Timing is an important part of fencing. Everyone who is anyone, and even plenty of people who aren’t anyone, agree that is so. There are even words for it in other languages: scelta di tempo (Italian) and l’a propos (French). If everyone agrees this is a vital part of the game, how do you define it in operational terms that you can execute on the strip? Go ahead, try to define it.
Yes, crickets. In other words it is largely undefinable in terms that can be taught and operationalized. We can define and teach footwork. We can define and teach bladework. But lets see what sources such as Czajkowski (Understanding Fencing), Szabo (Fencing and the Master), or Handelman (Fencing Foil) say. There is some difference in the terminology, timing, tempo, etc. but the essential elements are the same. If you look at these, and other sources, the core of timing is the ability to:
(1) attack the opponent when the opponent is unable or unprepared to respond, and
(2) attack with surprise.
This is an oversimplification, but not by much. Szabo helps us understand the problem by identifying that there are actually two types of timing opportunities:
PSYCHOLOGICAL TIMING – the seizing of the initiative and execution of the action in the moment when the opponent’s psychological readiness is at its lowest point. Szabo characterizes this as “an unusually difficult task.” He goes onto identify that:
… normally there are no visible signs of this state,
… if there are visible signs the state will have disappeared by the time you can act on it,
… can only sensed, and
… the ability to sense it is something you are born with – you either have it or you don’t.
Psychological timing is what generations of fencers have conceived of when the term timing is used. However, Szabo’s big contribution to the discussion lies in his identification of:
PHYSICAL TIMING – the opponent is out of balance or out of phase with the action. It may result in a habitual response, often delayed. It can be imposed on the opponent with your initiative. And it can be taught and further development with conscious practice. Distance stealing and breaks in rhythm can be concealed with blade actions to create the opportunity for exploiting time an distance.
Czajkowski makes notable contributions which build upon what Szabo wrote. He states that the success of any tactical action depends upon it being executed in the right time. It is important to:
… be able to seize the opportunity to launch an action, and
… be able to maintain psychological resistance when under a sudden attack.
He suggests that every action has two sides:
NEGATIVE TIMING – the conditions which creates the possibility for being hit, being attacked when you least expect it.
POSITIVE TIMING – the conditions favorable to scoring a hit, those which catch the opponent by surprise.
He believed that the sense required for fencing surprise in inborn, but that it can be improved in both the ability to recognize situations and take advantage of situations, as well as to resist the impacts of the opponents surprise.
Czajkowski also addresses the issues of reaction and movement time that have surfaced in this blog from time to time. This is important because the speed at which fencing actions are executed today means that both the attacker and defender have minimum time to (1) recognize that an action is happening and correctly identify it, (2) select the appropriate response, (3) send a signal to the muscles to move, and (4) actually move to complete the selected response. Items (1), (2), and (3) add up to reaction time. Item (4) is movement time. And all four are response time – the number that is relevant to the fencer. Those are the actual physiological-mental times that govern how fast an action is.
From the standpoint of decision making in the fight, the OODA model describes the physical actions in terms of what the fencer has to do. The Observe and Orient steps are equivalent to (1), the Decide step to (2), and the Act step to (3) and (4). The entire process becomes more automatic and faster under two conditions. First, the fencer who has more experience in seeing and recognizing a wide variety of actions and who has worked on automating his or her responses essentially compresses the time required for steps (1) and (2). This requires a lot of deliberate practice. Second, the fencer who has a plan for his or her action similarly has preprogrammed the action, again gaining speed and time advantage.
Handelman introduces the ideas of balance and negative balance into the understanding of the opponent’s vulnerability to a properly timed action. This is quite close to the concept of stable and unstable that may have also appeared in other places in this blog. We are most vulnerable when we are unstable – when in footwork movement, when the blade is in motion, or when physical balance is compromised. Any uncontrolled movement or non-intentional (as in there is no specific intent to the movement) is unstable. Unstable baldework combined with unstable feet is a timing delight, one or the other unstable may be hittable, both stable means that you must rely on preparation or other work to create the opportunity.
So, what is timing? It is the use of time and distance to attack at the time when the probability of an opponent being able to resist that attack is least, or the use of time and distance to defeat an attack which has not been exquisitely conducted.
A footnote – in this context time is distance and distance is time. Understand that relationship and you are on the way to becoming a good fencer.