So there you are, on the piste, with a perfectly beatable opponent in front of you. And yet you are down 1-3, and nothing is working. You just tried your best, and most complicated, piece of blade work, the opponent literally laughed at you, and then hit you. You have no idea what to do. Your brain has gone walk-about. What is a fencer to do?
We have all been there. Sometimes it is just in club bouts. Sometimes it is in the finals of the Olympics – Rio produced one clear example that had fencers all over the world wondering what happened. Sometimes it happens to referees – the Shin disaster in London is a prime example. It even happens to the people who select members of international teams. The nature of decision making under pressure is that sometimes things go horribly wrong. That they do is not the main problem – not being able to recover from the bad decision making in time to change the course of events is the problem.
There are three keys to recovery. First, you have to recognize that something is wrong, that your current course of action is not working. If it does not work the first time, that is a huge signal that you should not do it again. Doing whatever does not work faster, with more power, etc. just gives the opponent another chance to hit you … especially since your brain has probably convinced you that it is a good idea to repeat your unsuccessful technique immediately after the first try so that the opponent will have the maximum chance to remember what you did and how you did it.
Second, you have to have the time needed. It is possible to come back from 0-4 to win a pool bout, or 0-14 to win a direct elimination bout. Statistically it is not very likely. All the opponent has to do is be lucky once; in contrast you have to be perfect every time. That means you have to recognize the problem as soon as it starts to happen, and take immediate action to fix it. It will not fix itself.
Third, you need a system of thinking and doing. Thinking means having a disciplined drill for the few seconds between “Halt” and “Fence” that you do every time to assess where you stand and choose your technique and tactic (how you will use the technique) for the next touch. Doing means having a system of core techniques that you can reliably execute under pressure – techniques you have drilled with until execution is fast, smooth, tight, and, to you, thoroughly predictable.
The trend in fencing is toward mastering a very limited number of techniques, as few as one or two, and focusing on how to create conditions in the bout in which they can be employed with a high probability of success. This is not a new idea – one fencer won a European Championships in the days when the European Championships was the World Championships with all of his hits being scored on a straight thrust. Today you can easily find video of fencers who rely on a very small set of techniques or tactics and are successful in major tournaments.
But is this enough? What happens when you are not successful in creating the ideal conditions for the single technique, or when your execution of that technique is off, or, worse yet, the opponent has figured out the counter to it? I suggest that every fencer needs a set of core techniques that can be used when the brain freezes up, when you cannot think of what to do, when the stress level is so high that your decision processes have left the building.
Great idea – but like every great idea the devil is in the details. So what is a core technique for you?
First – a limited set of techniques that work and that have broad applicability. Limited because you have to be able to practice each individual technique thousands of times and because you have to practice the entire set in scenarios thousands of times. Six seems to me to be the upper limit. That work because these actually have to be successful when correctly executed under bout conditions. Broad applicability because you need each technique to work in more than one of the standard categories of offense, counteroffense, and defense under a wide range of circumstances.
This list has to be pruned ruthlessly to make sure it does not grow, and you must discard sentimentality in your choices. For example, I love the elegance of the sabre parry 6 combined with a horizontal moulinet riposte to the cheek. But it is not a limited technique because you will need other techniques to fill the needs it leaves unaddressed. It is not a that work technique because it is slow and the movement patterns create multiple opportunities for remise or counterattack. And it is not a broad applicability technique because it solves only one problem, and a problem that parry 4 with a direct riposte solves (replacing both parry 5 and parry 6), as well as solving a much wider variety of threats. So, with regret, I have returned parry 6-moulinet cheek riposte to the study of classical fencing where it belongs.
Second – a technique that you can execute under pressure and that is relatively impervious to impacts of increased pulse rates on fine motor control. If you are falling back on your core techniques, it is because you are under stress. This is not the time for complicated blade movements that have the potential to become wider, and thus slower, when you need tight and fast.
Third – a technique that can serve as a building block. Remember that each action is potentially a feint for the next action. If you succeed with a simple attack, add another element of core technique at the start or at the end to create a prepared attack for your next version. Try to avoid techniques that are the end of the evolutionary line.
Fourth – techniques that logically work together a form a tactical narrative for the rest of the bout. You could, for example, build a set of core techniques for epee that include one-two, counterattack in tempo, lifted parry seven, redouble, and second intention with invitation of 6th. I am not at all sure how you could put those together in any sequence to win the next three touches.
Fifth – techniques that will work as a mnemonic. Under the pressure of decision making in the bout you need something that immediately brings to mind your core choices. Create a word that captures your core – our fencers use Deepucks, Suripsbic, Spickbitbee, etc. If you are lost between “halt” and “fence,” say your word, pick a technique, decide when and how, and go do it!
Sixth – techniques that you believe in, that have consistently worked for you in combat, and that you know you can apply at various tempos and distances. The psychological component of fencing is at least one third of the game, and belief in success engenders success in this sport.
Build a core, train the core, use the core – over time you will find multiple situations in which these fighting techniques will save the bout for you.