Technique is how specific fencing actions are performed; tactics are how techniques are blended with the conditions on the strip and in the bout. Strategy is different – it is how the fencer defines goals for his or her performance and works to meet these goals over a period of time, which may be part of a season, a season, the quadrennium (time between the Olympic Games), or for a fencing career. It includes:
- Where you will fence and who will be your teacher or trainer,
- What tournaments to enter,
- What results each tournament should contribute,
- Championships as appropriate (although these are far less important than they used to be),
- When classifications should be achieved,
- Desired positioning on points lists,
- When to start fencing internationally,
- Selection for national teams.
The importance of defining goals for your fencing cannot be overstated. Without goals any outcome becomes success. With goals you have a pathway for personal growth as a fencer regardless of whether you fence in local, national, or international competition or prefer to fence in your club for recreation, fitness, and the comradeship it provides. Your goals:
- Must be worthwhile – what is worthwhile is highly personal. For a competitor who wants to achieve national level success coming to the club practice is a given, something that is not a goal but rather that has to be done. On the other hand, the recreational fencer might have a goal of making it to 50 practices in a year as being very worthwhile to his or her desire to enjoy fencing as part of a healthy, active life.
- Must be achievable – defining a goal at age 14 that you wish to fence in the Olympics in 12 years can happen, the same goal at age 35 is unrealistic. But for the 35 year old, having a goal that in 15 years you want to fence for the United States in a Veterans World Championships is realistic. For someone who fences recreationally, those competitive goals are not applicable, but a goal of being recognized in the club for the quality of your blade or footwork, or of having fencing contribute to losing 20 pounds and reducing your blood pressure and resting heart rate are very realistic.
- Must be measurable – simply saying “I want to be a better fencer” is a nice statement of personal values, but is relatively useless in terms of achieving a goal for which there are many measures. Do you define better as “I want to earn a C classification” or “I want to reach and sustain ranking as number 32 on the national points list” or “I want to get to the semifinals of the Division Championships” or “I want to be able to perform second intention actions successfully at least 60% of the time I try them in bouts in the club”? These are measurable – you either meet your goal or you do not.
- Should be time bounded – measurable and achievable goals almost always have a logical time period whether it is this month, this training cycle, this year, by the time I am eligible for Veteran 80 competition (if you are 75, but not so much if you are fencing in Youth 14), etc. Not having a time limit allows you to procrastinate until the goal is no longer possible.
Key to having a strategy is the use of periodized training. Your coach, trainer, Fencing Master should be familiar with this approach to managing training and should be able to help you implement it for your strategy.
Reduced to its simplest principles, periodized training establishes a time period for the overall training cycle – typically an entire year within which pre-season training, the primary fencing season, and major after season events, such as zonal and world championships, fit. This is the training macrocycle.
Within the cycle there are major divisions determined by training objectives and key events specific to the individual fencer. These are mesocycles. For example, for a Veteran age-group Fencer there are potentially four mesocycles a year, one for each of the three North American Cups (the last of which is the Veterans National Championship), and one for the Pan American or World Veterans Championships. Training and competition within a mesocycle builds from the fencer’s state when the mesocycle starts to finally taper with the fencer in the best possible condition for the end event of the mesocycle.
Modern fencing in the United States suffers from a disjointed approach to the scheduling of events. In the major fencing areas of the United States on any weekend in the year there is at least one tournament a fencer can attend. There is no season in the traditional sense. This means that fencers and coaches must evaluate the opportunities and determine:
(1) is the event worthwhile – will it contribute to building toward the next major event?
(2) what sequence of events logically provides a roadmap toward optimum readiness for the end of mesocycle key competition?
(3) which is more important at this point – competition or training?
(4) does this event meet a qualifying requirement for the mesocycle or macrocycle key competition?
(5) is there sufficient recovery time to allow recovery from a competition and training time to get ready, peak, and taper for the next events?
For example, in the 2019-2020 season parafencers (for whom North American Cups are often their only competitive opportunities) had a schedule of:
- 1 August – season starts
- 18 October – North American Cup … 11 weeks after the season starts
- 3 January – North American Cup … 11 weeks after the October NAC
- 20 March – Parafencing National Championships … 11 weeks after the January NAC
From a training standpoint this is a nice set of mesocycles with even spacing, and a probable 30 week break for recovery and training prior to an October 2020 NAC as the first event of the 2020-2021 season. Scheduling of events for a Division 1 fencer is much more complex with many more opportunities and with required events for qualification to enter other events.
If you are thinking about the Olympics or Paralympics, fencing in the quadrennium (the four year cycle between the Olympic Games) becomes more complex. Selection is based on a complex system described in USA Fencing’s Athlete’s Handbook. However, there are some things to think about.
- Are your goals aligned with this process – is this worthwhile for you given the daily level of effort required? Have you laid out achievable, measurable goals on a timeline that will get you to your goal?
- Are you already fencing at a high level? For Olympic bound fencers an A classification is not good enough. You should be on the National Points List, and you need to be moving up it.
- The first year of the quadrennium you should be a known quantity. Other fencers and referees in your weapon in Division 1 should know who you are, and you should be building a network of friends. The selection process is objective, but being someone who is known and liked, as well as being a strong competitor, is to your advantage.
- In the first year you should be training on a daily basis with lessons, bouting, and solo work. If you do not like to work or cannot make the time, find another goal. You should be following a periodized training schedule, and you should be working with a strength and conditioning specialist.
- In the first year, start finding opportunities to fence in international competitions. Fencing internationally is a different process and a different culture than fencing in the United States. You need to be completely comfortable with it.
And that is just the start – there are three more years to go. For age-group and parafencers the exact items are slightly different, and your coach should be able to advise you as to how to train to those requirements.
Be realistic in how you approach fencing at this high level. On the February before the 2012 London Olympics a father walked into a club with his 12 year old son (who had never fenced) and told the coach that he wanted the son to fence in that year’s Olympics. He was enraged when the coach told him that not only had the son missed the required qualification events and did not meet the age requirements, but that it was too late to get tickets or find a place to stay if they even wanted to go to watch the fencing. The fact that the son knew nothing about the sport to start with wasn’t even discussed.