What is the logical next step? Or, for that matter, what is the illogical, but still possible, next step? If you are attempting to defeat an opponent’s defense or to frustrate the opponent’s attack, it is important to be able to figure out what the opponent is going to do next. Predicting an opponent’s actions is a key skill in any sport that involves two or more players that work against each other. A football quarterback tries to read the other team’s defense to execute a play that will lead to a gain in yardage. A soccer goalkeeper in the moment before the opposing player’s foot contacts the ball is trying to define where that shot will go. A batter in baseball is looking for the hand and arm movement of the pitcher as he releases the ball to understand what is coming at the strike zone. And in each case the player is integrating that knowledge with what is possible in the sport and what the opposing player has done before. So why should fencing be any different?
The answer is that it isn’t. To be successful as a fencer you have to:
(1) know what is possible. If you don’t know at least three ways an opponent can defeat a disengage, you will not know what happens to your attack when the opponent uses the way that you did not know was possible.
(2) know what the possible looks like and when it is likely to be used. If you don’t know what tour d’epee looks like (a technique useful in all three weapons), it is unlikely that you will know to intercept the disengage portion with a second parry. If you don’t know what destructive parries look like, odds are good you will not know why your attack into the open line was parried.
(3) know what the logical next step is in the evolution of the opponent’s actions. If you don’t know that blocking a simple attack increases the probability that the opponent’s next action will use that simple attack as a feint to draw your defense out of position for a successful compound attack, then there is not a lot anyone can do to help you. You are a grape to be picked and eaten alive.
(4) know what the opponent has demonstrated that he or she knows how to do. If the opponent has a beat attack that detaches from the blade for a foot before coming back to hit and then pauses before executing the straight thrust, the odds are pretty good that you do not have to worry about a change-beat. On the other hand, if the opponent uses a beat to draw your counterattack and then binds your extended arm to hit in second, you are facing an opponent who has many things in their toolbox that you need to be concerned about.
Try the following exercise:
(1) describe what a disengage looks like executed from the outside line to the inside (to hit with the point in foil and epee or with the point or cut in sabre). Describe it out loud; don’t just say that “oh, I know that.” And don’t say “well I lower my point and …” I did not ask that; I asked what does it look like when the opponent is doing it to you.
(2) describe what the first signal was that a disengage was happening. If you said “well his blade passed under mine,” you are too late. Go back, think about it, come up with a better answer.
(3) describe what your action before the disengage was. There are several possible answers – you pressed on his blade, you tried to beat his blade, you were in lunging distance with one line pretty well covered and not paying attention, you were moving your blade in a pattern for no particular reason but because somebody once told you that moving your blade around made it harder to be hit, etc.
(4) describe what the opponent had done in the exchange of blade action before the disengage. She may have hit you with a straight thrust because you had a line open and were not paying attention, or it might have been a beat-one-two. Remember that if opponents can go from simple to complex, they can also go from complex to simple.
While you are doing this, vision the action – in other words see in your mind with as much as detail as possible, an opponent on the strip opposite you who is doing the disengage to hit you. Use your standard actions on the strip as the basis for the exercise – be absolutely honest about this. If you aren’t. there is no helping you. No one ever succeeded in improving because they were delusional.
This exercise can be done with almost anything in the technical lexicon of modern fencing. I have described it above as a solo mental exercise, done with visioning. You can do it with a partner, but you have to do it step by step as a disciplined process. Do it slowly. Do not rush. Avoid a step because you already know that, and you are doing two things – wasting a chance to improve and helping your opponents hit you (because you will draw false conclusions from the exercise).
In any form of human endeavor, greatness is earned by a willingness to spend long hours working at your craft in a disciplined way. It is also earned by being a student of your sport, reading everything you can find, asking every possible question, watching and studying great practitioners, knowing what is possible and logical, what is possible and illogical (but that may be used as a surprise). Over the years many people have told me that they wanted to be a champion in fencing. Many have told me that they wanted to fence in the Olympics. They all thought it was easy. You could be the first …