Movement Isn't Everything
Ideas for Fencers with Mobility Issues
by Henry Fox
Originally published in Punta Dritta January AS XLI (2007)
At the Guild Prizes at Rowany Festival, spectators would have seen Guildmaster Don Henry Fox examine candidates on the field while seated in a chair. Those candidates can attest to the challenge posed by fighting a seated opponent, and fighting from a chair is a beneficial option for a fencer with mobility problems. In this article, Don Henry discusses issues and tips for rapier practitioners with injuries or mobility problems.
One of the most trying things for a fencer is becoming less mobile than before. This can occur due to a range of factors; injury, sickness and operations being the most common reasons. The most important thing is that this is not the end. In a lot of cases it is possible to get back to where you were. This article is designed to give people in this position some ideas about how to get back fencing, especially after injury, illness or an operation.
The first questions that will be asked by the reader is: from what sort of authority is the author speaking; and how would they know what is going on in this situation? I have a medical condition called Fibromyalgia (FM), which is closely related to both arthritis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I suffer from joint pain and immobility as part of my condition and I would be lying if I said that this does not affect my fencing. If anybody has seen me at Festival the effects of my particular condition are pretty obvious by about Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. From this point of view it is of interest to me to give people some ideas about how I deal with a lack of mobility.
What is also important is that I am not a qualified Occupational Therapist or other heath care professional, though some of the ideas that I will present do come from people with such qualifications. Hopefully this article may give you some ideas about how you can get back to fencing.
Getting Back to Fencing
The first part of the process of getting back to fencing is deciding to do it in the first place. This needs to be a firm decision on the part of the person as it will require effort on their part, in much the same way as the first, and following lessons, took effort.
What you must understand is that it is not necessary to have a sword in your hand; there are much more gentle ways to start. One of the easiest ways is to watch others fence and see what you can see. This establishes the mind-game of fencing in its initial phase. See what comes back to you as you are watching. You may be surprised what you can see and actually remember. This is especially the case for those who have not fenced in a while.
The next part of the process is to actually think about fencing. From the movement of the sword to the movement of the feet, the actual thought processes are just as important as doing the actions. Find a notebook and write your thoughts down. Think of ways to practice and improve without requiring actual practice. That is the next part of the process, which takes the real effort.
Increasing Your Capacity to Fence
The first part of the physical element of fencing and returning to it is to understand your own limits. It is important that you are able to start within these limits, but also to stay active within your own capacity. You must increase this capacity steadily but slowly. Rushing the process will only hurt more and achieve less.
In the beginning it is best to rest frequently and to stop before you are too tired and or sore. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out but this is not the case. If you keep going until you are unable to move you will have a harder time getting back into it later.
With regard to work and rest, both are important. Work increases your capacity, but rest is essential to give your body time to recover, in order to be able to do more. This is especially the case during the times of activity. You must rest before becoming exhausted; short breaks are important during activity. These breaks will actually enable you to do more than attempting to push through.
It is important to be able to both test your limits and also increase them, but not at the expense of doing damage to yourself. Pain is the world's best indicator in letting you know when to stop. Ignoring this cue will lead to your detriment, but a fear of pain will also limit you. You need to strike a balance in your regard for pain. Somewhere between fear and disregard, there is respect and this is where the balance is found. If you become afraid of pain you will stagnate and will not improve, but also if you disregard pain you will cause yourself damage.
Fear → Respect ← Disregard
It is important that you exercise to the point of fatigue but before pain occurs. This is how the occupational therapists say it. You must consider the overall effect of what you are doing. Only by attempting more is it possible to increase your fitness, but this must be done through exercise and not pain. In my case, I would say that you should be aiming to increase your capacity by a factor of about 5 per cent and no more. Once the 5 per cent has been achieved ~ stop. You should only push yourself to this point and not further. This way you will increase your ability bit by bit. without the threat of doing damage to yourself.
Stress is important. It is necessary to stress the joint a little but not too much. Do those things that exercise but do not stress your joints. If something becomes too stressful ~ stop; know your own limits. Relaxation is also an important part of the process. This is vital for removing stress. What is also important is that you take as much time as you need to. There is no need to rush, it is better that you proceed slowly and steadily.
One of the first places a fencer can start after a mobility problem is by fighting from a chair. This takes the stress off the legs. A fencer in such a situation should examine this option and see what they can/cannot do while seated in a chair. You may be surprised what you can do from a seated position.
Most of the handwork in fencing can be used/practiced while seated. This is because it does not rely upon the movement of the feet. Parries can be practiced along with most of the other blade usage. Obviously, lunges are not possible and neither are movements that require use of the feet or legs.
It is important that you use a chair or stool. Do not sit on the floor/ground. This will place too much stress on the legs, especially in the process of getting down and getting up. A chair is the best for back support, but a stool can be utilised. Use a chair where you can touch the ground comfortably and one without arms, as they will get in the way.
It is important to take pressure off the legs and feet by properly positioning your body on the chair. For the best practice, especially for later on, the position of your feet should be similar to your standing position. This will also orientate your body properly for fighting so that you will not have to learn a new position. You should think about the advantages and disadvantages of being seated. For the more advanced combatant, you should also consider the best combination of weapons.
What is really great is that from this position you can fight full speed, but this is only advised once you are comfortable with fighting from a chair. I have actually done this a couple of times and it really does improve your hand work. Your distance and timing are also improved due to the reliance on a single distance that is available at maximum range. However, I strongly advise you to do some sparring bouts before going into any tournaments.
The next part of the process is to stand up. This does not imply that you should be doing any sort of movement straight off. To begin with, practice what you can while in stance but without moving the feet or legs. You should remember that you should be in proper stance, as this may take some of the pressure off the knees.
Of course you should not try to adopt a low position, as this will stress the legs far too much. The hand movements that you were doing while seated can be repeated and practiced, along with those you couldn't due to the seated position. Once you are comfortable with standing and doing hand movements it is time to move on to moving the feet.
Start by practicing footwork slowly. At this point in time your focus is on technique more than speed, much as it would have been in your first lessons. Start with single steps and movements to start with and make sure that you can do them one at a time.
Repeat single steps until you are comfortable and can do them more quickly. Then move on to more complex movements. Any movement that causes you pain should be stopped immediately. This is one you will have to come back to later, or, if necessary abandon completely. Speed should only be a concern much later on, it is more important that you can do them. Remember ~ increasing the capacity to move is a slow process.
Once you are comfortable with simple movements in your footwork, it is time to integrate hand movements and slowly increase capacity on this level. Practice simple movements of the hand and foot; only once you are comfortable should you move on to more complex ones, or increase your speed.
The focus of this particular article has been increasing movement for those fencers with mobility issues. What is most important for all fencers is that the same ideas and same process apply for those with other joint issues. Remember to start slowly and work on increasing your capacity; do not try to rush in and do too much at once.
This whole process also applies to those who have been away from fencing for a long period. Ease yourself back into the motions of fencing. It is better that you take time, than rush the process and do yourself an injury. No one can be expected to be back at their full form at their first practice back after months of 'down-time'.
If you are having issues with joint pain or other forms of immobility, I advise you to speak to a health care professional before it gets any worse. They can help devise a program that will improve your quality of life and also, in the long run, improve your fencing at a base level. Take their advice to heart. If you have a specific condition, especially with your joints, it is more than likely that some fencer has had similar issues. Share your concerns and ideas about dealing with the issues.
It is my hope that this article will help some, give some ideas to others, and increase everybody's awareness of the importance of their joints. If you are having some sort of issue with your body, there is sure to be a trainer or another fencer who will be able to help you around it. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Remember, you only have one set of joints ~ look after them.