You are out on the piste in the midst of a critical bout in the Upper-No-Place Open. You just scored to bring the score to 2-2, and scoring the next touch makes you (1) the first to three hits, an important point in the bout, (2) up one on your opponent, now he or she needs 2 unanswered touches to get ahead, and (3) in the midst of a modest run that you would like to keep going.
The problem – the referee called “halt,” is doing his thing with the windmilling arms, and you have about 3 seconds left before he calls “on guard.” But, and this is a very large “BUT,” you have no idea what to do. Your plan for the bout is not working, and when you got to the “what am I going to do next” question in your between halt and fence mental drill, all you saw/heard/thought was … nothing.
Everyone who has ever fenced in a tournament has had the “ohmigawd what am I going to do next” moment, most of us more than once. It is okay to have that moment. What is not okay is to not come up with a solution in the next second. Your first step in doing so, your mental drill for between halt and fence, has not worked. It is time for your fallback solution. Fallback solution? Yes. What I mean by this is that it is vital to have a set of techniques that you can employ with a high degree of confidence when you literally cannot think of what to do.
You will notice that I said a set. You need to be able to deal with the flow of the bout and the opponent’s tactical game, and for the average fencer that means a capability for offense, defense, and counteroffense. If you have been controlling initiative in the bout, and you have been successful pressing the opponent, you need to have a go-to, high probability of success offensive action or two that you can choose quickly and be ready to execute. The same applies to defense and counteroffense. Depending on the weapon, the composition of this fallback solution will vary, but you almost certainly need at least one of each. You also need some variety so that opponents do not easily identify what your fallback consists of, probably a total set of no more than 5 or 6 actions.
The specific techniques need to be things that you can do under pressure. They need to be things that have a high probability of success – fast actions that you can control and execute with a high degree of accuracy. And they have to be things you can do with minimum mental preparation (you will have very little time between your decision and “fence”). This does not mean that you should not use prepared actions or fence eyes-open. But it does mean that choosing an action demands that the action you choose be something that the name alone triggers an immediate and correct physical response when needed. You don’t have the time to think through how many times the blade does a counterdisengage in a double or how to set up counteroffensive countertime – you have to know the answer.
How to you get to this point? It takes some thought, but the process is not very difficult:
(1) inventory your techniques and select one or two in each of offense, defense, and counteroffense. Be brutally honest with yourself, and select only techniques that you can do well and that have proven effective in practice and in competition (you need competition because you need a winner, you need the practice success so that you will be confident the technique will work).
(2) practice the techniques in drills with partners to hone speed, smoothness of execution, timing, and accuracy.
(3) practice the preparation you will need to make the technique work as well. For example, if you need an invitation to draw the opponent’s attack, make sure your invitation is inviting, does not look like a trap, and ends at the right time to bring the parry over in time to make contact.
(4) practice fighting practice bouts with this set of skills alone. You won’t do this in competition, but doing so will give you confidence that the techniques will work under pressure without thought on your part.
(5) and practice the decision making between halt and fence in practice bouts – set yourself the problem of “I don’t know what to do,” go through the fallback pick, and execute.
As you develop as a fencer, you will need a fallback less frequently. Your challenge will be to identify your area of tactical superiority, force your opponent to fight in it, and use an even smaller number of techniques. Even then, however, having a small set of fallback techniques may prove a good investment of training time.