No matter how much you study the techniques, you have to rely on memory in a bout (a short fight, usually part of a match). More than that, you need instinct and reflex. Throughout your training, you must drill the lessons into your mind and body until you can access them on impulse. Watch how fast the masters act and react.
In a real fight, you don't have time to think. That luxury does not exist. Your body must know what to do. If you have trained well, and you have faith in yourself, your body, and your practice, you stand a chance. Therein lies another crux of swordplay: knowledge and belief.
A talented fencer has knowledge: they know the techniques, they know their strength, and they know their sword. That's not spiritual waxing either—a fencer really ought to know the anatomy of a sword.
Unfortunately, the nature of swordplay means you can't afford to think about that knowledge in a bout. You have to know it so well that it becomes instinct. Thus enters the other half of the equation.
Imagine an opponent. If this is a skilled opponent, notice the eyes. A talented fencer—or martial artist of any discipline—rarely breaks eye contact. Their belief in themselves is so strong that they never need to look anywhere but their enemy's eyes. You can feel the confidence of an opponent in that contact. That confidence alone can be enough to turn the tide.
You can apply your knowledge without self-belief, but confidence is a bit like pixie dust: Add it to just about anything, and it makes it better. In fact, confidence can often overpower knowledge—if your opponent knows the discipline better than you, but you have greater confidence and belief, there is a decent chance you'll come out on top. You can know everything there is to know about the art, but if you don't have the spirit to apply it, what use is it?
Ultimately, a great deal of swordplay comes down to the mind more than the body. Adaptability, versatility, intuition, initiative, knowledge, and confidence—these make a master. That sounds obvious, but it took me two decades and three feet of steel to truly learn.
Honestly? I'd be a fundamentally different person if I'd never studied swordplay.
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.