There are many different ways to plan how you are going to fence a bout, ranging from “I am just going out and hit her” to a detailed consideration of a variety of factors leading to a specific plan for each touch. But why bother to plan in the first place? Aren’t fencing bouts so dynamic and so unpredictable to make planning useless? They might seem that way to an uninitiated spectator, but in reality:
(1) Having a plan gets you up on the strip and through the first touch. No plan reduces the first touch to a coin flip.
(2) The plan gives you a framework to continually modify to capitalize on success, to change to avoid failure, and to stop the rot when everything goes wrong.
(3) The plan sharpens your decision making and leads to faster performance on the strip.
So how do you make a plan? The planning process starts with the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance battle. Use all available information to identify the performance history of the opponent, their technical and tactical expertise and favored actions, their physical characteristics, etc. Some of this may be from personal notes, scouting inputs, online video, observation in other events, clubmate’s experiences, observation of warmup, and watching them on the strip before you have to fence them. At the same time make every effort to deny the opponent information on your reach, speed, acceleration, favorite techniques, and favorite tactics. Successful reconnaissance gives you a picture of the threat you face. Successful counter-reconnaissance deprives the opponent of the ability to fully assess your performance.
The information gathered should be subject to analysis. Sometimes that boils down to “watch out for his fast parry 4 and indirect riposte under your arm.” However, there is a better way, one used by at least one national fencing team. Do a SWOT. SWOT is a management tool for competitive situations that assesses Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. What are the opponent’s Strengths that pose a Threat? What are the opponent’s Weaknesses that provide an Opportunity? How do I prepare to meet the opponent’s Threats directed at my Weaknesses? Can I use my Strengths to exploit the Opportunities the opponent’s Weaknesses offer? Knowing who is entered in a tournament in advance gives you an opportunity to analyze this correlation of forces before the event. Obviously in a 250 entrants North American Cup field, this cannot be done for every, or even a large minority of the opponents, but it can be done for opponents you know. In a smaller event, you may be able to SWOT every opponent before the day.
Next, you must understand what your goal is. Obviously, you want to win very bout you can and maximize your indicators. You never want to concede that an opponent can beat you, regardless of the mismatch in skill, physical ability, and experience. However, if you are the U in a pool of an E, D, C, B, and A, the odds are pretty good that you will not win a lot of bouts. However, you do want to win as many as you can and maximize the number of touches you score in every bout you lose. You are essentially fighting to minimize your losses.
If you are the A in that same pool, your goal is different. You want to win every bout and do so with no touches scored against you. You are fighting essentially to maximize your victories.
The difference lies in the indicators, the balance of your touches scored minus touches received at the end of the pool.. Every touch you score increases your indicator. If you are fighting to minimize your loss you want every lost bout to be 4-5, and any victories to be 5-0. If you are fighting to maximize your victory you want every won bout to be 5-0, and any loss to be 4-5. At the same time every touch you score reduces your opponent’s indicator. Each increase in your indicator and decrease in the opponents’ helps any clubmates you may have in the event.
Sounds pretty much like the same thing doesn’t it. And it is. But if you are losing, it is easy to essentially give up – one more hit you make doesn’t matter because you still lose the bout. And if you are winning, it is easy to ignore the opponents’ occasional accidental good luck – one more hit they make doesn’t matter because you still win the bout.
This is all well and good and vaguely reassuring, but reality comes crashing down on you in the Direct Elimination seeding in two ways. First, seeding to determine which opponent you will face is based on (1) victory percentage, (2) indicators, and (3) touches scored. Second, when your are eliminated in any round short of the semi-final you eventual placing in the tournament (and hence points for those on points lists) depends on your seeding out of the pools (not on anything that happens in the DE round). So your goal is to maximize victories, maximize touches scored, and minimize touches received. It is much better to be on the top half of the seed than the bottom half, as you will fence opponents who weaker in the pool.
All this means that your bout plan must be designed to maximize victories, maximize touches scored, and minimize touches received. So, how to get there?
The first step is to develop a rough framework of how you will score. What percent of your actions would you expect or prefer to be offense, defense-offense, or counteroffense? This gives you an idea as the bout progresses of how effective your game is in relationship to what the opponent is doing. If you planned to score 3 touches with offense, and the first two touches end up being defense-offense, it is a clear signal that you need to rapidly change technique, tactics, your conception of the bout, or all three.
The second step is to determine how you will fence the first touch. Winning the first touch achieves three important goals:
(1) first – you have scored and you need 4 more touches to win. Your opponent needs 5.
(2) second – you are ahead. Your opponent needs two unanswered touches to get ahead of you. You must not allow any unanswered touches.
(3) third – there is a psychological impact. You have broken your opponent’s plan (unless the first touch was reconnaissance on her part), and thereby gained a psychological advantage.
Traditionally, fencers try to do their best, well practiced and previously successful action on the first touch. If your reconnaissance has identified that, have an answer that is better. If not, fence eyes open to defeat it. If you are not comfortable with eyes open, use your best, well practiced action.
The next step in planning is to determine how you will get to 3 touches. First to 3 has some validity as a marker of who will win the bout. First to 3-0 is more predictive. This suggests that you might plan to use your first action as the start of a story line in which each touch is a feint for the next touch to get to 3.
Then add two things. The first is what can I do as a surprise action to break up an opponent’s start of a run (2 unanswered touches)? Second, what is my fallback go-to action when my brain stops functioning between touches.
Realistically that is a full bout plan. It is important to embrace the old military adage that no plan survives first contact with a competent opponent. Each touch during the bout demands rapid assessment of whether to stick with the plan or do rapid re-planning in the period between “halt” and “fence”. And that is next week …