Surprise is the creation of unexpected conditions that (1) hamper or defeat the opponent’s actions and/or (2) facilitate successful actions by the fencer. Surprise may be strategic or tactical. Strategic Surprise involves changes in conditioning and physical performance, technical skill, tactical skill, or mental skill from one mesocycle (a training cycle keyed to major tournaments during the year in which the fencer must perform at a high level), macrocycle (the annual training program), or quadrennium (the four cycle for the Olympic Games) to the next. Tactical Surprise involves the changes in the application of tactics, techniques, and/or mental skills within a tournament or an individual bout. The intent in each case is to suddenly present to the opponent challenges that they are not expecting and are not prepared to meet.
Surprise may also be offensive or defensive (for the purposes of this discussion defense and counteroffense are considered to be defensive). Both may involve the use of new tactics and techniques not previously used by the fencer against opponents, different ways of applying tactics and techniques, and/or significant improvements in the physical performance of fencing actions. Closely linked to either offensive or defensive surprise is the ability to create the conditions that allow surprise actions. This may be by control of the rhythm of the bout, or the ability to break a rhythm imposed by the opponent, the ability to accelerate or decelerate, the ability to control distance and exploit timing, the ability to rapidly change tactics, and the ability to dominate the opponent mentally and impose the fencer’s will on the bout.
The idea of a system might seem to be contrary to the concept of surprise. After all, if you have five or six favorite techniques, it would seem that every opponent would fairly quickly identify both your favorites and how to defeat them. Combined with this is fencing’s never ending season (you really can fence every weekend in a tournament within driving distance in much of the United States. It would seem that there is no time to make the physical and technical improvements unobserved that surprise seems to require.
This suggests that it is worth considering why high level fencers are winning bouts with a very small range of favorite techniques. The answer is that they are so good at (1) creating the conditions in which their techniques will work while (2) denying the opponent the opportunity to use his or her best techniques. The genius comes in routinely creating the bout conditions within the fencer’s envelope of tactical excellence without the opponent realizing what is happening. The opponent knows what you want to do, and yet you succeed in doing it. Your surprise lies in the unexpected moment of initiation at the right distance, with the right timing, under the right psychological conditions, not in the actual technique used.
However, complete surprise is still possible and very valuable. If you apply an unexpected technique with unexpected power and unexpected initiation at a critical moment in a bout, you can break the opponent’s morale, reverse a run or start an unstoppable one, gain a critical statistical advantage, expose other weaknesses in the opponent’s game that you can exploit, etc.
Surprise requires two key components. You have to have the tools to create a strategic or tactical surprise, and you have to have perfected them. You know where this is going – practice, practice, practice and get a lot better at what you do.