Last week we examined attacks on preparation, so it would seem that considering the preparation itself might be only fair. Tyshler and Logvin, in the FIE’s Sports Fencing manual for coach training state that preparatory actions are “applied in order to receive immediate information on opponent’s intentions, creation of an distraction and continuation of the phrase with a selected action.” Ed Rogers defines preparation as “any movement that prepares the way for an attack.” Jes Smith states that preparation is “an action of blade, foot, or body, preparatory to an attack (but not part of the attack); it may be compound (two actions performed at the same time; for example, a step with an engagement) or double (two actions performed in succession). Paul defines preparations as “movements of the blade, arm, body or feet designed to prepare the way for a fencing action. The objective is to take advantage of the opponent’s response to the preparation – or lack of it.” He further notes that “it is common to only consider preparations for attacks, but it is important to stress that any fencing action may be prepared and that the range of movements which may be employed to prepare fencing actions is great.” Paul mentions 6 categories of preparation including (1) footwork, (2) attacks on the blade, (3) transports, (5) engagements, and (6) feints (no, I did not forget 4, but for some reason it did not make its way into the published book).
What does all this mean? If you just want to bash away at an opponent, going as fast and as wildly as possible, with no thought as to what you are doing, it means absolutely nothing. But, if you want to be good, it means everything.
Zbigniew Czajkowski, a great Fencing Master and possibly the preeminent theorist of our sport, defines all fencing actions as being either preparatory or real, and by real he means ultimate actions that result in the hit. At the simplest level, you cannot have real actions without preparatory actions (with the possible exception of actions in wheelchair fencing or in tea tray bouts fenced at short distance). You are either preparing or you are attacking.
Czajkowski does not go that far; he still considers defensive actions as ultimate actions. With due deference, I believe that a better assessment of defense is that it is preparatory. I have argued that, in a sport which has not awarded points for form for over 100 years and never awarded points for defense, the parry or evasion exists to allow you to score with your riposte or counterattack. And defense is a preparation of some sophistication. To use Smith’s model defense may be either compound (the retreat with a parry to use the distance for defense or a step in with the parry to collapse the distance) or double (the feint parry with step back followed by the actual parry in place).
What this all suggests is, in simple form:
(1) All intentional fencing actions are either preparation or ultimate actions to score. By intentional, I mean deliberate actions that you do for a specific (to hit in the current phrase) or general tactical purpose. The specific purpose is obvious, for example a feint on the advance, the final on the lunge. The general is more subtle. I would suggest two examples: (1) my theory of telling a story where each action becomes preparation for the next phrase, and (2) Harmenberg’s tactic of creating the conditions that force the opponent into you area of excellence, the “fencer’s favorite and most effective moves as formulated by the new strategy.”
(2) Movement that is not intentional is neither preparation or an ultimate action to score – it is simply being a target. When you step forward and back or move your blade around aimlessly or rhythmically because someone told you that these actions make you more difficult to hit, you are actually creating conditions the opponent can exploit with preparation and an ultimate action.
(3) Preparation can be simple (one action), compound (two simultaneous actions), or double (two or more sequential actions).
(4) Preparation can be direct (for your action to score without any specific action by the opponent) or complex (to draw a response that you can exploit). An example of a direct preparation might be a beat as the preparation for a straight thrust or the parry for a direct riposte in the same line. An example of a complex preparation might be defensive countertime or a second or third intention action.
(5) Preparation can be (a) psychological (for example, your historical dominance over an opponent), (b) by time (a good example is controlling the time so that at the end of a bout there is no time for an opponent to answer a touch or the tactical use of non-combativity), (c) by manipulation of the characteristics of the strip, (d) by footwork, (e) by offense (feints, attacks on the blade, takings of the blade, false attacks, etc.), (f) by defense (as the preparation to create the conditions for the riposte), (g) by counteroffense (the more complex time actions), and (h) by tactics (telling a story or creating conditions for the area of excellence).
Actually, I made an error earlier in this discussion when I said that you are either preparing or attacking. A more correct formulation would be: you are either (1) preparing or (2) attacking or (3) getting hit by your opponent’s preparation and ultimate action. Let’s work on options (1) and (2) so that you won’t experience option (3).