We have all fenced bouts – there is nothing really special about it. You go out, fence until either you or your opponent get 5 touches (or 1, 10, or 15), win or lose. And then you do it again. But if that is your understanding of the bout, you have almost completely missed the point. In reality, a bout is an enormously complex experience that requires understanding, planning, focus, and execution to win. So let’s look at winning the bout in a bit more depth.
Fencing is inherently a learning environment. If you win every bout 5-0, win the tournament, but do not learn anything about technique, tactics, and your opponents, you lost the tournament. At the same time, if you lose every bout (hopefully not 5-0), and learn about technique and help to achieve automaticity, learn about tactics, and learn about your opponents, you have won the tournament. Everything has to be examined through this lens.
A bout is not a single phase, singular event. Every bout consists of four phase:
(1) Preparation – everything you do before a tournament is preparation. Managing you rest schedule so that you will step up on the strip for the first bout is preparation. Improving your conditioning so that you have the physical strength, endurance, speed of the cycle of actions in the OODA loop, physical speed and the ability to accelerate is preparation. Proper nutrition to support your energy systems over time in the event is preparation. Technical and tactical practice to develop smooth and correct execution of the right tactic at the right distance at the right time is preparation. Maintaining good health and managing recovery from injuries is preparation. Studying to increase your knowledge of the science of fencing is preparation. Reviewing what you know about your opponents and the referees you may face is preparation. Making sure that your uniform is clean and in good condition, that your weapons and other gear is working perfectly, and making sure that you have everything in your bag that you will need is preparation. And making sure that you register before the registration deadline is preparation. The more of these you fail to do, the more difficult it s for you to win the bout.
(2) Before the Bout – for the first bout, knowing what your seed is, what pool you are assigned to, what strip the bout will be on is important, so that you will not be sprinting across the venue to try to get to where you should be. A mental warm-up is critical. A physical warm-up is good, but do not leave your game on the warm-up strip. Have a brief warm-up for the pool, and then a very brief specific set of physical movements that activate your senses and physical abilities to be ready before the following bouts. Long warm-ups waste energy and reduce your ability to actually produce in the bout. Make sure your bag and equipment are stowed in a way that it will make it harder for someone to steal them while you are on the strip (we have had a thief steal one of our fencers spare cords from the side of the strip while she was fencing).
(3) The Bout – execute your bout plan, modify it as needed, use the time between “halt” and “fence” productively. Never give up, and never step over the end of the strip with both feet. The first is a failure of will, the second is just plain negligence. As long as you are on the strip and as long as you fight you have a chance to score. As long as you have a chance to score, you have a chance to win.
(4) After the Bout – there are two scenarios, first that there are more bouts to fight, and second that you have fought your last bout. Common to both is that when you come off the strip: (a) bring your gear with you, (b) water or energy drink, (c) towel, and (d) then make notes on the bout. If you do not right down what you saw and learned immediately, you will never recover a useful picture of the bout. If there are more bouts to fight, make sure you know when you are up, and use the time to, in order, (a) check your weapon, (b) clear your mind of things that you cannot influence because they are done, (c) mentally rehearse the fix for at least one problem you encountered in the previous bout, (d) plan your next bout, (e) rehearse the plan, and (f) relax so that when you step up you know what you are going to do and are ready to do it. And if it is your last bout, thank the referee, and relax and watch the fencing (unless your last bout was the gold medal bout). The other fencers deserve an audience, and you may learn something. If you placed in the top 8 be there for the medal ceremony. Cool down, rehydrate, gather all of your equipment, and depart. Within 30 minutes eat or drink protein and carbohydrates in a small amount (for example a small hamburger or chocolate milk) to start the process of energy replacement and tissue repair.
Within the bout itself, having a bout plan is vital to achieving your objectives.
The first step is to understand your goal in fencing the bout. Are you fencing:
(1) to win this bout, the next one, etc. with the best possible indicators to place as high in the seeding as possible in preparation for the direct elimination?
(2) to win the bout, the next one, etc. with the best energy management to progress through the field in the direct elimination to win the tournament?
(3) to maximize your hits and achieve the best possible indicators, and maybe a surprise win, against a superior opponent in order to place as high in the seeding in preparation for the direct elimination?
(4) to practice a specific technique or tactic against opponent under combat conditions, and to achieve a reasonable level of success with it – in this case winning or losing is unimportant.
(5) to increase your number of competitive bouts to increase your overall tactical decision making and strip sense under combat conditions – in this case winning is nice, but finding things that you need to work on is more important.
Based on your objectives build a bout plan to get you through the first touch and provide a framework for how you will fight the whole bout. This includes:
(1) a quick SWOT analysis – how can I match my strengths with the opportunities my opponent’s weaknesses create, and how can I protect my weaknesses by denying the opponent the opportunity to employ his or her strengths?
(2) a basic tactical decision that defines how much risk you are willing to take and what distribution of offense, defense, and counteroffense you will use. This provides a framework for use and modification.
(3) what does the referee favor in foil and sabre? Unless you can score all one light touches, it makes sense to show the referee what he or she expects to see as an attack, a parry, etc. If the referee appears to know and to socialize with your opponent, you are at a distinct disadvantage as the referee may subconsciously favor the opponent in tight calls. If the referee is from the opponent’s club, fence for one light. This is not to say that the referee is dishonest, but he or she will know how fencers in their club fence and may tend to give the club’s favorite techniques preference over other tactical combinations based on familiarity.
(4) what is my first action? Generally, fencer’s first actions are their best actions to get the first touch. Generally fencers like to attack as a first action. In each weapon there are some differences in this, but the initial attack does create the opportunity for a second intention hit by you. The first touch is critical. If I win the first touch, you have to score two unanswered hits to get ahead. In addition, unless you are an experienced and hardened competitor with no emotions, the first hit gives me a psychological advantage and the momentum.
(5) your planning should envision how you will win the first three touches. If you win the first three touches, your opponent has to win three to draw even. If in the process you score two touches, you have won. However, understand that a plan gets you to the fight. From the first touch forward you should apply the basic logic in (1) and (2) above to modify the plan as need during each period between “halt” and “fence.” Plans are guides for action – do not use the same plan for every opponent, and do not fall in love with a losing plan.
(6) how will I build upon the first touch to get the next two touches? A successful touch creates the opportunity for a repeat. In general, this is risky. If you have an opponent who is clearly lost at sea by an accelerating advance-lunge with straight thrust, a single repeat may work. But against a competent opponent, the better plan is to have in mind a progression that builds upon your first touch with variation in technique, speed, timing, and distance.
(7) understand the risk averse – loss averse dynamic. The fencer who is ahead will often tend to fence more conservatively and minimize risk to protect the victory. The fencer behind in the score often will fence more aggressively and accept significantly greater risk in his or her actions – if you are losing, risk becomes less important because you need to score to change the flow. This accounts for the comebacks we occasionally see from very significant point deficits. It is generally an error to be too concerned about risk or to fence to protect an imagined victory.
(8) understand that delays are your enemy if you have momentum in the score. Delays allow even the mentally disorganized opponent sufficient time to rethink what he or she is doing. Expect a change, and have a plan to capitalize on it. This is particularly true in direct elimination bouts.
Is this everything? No. But it is a start to thinking about how to fence the bout. As you fence more bouts, you will start to modify and refine how you plan until the whole process is done quickly and efficiently to help you win. Planning increases your probability of success; failing to plan increase the probability that the opponent will beat you. The choice is yours.