One of the recurring statements that coaches hear is “I don’t know what happened.” You are fencing a bout, your opponent hits you, and you don’t know how. You are fencing a bout, you attack your opponent, the opponent defeats your attack, and you don’t know how. You are fencing a bout, an exchange occurs, you are hit, and you don’t know what the sequence was leading to the hit. “I don’t know what happened” is not an acceptable answer to the question “why did you lose the touch,” or “why did you lose the bout,” or “what happened.” It just is not.
Every fencer should be able to describe what happened on each and every exchange of actions after the exchange is completed. Every fencer should be able to remember the key exchanges in a bout that determined how the bout would end after the bout is complete. Period, every and every. No exceptions.
Why? Simply put, if you don’t know what is happening, then you have no chance of fixing the problem (if you are getting hit or your actions are failing) or building on what you have been doing (if your actions are being successful). And if you don’t know what is happening, you have no way to adjust your tactics to adjust to how a referee sees your actions.
A key part of any between “halt” and “fence” drill is understanding what just happened so that you can adjust your selection of techniques and their tactical applications.
The bottom line is that, if you cannot recognize what is happening, you are nothing more than a punching bag for your opponent, and not even a smart punching bag.
So how do you fix this? First, learn the vocabulary of the sport. To adapt a line from a 1960s song by the avant-rock band the Fugs, “call any technique by name and the chances are good that the technique will respond to you.” The names of techniques are associated with the technique in your mind, and in the trainer’s mind, and in the referee’s mind – when you say “counterdisengage” everyone knows what you mean. If you say instead “swirly thing” when the trainer asks what happened or what you need to work on, and no one, including you, knows what you mean.
Second, learn what the technique looks like when your opponent does it. You have plenty of opportunities to do this when we do drills. The benefit of the exchange drill with movement is that your training partner’s actions look like the opponent’s actions in a bout. If the two of you are practicing a beat-one-two, every time you offer your blade in invitation to draw the beat, watch how the opponent beats, disengages in feint against your reaction, and then disengages in the final against your attempted parry. Be highly focused. This is your most important chance to build a library of visual images that will help you identify the actions of an opponent in the bout. If you waste this opportunity, you are voluntarily wasting 50 percent of the value of the drill, and no amount of instruction will ever make you a successful fencer.
Third, form an accurate mental image of the technique as done by an opponent. You already need to be able to form a mental image to guide your execution of the technique when you want to hit. Now you need to form one of what you will see coming at you. Associate that mental image with the name of the technique.
Fourth, start chunking the flow of opponent’s actions together in your mind. Look for sequences that you can recognize. For example, start with your attack and the opponent’s parry and direct riposte, add the attack and indirect riposte, add the attack and a different parry and direct riposte, etc.
Fifth, start to attach the right of way (foil and sabre) and the priority (epee) of the hit to the sequence. Practice this until you can describe the action, both the way it happened and how the referee saw it happen (the two, especially in countertime and multiple intention actions, are not necessarily the same thing). Then practice it some more until you can accurately describe the entire action.
Sixth, work to be able to identify and recall the key actions in a bout that determine how the bout will develop and end. Know at what point you gained the initiative and momentum, when you successfully stopped a run, etc. Be able to tell your trainer that, and describe it in detail.
No trainer can do this for you. This is a mental development effort that will pay dividends in fencing, in any sport, in academic work, in the military, in business, in just about any form of endeavor in which you are trying to be excellent. You have to exert the effort and do the hard work of training your mind through a process of disciplined, deliberate practice. This applies to both recreational fencers and to competitive fencers in any weapon at all levels. Saying “I don’t know what happened,” and not working to fix the problem, is merely an excuse for a lack of desire to be really good at what you do.