Last week we talked about application of basic technique to create multiple choices for the tactical execution of the riposte. This week we go back to the roots of our theory of fencing, that all fencing is about offensive or counteroffensive action. Too often fencers think that they are not attacking if they are not attacking. In many cases they are correct because they simply are doing nothing useful at all, marking time in the hope that some great opportunity will come along to salvage the bout and the day. But you can only score if you put your blade on the target, and this requires attacking or counterattacking action. To win, everything you do must be conceived in the context of either be attempting to hit or preparing the attempt to hit.
As a result, a key part of scoring becomes the preparation. We can prepare with offensive preparation (an advance with a beat for example) or counteroffensive preparation (an invitation to draw an attack that we can counterattack). And we can prepare with defensive preparation (the parry). All of these allow fundamentally offensive action to generate a hit. Your game is incomplete without the capability to use each one in the correct circumstance.
But, but, but … you say … for defensive preparation to work the opponent must attack you. Isn’t that risky? All fencing is risk. Literally everything you do on the piste carries a risk with it, risk of being hit, risk of losing a bout, risk of not qualifying for a championship, risk of being injured, risk of having a referee who does not know or apply the rules or who is calling the bout for her teammate, risk of having your weapon fail at a key moment, etc., etc. If you don’t like risk, take up collecting Matchbox toy cars (an honorable and popular activity, but very low risk). To win you have to embrace the suck that risk presents.
One of the best opportunities that you have to exploit risk lies in defensive preparation. This blog has repeatedly said that the primary purpose of the parry is as the preparation for the riposte. We parry so that we can hit the opponent with offensive action (the riposte).
If we assume that the advantage lies with the opponent who initiates the attack (and statistical evidence supports this assumption), how can we reduce the relatively high risk associated with the opponent’s attack to allow our parry-riposte to succeed? The opponent has the advantage. He or she has the initiative, has already made all of the relevant choices of when, where, how, etc., and is accelerating in the final ACT step of the OODA loop. In contrast when we see the attack we are at the first OBSERVE step of OODA, perhaps 150 to 300 or milliseconds behind him. This does not seem like a winning tactical position.
And it is not. The challenge is to get the opponent to attack when we want her to attack, not when she wants to. The initiative in a fencing phrase lies with the fencer who has initiated the phrase. This fencer is, as noted above, at the end of an OODA loop while the opponent is at the beginning of theirs. Fencing concepts of right of way in foil and sabre do not recognize this reality, preferring to award right of way to whoever lurches forward first. And this creates the opportunity to draw an opponent into the action you want. Properly done the outcome is three-fold, a touch for you, a change in the dynamics of the bout, and demoralization of the opponent.
There are three actions that are particularly suited to the employment of defensive preparation and the riposte:
(1) the blade invitation to draw the attack, parry-riposte.
(2) the half-step (a footwork invitation), parry-riposte.
(3) the false attack, parry-counterriposte.
Each of these is a second intention action. The first action (the blade invitation, the half-step, and the false attack) is an action not intended to result in a hit. It is purely preparation to convince the opponent to commit their blade to an attack so that it can be parried. The parry prepares the position of your blade to facilitate the riposte, and your riposte is directed to hit either by a faster riposte than the opponent can parry or a riposte that deceives the habitual defense. The riposte is the second intention intended to hit.
A side-note – the third option starting with the false attack is often named second intention and taught as though it is the only second intention action. In reality, second intention is a broad category of actions designed to exploit the opponent’s reaction to a blade or footwork action that is designed to prepare the way for the real attack.
All three of the actions listed above depend upon the opponent not understanding who has the actual initiative and the relationship between your OODA loop and theirs. They succeed because when you start the first action (the invitation, half-step, or false attack), you are already oriented and have made the decision about your final action (the parry to prepare the riposte and the riposte, choices 1 or 2, or counterriposte, choice 3, itself).
They also depend on the deceptiveness of your first action. The invitation must either look like an error of technique or a loss of focus or be an outrageous dare that they cannot refuse. The half-step must look like a hesitation in preparation that can be exploited. The false attack must look like a real attack made with a slight error in judgement of the distance. An error in this initial presentation (or for that matter too much use of the particular tactic) makes you vulnerable to third intention (actions taken by the opponent to defeat your second intention).
They work best when the parry and riposte maximizes the opportunities to force the opponent further behind in decision making. Selecting an unexpected parry to prepare the riposte (choices 1 or 2) or counterriposte (choice 3) forces the opponent to reenter the OODA loop, and an unexpected indirect or other type of riposte forces another reentry. As a defender we tend to explain away getting hit in these situations as being the result of the opponent being faster or being lucky. It is neither. It is the result of the opponent’s tactical choices that force us further and further behind. Although not the focus of this post, recognizing that it is happening to you is absolutely essential to preventing further decay in the bout.