Every so often I ask a fencer in a lesson “what do you need to work on?” The answer is very frequently one of two things, either “I don’t know” or “what do you think I need to work on?” Both of these are reasonable answers if you take the view that, as a fencer, you have little to no responsibility for your own fencing – it is the trainer’s problem, not yours. These are also reasonable answers if you plan to never advance beyond mid-level intermediate in your skills and tactical ability. But for a competitor or a recreational fencer who wants to continually develop in proficiency, they are unsatisfactory in the extreme.
In order to function as a tactical being on the piste you must know four things:
(1) what are your strengths?
(2) what are your weaknesses?
(3) what opportunities does your opponent’s strengths and weakness give you to score on him or her?
(4) what threats to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses pose to your ability to win?
Your strengths and weaknesses are listed (1) and (2) for a reason – if you do not have a realistic and accurate picture of your knowledge, skills, and abilities you have no way to evaluate the balance between your capabilities and those of your opponent. You have to know yourself first. If you know your own strengths and weaknesses you know which techniques and tactics you need to develop and practice. You cannot just say “they are better than I am;” you have to find out why.
So how do you figure this out? The following steps will give you a roadmap. In using this roadmap you have to be brutally and completely honest with yourself. You have to apply every bit of knowledge that you have of fencing to this problem (a hint, if your knowledge pool is low you are going to have difficulties – there is a real penalty for not studying your sport). Look for trends, successes and failures that translate across multiple opponents in multiple bouts – don’t focus on “how do I beat Billy-Bob?” You may beat him next time, but the same weaknesses will persist for someone else to use to beat you. This is no-ego time; if you approach it from an ego based approach, you will lie to yourself, and you will fail.
(1) Ask yourself what level of competition you currently face and how does that level of competition match the tournaments you are training for as the next step? If you are a U and are routinely beating the As in your club when they are really working to beat you, then entering Division 3 in a North American Cup will be a psychological challenge (new place, new format, new referees, new opponents), but should not be a technical or tactical challenge. On the other hand, if you have difficulty with someone who is a U and has been fencing for less than 2 years, entering an event with the majority of the fencers classified is going to be a tough row to hoe.
(2) Ask yourself how do opponents hit you? The answer is not “with the blade.” It is what techniques do they use, and how do they package the technique as a tactic with tactical progression in the bout, distance, timing, tempo, preparation, and mental factors.
(3) Ask which of your actions routinely fail? And why? Is the technique poorly performed; is the packaging of the tactic badly matched to the situation or missing a key part?
(4) Ask how you hit your opponents? What techniques work in the offense, and what part of choosing the right moment in the tactical progression, the right distance, the right timing, the right tempo, the right preparation, along with the right mental game is successful for you?
(5) Ask how you prevent opponents from hitting you? What techniques work in defense and counteroffense, and what part of choosing the right moment in the tactical progression, the right distance, the right timing, the right tempo, the right preparation, along with the right mental game is successful for you?
The answer to question (1) gives you a generalized view of the threat to which you have to train. The answers to questions (2) through (5) identify two key areas in which you should be able to answer confidently “I need to work on X.”
Questions (2) and (3) identify the weaknesses in your game. These are the things that you must address in order to stabilize the touches received and improve the touches scored columns of your indicators. Pick the most fundamental problem (which will often be common to all of your failure answers) and work assiduously to fix it, every day, without fail, no matter what excuses present themselves as ways to avoid the work. If you don’t do this you will never be an exceptional recreational fencer or good training partner, much less competitive champion.
Questions (4) and (5) identify the current strengths in your game. These are the things that you must address in order to increase the touches scored, reduce the touches received, and improve your indicators. Pick the most fundamental strength and work assiduously to fix it, every day, without fail, no matter what excuses present themselves as ways to avoid the work.
The goal is to increase first your indicators (touches scored minus touches received) so that you will be able to sustain the best possible seeding for your number of victories. As your indicators improve by better defense (question 5 versus 2) and better offense (question 4 versus 3), your victory percentage will inevitably increase. This is achieved literally one touch at a time and is based completely on your understanding of what you need to work on. So next time the question is asked, make sure you have done your homework and answered the questions above, and answer confidently that “I need to work on Y.”
By the way, strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (also widely known as SWOT) is a standard management tool used in government, business, industry, academia, and military organizations for analyzing competitive situations. I first encountered its use in fencing in a presentation on the US Men’s Epee Team’s preparations for world competition by Dr. John Heil, sports psychology consultant to a number of national sports, in the 2006-7 time period.