Normally when we talk about fencing we discuss techniques, less frequently tactics. We typically go technique, tactics, bout, tournament, season, quadrennium. But what happens if we went the other way? If we go quadrennium, season, tournament, bout … suddenly there is something missing. We admonish our students or our strip coaches remind us “one touch at a time.” But how do we get to that touch? True, we use tactics to apply techniques in the bout, but when we think tactics->techniques the missing piece comes into focus. There is an opponent on the strip who is trying to do exactly the same thing, and we cannot ignore his or her contribution.
This interplay between your technique and tactics and the opponent’s technique and tactics occurs within the phrase multiple times during the bout. Bouts are not made up of touches; they are made up of phrases, and when you score the next touch it means that you have won a subset of the bout, the phrase.
So what is a phrase? The current rules of fencing do not directly define “phrase” except on terms of who gets to score a hit within the phrase and how. However it is easy enough to deduce from a variety of texts that a phrase is (1) a period of combat (2) initiated to score or gain ground (3) composed of a related series of actions in preparation, attack, defense, riposte and counteriposte, renewal, and counterattack, (4) all including both footwork and bladework, and (5) ending either with a touch, an off-target action in foil, or with the withdrawal of one or both fencers from the combat with no result.
In other words, a phrase is the series of combat portions found within a bout. To win the bout one must win more of these combats than the opponent, both in terms of scoring touches and of making the best psychological and tactical use of the available distance. to deny the opponent’s ability to achieve his or her objectives.
When we think about the phrase, the work of two eminent Fencing Masters increases our ability to understand how to win the combat. Zbigniew Czajkowski, now deceased was, and remains, the author of seminal works on fencing theory. Ziemowit Wojciechowski is one of the most successful international Foil coaches of the last 3 decades. Their theoretical work allows us to think creatively about the battle in the phrase.
Czajkowski is the father of the concepts underlying modern eyes open fencing. He assigned fencing actions to three categories:
(1) Foreseen Actions – these are preplanned actions of first and second intention where the attacker knows what action he will perform and has created the conditions in which the opponent’s actions (both techniques and tactics) are predictable in general or in detail. An attack or defense executed as a foreseen action is quite similar to participants in a team sport running a play.
(2) Unforeseen Actions – these are actions that are not premeditated. In other words you react automatically to an opportunity or a threat as presented by the opponent’s actions. If you have ever attacked or parried and riposted without consciously understanding the opportunity and then said to yourself “what just happened,” you have taken an unforeseen action.
(3) Partly Foreseen Actions – these are actions with a known beginning and a choice of possible endings or actions with a known beginning and a change of the intended course of the action during execution. The first part is planned, the second is an eyes open reaction to the opponent’s response. This is a play with options.
In thinking about partly foreseen eyes open fencing, the more easily you can identify the opponent’s response, the more likely you are to be successful. I like to think about there being a mostly foreseen envelope where you know what you are doing and you can predict based on experience, reconnaissance, doctrine, etc. the limited range of high probability actions the opponent may take, preferably down to two responses.
So what does Wojciechowski contribute. Compared to Czajkowski not many words, but those words are important because they takes the theoretical classifications and apply them to how you will fight the phrase. Again three categories (which actually match Czajkowski’s work exactly):
(1) Intuitive fencing (close to unforeseen actions) – the fencer selects the correct actions and prepares situations based on his or her intuitive understanding of what is happening in the bout at the moment. To be successful, the fencer must understand the feel and flow of the phrase, be able to generate the initiative, and exploit the psychological balance with little to no conscious thought.
(2) Tactical Fencing (foreseen actions) – the fencer perceives, thinks, anticipates and acts with the initiative ahead of the opponent. The fencer must be proactive and not reactive. Bout planning, using the period between halt and fence, and the development of story lines for the opponent are possible and have the potential to positively impact the outcome. Decisions in the phrase are made at the analytical level.
(3) Visual Fencing (partly foreseen actions) – Wojciechowski makes a significant contribution by noting the importance of feeling the opponent’s blade movement based on the significant difference in speed of sensory input in favor of touch in comparison to sight. The fencer creates the situation in which the opponent has to respond and makes decisions at the sensory-motor level of performance.
So what is important about all this? After all Czajkowski was talking and writing about this in the last century. Czajkowski gives us the theoretical base for fencing in the bout. Wojciechowski puts terms to it that will be more easily understood by the fencer who is not a theoretician and refines partly foreseen actions by introducing sentiment de fer. But both works can easily be misconstrued as suggesting overall ways to fight a bout.
What does a bout consist of? Answer: 5 or more phrases leading to touches and probably some that do not. Will the conditions in the bout change as the bout progresses. Will you pass up the opportunity you see unconsciously that can give you a touch because you are only going to fight a tactical bout? Etc., etc, etc. Obviously the bout changes continually. No, your brain will not let you pass up the great opportunity.
If a bout consist of a series of phrases, the place that you determine how you will fight is at the lowest level of combat, the phrase. Yes, you can and should develop an over bout plan, even if it is tactical guidance at the most basic level. Fight the phrase at the Tactical or Visual Levels, exploit the Intitutive when it appears, and learn, adapt, and change not just techniques, not just tactics, but how you fence the Phrase and how you will string phrases together into victory.