I, the tiger, am so swift to run and to wheel
That even the bolt from the sky cannot overtake me.
~Fiore de’i Liberi~
Whether you’re darting out and in for a quick nachreisen, defending against an attack, or following on with one of your own, the ability to quickly adjust your body position and facing is critical. After a successful attack, you must be able to withdraw successfully. A proper parry deserves a prompt riposte. Everyone understands and recognizes that being faster is an advantage, but how do you achieve it? It’s a little more complex than “just get out of the way.” To accelerate your progress you have to understand what actually makes someone good at “getting out of the way.”
Change of Direction
Change of direction, as defined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) comprises “The skills and abilities needed to explosively change movement direction, velocities, or mode.” For us, it’s the ability to advance, withdraw, rotate into cuts or defenses, and generally be faster on our feet.
It turns out that exploding into an attack, stopping your momentum, and getting back out in a different direction imposes massive forces on your body. Being able to physically and neurologically handle those loads is important not only from a performance standpoint, but for ensuring safety. Those eccentric loads can be measured in multiples of your body weight at times. Tell me, when was the last time you squatted 3-4 times your body weight?
Luckily you don’t have to, but working to improve your maximal strength and power will improve your change of direction abilities, your neural drive, and help prevent injury. These adaptations help you to use more of your muscle when you want to in an attack, or when you need to in defense ensuring that you strike or get out without being hit.
You’re probably facing opponents who are more challenging than a pell, though. The problem with change of direction is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to agility, or “the skills and abilities needed to change direction, velocity, or mode in response to a stimulus,” according to the NSCA.
That “in response to a stimulus” part is all the difference. Being able to explode backwards is useless if you haven’t developed the perceptual-cognitive skill to do it the instant a sword is coming at you. Both offensively and defensively the person who is able to respond to the tactical situation faster stands a better chance of winning. Make sure that’s you.
That’s easier said than done, or course. A decent starting point is just fighting a lot. The more you’re exposed to the unique situations during sparring, the more your body gets used to reacting to those unique tactical scenarios. Other ways include small-sided sparring, and HEMA focused drills that involve a decision making component. With less space or time, interaction between the two fighters is forced, giving more opportunity to practice reacting. Focused decision making drills have also been shown to be effective at developing this important skill set.
Not in a Vacuum
It is important to note that agility and change of direction are useless to a fighter if separated from each other. Being able to change direction faster than anyone won’t help if you can’t react fast enough, and lightning reflexes will fizzle out and fail you if your muscles can’t move explosively. Both skills are required if you want to reach the performance you strive for.
Additionally, just doing agility and change of direction drills will only take you so far. As I mentioned, maximal strength, power, and other skills must be developed to ensure your movements happen explosively and efficiently. To optimize their development, a properly designed training program is necessary, incorporating resistance training, cardio, HEMA, and other important variables. But that’s a topic for a different day.