Longsword Response Time Analysis
By: Tracy Mellow – Iron Gate Swordfighting
Successful defense against a sword strike depends greatly on the reaction time of the fencer. Understanding what is physiologically involved in that process can help a fencer or instructor train to reduce their reaction time significantly.
The science behind reaction time and how a fencer can reduce the reaction time can be quite complicated and boring, but I will do my best to convey the information in a way that most people would be able to understand, and short enough as to not lose the reader as this subject is an important, and often overlooked aspect in the HEMA community.
Reaction time can be defined as the time that elapses between a person being presented with a stimulus and the person initiating a motor response to the stimulus. The processes that occur allow the brain to perceive the surroundings, identify a threat, decide an action in response to that threat, and issue a motor response to execute an action to eliminate the threat.
Once presented with a stimuli (such as a sword strike), Information travels from neurons from the eye to the brain’s visual cortex, which helps process what you see. The brain then determines what response should be initiated. The motor cortex, part of the brain that directs movement then sends signals along your spinal cord by the central nervous system and into your various muscles by the peripheral nervous system to respond to the stimuli.
Sword strike speeds vary greatly from fencer to fencer, depending on experience level, training, physical properties, distance etc. For our purposes, let’s use one constant stimuli in all the following examples. The stimuli will be a longsword strike from a right side high position (Posta di Donna/Vom Tag) and will be at the average longsword strike speed of 230ms (.25sec.) from a static position to contact with the left side of the head of the intended target.
There are different phases of responses that the body will go through during the course of training as the brain and body go through a physiological change.
Fight or Flight reflex
A beginning student, or untrained fencer being faced with our example stimuli will commonly react with a cringe, turning the face away, and blindly putting their weapon in the path the incoming strike. This is an involuntary response due to the brain not having the resources to pull from to confidently defend against the stimuli.
This is the “Fight or Flight” reflex. The fight or flight reflex comes from the sympathetic nervous system, that is part of the autonomic nervous system which is the nervous system that is involuntary and cannot be controlled. It is responsible for bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate etc. There are a number of things that happen to the body during the fight or flight reflex, among them are negative aspects that affect the ability to adequately defend one’s self during a sword strike; Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing), and tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision) among the common actions of cringing, and turning the face away.
Luckily, the human body and brain are amazing things. They can be trained and can be physiologically altered, permanently, to react positively to the stimuli.
In order to confidently respond to the stimuli, The fencer must change the response from a reflex to a response.
Motor Encoding (Muscle memory learning)
Once a fencer has learned a technique that would counter the stimuli, and has retained it in their short term memory, the body goes through a physiological change. Instead of the response to the stimuli being of an involuntary nature and going through the autonomic nervous system, the brain now has information stored in the prefrontal cortex that can used to respond to the stimuli. The response now goes through the Somatic nervous system. The Somatic nervous system creates responses that the body can control voluntarily.
The motor encoding phase is a very important phase and should not be rushed through. The technique should be trained, with conscious effort, focusing on proper mechanics and should be drilled very slowly over many repetitions so the technique can be stored in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that controls automatic response. Over time, the technique can be sped up. But only when the fencer can execute the technique perfectly over many repetitions. During the motor encoding phase, it is important to remember to focus on the proper mechanics, even if the fencer knows what to do. The brain will know when it does not need it anymore. Once it is stored in the basal ganglia, the fencer will be able to recall the technique without conscious effort. If a fencer drills too fast with improper body mechanics, the basal ganglia will store the improper technique and is very difficult to change once it is stored. That is why it is very difficult for a fencer who has had improper training to break the bad habits that have been learned.
At this point in the training, the fencer’s visual cortex sees the stimuli, the brain pulls from the short term storage in the prefrontal cortex the appropriate response, sends that information through motor cortex, then the central nervous system via the Somatic nervous system, which then sends the information to the Peripheral nervous system, that controls the muscles, and then proceeds with the appropriate response to the stimuli.
This process is rather slow in terms of fencing time. During this phase, the average response time can be from 200ms to 300ms. Recall that the example stimuli here is a longsword strike coming in at 230ms. That is not much time to respond and the fencer is susceptible to being struck.
Motor Skill Retention (Muscle Memory)
Once the fencer has trained the technique with enough repetitions to have it stored permanently in the basal ganglia, the response to the stimuli has become automatic. The fencer no longer needs to consciously assess the threat and determine what course of action to take.
This phase has a much faster response time than the previous phase. At this phase, the visual cortex sees the stimuli, sends the information to the basal ganglia, that already knows what to do, sends the info through the motor cortex, then to the peripheral nervous system that then automatically responds with the appropriate response.
The average response time for a fencer with motor skill retention is approximately 140ms to 190ms. The stimuli in our example once again is at 230ms. Plenty of time to perform the defense.
Response time can be further decreased by using peripheral vision. There are two types of vision; Central and Peripheral. Central vision is made up of many cone shaped cells in the retina that help focus on an object and is sensitive to light. Peripheral vision is made up of many rod shaped cells that have no focus abilities, but perceive movement much faster than central vision. The fact that peripheral vision perceives stimuli much faster than central is beneficial to historical fencers.
In my research, it is noted that the response time to a stimuli perceived from peripheral vision can be as low as 80ms. That is much faster than focusing on the stimuli.
Usage of peripheral vision is simple, but must be trained to do automatically, same as any other technique. The goal is to not focus on any object at all. The best technique to use is to look through and behind the opponent’s center, just below the chest. By attempting to look beyond and through the opponent’s center, the Peripheral vision can pick up the opponent’s legs, arms, shoulders, hands, and weapon. All the things a fencer needs to be cognizant of while fencing.
If a fencer is focused on the opponent’s chest instead of through it, the fencer runs the risk of getting tunnel vision, which is the loss of peripheral vision. Since focusing on a specific object slows the response time, focusing on the opponent’s weapon or hands is not the best option either if the fencer wants to decrease their response time.
Being able to analyze the position the fencer’s opponent is in, and having enough knowledge in lines of attack, and the most probable attacks or defenses the opponent may attempt will also go a long way in decreasing response time if the fencer chooses a response based on various possible options the fencer’s opponent has at that time. Pre-choosing possible responses will only help the brain determine the best response and automatically respond then the stimuli is perceived.
Speed of the fencer’s weapon will also go a long way to decrease response time. The key here is to remain as relaxed as possible, only using the muscle tension needed to remain in guard and hold the weapon. Then once the stimuli has been perceived, using explosive speed by activating the type II (Fast twitch) muscles in a short burst, almost as if the fencer had received a hard electrical shock, will speed the weapon up significantly. This also needs to be trained and become a motor skill, since the fencer does not want to have to concentrate on generating power while responding to a threat.
In conclusion, nothing will decrease response time without proper training and time. As noted above, there are a few ways even advanced fencers can decrease response times, they just have to be trained and stored as motor skill.