So, you are going to a tournament to fence. Let’s assume you have a strategy for the season (competition goals, whether in club competitions or international ones or anywhere in between, training objectives, and periodization to achieve them). So you know why you are going and what you want to achieve.
You have looked at the who is coming information on either AskFred or USA Fencing’s (for national events) website, so you know how many fencers, what the classification distribution is, who is a known and who is an unknown opponent, etc. For some events, you may even be able to make a reasonable estimate of who will be in an initial pool with you. At any rate you use the scouting data we have available, so you have a general understanding of the opposition.
You get to the venue, sign-in, check the pool assignments, and get to your strip ready to fence. Now the toughest part of the competition is facing you – figuring out how you plan to fence the bout against each opponent. There are three ways to approach this problem:
(1) Go to the strip with no plan, and fence opportunistically.
(2) Go to the strip with your plan and fence your plan regardless of what the opponent does.
(3) Go to the strip with your default plan, and modify the plan as needed after each touch or even each phrase.
(4) Go to the strip with a plan tailored to the opponent, and modify the plan as needed after each touch or even each phrase.
Option 1, the opportunistic approach, might seem like a good idea. However, it largely cedes the initiative to the opponent and forces you to try to find and capitalize on the holes in his game as they occur. Against strong opponents it most probably gives up the first touch. And it is subject to psychological collapse when you are unable to convert opponent weaknesses or errors into touches.
Option 2, the my plan all the way approach, works if you can impose your plan on the opponent through superior tactical applications, better technique, psychological dominance, and physical advantages in energy level, speed, strength, reach, etc. If, however, the opponent is tactically astute and reasonably close to evenly matched with you, bulling through with your plan regardless will fall apart when she finds the solution to your choices.
Option 3, default plan, is probably the best way to approach an unknown opponent, someone you have never seen before and have to fence as the first bout. Every fencer should have a default plan to get the first touch, and then be ready to continually modify the plan in the periods between halt and fence as need to build upon success, change the direction when the opponent appears to be adapting to your game, or stop failure immediately.
Option 4, the tailored plan, is the ideal. You have opponents you know, you have a good idea of their readiness for this event, and you can plan accordingly. As in Option 3, be ready to continually modify the plan in the periods between halt and fence as need to build upon success, change the direction when the opponent appears to be adapting to your game, or stop failure immediately.
Any plan that you bring to the strip has the potential to not survive the first phrase. You may find you have fatally underestimated the opponent, and have to completely rethink. You may find that you have grossly overestimated the opponent, and that your subtle use of timing, feints, invitations, and fourth intention is not doing the job against an opponent who simply runs forward at you to physically run over you at the command “fence.” But having a plan gives you structure; now you have something to stay with or to modify. No plan means that you have to create something on the fly, under pressure.
It is also important to have plans for specific situations. Have a plan to get the first touch – it gives you a significant statistical increase in your probability of victory and forces the opponent to play catch-up. Have a plan to stop runs – unanswered touches tend to lead to more unanswered touches. Have a plan to force the opponent to fence outside her preferred tactical envelope (good) and in your preferred tactical envelope (even better). Have a fall back plan – what you will do when “nothing” works, tried and true tactics to get you back on track. Have a plan for the last minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, and 5 seconds, ahead or behind. Have a plan for tied with or without priority, for dealing with non-combativity, and for opponents who camp in the last meter of the strip. Some of these can be automated as drills to be practiced until they have a high probability of success. Some of these will require the ability to think and plan rapidly to deal with a specific situation in one bout. Regardless, work on having all of them.
There are a large range of factors that you should consider in bout planning. I am going to focus in this post on three. First, you must know two things – (1) your strengths, what do you do well, and what can you do well today (they are not necessarily the same thing) and (2) your weaknesses, what you have problems with, and what you have problems with today (they are not necessarily the same thing). You have to take a cold, hard, unemotional, no-ego look at yourself and be able to say this is what I can do, this is what I can’t, and this is how the opponent can hit me.
Second, you have to know why you are at the tournament. The standard answer, of course, is “to win” followed by “I want medals.” Neither answer is absolute, and either answer may be counterproductive. You go to tournaments for four possible reasons:
(1) to practice. Most tournaments have no specific meaning. If you win them, it is a so what. No one will care next week that you won, probably not even you. These are practice opportunities. You are paying an entry fee to get a different group of opponents to work against when they are fencing their best game. You are working on execution of a technique, tactic, drill, or plan. If you win good. If you don’t win the bouts, but you have improved what you wanted to improve, you have won the tournament, regardless of who gets the medal.
(2) to earn a classification. This is generally a bad focus for your fencing. Fence your best game, get to the point where you are routinely defeating higher ranked fencers, and you will earn the classification at a point where you can sustain it. There is something sad about a fencer who jumps up one or two classifications at a tournament and then never again performs at that level. However, there are two situations where earning a classification at a specific point is important. First, if you need the classification for a specific purpose – for example, if you need it to be able to enter a goal competition (see below). Second, if you need it to retain your current classification – remember that classifications decay on a four year cycle.
(3) as a qualifier. The path to championships events is convoluted and seems to get more so each year. Each of the paths has its own requirements in terms of which events count and what results you must achieve in those events. Selections for national teams depend on points earned along the way. Now you have to plan to get within the range of placings (for championships) or within the range of points (for teams) need to get to your goal.
(4) it is a goal competition. This is a competition that you want to win. The ultimate goal competition is the Olympics. But it may be the National Championships for the prestige and the points, it may be the Division Championships (although in some divisions the championships is largely irrelevant), or it may be the Club Championships. Whatever it is, for your own reasons, it is the one or two events you need to win each year.
The third factor comes into play in the individual bout – what is your goal for this bout. Again we can define a range of possible goals, and just winning the bout may be an inadequate goal. Your goal determines your tactics in the bout.
(1) Win with a high indicator – if you are fencing to win the tournament, you need two things out of the pools: the best possible victory percentage and the highest possible indicator. The results of the pool determine your seeding and your placing in the round in which you are eliminated. If you have a victory percentage of 1.00 and an indicator (touches scored minus touches received) that reflects 5-0 wins, you will end up at the top of the seed and have a much less challenging route through the direct elimination than if you end up in the middle or the bottom half of the seed. That means that you will enter the critical last rounds with reserve energy, both physical and psychological, that should give you an advantage.
(2) Win – if you are fencing to place in a specific round in the direct elimination for classification or points or pathways to other events, you still need to win bouts in the pools, get a string placement in the seeding, and then win direct elimination bouts to the desired round. You can perhaps in the pools lose one bout and have good, but not astonishingly good indicators. This means that you may have the freedom to take more chances, or to fence with a wider variety of actions than if your intent is a high indicator/all victory pool.
(3) Minimize loss – everyone loses sometimes. Everyone has bouts that they go into knowing that the chances of victory are small. This does not mean that you give up or that you don’t try – it means that you fight the bout to deny the opponent every possible hit and to get the most hits you can. A defeat 4-5 is very much better than a defeat 1-5 or 0-5. Every touch you score increases your indicator and depresses your opponent’s. The fencer you lose to may end up with the same victory percentage as you do, and if you have maximized your indicator and minimized his in your bout, that may put you ahead in the seed. This is equally important if you have fellow Salle members fencing in the same event; your contribution to depressing your opponent’s indicators will help them in the seed.
(4) Practice – you are fencing to work on your plan or your tactics or your technique. Now, victories and touches are validation of what you are working to improve. When they come they show progress. If you are working on offense or counteroffense, you are looking for growth in the touches scored. If you are working on defense, you are looking for a dwindling number of touches received.
None of this is a license not to try. None of this is an abandonment of the principle of doing ones own sumo (fencing your game, not your opponent’s). Fencers fence because they enjoy scoring hits, not because they enjoy receiving them. If you plan based on your goals, and fence intelligently based on your plan (and modify the plan as needed), you will improve your results in the short term and become a better fencer in the long term.