Recently, in conversation with my colleague, Maitre Gil Pezza, I was introduced to the idea of lost time. It reminded me that I have long had an interest in real time in fencing and in the relationship between efficient use of time and the ability to hit. So in this post I am going to explore, not Gil’s idea, but how I have been thinking about time, technique, and tactics.
To borrow a concept from Medieval Longsword fencing, we have known for some 500 years that an attack has three parts: (1) a start, (2) the period inbetween the start and the finish, and (3) the finish. The longer the inbetween, the greater the opportunity for the person being attacked to find a solution to the attack and defeat it.
Every one tempo action in all three weapons takes real time to execute, regardless of how the referee uses motion to establish priority. That time is measurable in millisceonds or even seconds. If we accept the start-inbetween-finish model, most of the real time length of the tempo lies in the inbetween.
So, if we are to assure the greatest probability of success, we need to reduce the inbetween time. In doing so, it is critical to determine when the tempo starts. Bear with me in this discussion because my thinking may be different in detail from yours or from others.
It is fairly well established doctrine that there are four types of actions:
(1) offensive actions, including the riposte, intended to hit,
(2) defensive actions, including parries and avoidances, intended to prepare the riposte (note that I depart from orthodoxy – defending just to defend does not score hits, but defending to set up the riposte is offensive preparation),
(3) counteroffensive actions intended to be inserted into the inbetween in the tempo or the tempos of an action, and
(4) actions not intended to score, but for reconnaissance or as false attacks.
In offense, it is generally accepted that the attack starts when preparation starts, or in simple actions when forward movement toward the opponent’s target starts (based on whatever the referee considers to be qualifying forward movement). However, for the purpose of thinking about opportunity and real time, the attack really starts when the fencer either sees an opportunity to exploit the opponent’s situation or when the fencer makes a decision to attack to create and use an opportunity. There are subtle differences in the time required for either option, but they are unimportant for this discussion. The important thing is that there is period in milliseconds between the conception and execution in which movement is not occurring and into which the opponent can insert an action. This is dead time – time in which you are not actively moving to hit the opponent and time in which he or she can initiate a hit against you. You can take your pick about the reason for “dead” – it can be because nothing is happening or because you are allowing the opponent time to symbolically kill you.
Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the counterattack or attack into preparation. You see the tell that informs you that the opponent is going to act. You execute the stop hit. You are late. You lose the touch. The dead time, in this case reaction time, prior to your movement time, is sufficiently long to allow the opponent’s attack to launch.
A more complicated situation exists with the parry (whether by blade, distance, or evasion) and riposte. The attack ends with your parry or with the opponent clearly missing on the attack. The situation is actually neutral, and the first person moving gains the initiative. By convention, the assumption is that the fencer who parries retains priority (in the right of way weapons) or the advantage (in epee) if the riposte is immediate. Insert delay, and the opponent’s remise or redouble may score the hit. Thus any delay between the end of the preparation (the parry) and the initiation of the attack (the riposte) is dead time. Simply put, you are not moving forward, the opponent does, you lose.
So there is one major source of dead time – the mental process, whether that is the physiological process of response time (reaction time + movement time), the process of decision making or running the OODA loop, or the psychological impacts of uncertainty, inability to commit, etc. But there is another major time waster, non-progressive movement.
At any given time an opponent is a definable (long, medium, short, infighting) or measurable (in feet or meters, etc.) distance away. Hitting the opponent becomes a time (T)-speed(S)-distance (D) problem where the T to hit, if the S of the attack is constant, depends on D. Mathematically this becomes T = D/S.
So success in the attack is closely related to how far the blade travels to hit the target. Wide movement increases the travel distance, increasing the time required to hit, and lengthening the inbetween, allowing a higher probability of effective defense or counterattack. However, the impact is reduced by executing a progressive disengage, the disengage being executed at the same time as the forward movement of the attack.
In contrast, if the disengage is completed and then the blade extends, the time required to do the disengage is added to the time required to do the extension. The disengage contributes nothing to the forward movement of the attack, but it does contribute a larger amount of time to a more time consuming attack. This achieves two things, neither good:
(1) It introduces dead time into the attack as the time of the movement that is not toward the target.
(2) This dead time lengthens the inbetween time, increasing the likelihood that the opponent will find an answer.
The same thing occurs on the defense. If the parry is made, but either the blade remains at the same place on the opponent’s blade for some period of time before the riposte is initiated, then you have dead time.
A final example. If after a parry or a beat the fencer detaches from the blade and moves back toward their original hand position before extending, the lateral movement is dead time.
So how do we prevent these impacts of time? There are at least four approaches to the problem:
(1) deliberate practice to eliminate any wasted time in any action. Bad technique wastes time. Sometimes dead time is just wasted time, but sometimes it also significantly increases vulnerability to counterattack, attack on preparation, or renewal of the attack.
(2) decrease response time by a combination of practice, bouting, and training in recognition and reaction to opponent actions to gain automaticity.
(3) eliminate the mental bars to quick action by incorporating bout planning, planning during the period between halt and fence, and standard drills for specific tactical situations.
(4) be prepared for opponent actions in the inbetween.
Work on reducing your inbetween, eliminating dead time, and executing clean, progressive actions that make forward progress continually while maintaining the threat will pay real dividends.