How can you defeat an opponent? How can an opponent defeat you? There are a number of possibilities: (1) be faster, (2) be stronger, (3) be better known (yes, your reputation is worth touches in tight situations), (4) be taller, (5) have longer arms, (6) be more flexible, (7) know how to manipulate the rules to your favor, etc., etc.
But … the real answer is to make your opponent predictable (your victory) or to be predictable (his or her victory). Yes, it is possible to overpower a beginner, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about dealing with a competent opponent who has answers for (1) through (7)+ above.
And, surprisingly enough, his or her predictability can be drive by your change.
In music there is a concept called syncopation. Wikipedia discusses syncopation in the context of “Syncopation is a musical term meaning a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm: a placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur. It is the correlation of at least two sets of time intervals.”
And that is music. Fencing has rhythms in profusion, each of which can be disturbed. Rhythms are present in our bladework, in our footwork, in how we fight the bout, in how we use the piste. In each case maintaining the rhythm makes you predictable.
Just so we are thinking about the same thing, let’s define rhythm in a broad fencing sense. Rhythm is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement, individualized to your fencing. A one-two has rhythm, the fleche has rhythm, your advance has a rhythm.
As an exercise, write down three rhythms in your own fencing. In each case identify how those rhythms make you vulnerable. Then think about opponents you have fenced and do the same.
If your one-two always comes out at the same speed and with a movement pattern with distinct signatures, it gives your opponent a rhythm and predictability that they can use to hit you. But, if the one-two is done sometimes with acceleration, sometimes with deceleration, sometimes with broken tempo, sometime high-low as opposed to laterally, now you are applying syncopation to disrupt the rhythm the opponent expects. And, if you create unusual movement patterns, such as the destructive or confusing parries, angulation in various axes in the attack, etc. the level of unpredictability increases.
If you always take a short retreat step on an opponent’s attack, your movement has an established rhythm. You are predictable. The opponent knows where you are going to be and can use footwork to elongate the attack. If you vary the length of the step back and sometimes step in, not back, with a counterattack in epee or a parry riposte to crush the distance in foil or sabre, you change the rhythm and deny the opponent predictability. Even better, if your opponent counts on your predictability in stepping back, now you have made them predictable and achieved surprise.
If you always fence in the center of the strip you are predictable – you have established a spatial rhythm that the opponent can predict. Left-handed fencers are famous for this against right handers, immediately hugging the edge of the strip on the command fence. But if you work back and forth diagonally across the strip, you can search for physical openings and force the opponent onto unpracticed ground.
This approach gains power when we combine elements to create a false picture for the opponent. For example, a change of direction from advance to retreat, with a short slower step, then a faster longer step syncopates in three aspects: direction, speed, and length and takes the opponent through multiple decision cycles leading their final attack into an accelerating and distance crushing riposte or counterattack.
These techniques obviously require the ability to change speed (including the ability to accelerate, decelerate, or break tempo), insert oneself into the opponent tempo, change direction and length of movement, creatively manage bladework combinations, the ability to use the piste in all directions, and the ability to create and execute tactics. Applying syncopation demands practice, practice, and, yes, more practice.