One key to fencing success is simple – acceleration, the ability to go from slow to fast when you want to or need to. So, we just really exert more effort and we will go fast, right? No, not so much. Like so many other things in fencing, the devil is in the details of performance.
Acceleration is about managing the speed of action of the specific body parts you need to go faster within the tempo. A review – a single fencing action is one tempo. You can do that tempo barely moving or you can do that tempo at the speed of heat, and it is still one tempo. That means that if you want a footwork or bladework movement (or both) to be faster you have to change speed within the specific tempo. If you want to accelerate during a series of actions, for instance an advance-lunge or a feint, final attack, you have to be accelerating across the transitions from one action to the next.
How can we do this? It sounds complicated, and it sounds like we have to be in control of our bodies and acutely aware of what they are doing. And yes, and yes. Some thoughts:
First – perfect technical execution is critical. Fencing techniques have evolved over 700+ years as the most efficient way to kill someone (originally) and to win a fencing bout (in classical and modern sport). Know how a technique is executed, and the acceptable excursions based on the tactical situation, and practice them. Ten thousand perfect executions is a nice target for entry level proficiency. Remember that practice does not make perfect, perfect practice does, and that the individual lesson is the key to perfect practice.
Second – simplification of technique. The more complicated a technique is, the slower it is. For example, for decades fencers were taught to extend their arms, disengage from one line to another, and then lunge. That was a disengage. A modern disengage is one progressive movement from guard to a different line with extension and lunge happening simultaneously. Three parts or one part – which will be faster?
Third – tight movement. The wider your movement, the more distance it has to cover, and therefore the operationally slower it will be. If the blade and point are well outside the opponent’s target box, they may have to travel six feet, when a blade within the box directed at the target is travelling 3 feet. Which will get there first?
Fourth – balance. There are times to have your weight evenly distributed between your legs, and times to have it moving forward. Keep the movement of your center of gravity under control, and remember that wherever it goes you will have to eventually recover it to a balanced position.
Fifth – relaxation. If you are concentrating on generating maximum force, you will tend to activate both the agonist and antagonist muscles for your movement. One set of muscles wants your arm to extend, the other set wants the arm to contract – it is just what they do. Monitor tenseness continually and use relaxation strategies.
Sixth – smoothness. Get rid of hesitations and kinks in your movement. Every step should flow smoothly into the next, every blade movement should flow smoothly into the next. This is important in right of way weapons because of the potential for the referee to interpret a hesitation as a loss of right of way. And it is important in epee because of the potential for the opponent to insert her blade into the hesitation and hit you. But hesitation and jerky movement also robs you of vital time and destroys your ability to accelerate.
Seventh – sequence your body so that each part starts to move at the right moment to reach maximum speed just as you hit the target. The legs, weapon arm, fingers, torso, back arm all can contribute speed to the movement. You want all of them to reach maximum contribution at the point when your tip or cutting edge is within 8 inches of the target so that the opponent has the lowest probability of successfully defeating the accelerating action.
Eighth – know what the next step is, be confident in your ability to make it, and be prepared to change it as the situation changes. An accelerating action at full reach is a validation of confidence; hesitations and a lack of sureness is a sign you are out of your league.
These guidelines apply whether you are sitting on guard waiting for “fence,” attacking, defending, or counterattacking. Look critically at what you are doing, and improve it.