Everyone has a story to tell about something. Sometimes, for an example in a job interview, the story you tell gets you to your objective. Sometimes, for example recounting the details of your injury or illness accurately to the Emergency Room physician, your story may literally save your life. And when we fence, if we want to win, we tell stories.
There are four basic story lines in a fencing bout, all of them important:
(1) the story you tell yourself – the plan you make for this touch, the how-you-want-the-touch-to-go story.
(2) the story you tell your opponent – the misdirection you create to get the opponent to do what you want him or her to do to facilitate your scoring.
(3) the story you tell the referee – the actions you take to make sure the referee calls the action in your favor (in foil and sabre, less in epee).
(4) the story you tell in the counter-reconnaissance battle – what you do to conceal your technique from other fencers watching you or during warm-up.
The story you tell yourself has already been covered in some detail in prior blog posts. It consists of your plan for the pool, plan for the bout, and the plan you make between “Halt” and “Fence” for the next touch. Everything you do in training, drills, bouts, ideomotoric bouts, etc., builds these story lines by giving you the skills to execute the plan at each level. Each of these plans is a dynamic, and potentially constantly changing, story.
The story you tell your opponent is critical to your success. You have a number of tools that help in crafting a story:
… you can build a sequence of actions in which each action is the feint for the next action. For example, a successful straight thrust in one line becomes the tactical feint for a feint of straight thrust disengage by creating the opponent’s expectation that you will try to duplicate your initial success.
… you can create a picture of your tactical choices that allows the opponent to incorrectly anticipate your next action. For example, if your opponent expects you to operate on one of the two versions of the tactical wheel, he will expect you to answer his attack by parry and riposte – your intent is to use this to create the conditions in which you can counterattack instead. Or if he does a compound attack, he expects a counterattack, only to be met by a feint parry parry-riposte combination.
… you can vary your speed, using footwork to get the opponent to move at your slow pace, followed by a fast acceleration to deliver the attack. Similarly you can vary your rhythm using broken tempo or held actions or remises to seizes opportunities.
The story you tell the referee is even more important. Referees have ultimate authority over matters of fact. In this they judge not only right of way, timing of actions, etc., but also your intent. You can execute a perfect action, with the right of way, and clearly land first, only to have the referee take it away because he or she thinks you did not show intent. How a referee judges intent, something that exists only in your mind, is not specified in the rules of fencing, but this is a very real hazard that forces you in some cases to devote more attention to acting than to fencing. This means that actions viewed from the side must be clear, unambiguous, and visibly aggressive. It also means that you have to diagnose and play to the quirks of your given referee. If the referee rules that the coupe is illegal in sabre, don’t do any more coupes. If the referee rules that a fencer being on the floor with both hands and both knees is not a fall because he could get up, best hit the opponent when they are down. If a referee rules that an attack starts with the front foot, or with forward blade movement, or with backward blade movement, adjust your game. No factor is more unpredictable or has greater potential to influence your outcomes than the referee, except possibly being positioned on a strip with the full force of the sun in your eyes making it impossible to see.
Finally you need a story for counter-reconnaissance. Reconnaissance has been a recognized part of fencing for over 100 years. However, the counter-reconnaissance battle, the efforts you make to defeat or mislead the opponent’s reconnaissance efforts has not generally been addressed. Opponents in the pool will watch and study your fencing. Warming up with another fencer who is not a teammate exposes your game to someone you might meet in the pool or the direct elimination. Even a fencer you have never fenced before might have received advice from someone you have fenced or used team scouting reports. That means that you must not expose your best techniques until they are needed, that you must have components of your game that you can change from opponent to opponent, and that you may have to have a different tactical plan for each bout. In the direct elimination, it means that you must be especially aware than an opponent may give up several hits to learn a critical weakness in your game. Easy hits in the first 3 to 4 touches should be a warning sign to be prepared to make significant changes in what you are doing.
So have a story. Like anything, storytelling is a skill, and a skill that needs constant practice. In every practice bout, practice creating and telling your story.