I’ll start by saying what follows is my opinion, my way of looking at things, my way of training and my way of fighting. It works for me, works for most of my students, but not all, and works in every context I found myself in so far. If you disagree , that’s good, as we need multiple paths to multiple destinations within martial arts. I am going to be talking about Timing and Distance , there are other elements just as important but if I bring in too much I will ramble on for pages, so I’ll try to confine myself to these parameters. It must also be noted that how important any element to martial arts is for you is very much dictated by your aims and your reason for doing martial arts in the first place. Anyway, let’s begin.
For me, the key to any fighting art is Timing and Distance. These two elements are the keys that unlock everything no matter the art, the weapon (extra or the ones you are born with), or the context. I tell my students a simple truth. If my timing and distance are perfect then any technique I try will work, if they are poor then no technique will work no matter how good I think it is. You could say get timing and distance correct and you can ignore everything else. While this is not totally true it is a truism that imparts how important these concepts are.
This is one of the reasons why, for me, technique is way down the list of priorities when it comes to fighting and training for fighting. My aim is twofold (I teach HEMA so weapons are a HUGE part of what I do)…
Don’t get hit
Hit the other person,
As you can see if these are my goals for fighting then Timing and Distance are key and technique almost become inconsequential. Now before the shouting begins notice I say almost, because, in reality, technique is important and is vital to keeping classes and fighting in general, interesting and fun. Plus if I have good technique on top of good timing and distance then my fighting becomes better and my options within a fight open up. There are other elements I concentrate on before technique like Body Mechanics, strategy, tactics etc , but we can discuss them another day. Every time I teach and train technique it has two elements to it…
How to do the technique correctly to make it effective
How can I build the training of principles like timing and distance into my technique training.
The training of principles such as timing and distance can be repetitive and let’s face it dull, but it needs to be done and repeated over and over to enable it to be used well and in context, so keeping it front and centre of everything I do, makes the training more relevant, more fun, and much more useful. This does lead to another question though, even for us old hands….
What is Timing and what is Distance?
We all think we know the answer, even beginners do, and on the most part we do, but what it means , how we use it, and most importantly how we think about it are key to making it work. Like everything else within martial arts our thoughts on this subject will of course change over time, which is as it should be.
I was recently introduced to a different way of looking at all this and it has almost immediately changed how I train and how I fight.. It’s nothing new; it’s nothing magical, just a different way to think about it from what I had been using. As always within martial arts it is much easier to impart ideas and information face to face but I’ll give it a go, I hope you can follow my train of thought but if not, please send me questions and I will try to answer them.
The concept of timing and distance is on the surface quite simple. If I control distance I keep myself from getting hit, if I control my timing I can hit my opponent at any time. While this is correct it’s not very useful and does not explain a great deal. I’ll take it almost everyone reading this will be a martial artist of some sort so I don’t think I need to go into great detail about how we use timing and distance and what it is for, but I will mention that it almost always involves more than we think if we only stopped to think about it a little more.
I was recently re-introduced to the works of a 16th Century military gentleman and commentator on the arts of personal combat, ‘George Silver’ by a good friend Martin ‘Oz’ Austwick from English Martial Arts who I must thank for working with me on understanding these principles and how to use them. (I’ll link to his YouTube channel and Facebook page at the bottom of the article). Within his works George talks about the…
‘The four grounds or principals of that true fight at all manner of weapons’.
It was here that I found a much better way of thinking about and executing the principles of timing and distance. His four grounds are as follows…
George goes on to explain these ideas and their importance…..
‘The reason whereof these 4 grounds or principals be the first and chief, are the following, because through judgment, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his place, the reason that he has lost his true place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is out of necessity driven to that will be agent.’
The language and use of words is a little odd to our modern eyes, but not too much so we can’t gain their meaning with some work and effort. I say this as on first reading and through our modern brain filters you could be fooled into thinking you understand all he says here and it’s quite clear and simple. You could be correct of course but for many that is a trap that can lead you down a very different road of understanding from the intended one. But to keep it simple let’s look at his four grounds.
It must be said that although George Silvers works primarily deal with weapons of all types I will add that his basic principles hold true for unarmed as well as armed combat. We can look at his ‘Grounds’ in turn and I’ll try to explain my understanding of them. George begins with Judgment as it underpins the other three but I will take my lead from Mr Austwick and start with Distance.
When looking into the works of George Silver it becomes apparent that when he talks about Distance he is actually talking about two concepts not one. Being IN Distance and being OUT of Distance. Using this idea you can see that at any point in time during an engagement you and your opponent will be either in distance or out of distance. For George being in Distance is when your opponent can strike you without taking a step.
This concept is key and if you watch enough fight/ comp videos you will see people utilise this concept time and again, often without really breaking it down or fully understanding it. Distance keeps us safe (Don’t get Hit), controlling distance allows us to control how your opponent strikes and when. This can confer a great advantage to you if you learn how to use it. Your hand can and does move faster than a brain and muscles can respond, this makes this concept deadly when mastered. This may seem like a bold claim but it is not. Go experiment with it, you will soon see what I mean.
To a fighter it means if you are caught in distance you can be hit faster than you can defend, but if you can control the distance then you can hit faster than they can respond. You can use your movement, your opponents movement or a combination of the two to make sure you are only IN Distance when you want to be, and ONLY when you want to be.
Timing is simply performing the required action at the correct time, with enough speed to make it work. Another definition that sounds good but is not of much practical use. So I will go back to Mr George Silver to try to break it down and be a little more useful.
George first breaks timing down into two categories. True Time and False Time.
True Time is basically actions performed at the correct speed to make them work (mostly without the need to step).
False Time is actions that are slower and so are inherently flawed and mostly doomed to failure. (Mostly they need a step to work).
A little better but still not much practical use is it. George knows this and so he breaks it down further.
So George breaks it down further in 4 ‘Times’ for each, here are the True Times….
The time of the hand.
The time of the hand and body.
The time of the hand, body, and foot.
The time of the hand, body, and feet.
And here are the False Times….
The time of the foot.
the time of the foot and body.
the time of the foot, body, and hand.
the time of the feet, body, and hand.
You may have spotted that the Tue Times involve the feet as well as the hand. Surely this goes against Georges teachings??? Well. No it doesn’t. He advocates a false time is when the action RELIES on the movement of the foot or feet. His True times can involve a movement of the foot or feet AS LONG AS the action does not rely on that movement to be successful. Go experiment with it, you’ll find he is correct.
So we now have some definitions for Timing and Distance with some practical advice from someone much more qualified than me to speak on such matters. I simply take his words and try to interpret them into something that makes sense. You should try it to.
BUT what of his other two Grounds that make up this topic, Place and Judgment? These can be a topic on their own but it would be remiss of me not to at least address them, so I will…
When talking about Place George has this to say….
“Keep your distance & suffer not your adversary to win or gain the place(3) of you, for if he shall so do, he may endanger to hurt or kill you.
Know what the place is, when one may strike or thrust home without putting in of his foot.
It may be objected against this last ground, that men do often strike & thrust at the half sword & the same is perfectly defended, where to I answer that the defence is perfectly made by reason that the warder has true space before the striker or thruster is in force or entered into his action.”
There is more but this gets the basic idea across. Being in the correct place can be thought of as target specific.. While being the correct distance to strike is very important, you need ask “Strike What”? What is your target, what is your goal? Being in the correct Place allows you to complete your desired action while not allowing your opponent to complete his. This can be a large and important area of discussion but let me give a small and pretty silly example to try to explain.
Stand at the correct distance from another person so you can hit their head without moving your feet. This is the ideal distance and Place to complete that action. Now turn around and face away from your opponent. You are still in the correct distance but boy are you now totally in the wrong place.. Play with it, have fun, go study Mr Silver for more insights into how to train and use it.
Let’s go straight to what the great man has to say about this….
“The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you, and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.
He goes on to say…
“First when you come into the field to encounter with your enemy, observe well the scope, evenness and unevenness of your ground, put yourself in readiness with your weapon, before your enemy comes within distance, set the sun in his face traverse if possible you can, still remembering your governors.
Let all your lying be such as shall best like yourself, ever considering out what fight your enemy charges you, but be sure to keep your distance, so that neither head, arms, hands, body, nor legs be within his reach, but that he must first of necessity put in his foot(1) or feet, at which time you have the choice of 3 actions by which you may endanger him & go free yourself.”
Judgment gathers in all we have discussed plus your awareness of surroundings, environment, your opponent, their movement, demeanor etc. It is to remind you to use all available information to gain you the advantage, constantly assessing and reassessing at every moment. This may be obvious but sometimes the obvious gets over looked or not studied correctly.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts and ideas on these matters and I hope they will be a some use. I assume some will agree and some will disagree, all ideas and comments are welcome. Thank you for reading and keep up the good work folks.
Duncan has been studying and teaching HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) for 17 years. He started at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in 2000 and after a few years training created his own group in Liverpool. Duncan has spent many years training with as many different martial arts groups as possible to gain a wide knowledge of fighting arts including spending time with groups in Israel and the USA.
This included spending time with the teachers of arts such as Krav Maga, Escrima, Boxing, Aikido, Sambo, Fencing, Tae Kwon Do, Wrestling, Pugilism and many more. He continues to cross train as much as possible. This is to aid his study of the Historical European fighting arts.
In his own group Duncan teaches all manner of weapons including Longsword, Arming Sword, Staff, Sword and Buckler, knife etc. At the moment he is studying the works of George Silver in particular. His Group now trains regular on the outskirts of St Helens, a town near Liverpool.