At a recent big national tournament, a parent and I watched as a much higher ranked epee fencer lost 5:2 in the pools to a much weaker opponent. It happened so fast! I mentioned to the parent that in a 15-point match, the stronger opponent would likely have won. She of course immediately asked “why is that?”
More than Multiplication
The thing is that a 5-touch bout and a 15-touch bout are totally different. There’s no way that you can extrapolate the results of a 15-touch bout from the results of a 5-touch bout, even though it feels intuitively like the result should be the same. If the bout at the tournament had gone on for three times longer, the score would likely NOT have been 15:6, or three times the 5-touch score of 5:2.
5 touches are fast. Because there is only one 3 minute period, it is very difficult to change the flow completely. So if a fencer steps in out of the gate and gets the upper hand on the flow, there is relatively little time for her opponent to change how the match will go. Fencers don’t get that one-minute break to consult with the coach or to think about their tactics. Once a fencer gets behind in a lightning-fast match like this, it’s extraordinarily difficult to catch back up.
For example, let’s say you are 4:2 behind and there are 40 seconds on the clock left till the end of the bout. You’ve tried everything that you usually do to win, but nothing that you know is working. In a longer match, you have the chance to buy time and think it through. In a 1 period bout, that time isn’t there because if you do try to buy time then the bout is over already!
On the flip side, in a fifteen touch bout you can hold off and buy time until the break, then go to break with that 4:2 score, and in reality you’ve lost nothing at all. You’ll then have time to get advice, to think, and potentially for your opponent to lose their momentum. That break is incredibly meaningful because you get to collect yourself, to breathe, and to get your thoughts reset.
Different stamina, different experience, different mentality
The feel of a 15-touch bout is totally different from that of a short 5-touch bout. The stamina required is completely different! You might be able to power through five touches, but you have to pace yourself for fifteen. The distribution of speed throughout the match is different, as is the energy and the flow. The tactics required for a fifteen touch bout are a thing unto themselves. You work the time differently, you look at the score differently, you might work to maximize the lead before the break if you are up or just preserve the score if you are down, you might want to go to non-combativity and so more. There are so many variables in how this could work in fencing! Tactics vary greatly, and a fifteen-touch bout allows for the use of a wide variety of tactics.
In a 15-touch bout you can allow yourself to experience and explore. You can tactically sacrifice few points so that you can learn your opponent’s reaction and intention. For example, you can do some action intentionally to learn your opponent’s lines of defense, this with the full knowledge that you might lose a touch or two in the process. Those lost points are well worth it though, because you’re paid in an understanding of your opponent. You might then be able to build an entire game around what you glean from just those two or three points! Sacrificing a point or two among fifteen is reasonable, but if you did the same thing in a five point bout then you’d be playing with fire since there’s so little time and room to close the gap and get those lost touches back.
The mental work required for a fifteen-touch bout is wholly different as well. Most of the time, a five-touch bout is not decisive as you likely will continue to compete in either the next pool bout or in the Direct Elimination round. True, you might be seeded lower if you lose, but you’ll still have the chance to continue and progress forward. The stakes in a fifteen-touch bout are generally much higher, as defeat most likely means elimination. When the stakes are higher, the mental load is heavier.
Think outside the numbers
Back to the beginning and the case that I started this post with, the very experienced fencer who lost 5:2 in the pools to the less experienced one. When it comes to the DE rounds, the experience and thus the ability to hand the nerves and the competitive situation will play a critical role. In many cases we find that the inexperienced fencer will try to rush in and finish the bout to go onto the next round, and in doing that they’ll blow the bout.
The experienced fencer, on the other hand, even when they run a deficit will take it one touch at a time. They’ll work towards getting those points in a calm and methodical way. They will think how to change, what does not work and change their game accordingly without their opponent realising it. And voila – their less experienced opponent continues to execute the same actions that just recently worked like magic only to find themselves being hit again and again. Ask you fencing coach about these kinds of situations and they’ll tell you that they’ve seen hundreds of these situations on both sides – both leading and losing.
So next time you think about fencing in DE against the opponent who you won against in the pools, don’t be fooled into thinking that it will be exactly the same when the bout is three times longer. You can’t just expect to multiply the score by 3! It might be a totally different game not even close to the one you had in a pool. And if you lost to the person in the pools and are now going to fence them in a DE, don’t think that you don’t stand a chance now because you lost the last time around.
A fifteen-touch bout is a different game than a five-touch bout! There are different tactics and a different level of physical and mental stamina. It’s more than just a longer bout – it’s a totally different game.
I used to drive my coach crazy by consistently going 0-4 before my win instinct kicked in to win 5-4. I’ve been down 7-14 with a minute left and won 15-14, though recently I was 6-13 at first period’s end, brought it to 13-14 in the second period but losing the last touch. For DEs, if I can quickly bagel my opponent, I’ll do that. If he’s more difficult, I’ll keep a touch ahead (or no more than one behind) to conserve my energy for the next DE.