So you have a plan for your bout – and that plan gets you to the strip, and drives your actions in the first phrase. When the referee calls “halt”, or the phrase stops, one of four things will have happened:
1 – You scored the first touch, and every indication is that your plan is working and can be relied on as the basis for the next touch.
2 – You scored the first touch, but you did so in a way not envisioned in your planning – either good luck or good eyes-open fencing resulted in the hit when the opponent reacted to attempt to defeat your creation.
3 – You did not score a touch, and neither did the opponent.
4 – You did not score a touch, but your opponent did.
In case 1 above, you are justified in continuing with your bout plan. In cases 2, 3, and 4 you have a problem. You have to rethink your plan, either immediately while you are moving (case 3), or after the referee calls “halt”.
Case 3 version A is the most difficult because as the phrase ends you will still be on the strip, and will still be moving, and will still need to score. We are going to save that for a later blog post. Version B applies in foil only when an off target hit results in a halt. It also merits separate consideration in a later post because of its complexity.
I said that cases 2 and 4 present a problem. But you also have to consider case 1. The referee has called “halt”, you have a very limited amount of time to analyze what has happened, and you have to determine what you are going to do next. The referee is waiting for you to get back to the on guard line so that he can start the next sequence of “on guard”, “ready”, “fence”. He or she may even be trying to hurry you up by calling “on guard” when you are clearly not yet ready to step up to the line. You need to know what you intend to do, and know it now.
Any fencer can develop a mental checklist to aid in making the transition from the bout plan to the plan for the second, third, fourth, etc. touch. But this mental checklist must address certain key items.
First, how did you score, or how were you scored upon, or how did your action result in an unplanned deviation to end up with a touch? Developing the ability to remember accurately what happened is critical. That requires (1) trained memory, (2) the ability to recognize a wide variety of possible opponent actions (if you have never seen the opponent’s action before, it is very hard to recognize what it is), and (3) complete, dispassionate honesty that allows critical identification of your errors. Being able to effectively referee bouts correctly is a help as it builds skills in recognizing the flow. Analysis in the right of way weapons can be helped by actually paying attention to the referee’s hand signals (assuming that they are made correctly). Although the referee most probably does not recognize specific details of your actions, especially complex ones, his or her calls are critical in understanding the flow of the phrase and any errors in your technique.
Second, what are the implications for your plan? A plan establishes your basic intent for the bout. What is your goal? Will you fence offensive, defensive, or counteroffensive, and what percentage of each? What families of techniques will you use? What are your back-up plans and standard drills for certain situations? You need to assess how what just happened contributes to your the success of your plan.
If the last touch fits in with your plan, stay on the plan, unless there is a warning sign that the opponent is beginning to understand what you are trying to do. If there is, you have to decide whether you are willing to risk staying on the plan for one more touch or whether you must change now. Look for warning signs carefully and look for departures from the plan that demand change. If, for example, you were planning to score the first three touches with your blazing fast flick to the back, and the first two were parried high with a riposte to your shoulder, you are in trouble, and probably should not have given away a hit by attacking into a solid defense the second time.
Third, based on your understanding of what happened and the impact, or lack thereof, for your plan, what specific technique and tactic will you use for the next touch? Build on successes, using them as preparation for the next touch. Do not repeat failures. Do not change something that is being successful until you get a sign that the opponent is near to solving the problem you present. And never, ever, change what you are doing to protect what you believe will be your victory. Doing so greatly increases the chances of disaster.
The importance of knowing what you plan to do lies in the fact that you are programming your brain with your planned action. Knowing what you are going to do speeds up your execution. It eliminates hesitation and becoming reactive to the opponent’s action. And it builds commitment to your course of action, increasing the probability of its success.
This is the core of tactical decision making on the strip. It requires discipline and regular practice for its execution. Use your time wisely before the bout to make a plan. Use your time wisely on the piste in pools and in the interval of direct elimination bouts to make good decisions for the tactics for the touch.