One of the most influential concepts of modern fencing is Eyes Open, the concept that fencers should adjust their execution of technique in real time based on the unforeseen response of an opponent. In this model, developed by Zbigniew Czajkowski and described in his seminal work Understanding Fencing, one of three situations exists (in very simple terms):
- Foreseen Actions – those in which your action is known, as is the opponent’s response.
- Partly Foreseen – you know what your action is but the opponent’s reaction is unforeseen.
- Unforeseen – your reaction to an opponent’s action is unplanned and automatic.
The partly foreseen case is the most difficult of these, and the highest risk (see our discussion of risk in fencing as the 170430 blog post). On the surface it would appear that it is risky because you don’t know what the opponent’s response will be. And that is true. But it becomes more risky because the response is most likely to come in the final tempo of your action, in the in-between, between the start and finish of that tempo.
Remember that we introduced the concept of the in-between in the last several weeks as we matrixed the straight thrust as attack, as blade work and footwork, and as attack (as the riposte) after the preparation by the parry. If we accept that an attack has a start and a finish, it must also have an in-between, the region of time and travel between the start and the finish. In a multiple tempo action, this in-between is long, and may actually be subdivided as between the start and finish of each tempo. This is the region in which the opponent’s unforeseen action occurs. The opponent ideally (from his perspective) will make the action either early (against the first tempo of a multi-tempo action or against the start of a one tempo action) to break up your action or late to meet the final stage when you are fully and apparently irrevocably committed.
We reduce the risk when we can identify the opponent’s unforeseen choices, either by our actions, by understanding his actions, or by probability.
If the opponent has three logical ways to do the unforeseen, and we can exclude an option, the risk of making a wrong choice on our part sinks from 67% to 50%. For example, we can control where a stop hit is directed, or even if it is executed at all, by closing a line in our attack. The whole basis of Harmenberg’s concept of channeling the attack into your best tactical envelope (area of expertise) is an exercise in eliminating the unforeseen completely.
How the opponent has been trained to think and execute technically and tactically will constrain her choices. If an opponent has been trained only to make direct ripostes in the line of the attack after a parry, his response to our second intention attack becomes very close to foreseen. If an opponent has been trained to execute using the short tactical wheel, and you parry her simple attack, what can you foresee … a compound attack with a feint in the same line as the simple attack.
And, to quote a former student, “there are only so many ways to hit someone with a stick.” There are specific actions that have been developed and taught over 150 years of the development of modern fencing, that everyone knows, and that largely constrain choices available to an opponent. For example, everyone knows a counterdisengage to deceive a circular attempt to take the blade. But what about the countercoupe? When was the last time you saw a countercoupe used as an attack in a bout?
Finally, there are outside influences that remove some of the unforeseen nature of an opponent’s action. If a referee (1) cannot recognize a derobement of an attempt to take a point in line as retaining the right of way, or (2) calls downward beats as missed attacks, or (3) excludes the coupe in sabre because it is an illegal action, you have reasonable foreseeability that either the opponent will not use these a second time (or that if he does you will get the touch awarded in your favor). The opponent’s coach and teammates can even contribute to this. If they are yelling instructions in a language you understand, the probability rises that the opponent will do as instructed, reducing the unforeseen nature of the response and reducing risk. Even if they are yelling instructions in a language you do not understand, you can foresee that there is some probability that the opponent will change, excluding previous technique or tactical applications from the problem.
Assuming that you can reduce the unforeseen to a manageable number of possible responses, understand that these possible responses shift the nature of the action from foreseen action by you and unforeseen action by her, to foreseen action by you and partly foreseen action by her (with varying degrees of partly foreseen). The better you can partly foresee the less risky the situation and the fewer options you have to plan for in the drill between halt and fence.
That means that when you start your action you have to do two things:
(1) have preprogrammed in your mind your options to his likely responses as part of your tactical for this touch.
(2) be alert and look for the subtle cues that indicate where he is going with his response. Everyone has tells, small body movements that indicate a course of action before it starts. Sometimes the tells tell you what she is going to do. Sometimes the tell just tells you that a response is coming.
So, understand the time and space of unforeseen responses in the in-between, know what the opponent’s likely unforeseen responses are, look for the factors that may limit the opponent’s choices, be ready with your options, and look for the signs that unforeseen is about to become real. But don’t be paralyzed – be alert and ready to change, but if they are not reacting in an unforeseen way, just go hit them. After all, touching is what this sport is all about.