Yesterday in a lesson Prevot Mark Logan suggested that you need one of three things to score a hit on your opponent: Distance, Timing, and an Error on their part. It is a pretty good list. This very topic has been the subject of discussion among noted Italian fencing masters with a slightly different list. So I thought about the Italian list and about Prevot Logan’s list and about conversations we have had of fencing theory and about what our members need to work on this week.
The first result is to define what each of the first set of terms mean:
Distance – distance on the offense is the effective measure of how far your blade has to travel to hit the opponent where the opponent will be when you finish the action, measured from the starting point of the attack, renewal of the attack, riposte, or counterattack. No one talks about distance categories in the defense, so I will define distance in the defense as the amount of backwards or forwards movement needed to ensure that the parry or avoidance will prevent a hit. We now have offensive and defensive distance to work with.
Timing – is the relationship between the tempo and cadence of your action and the tempo and cadence of the opponent’s action. On the attack, if we can reliably be part of a tempo ahead of the opponent with a faster cadence to the action we can get inside the opponent’s movement and hit. On defence, if we can minimize the difference between the opponent’s tempo and our own we increase our rate of survival. And in counteroffense, our ability to get into the region of half-tempo is vital to scoring on the preparation, in hitting with the stop or time hit, or in guaranteeing the double hit in epee.
An Error on the Opponent’s Part – is the most difficult category because the error in foil and sabre depends for its existence on the interpretation of the referee. If the referee is consistent you can determine on which errors you can score. If the referee is unskilled, inconsistent, ignorant of the rules, or calling for his or her clubmates, errors exist only if you can convert them into a single light. Theoretically, if an opponent commits an error, and the timing and distance are right, you should be able to score. To make this work you have to ruthlessly expunge from your mind any thought that foil represents combat with actual weapons. In sabre you have to hope that the referee sees the flow of the action in a way that matches your conception. In epee, all you have to do is actually use the error to hit.
If you get all three of these right, you hit. But it is not that simple. We have at least five other things to think about:
Speed – has a number of components. The first is reaction time, the time it takes to identify what the opponent is doing, select the correct response, and signal the muscles to move. Fast reaction times come with practice that improves the ability to see and recognize the movement and select the best response. The second is movement time. Movement time improves with relaxation, strength training to develop the power needed for movement, training of the anaerobic energy system, and elimination of excess movement. The third is training the OODA loop so that more complex tactical decisions can be made more quickly. Unfortunately the fourth is heredity – some of us are naturally fast due to a favorable proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers. Those of us who are not can make small gains in the number of fast twitch fibers through training.
Accuracy – accuracy is an undervalued component of any action. And it is much broader than whether or not you can hit the other person. Accuracy in estimating the distance – is she within range or not? Accuracy in getting the timing of the flick so that hand initiates and the point arches onto the target – rather than landing as a slap. Accuracy in moving the blade to parry – without protecting empty space. Accuracy in judging the effective reach of the opponent’s attack – so that you can pull and take over the attack or pick it off with a stop hit exploiting lock out time. Accuracy in putting your point or edge (in sabre) on a small and rapidly moving target. Accuracy in placing the remise. Accuracy in coming directly off the parry to the shortest path to the riposte. Accuracy, accuracy, etc.
Initiative – the fencer who holds the actual initiative has a tremendous advantage, if for no other reason that the opponent is either reactive or has to try to figure out a course of action that will take the initiative back under the pressure of your actions. Initiative is critical to generating tempo advantage, if for no other reason than that if I move first your response time (reaction time + movement time) will always put you part of a tempo behind me, and will force you to rerun your OODA loop decision cycle. Initiative is not obvious, and is often misinterpreted by referees who concentrate on discerning the intent of an action rather than what actually happens. A good example is push and pull. I step back and you follow stepping forward. Who is initiating? I am – you are reacting to my movement. How will an intent oriented referee see it – that you are initiating the action and are attacking because you are moving forward. Now, you step forward and then I step backward. Who is initiating? You are, and I am reactive.
Tactical awareness – tactical awareness is the continuum of abilities that allow us to recognize what an opponent is going to do and determine a course of action to exploit his or her intention. It can be strengthened by development of a wide understanding of the theory and practice of fencing, by use of the time between halt and fence, by bout planning, and by opponent analysis. If you do not practice tactical awareness every time you get on the strip, in drills, in practice bouts, in competition, you will never optimize your ability to defeat opponents. Getting the distance, timing, speed, accuracy, and initiative right means nothing if you do not know what to do with the advantage.
And finally …
Practice – visioning practice, part-whole practice, bouting practice, footwork practice, bladework on a target, practice pools, entering competitions for practice, etc. are all part of a disciplined, intense practice regime that gives you the skills needed to do everything above this last entry. If you do not practice some part of your game every day, do not take extra lessons at open fencing, do not religiously come to practice, etc., etc., in short do not do deliberate practice, none of the things above are possible, and you will never reach your potential.