Lesson 2: Strong and Weak

I used to think you had to be strong all the time. But that's impossible. There's nothing wrong with always trying to do your best, but it works against you.

Introducing: starke ("strong") and schwach ("weak"). This concept transcends swordplay and extends to virtually all martial arts. Many disciplines define themselves as "hard" or "soft"—this is the same idea as "strong" and "weak" in European swordplay.

Starke , strong, or hard, and  schwach , weak, or soft. They describe the same idea.

Starke, strong, or hard, and schwach, weak, or soft. They describe the same idea.

The starke force describes an attack made with power. A starke technique engages with overwhelming strength, hoping to break through all defences. To contrast, the schwach force is designed to yield to opposing strength. These two powers defeat each other.

If your opponent launches a starke attack, you cannot counter with starke of your own. You will enter a stalemate. When faced with starke, you must answer with schwach. You turn your opponent's strength against them.

Imagine the scene: your foe hammers down with an oberhau ("strike from above"), and you lift your blade to block. When the swords clash and steel rings, you sidestep, letting your opponent's strength spin your sword for you. You twirl your blade, stealing your enemy's momentum, and turn the engagement around.

But the weak force is not just for defense. You can attack with schwach: a feinting attack. You slash sideways, above the head, with a zwerchhau ("cross strike"), expecting your opponent to block high. When they do, you collapse your strength, fall below their guard, and pierce through their defense.

Starke and schwach have an important place in real life, too. Let's start with an example close-to-home: you're editing the work of a peer, but you know they don't take well to overt criticism. If you approach the consultation with starke—blunt, straight-to-the-point, uncompromising critique—your peer will recoil, and nothing will get done. In this case, a schwach approach is better. Engage gently, prompt them to make the first move, and proceed from there.

Conversely, imagine you are a manager, and are faced with an employee who avoids and plays around the rules at every turn. You cannot approach with schwach, because they will simply disengage and continue their shenanigans. When faced with weak force, you must answer with strong force. Be firm, forthright, and say what you need to say.

You cannot choose a single approach and run with it forever. Adaptability and versatility are at the heart of swordplay, and of life. 

Rob Sullivan

Rob Sullivan is a writer, musician, fencer, and full-time human being. He is an Ottawa native, with a mix of Newfoundland and French-Canadian blood. He writes young adult fiction, but has a soft spot for essays. He is also known as "that guy who really likes Rush." Rob has recently written The Crush, an urban fantasy web novel.

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