the execution phase. A cut cannot be executed without a preparation phase. The preparation phase must precede the execution phase. By recognizing the first event in the pattern (the preparation) you can accurately predict the second event in the pattern (the execution) and thereby select an adequate and appropriate response.
But there’s more.
Perhaps, in order to prepare and execute the cut, your opponent must adopt a particular posture or position. To the extent that this posture or position is inextricably linked to the preparation and cut to follow, it also becomes a part of the pattern, an event which you can recognize and from which you can accurately predict the subsequent events in the pattern.
Here’s an example dedicated to the guys in my old neighborhood, in my ex-hometown.
1. A man faces you on the street, his brow knitted, mouth down-curled in a scowl. Teeth set. There is a bulge under his jacket just to the right of center of the waistband of his trousers.
2. He suddenly assumes a crouched stance with his left hand grabbing and lifting up the bottom edge of his jacket.
3. With his right hand, he reaches under his jacket and grasps the grip of a handgun that is tucked into the waistband of his trousers.
4. He pulls the handgun free.
5. He aims it at you.
6. He pulls the trigger.
7. The bullet hits you.
Where in this chain of events might you like to respond adequately and appropriately?
Is it necessary to wait until the bullet hits you before you understand what’s happening?
There are people who have been shot while standing frozen in fear or disbelief while it happened (deer-in-the-headlights response). To be sure the “this can’t possibly be happening” response is not at all uncommon.
But an alert, well-trained person would respond by event number 2 in the sequence.
The sudden crouch of a man drawing a gun is a very reliable predictor of subsequent events. No one goes for a wallet that way, or a comb, or parking change. Not everyone going for a gun crouches that way, but everyone who crouches that way is going for a gun.
An even better-trained person might respond at event number 1 in the sequence, recognizing the emotional arousal, aggressive expression and tell-tale bulge above the waistband that means, no, he’s not just happy to see you.
Here’s an example from another kind of fighting: fire-fighting.
A backdraft is very dangerous event which has injured or even killed firefighters.
It’s an explosion which occurs when oxygen-starved combustible gasses, heated to above the ignition point, are suddenly provided with oxygen – usually by someone opening a door or breaking a window.
There are characteristic signs that backdraft conditions exist: Yellow or brown smoke, and especially smoke which exits small holes in puffs which are drawn back in again giving the appearance of “breathing;” and windows which appear brown or black from the outside.
A well-trained firefighter constantly monitors the changes in the environment so that when the first tiny “puffs” of smoke appear at the edges of a door or window, that firefighter immediately recognizes the backdraft pattern and responds with adequate and appropriate action.
Now allow me to get the dramatic conclusion of this little discourse with one more example of early pattern recognition, and, in my opinion, a critical one. It’s an example that some of my students find very disturbing, and so they should.
Dr. Lawrence Britt compared the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), and found that they had 14 elements in common. Among these are:
1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
Using Dr. Britt’s checklist it’s possible to compare and contrast a given country – let’s say, the United States of America – with one of the fascist models, such as Hitler’s Germany.
Some Americans might bristle at such a comparison. “But we’re not herding thousands of citizens into cattle cars to take them off to concentration camps!” they protest.
No. Indeed, we’re not.
At least, not yet.
And neither was Adolf Hitler -- in 1938.
We are, at the moment, at an earlier point in the event sequence. Hitler’s death camps were the final event in the sequence.
It isn’t necessary to wait until the bullet strikes you to recognize the pattern of a threat and take appropriate action to prevent it, and neither is it necessary to wait until mass imprisonments and/or mass “extrajudicial killings” are occurring in America before taking adequate and appropriate action to prevent it.
“Absolute proof” that your pattern recognition is 100% accurate can only come with the unfolding of the final event in the sequence – and then it’s too late to act.
It isn’t just “pattern recognition” that we’re interested in, but early pattern recognition.
The earlier, the better.
History teaches us that early pattern recognition could have saved many millions of innocent lives from the predations of psychopathic tyrants, had the populace responded adequately and appropriately at the first sign of trouble.
I submit that one of the most valuable things about the sword is that it cultivates your sensitivity to patterns, thereby enhancing your capacity for early pattern recognition. It also, I hope, promotes early pattern recognition as a general “habit.”
You never know when that may save your life.