What is a bout plan? It is a framework to guide how you will fight the phrases within the bout to achieve your goals for the bout and the tournament. Although no plan survives first contact with the opponent, having a plan provides a unifying theme to your bout on which you can build appropriate tactical choices.
No two bouts are the same, you don’t have time to plan, and the plan will have to change so why make one? All of these are common objections to bout planning. There are two answers to these assertions:
- Failure to plan means that any course of action regardless of whether it will result in scoring or being scored upon, is equally valuable.
- Failure to plan means that you end up fencing the opponent’s bout, not your own.
Neither of these are good outcomes.
So what does a bout plan do for you as a fencer?
- It defines your goals for the bout.
- It provides an overall theory of how you are going to fight the bout.
- It answers the question as to what mix of types of tactics will you use.
- It suggests how you can use time, distance, and the strip to your advantage.
- It establishes how you plan to frustrate your opponent’s actions.
- And it establishes how you plan to win the first phrase.
Step 1 – Critical to bout planning is knowing what the goal of the bout is. The goal is always to win the bout isn’t it? Theoretically yes. But by how much do you need to win the bout in order to get the indicators you need for the most favorable seeding? And what is your goal if the opponent is likely to win given even your most heroic effort? Or could you goal be to practice and improve tactical application against realistic opponents?
Step 2 – Some form of assessment of the technical and tactical relationships between you and your opponent under current conditions is a baseline for bout planning. A way to think of this is as a correlation of forces (a Russian military term). Although this comparison can be done on a form for bouts when you can identify in advance who the opponent will be, for fencing on the day it is really a subjective judgment that you arrive at based on strip, referee, and what you know or observe of the opponent. It basically comes down to several questions:
- If I adopt an attacking game, what is the chance the opponent’s defense or counteroffense will allow a score against me?
- If I adopt a defensive game, what is the chance that my defense or counteroffense will allow a score against her?
- If we both adopt an attacking game, whose game is faster, better prepared, more accurate?
- What opponent vulnerabilities can be manipulated to increase my chance of winning the bout?
Most fencers do some part of this analysis, but often not in an organized way. Better fencers do much of it automatically based on long experience. We believe in having as many processes as possible standardized so that you do not have to spend time deciding how you are going to approach thinking about the problem.
A strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) analysis provides a more structured way to look at what you do well, what your weaknesses are, what opportunities the opponent may give you or you be able to create, and what threats to success does the opponent present. SWOT is a standard business management tool and has been used by the US Epee Team in world competition. This is an effective tool for preplanning if you know who you are going to fence.
Step 3 – Determine your tactical mix. For what percentage of the bout do you want to use offense, defense->offense, counteroffense? In what tempo are you going to fight? In what intention do you plan to score most of your touches? How much risk can you accept?
Step 4 – Determine your tactics for the first touch. Many fencers will apply their best technique to this problem. If you run your best technique, this becomes a battle between you and your opponent as to who can execute their best technique first and fastest. Alternately, if you can predict the opponent’s behavior, use your best technique that will defeat her best technique. In either case, winning the first phrase and scoring the first touch is critical because:
- You are now 1 touch ahead. The opponent has to score two unanswered touches to gain the lead.
- If you have decisively defeated the opponent’s best technique you have taken it away from him.
- Both of the above have a high positive impact on your morale and a possibly devastating impact on her morale.
Step 5 – Lay out your path forward for the first three touches. This may be repeat until the opponent starts to solve the problem, or using unsuccessful actions to set up successful ones, or apparently random changes that have a consistent theme of exploiting a vulnerability, or …
Step 5 – What is your run stop? How do you stop a series of unanswered touches?
Step 6 – Positive affirmation that “I am going to win this bout!”
This sounds like a lot of questions and thinking. Maybe you don’t like questions and thinking and have been successful with sheer speed or physical force. One day you will meet a fencer who plans his or her bouts, and he or she will clean your clock because of your intellectual laziness. Practice the bout planning process and you will develop over time the ability to reduce this to automaticity. A good bout plan is nothing more than:
- What do I want out of this bout?
- Who has the starting advantage?
- What mix of tactics will I use?
- How do I get the first touch … the first three … and prevent a run?
- I am going to win this bout.
Five sentences – maybe 30 seconds of thought if you have practiced the process in every one of your practice bouts. Not too much work to trade for victory.