In the previous two posts in this series we have looked at ways to increase opponent decision making requirements and to employ second intention. This week we will look at the most basic consideration – how do you hit the opponent faster with your riposte? The reality is that ripostes, even the more complex ones, depend on being faster than the opponent can close the line. SO, how do you get fast?
Fast is the intersection of three factors – time, speed, and distance. The time-speed-distance calculation is a standard one we do instinctively every time we get in a vehicle to be somewhere at a specific time. It is taught in aviation and maritime navigation. And it is crucial in fencing:
(1) Time is the time an action takes from the start of the OODA Loop to the arrival of the point on target. For a given speed, the shorter the distance, the shorter the time, T = D / S
(2) Speed is the physical speed expressed in relation to reaction and movement time. Reaction time is the time required to identify a need for action, to determine the course of action, and to send the appropriate signals to the muscles (the OOD of OODA). Movement time is the time required to execute the resulting movement (the A of OODA). Tactically it is the speed with which you execute your response including recognition, decision making, and movement. For a given distance, the shorter the time the greater the speed, S = D / T.
(3) Distance is the physical distance the action must travel, from the starting position of your blade to the intended target, including any movement required to hinder, control, or deceive the opponent. For a given distance, the shorter the distance, the shorter the time and the faster the action, D = T x S.
So, let’s look at the problem. In general, the person you are trying to hit with your riposte would appear to have the advantage. The opponent’s parry has a fairly small distance to travel in order to close the line and deflect the riposte; the riposte has to travel all the way from your parry to the target. Distance would seem to be on the opponent’s side. At any given level of fencers, individual competitors generally have similar levels of conditioning, technical training, physical skill, and thus speed. So speed would seem to be of roughly equal advantage or disadvantage in the equation. What can we do to improve the chances of our riposte hitting under these conditions?
If you reread the discussion of time, speed, and distance, the answers are actually all there. We have to increase our tactical speed, which I define as the time required for the conception to hit sequence, as opposed to necessarily the physical speed generated by exertion. And that is achieved by:
(1) Increasing the quality of movement. Every extraneous movement that does not either move the riposte toward the target increases the distance travelled, thus the time required, improving the chances of the opponent parrying.
(2) Increasing the automaticity of our fencing actions. Highly trained fencers have built a pathway in the brain that automatically moves through reaction time to movement time based on a greatly heightened ability to recognize the need for action, the appropriate actions, and the appropriate movement to execute the action. This is achieved by disciplined deliberate practice. Every time you do a drill exactly as designed by the trainer you are building automaticity. Every time you introduce your own personal variants or decide you would rather fence the drill than do it, you are destroying automaticity. The skill level at which you achieve automaticity is critical – most fencers do so with imperfect technique, and thus never reach their potential. This is why disciplined deliberate practice is so important.
(3) Decreasing the relative distance. Part 1 of this is managing the distance between your target and the opponent’s. The closer the targets are, the more vulnerable you are. But the closer the targets are the more vulnerable the opponent is … and you have the initiative. So, if you have parried you do not want to be opening the distance. You may have had to open the distance to do a specific desired parry or to leave sufficient room to maneuver the blade in the riposte, but in general we want distance to stay the same or decrease if you plan to riposte. For example, we can fight from the lunge for our counterriposte after a false attack, or we can collapse the distance stepping in to the opponent’s action.
And we need this to be quick – the opponent has already decreased the distance with the attack. If at all possible you want to be in a position to move forward as the inertia of the attack is still contributing to closure. You don’t want the opponent to be able to recover in a leisurely manner and then deal with your riposte.
(4) Decreasing the relative distance, Part 2, is reducing the distance of the parry, and thus the start of the riposte, from the opponent. Sometimes you will have to take the parry close to your target at the last moment in order to ensure that you are parrying the final attack. However, the parry from the guard position allows a faster riposte. The advanced or forward parry into the opponent’s attack, and its soul mate, the time hit (the counterattack with opposition into the attack), drastically reduce the time from parry to the riposte hitting. And they will almost certainly occur while the attack is still accelerating, drastically reducing the chance of a quick recovery, parry, counterriposte against you.
(5) Decreasing the relative distance, Part 3, is using footwork to accelerate the riposte and close the distance on the opponent who has somehow survived long enough to start or even completely recover. A short gravity lunge to gain another six inches or a lean may do the job against the opponent who is in their “I have to get out of here” OODA loop. A fast advance-lunge or a fleche/flunge may catch the opponent who has started to move backwards.
(6) Programming your plan for the touch. Part of the time problem includes the time spent in the OODA Loop at the end of the parry to start the riposte. If we can get rid of most or all of the separate OODA loop for the riposte, we speed things up significantly. Automaticity does that. But so does planning. When, between halt and fence, you say to yourself your plan for how to deal with an opponent’s attack, you have gotten rid of the decision part of the loop. The result is milliseconds saved, and when you save enough milliseconds by having clean technique and decreasing the relative distance, that combined with the preplanned decision can make a real difference in time.
None of this is easy to do. Some of it, like collapsing the distance is counterintuitive and requires considerable courage. Some of it, like fighting from the lunge, is counter to movement patterns that were learned from the beginning of your fencing experience. All of it requires deliberate practice and a high degree of self-discipline to build automaticity.