The purpose of footwork is to score touches. There, that was pretty simple, wasn’t it? But that can’t be right. After all, generations of fencing coaches have solemnly intoned “maintain distance” as their fencers went through countless footwork drills. Some have even said that you should close distance when you want to hit, and open it when you are on the defense. And for generations Masters have taught that at least some parries should be accompanied with a step back.
All of those have some modicum of truth to them. Stepping back when you parry, especially circular parries or parries against faster opponents, gives you time to make the parry. Maintaining distance is not a legitimate reason to do anything – if all you do is maintain distance you will never score a touch (absent a suicidal opponent who insists on leaping forward onto your point), and when the opponent presses, you will eventually march off the end of the strip. On the other hand managing distance is important, closing when you wish to attack or to collapse the distance in the riposte or as a hinder forcing infighting, opening distance when you wish to avoid an attack, creating the opening for you to attack, or to gain distance to establish a point in line, and maintaining distance momentarily when you need time to set up an action, either offensive or defense-offensive.
If we look at the basic purpose of any combative sport, the objective is to win. Fencing is slightly more sophisticated than that in that the objective in the pools is to win with the best possible victory percentage and the best possible indicators and the best possible number of touches scored (if you don’t recognize that set of values, you are in trouble – those are, in order, the criteria for seeding for the direct elimination). In the direct elimination, the objective changes to simply winning each bout.
If the objective is to win, then everything we do must be focused on scoring touches. Offense (the attack) scores touches. Defense sets up the immediately following offensive riposte to score. Counteroffense, properly timed, either denies the attack (foil, sabre, and epee) and scores, or preserves the position of the fencer to allow the best chance for more touches to win (epee double hits). It is all about scoring touches. If you don’t believe this, fence your next competition only using parries and evasions – no attempts to hit – and see how you do.
This means that footwork exists to create the conditions under which the touch is scored. All footwork must be intentional, and the intent must be to create a scoring opportunity. Lets look at how we can do that:
Advance – (1) to press the opponent, (2) to move into advance-lunge attack distance, (3) to attack following the riposte.
Half-Advance or Check Step – (1) to change the tempo of an action to allow an attack, (2) in second intention, to draw an attack into a perceived preparation so that you can hit with the counterattack or riposte, (3) to set-up a footwork trap so that you can hit with an attack, counterattack, or riposte.
Lunge – (1) to score, (2) in second intention to fall short drawing the opponent’s riposte or counterattack so that you can score by counterriposte or countertime, (3) to cause a retreat so that you can score with a gather step and reprise.
Advance-Lunge – to get inside the opponent’s timing so that the attack scores.
Retreat – (1) to draw an opponent forward in a footwork trap so that you can hit with attack or counterattack, (2) to provide sufficient time for a change of line parry for a riposte into an unexpected line to hit, (3) to cause the attack to fall short with a distance parry so that the riposte can score, (4) to draw out a pursuit allowing time for the point in line to be established creating a scoring opportunity (although this does require a better than the local standard of referee and a naïve opponent).
We could go through the complete list of footwork options to cover half-retreats, balestra lunges, slides, the several versions of the fleche, the forward and backward passes, inquartatas, etc. But I think this makes the point. If you sit down and matrix out each footwork movement, you will find that every one creates one or more opportunities to score a touch. In many, if not most, cases each footwork option plays a role in first intention, second intention, and even third intention actions.
Making this work is not easy. But, the following steps will help:
(1) Cultivate a scoring mindset. You are not out on the strip to fence a bout. You are out on the strip to score more touches than the opponent to win the bout. You cannot win if you do not score (yes, yes, I know you might win by priority in overtime. but that is a game of managing the rules, not one of fencing, an entirely different discussion).
(2) Develop the ability to see what the opponent is doing as soon as the opponent starts to do it. Most fencers’ movement patterns allow you to clearly see what they are doing very early in the phrase.
(3) When you can see a movement pattern that creates a vulnerability, immediately choose the combination of footwork and bladework to score against that vulnerability, and execute at the correct moment.
(4) When you see a movement pattern that creates a threat, immediately choose the combination of footwork and bladework to take over the action from the opponent, and execute at the correct moment.
(5) Develop the ability to feel the flow of the bout.
(6) Once you can feel the flow of the bout, shape the flow, disrupt the flow, take over the flow to use your feet and weapon to score.
(7) Practice, practice, practice continuously to ensure you have the capability to use your feet to do (3), (4), and (6) – this requires a continual search for perfection.