There is a great deal of battle in fencing.
By “battle”, what I mean is that to be effective, fencers must think about constantly about the tug of war that is happening between them and their opponent. Who has the high ground, who has the low ground, when to attack, when to retreat. This kind of thinking starts before the bout even begins, and in fact extends after the match is over. Just as a general works to position his troops to his best advantage in battle, so too must a fencer learn to exploit every possible opportunity on the strip.
Keep in mind that chess is a game of war and conquest as well. Just as when you’re in a chess match you’ve got to be thinking one or two or five steps ahead, so too in the physical chess that is fencing you’ve got to be able to think one or two or five steps ahead.
Here are five critical ways you can take advantage of tactical fencing.
1 – Intelligence gathering
This is a thinking person’s sport. You can’t be an effective fencer if you just jump in without preparation, and that preparation comes in the form of gathering intelligence before the match even begins, then continuing to constantly gather more information throughout the bout.
Initial intelligence gathering can begin before your match as you watch opponents during the tournament. You never know who you’ll meet on the strip along the way, but it’s always a good idea to watch fencing bouts when you aren’t fencing yourself. As with anything, there’s balance to be had here. It’s no good to obsess over opponents when you should be warming up or focusing, but observation can give you powerful insight. Also keep in mind that fencing is a play between two opponents – who a fencer is against affects how they fence. Your opponent will adapt, so don’t be surprised when they use slightly different tactics against you than they did against others.
Once your bout with an opponent begins, you can do some initial intelligence gathering in the beginning of the bout, perhaps even sacrificing a few touches to get a good grasp of how to face them. Here are initial steps to gathering intelligence during a fencing bout.
- Initial reaction. Understand your opponent’s initial reaction. What is their gut feeling defensive move? What do they do organically when you attack? Catch them off guard to make a good determination.
- Explore it. Once you see their initial reaction, create a situation in which you can explore it. For example, if their move is to counter attack then you’ll know this and can be ready to fake your attack and so work around their counter attack accordingly in a second action, etc.
- Watch for their change. You can generally get a few points by doing this, but a good fencer is going to see what you’re doing and change up their tactics. This is where the back and forth begins. Your intelligence gathering begins all over again.
2 – Constant adaptation
Whatever you’re doing isn’t going to work for long. The moment you think that you’ve figured your opponent out once and for all is the moment that you’ve lost the match for certain. Tactical fencing involves constant adaptation to what your opponent is doing, because rest assured that they will change. Even novice fencers change tactics over the course of a match due to fatigue, stress, or blind luck.
Here are a couple of tips for how to use tactical fencing to adapt effectively during a bout.
Take advantage of the en-guarde line
Every time you’re touched or your opponent scores, you go back to the en-guarde line. Take advantage of these few seconds as a time to think tactically. How did they score? What worked or did not work from the execution or tactical perspective? In reality it can be either of them – either the setup was correct but the execution didn’t work, or the setup itself did not work and the opponent did not react in the way you planned. If first (execution) failed – you might want to try the same action with improved execution. If second (tactics) did not work, then it is better to rethink about another tactical move.
Understand when your opponent changes
It is incredibly important that you learn that you cannot continue with the same tactics indefinitely. Your opponent will change, and so should you.
Oftentimes more inexperienced fencers will succeed at getting a few points in the lead and then waste those points without understanding what happened. Generally, what’s happened is that the opponent has realized their mistake and changed, but the fencer did not adapt to the change or didn’t notice it at all. These changes can be very minimal, meaning they might not be clear. For example the opponent may have realized that her/his mistake and they tweaked the distance a bit. From your perspective, this might seem like an “invisible” change – everything looks just as it did before. However now that the opponent is using a different distance she/he might be able to defend and score effectively where before it was impossible.
It is so important to constantly evaluate the opponent during a fencing match! Constant tactical reevaluation is often the difference in a win and a loss.
3 – Understanding 5 vs. 15 touch
Tactical fencers realize that there is a major difference in five touch bouts and fifteen touch bouts. The in-bout tactics for these two forms of fencing are like night and day.
5 touch pool bouts
5-touches are fast, so that initial sacrifice of points to learn your opponent’s tactics might not be feasible. The first pool bout against that opponent is basically an unknown, as you’ll not have even had a chance to observe them against another fencer to glean information.
However all other pool bouts can actually be very different, because you can and should gather intelligence about your other pool opponents without actually fencing them. Watch them while they fence other opponents! See what their actions are, how they tend to defend, how they like to score, and whether they are offensive or defensive players. Do they rely on tactics or more on reaction? What is their basic instinct? These and many other aspect of their fencing are things that you can watch for so that you can make a plan prior to meeting an opponent on the strip. You should always watch your pool opponents bouts when they fence and you are waiting your turn.
15 touch direct elimination bouts
With a fifteen touch DE bout you might not be able to watch your next opponent. If this is the case, then use those in-bout tactics described above to learn as you go.
However in many cases you can still observe your opponent while not fencing them, even in DE. For example, suppose you received a BYE into the next round and you are going to wait for a winner of the previous series to fence you. Instead of just being idle and do nothing, go and watch the pair that will determine your future opponent. Learn about both of them if the bout is equal. Take mental notes about their moves, tactics, reactions, style, etc.
Another similar situation would be if you have finished your DE bout but your future opponents are still fencing. Take advantage of this time to go to their strip and watch them fence!
Consciously making different choices in pool bouts vs. DE bouts shows a maturity as a fencer that is integral to development. Fencers should not only be training for these two types of matches differently, but they should also be thinking about them differently on the day of the tournament.
4 – Debriefing after the match
Once you’re done fencing at a tournament, don’t just leave it all behind. As soon as you’re finished, go through the matches that you fenced and see where you can improve.
- If you lost, why did you lose?
- If you won, why did you win?
- If it was close, why was it close?
- Was your fencing tactical or just a reaction?
- Did you lead the bout or you were led by your opponent?
There’s a great argument to be made for filming your bouts for this reason. Everyone has a cell phone with a video recorder right in their pocket these days, so there’s very little reason not to. If you’ve got a family member there or a friend who has come to watch you fence, it’s easy enough to get a video so that you can analyze it afterwards. Even if you don’t have a video, you can always think back on the match and write down a few notes. (Note – a fencing journal is perfect for this).
If you don’t understand why you lost, then talk to your coach! Don’t just let a loss go by without uncovering the reason. At the same time, don’t assume that a win means that you have it all figured out. You can learn from every single bout you fence in.
5 – Realize your opponent is strategizing
While you’re doing all of this, always keep in mind that your opponent is doing the same thing. From start to finish, they’re going to try to find your weaknesses and how to score against you. They’re going to work to lure you into a distance that’s better for them so that they can make their move. They’re going to try to change up their tactics to fool you into giving up that point. They’re going to explore your style just as you’re exploring theirs. The real game here is whether they’re going to fall into your trap or you’re going to fall into theirs.
Tactical fencing is all about thinking your way through your matches logically and consciously. It’s the opposite of “winging it”. From start to finish, you want to evaluate your fencing so that you can be in control of how your matches progress.
The bottom line is that fencing is a lot about the mind. Beginner fencers will of course have an understanding of tactical fencing that is very limited, and often experienced fencers will need to rely on their physical conditioning and learned instincts to carry them through. However the most successful fencers are those who consistently analyze their fencing.
With more and more experience you should start thinking more about the strategy vs. reaction only. There will always be a physical component to the fencing match, but as the body becomes accustomed to fencing the mind should take over. Every fencing tournament should be a constant learning experience, from the pools to the DE to the final.
Initially it might be difficult to understand what to watch and how to think. But as with everything, this is a matter of exercise and habit. More you will decipher your opponents style, better you will become at this. Initially these might be some simple “obvious” things, like “this opponent always works in defense, and is very bad at offence”, or “she is finishing 90% of her attacks with fleche”, or “he never takes parry, only counter attack”. But with the time you will make much more observations about your opponents and they would be on a much deeper level.