Fencing is a complicated sport. There is a lot to know – the current United States edition of the Rule Book runs to 210 pages, the Athlete’s Handbook another 143. Surely we should know all those rules and procedures? The history of the sport is long and rich. Shouldn’t we learn about that? The technique of fencing is extensive with actions not intended to hit, offensive actions, defensive actions, counteroffensive actions and all the footwork to go with them – literally hundreds of techniques. The related sports science knowledge applicable to fencing is books and books worth of material that can help the fencer – we have to know about that? All in all, a tremendous amount to learn …
But this week we are considering just part of the problem – what do we need to know in terms of techniques and tactics to be able to fence successfully on the strip?
There are some considerations that frame this question. First, Hick’s Law suggests that the more we know the slower our decision making and movement time will be. Second, we know that deliberate practice is the most effective way to build highly proficient execution. Third, we know that good repetitions, thousands of them are needed to achieve the automaticity required to be successful in the fast, modern game. Fourth, we know that fast tactical execution depends on well practiced decision processes. Fifth, we know that surprise is as much achieved by employment of an unexpected or unknown technique and tactic as it is by the speed and suddenness of the action..
Thus we face an interesting conundrum. The more we know the slower we are, but the more we know the more opportunities we have for surprise. But the more we know, the more repetitions and the longer the time required to master the larger body of skill and knowledge. And the more we know the more complicated, and thus slower, our decision processes will be.
There are two sides to this problem. The first is what we must be able to recognize. Not do, but recognize. A technique or tactical employment that is unknown to the opponent achieves a level of surprise, even if the distance and timing of the attack is correctly anticipated by the opponent. Normally fencers achieve a good library of techniques that they can recognize and respond appropriately to by fencing bouts, lots of them, in practice or in tournaments, by watching bouts, lots of them, in person or in video, and by being exposed to them by their Fencing Master. Failure to build a good library of recognizable techniques through bouting is a predictor of poor results. You really do need to be able to recognize a one-two coupe …
The second side of the problem is what we must be able to do. This is a smaller set of tactics and techniques. The time and effort required to develop automaticity puts a premium on a relatively small number of techniques honed to perfection. The emphasis shifts from techniques to forcing the opponent to operate in the envelope of space and time in which our performance is most effective. Fencers have won major championships with one technique and the ability to drive the opponent into the envelope in which that technique is deadly.
This means that for the intermediate to advanced fencer you need to have a set of actions that you can perform well under all circumstances supported by a set of abilities. These include:
(1) Footwork: (a) the ability to advance and retreat smoothly with acceleration or deceleration and with a rapid transition to the lunge off either foot, (b) a good, smooth accelerating lunge that achieves maximum point hit speed at 8-10 inches before impact and that arrives before the foot hits the ground, (c) the ability to recover from the lunge forward or backward, and renew the attack forward.
(2) Attacks: (a) the complete range of simple attacks for the weapon, (b) the ability to combine simple attacks with feints or preparation to create compound actions, (c) the ability to prepare an attack with one attack on the blade or one transport, (d) the ability to act with opposition or angulation to the high or low line, (e) the ability to hide the blade.
(3) Ripostes: (a) the parrying system for the weapon, (b) the ability to execute a direct or indirect or transport riposte immediately from the preparation of the parry, (c) the ability to hit under pressure and collapsed distance, (d) the ability to hit from the distance defined by the footwork of the parry.
(4) Counterattacks: (a) the stop hit and the time hit, (b) the attack into preparation, (c) the point in line.
(5) More complex situations: (a) the ability to use invitations or false attacks, (b) the ability execute second intention actions, (c) the ability to execute countertime actions.
(6) Movement: (a) the ability to accelerate or to decelerate, (b) the ability to push or pull, (c) the ability break tempo for both blade and footwork.
(7) Planning: (a) the ability to plan for each touch, (b) the ability to bout plan.
This is actually quite a big list. And in truth you do not need all of it. But what you need is to pursue it as building blocks, and not to stovepipe. For example, if you have learned how to execute a straight thrust or cut, that is a building block for a compound attack, for a riposte, for a false attack, for a stop hit, or for second intention or countertime. You do not have to relearn the straight thrust/cut every time, but you do have to learn (1) the different ways it can be applied and (2) how to synchronize it with other actions to make a new action. Learning how to fence in not learning a list of single things; it is learning how to put things together to achieve your aims.
The second part of this is that you do not need all of it at the same time. Start with the current set of things you can actually use in a bout – that set may be as few as 3 or 4 actions and two pieces of footwork. Own them. Perfect them by deliberate practice – every day, not just once a week. Do the thousands of repetitions you need to do. Do not stop when it is good enough to win against the people you fence all the time; stop when it is perfect. Then add something new that will work with what you have and repeat the process.