One of the ways to get hit in any sword or weapon sport is to be predictable. It is no different in fencing. You do the same thing the same way every time and even the opponent who is completely asleep on his or her feet will wake up and hit you. You may think “my (insert your favorite action) is so fast and so tight that no one will ever be able to beat it.” Sorry, you are ill informed at best, and more likely delusional (no, I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, I am not practicing medicine, but I am pointing out the obvious). A competent opponent will figure it out and will hit you repeatedly, and, best of all from their perspective, you will be unable to change what you are doing because it is your unbeatable move.
This introduces a challenge in your performance on the strip and a balancing act in your training. Consider the following:
(1) The fewer the number of techniques you know, the faster you will be at selecting the correct technique and applying it (that is a core law of human movement – Hick’s Law).
(2) You are fastest when you have a single highly trained and automatic response to the stimulus of an opponent’s action (this is why elite fencers seem to operate at blinding speed).
(3) The fewer techniques and applications of those techniques you know, the more predictable you become.
Numbers 1 and 2 argue in their most extreme form for knowing only one action and for spending your effort on the strip to creating the conditions in which that action will be successful. And World Championships have been won that way.
Number 3 suggests that if you do numbers 1 and 2, and an opponent figures out what you are doing, you are well on your way to being defeated.
So let’s think about this problem in terms of the simplest conversation you can have in fencing. I attack and you execute a parry-riposte to hit. Three simple actions – the attack, the parry, the riposte. If I execute a disengage into 4th, how many options do you have? Without being overly creative, you could reasonably do (depending on the exact execution of the parrying technique you use and the speed of your execution) in no particular order:
- Lateral parry of 1st
- Lateral parry of 4th
- Lateral parry of 5th (in foil and epee)
- Circular parry of 6th (3rd)
- Semicircular parry of 8th (or 2nd)
What is the average opponent expecting? I would be willing to bet that most opponents would assume that you will automatically select lateral parry 4. But what if instead you do not use 4th, or the second most obvious parry, circular 6th, but rather intercept the disengage in 8th (or 2nd)? So, let’s hold that thought for a minute, and …
Go on to think about what you are going to do as a riposte. What percentage of ripostes are made automatically as a straight thrust in the same line as the attack and the parry? Well, to the best of my knowledge no one has ever tracked and published that bit of information, but I think it is reasonable to say that it is a large majority. After all that combination, lateral parry-straight thrust riposte in the same line, is one of the first things we teach a beginner. What do we know about the simple riposte? Yes, that is correct – any simple attack can be used in the correct circumstances as a simple riposte. That means:
- Straight thrust into an opening that is not closing fast enough to block your riposte.
- Disengage against a fast lateral parry aimed at your riposte.
- Counterdisengage against a circular parry.
- Coupe against a fast lateral parry.
- Countercoupe (a theoretically possible but rare technique) against a circular parry.
Given these choices, let’s go back to our defense against the opponent’s disengage. You will remember that we parried 8th (2nd) against their attack from 6th (3rd) into 4th. This is an unexpected parry, forcing the opponent into their OODA loop and adding milliseconds to their decision process. But given the same line rule, they should still be able to counter your riposte in 8th (2nd). So what to do? How about a disengage riposte vertically from 8th (2nd) to 6th (3rd)?
This sequence maximizes the opponent’s tactical problem by using an unexpected parry and an unexpected riposte. But in executing it we are also being reactive in the sense that in the discussion so far we have been trying to defeat the opponent’s choices. What if the objective changes to imposing our choices on the scenario. The difference here is subtle, but there is a tactical difference. Now we are examining how we can force our desired choices on the fight.
For example, if you know that the opponent tends to pull back his 4th parry as he makes it, you might assess that you can get angulation in behind the blade so that his withdrawal actually improves your chance of a hit. The opponent attacks in 6th (3rd). How can you achieve your desire to hit in 4th? It looks like this:
- Opponent – straight thrust into 6th (or cut in 3rd)
- Fencer – change parry to transport the opponent’s blade to 4th
- Fencer – start of direct thrust in 4th
- Opponent – starts to parry 4th
- Fencer – angulates to hit behind the blade in 4th
This solution combines the change parry with an angulated riposte to achieve the hit. You can make it as complicated as you like – another example.
- Fencer – feints attempt to laterally press/take the opponent’s blade 6th (3rd) to open 6th (3rd)
- Opponent – derobes the attempt with a disengage attack into 4th
- Fencer – executes a circular parry to return the attack to 6th (3rd)
- Opponent – starts to try to parry 6th
- Fencer – disengage or coupe ripostes to opponent’s 4th.
Try doing this as a drill with an opponent. If it confuses you, think what the multiple line changes will do to the opponent.
This discussion, should point out that how you reduce your set of techniques that you really prefer to do matters. You want to keep as few techniques as possible so that your reaction time is as fast as possible and so that you can automate the ones that you do keep. At the same time you want to be able to have a variety of techniques available so that you can maximize your chances to defeat the opponent’s choices and impose your choices on the fight.
This is a challenge – and an example from one of the Philippine stick fighting arts may point the way. The students of an aging grand master (who had taught for decades, was widely respected, and had been the victor in a number of death matches) tried to compile a textbook of how the Grand Master fought. But they were frustrated because attacks that seemed the same were met instantly by very different responses. When they asked the Grand Master why this was, he replied that each attack was different in some subtle way, and that each attack was met with the appropriate response for that subtle difference. He had built an amazing mental library of what was possible and what possible looked like, and then automated a response for each of these subtly different possibles.
The average fencer, even the average serious competitor, does not have the time to achieve this level of performance during the prime competitive years. However, with intense dedicated practice and methodical correction of errors, it is possible to build more complexity into your game, giving you a better chance of defeating your opponents.