200510 Thinking about Fencing Tactics

Tactics are the second of the broad categories of actions that govern fencing.  Technique is the first order, the mechanical performance of footwork and bladework required to execute offense, defense, counteroffense, and actions not intended to score.  Strategy is the third order, the planning and management of training and competition to be successful in the mesocycle and macrocycle, the season, the quadrennium, and the fencer’s career in the sport.  Tactics sit right in the middle; how do we use techniques to win the phrase, the bout, the event.

At the most basic level a tactic is thus the application of technique in a specific situation to win the phrase.  It is a combination of a number of elements:

  • The location of the strip, especially in relation to lighting that causes a glare, and the character of its surface.
  • The location of the fencers on the strip and the space available for combat.
  • The remaining time in the bout and your ability to manage that time.
  • The score and the assessment of the advantages or disadvantages it creates.
  • The techniques that you have available and that have a probability of success within your tolerance of risk – this includes your ability to execute the technique, the opponent’s ability to block it, and the referee’s ability to interpret what happens consistently and accurately.
  • Your ability to gain the initiative and prepare the action.
  • The correlation of forces – balance of energy, fatigue, hydration, strength, speed, and acceleration between the two fencers.
  • Your ability to control pulse rate to maintain control while still developing optimum performance.
  • Your ability to change, of the opponent to change, and his or her ability to forestall your changes.
  • Your ability to anticipate the opponent’s actions, or to make him or her predictable.
  • The psychological balance of the bout including your character and fighting spirit and the opponent’s morale.

Probably almost all of these elements are present in any attack, defense, counteroffense, or action not intended to score.  However, you simply do not have time to run through the list when you want to execute an attack into preparation on the opponent’s advance.  If you have trained to think tactically, most of the input of these to your action is done almost automatically in an experienced fencer’s brain.  This level of automaticity is based on training, the recognition of a situation you have encountered before, and your ability to take the good enough solution.  Some may be embodied in your bout plan.  Many of them come into play in the time between “halt” and “fence.”  But you need as many of them as possible on your side.

This makes it important to practice scenarios such as being down by 2 with 15 seconds remaining, or fencing when you are tired and the opponent relatively fresh, or fencing with your weakest technique, or …  You need to have confidence that you can solve the problem, whatever the problem is,

These have all been essentially tactics of the touch.  Tactics of the bout are the combination of your ability to generate hits and deny the opponent touches with the higher order dynamics of the bout.  These include:

  • Your ability to define goals for both the pools and the direct elimination.
  • Your ability to generate the first touch.  The first touch conveys a morale boost.  But it also gives you the lead.  The opponent has to score two unanswered touches to get ahead.
  • Your ability to determine how much risk you are willing to accept.
  • Your ability to never allow an opponent an unanswered touch.  In the direct elimination, this includes the ability to prevent and stop runs, series of unanswered touches.
  • In epee, the ability to manager the very different tactical approaches to double hits.
  • The understanding that you wish to win all bouts 5-0, to minimize energy expenditure and to maximize your indicators in the pool.  If you are going to lose, you want to lose 4-5, to minimize the increase in the opponent’s indicators.  This is vital because in the pools your final result depends on your indicators.
  • To understand that in direct elimination bouts you want to win, and you want to win by establishing a lead early and maintaining that lead.

The last level are the tactics of the tournament.  These build on the tactics of the touch and the tactics of the bout.  At this level you make basic decisions:

  • What are the goals for the event.  For example, are you fencing for points for qualification, seeding, or team selection?  Is your goal to earn a new classification or renew an old one?  Or is this a practice tournament in which you want to test new tactics or refine a technique against opponents under competition conditions (in the case success with the tactic/technique becomes more important than victories and indicators)?
  • How am I going to manage focus, fatigue, and energy levels over the hours of the event?
  • How many events within the tournament are you going to enter, and are you going to forgo some events to avoid injury of fatigue for more important ones?
  • Is even entering an event worthwhile when considered in the context of your preparation for a more important one?

The common assumption is that fencing is about hitting opponents while denying them the ability to hit you.  In reality tactics are about using your resources to get the best outcome toward your established goal.

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