Being able to do things quickly seems like a critical part of a fencer’s skill set. It is a simple thing – you just exert more effort and you will go faster, right? Actually, not so much. Speed is complicated, so let’s spend some time thinking about how to be a faster fencer.
If we want to talk about speed, it is important to understand which speed you are talking about. Movement scientists might describe speed in a different way from the following, but to put things in terms that make sense in the Salle, we can divide speed in fencing into:
(1) Planning speed. How quickly do you make a plan for the bout, identify what is happening in the bout, adjust your plan for the next touch, assess outcomes, and replan? Planning speed is constrained by the ability to conduct pre-bout reconnaissance and the time available for planning – minutes for the bout, 5 seconds or less between “halt” and “fence,” and seconds between phrases in the bout. Planning speed is developed by steady practice and application of assessment and planning skills in every practice bout and every competitive bout a fencer fences. This requires that you use the mental tools you have been taught and your theoretical knowledge of fencing every time you fence. If you do not address and train for planning speed you are doomed to never, ever reaching your potential as a fencer.
(2) Decision speed. Decision speed comes into play at the end of planning speed. How long does it take to detect what is happening, identify it, determine an appropriate response, and initiate action? This is the same as the physiological time period known as Reaction Time or the Observe-Orient-Decide and part of the Act part of the OODA Loop. Decision speed is developed through experiencing and learning to recognize a wide variety of offensive, defensive, and counteroffensive actions that an opponent can use, and by drilling your actions in drills with sufficient numbers of repetitions to achieve automaticity. If during drills you do not execute the drill as intended or you decide that you really don’t want to do a direct riposte, but you would rather do a bind riposte or a compound riposte or a … you are defeating yourself by not getting the repetitions required. It is unlikely that you will achieve automaticity in execution. The dirty little secret is that elite level athletes are not really much physically faster than the average recreational athlete, but that automating their reactions shaves enough time off the decision cycle to be light years ahead in execution.
(3) Execution speed. This is a measure of how quickly you can execute a technique, and is the same as the physiological Movement Time (the time to actually move muscles and bones to the desired outcome) or the last part of Act in the OODA Loop. This is the easiest of the speeds to improve because it requires no thought, only physical work. If you want to go faster:
… lose weight. Losing 5 pounds results in a measurable increase in speed; even 2 or 3 pounds may make a 1-2% increase. There are many different approaches to losing weight, but the simple rule is fewer calories in and more physical activity burning those calories equals weight loss. If you are at a healthy weight, you should not start a weight loss campaign, and we recommend that before attempting to lose weight you should consult your physician and a nutritionist.
… eliminate any excess movement in your execution of the skill. Remember the discussion in Decision Speed above about the importance of doing drills as designed? Now, it requires taking the skill apart, focusing on each part separately, and honing it until execution is absolutely smooth and technically perfect. Then it requires recombining those parts and polishing them – repetitions, exactly the same way, time after time after time. It is hard, difficult, physical work, requiring great attention to detail, and if you are not exhausted after doing it, you are not doing it right.
… learn to relax. As Americans we know that you are not really working until we are straining every muscle in our bodies. For almost every skeletal movement you have two sets of muscles, the agonists that do the movement you want, and the antagonists that exist to go the other way. When you are fully tensed up, really working as hard as possible, you are activating both sets of muscles, which makes you … yes … wait for it … slower. Fencing tensed up is stupid. Hard hitting is stupid. We all do stupid things from time to time on the strip, but if you insist on doing stupid stuff because of a need to show off how hard you are working, you will lose. And that is absolutely the opposite of smart.
… develop your anaerobic energy system. Fencing is a largely anaerobic sport. When you train by running distances you are training your aerobic energy system which is designed to go slowly for a long distance. If you train to go slowly by running laps you are training to go slowly on the strip. Instead, focus on short, fast training that develops the anaerobic energy system.
… spend a lot of time working on how to sequence footwork and blade work. In modern fencing every blade technique requires footwork. Learn when to have both feet down, the back foot down, the front foot down, when to change the distance between your feet, how to move your legs most efficiently for the desired outcome, when to go forward, when to go back, when to stay static, and how to maintain your balance throughout, all while doing blade technique. Make it perfect, not just okay, not good enough, but if you want to be a champion, perfect.
… build strength. Strength is a significant contributor to speed. You have to move poundage to get to your opponent, even if that poundage is only the weight of your weapon and arm at short distance. The stronger you are, the easier and faster it is for you to move the weight.
… flow. Your goal is smooth seamless, accelerating action. Train to flow from one action to the next with no pause, no hesitation, no interruption. Extend the distance you can flow from one step to the length of the strip. This requires that you have done all of the steps above, so start working.
If you want to be faster, you have to make a commitment to be faster. You have to work on planning, decision, and execution speeds every time you fence. You have to train with repetitions consistently. You have to develop the flow. And you will be faster, and you will score more touches.