Sometimes the range of things you can do with your weapon and your feet feels almost infinite. There are so many possibilities. Just looking at combinations of blade work, the Classical Academy of Arms’s list of classical fencing actions runs to 26 pages – and the Academy estimates that it is maybe 40% complete. Many, if not most, of these are no longer practical in today’s world of a faster and more athletic sport, but even if it is only a quarter of the list, that is a lot of possible actions. And that is a problem.
As fencers we are confronted with two tactical and strategic challenges. Tactically (tactics are the combinations of elements that result in successful actions and the winning of the bout) we have to:
(1) be able to execute actions not intended to score, offense, defense, and counteroffense with good technique with integrated blade and footwork against the opponent, and
(2) be able to recognize, understand, and take action to counter the opponent’s actions.
This drives two imperatives. For case (1) we have to have a range of foot and blade actions sufficient to be able to meet tactical requirements that we can execute with speed and precision and for which we can create the conditions for use. But for case (2) we have to be able to recognize anything that is coming at us in the way of footwork and bladework. If you have ever been hit by an action that caused you to say to yourself (or your teammates or trainer) “what was that,” you have been hit by a failure of recognition.
The strategic problem is much more difficult, and is driven by how we make decisions on the strip. This is a physiological problem and a decision making problem, and involves two complementary processes.
First, we have to understand the physiological process. When you see an opportunity or a threat, your brain and nervous system goes through two major cycles the results of which are termed reaction time and movement time. The terms are important; they are often lumped together and incorrectly called reaction time. Reaction time is a process of three sequential actions by the brain and nervous system (if you are an exercise physiologist, I know this is an oversimplification, but I think it captures the key elements):
(1) stimulus identification – recognition of what is happening based on sight, sound, touch, and patterns.
(2) response selection – based on the sensory input a determination of what the correct response is.
(3) response programming – organizing the action of the nervous system and muscles to act in the proper order with the right force and timing.
Then comes movement time, the time that it actually takes to do what you want to do to exploit an opening or defeat an attack.
The problem is a thing called Hick’s Law. Again I am going to oversimplify a complex issue. The more stimulus-response choices that you have, the slower your reaction time is. When you move from one stimulus to two the increase is in the neighborhood of 50% more time to initiate movement. Each added choice adds more milliseconds, although the percentage of increase slows. When we start talking about dozens of alternatives, we start talking about reaction times approaching 1 second, an awful long time in fencing.
So how to deal with this? There are a number of things that you can do as a fencer that will decrease reaction time, but they require hard disciplined work. If you are not willing to do the work, you may achieve success in the Salle practice bouts and club competitions, but you will not be successful against athletes who are serious about their craft.
First, practice. Not just an hour a week, a lot more, hours a day. With sufficient dedicated practice you can approach automatic processing of your response. It is important to note that practice will simultaneous improve your speed of execution and eliminate wasted motion, improving movement time.
Second, the nature of practice. Practicing standard combinations of one stimulus leading to one response reduces response time.
Third, develop the ability to anticipate the logical actions of an opponent for a given situation. Look for regularities in the opponent’s movements. This allows you to perform parts of the identification, selection, and programming tasks in advance.
Fourth, compel the opponent to take more reaction time in response to feints and preparations in your actions.
There is a parallel model of decision making known as the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop. There is a direct correlation between this model, originally developed to understand supersonic jet combat, and the physiological model we have discussed above:
(1) The Observe and Orient is the Stimulus Identification.
(2) Decide is the Response Selection.
(3) Act is Response Programming and Movement Time.
The goal in application of the OODA Loop is to constantly be inside the opponent’s decision making process, so that every action you take forces a reaction by the opponent – reactions that will be increasingly late for your threat.
All of this carries us to the idea of systems. Imre Vass makes an important suggestion in his book Degenfechten, and Harmenberg contributes significantly to the systemization of technique in Epee 2.0 and Epee 2.5. Both talk about strategic choices (those that influence the season, the quadrennium, and your entire fencing career) in determining what actions you will use and how to create the conditions for their success.
This means that if we want to automated our performance at a high skill level, we have to think about systems of fencing. A system is a combination of:
(1) methods to create and prepare the combat space we want by hampering the opponent’s actions, limiting his or her choices, and imposing our rhythm on the fight to allow us to channel the opponent’s actions, anticipate them, and slow them down so that we can defeat them.
(2) selection of a family of attacks that we can practice to a high level of speed and precision and that can be used against a variety of defenses, and focus on their perfection.
(3) Selection of a family of defensive-offensive (parry-riposte) and counterattacking that we can practice to a high level of speed and precision and that can be used against a variety of attacks and counterattacks, and focus on their perfection.
The system must significantly reduce the number of choices that must be made so that you can realistically achieve success with it in the amount of available training time. This requires considerable thought and may result in different systems for different fencers based on physical ability and temperament. It may require abandoning a favorite technique or else hard work to raise that technique to automatic execution.
In this process the OODA Loop and slow speed execution become vital tools. Practicing actions in slow speed with the OODA mental steps helps build the identification-selection-programming for your responses. Intense dedicated practice doing drills exactly with perfect execution helps build the selection-programming-movement time response.
This is not for the feint-of-heart or the fencer who knows that they know everything they need to know about fencing. This is not for the fencer who wants to do drills his or her way, not the way the drill is designed and taught. This is not for you if you can’t bend your legs, stop hit against every attack, or get bored at the third repetition and start doing something else because it is fun. If you are that fencer you will never reach your potential, and worse yet, you are hindering others in reaching their potential. Make a decision, use what the science tells us works, and start winning.