Every bout you fence should be planned. Only by planning do you develop realistic assessment of the threat you face, balance that assessment against your strengths, and determine a way to shape the fencing to your advantage. Without a plan you are forced to be reactive to the situation rather than controlling it, and reactive to the opponent rather than retaining the initiative. No plan is a plan to lose the bout.
This includes bouts in practice pools or open fencing in the Salle. The details of a plan, any plan, including military and disaster response plans, are usually less than the thought processes and the shared understandings that go into the writing the document. Developing, internalizing, and automating that planning process can only be achieved by practice. Bouts in the club provide the opportunity for that practice. If you only do this when in a tournament, you will not be successful. Like everything else in fencing, practice, more practice is a key step to making plans work.
The core of planning is understanding strengths and capabilities. You must be able to honestly answer two questions: what is the opponent’s range of strengths and weaknesses, and what is my range of strength and weaknesses. You cannot do this based on ego, inflated hopes, or how you do against less proficient opponents in the club. You must measure these against the standard you can expect in competition. Although many factors can be included in such an analysis, the following is a short, practical list:
- Reach – from how far away can the opponent hit? This is a combination of arm length plus lunge length plus the length of the weapon. A more sophisticated look at the problem would consider how much travel is the minimum necessary for you to be able to parry the attack.
- Speed – how fast is the opponent in footwork movement, in arm and blade movement, and in the combined speeds of movement in the attack?
- Patience – does the opponent impulsively attack at any opening or rush the actions so that synchronization is lost? Or does the opponent choose carefully when to act, and acts only when the correlation of factors is firmly in their favor?
- Weapon Hand – is the opponent same hand or opposite hand? If you are in a relatively opposite hand poor environment, make sure that you work with the coaching staff to get as much left handed opponent experience as possible. Opposite hand opponents are not superhuman, but they can be off-putting if you do not work against them regularly. For left handed fencers, same hand opponents may pose similar problems.
- Changing – does the opponent adapt and rapidly change tactics when the situation warrants?
- Distance – can the opponent manage distance well, opening and closing and attacking from the best available distance? Can the opponent accelerate or steal distance to rapidly close.
An assessment of these factors tells you how the opponent will most likely shape their actions, identifies areas in which you do not want to be forced to fence, as well as those areas in which you have an advantage that you can exploit.
It also helps you decide the overall character of how you plan to fence. Are you going to be offensive or defensive? Do you plan to rely on counterattacks? Or should you game be adaptive, changing to use a range of actions from each type, and opportunistically exploiting opponent’s errors? And where do you expect the opponent to be in their choice of overall types of actions?
Every fencer has a set of actions that he or she does well, prefers to use in competition, and has practiced to the degree that responses are fast and accurate. The number is typically small – at the elite level some fencers rely on only one or two actions, using everything else to set up the conditions for the chosen actions to succeed. Once you have an accurate assessment of the balance of capabilities between you and your opponent, and have made a general choice fo the type of actions you will use, it is time to identify which specific actions you will attempt to use from your set of best practices.
The final step is to determine what your first touch will look like. Winning the first touch is psychologically important, and statistically significantly increases your chance of victory. If you can win the first touch, you have the conditions in place to be able to win your next two. So plan for the first three touches. After that you will have sufficient information to be able to plan the last two touches.
Remember that no plan is foolproof. A plan gets you to the bout in a prepared state. It may not survive the first touch, or it may run smoothly to 5-0. After each touch you should use the time between “halt” and “fence” to reassess and modify the plan if necessary. But you have to have a plan as a baseline in order to understand what is happening and what you need to do to control the course of the bout.