Fencers make decisions all the time. Some are relatively slow, for example “do I want to enter the Upper Noplace Open or not?” Some are made in advance, for example “what is my plan for this bout?” Some are made in the instant, for example “she is stepping into distance, I will do a disengage attack.” So, it would seem that it might be a good idea to have some idea of how and when to make decisions.
The traditional model of decision making is an analytical process that identifies:
(1) what is the problem the decision addresses?
(2) what are possible alternate solutions?
(3) the possible outcome of each solution by testing it.
(4) the best solution based on the results of the testing.
And then the decision maker puts this optimized solution into practice.
The problem of course is that this is slow, and pretty much impractical when your focus is on winning the phrase.
Research in decision making has shown that most decisions made under pressure and short time lines in critical situations are satisficing ones. That is to say that it not necessarily an optimum decision, but that it is good enough, and even more importantly quick enough, to meet the need for action. The Fire Department Lieutenant in command of an Engine Company doesn’t measure the volume of the fire, tests it temperature, gather detailed information on the fire resistance of the materials in the building and then test various combinations of hoses, types of nozzles, and water pressure to determine what to do. As the Engine pulls up to the scene, he sizes the situation up based on his experience in other such situations like this one and decides to use the deck gun to blitz the fully involved building with big and fast water.
The key elements of this type of decision making are:
(1) experience to rapidly, even subconsciously assess a situation.
(2) experience with successful responses to similar situations in the past.
(3) incomplete or unknown information
(4) willingness to take the first solution that adequately addresses the problem.
(5) self-confidence to execute the decision that the assessment and the experience dictate.
So which of these do we want to use for decision making in fencing. If you said only one of them you would be wrong. If you said both, you would be right.
There are some decisions in fencing for which the traditional decision model is the best choice. These are generally strategic decisions – which tournaments do I want to enter if my goal is practice, or if it is earning a classification, or if it is qualifying for the National Championships? If I am a Veteran, do I enter the Veteran combined which is scheduled the day before my age group event that I need to do well in to earn a national team slot? If you can predict with a high degree of certainty who is going to be in your pool tomorrow, what are my bout plans for that pool (and you can come pretty close in veterans and almost certainty in parafencing)?
These are situations in which you can think through the various scenarios and make selections ahead of time to guide your action. You can even supplement your decision making with management planning tools – for example, the US National Epee Team has used the SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) model in preparing for international tournaments. Consider your objectives, consider your alternatives, make a plan, and carry it out.
However, it is a different situation when you are on the strip and need to score in the next phrase. Now we have to consider the three models we examined in the last blog post.
If we are fencing eyes open with partially foreseen or visual actions, our start of the action is planned and the finish of the action is determined by satisficing, reacting to the situation as it presents itself according to our experience and training. If we are fencing unforeseen or intuitively, all of our decision making is satisficing. We respond automatically based on the courses of action that we have established as adequate for the conditions. Our actions are essentially not planned and depend upon the quality of our automatic decisions If we are fencing with foreseen or tactical actions we are executing a planned action based on our analysis of the scenario and the selection of the best action for that scenario. It is not quite the traditional decision making model, but it is close.
So how does planning fit with decisions? A plan is a decision – this is what I am going to do to get the touch. The longer plan and the least detailed plan is the bout plan. This may be as simple as a mental identification of your objective, the mix of offense, defense, and counteroffense that you expect to fence, key points to be aware of in the opponent’s performance, and your own vulnerabilities and how you will compensate for them. This gives you a framework which can be modified as the bout progresses.
The plan closest to foreseen or tactical fencing is the planning you do between “halt” and “fence.” To put it in other sports terms, this is the play you are going to run in the coming phrase. It may be either foreseen or partly foreseen depending on the degree to which you are counting on the opponent to react to your actions.
There are two key rules for decision that you must consider when fencing:
(1) The fencer who decides first is the one who is going to have the initiative and the advantage in the phrase. Deciding first allows you to be proactive and control the phrase. Deciding second means that you are reactive, not a good place to be against a competent opponent.
(2) Once you decide, act, and act decisively, as soon as the phrase falls within your parameters. Hesitation and second guessing virtually guarantees that the opponent will defeat you.
So hone your decision skills. The more you make decisions and carry them through the better you will be at making successful decisions, and the more bouts you will win..