There have been many times here at the AFM blog that we’ve written about the importance of tactical thinking in fencing. This sport of ours is not one where the strictly physical qualities of an athlete can determine the outcome of the bout. It is the mental and tactical savviness that is most important for success.
Extending tactical thinking beyond the scope of just the match allows fencers to make the most of opportunities. When fencers take on this whole-competition mindset for growth, the possibilities are simply huge. The pool rounds are a place particularly where fencers have the chance to grow, in part because this section of fencing competition is often overlooked, especially by beginner fencers.
Improving through the pools
A typical pool rounds lasts for one and a half to two hours, with six or seven fencers in each pool. Each fencer fences all of the other fencers individually in the pool.
For a pool of seven fencers, there twenty-one bouts that are fenced. These go in an order like this: 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 5, 3 vs. 6, 7 vs. 1, and so on, where each number means the number assigned to a specific fencer who has been selected to be in the pool. That means that in the first bout, fencer #1 competes against fencer #4, then when they are done the referee calls #2 against #5, then #3 against #6, then #7 against #1, and so on.
This means that you will see all of the fencers fence from the beginning of the pools until your second bout, with the exception of your first bout. And if you are #7, then it’s even better – you will see all 6 fencers fence 1 bout before you step on the strip for the first time.
Moreover, you yourself will fence a total of 6 bouts out of 21, which means that for the 15 bouts that you are not fencing, you’re just waiting. What do fencers typically do during this time? This definitely depends on how advanced they are in fencing. Beginners will do whatever they can to pass the time – playing games, listening to music or audiobooks, chatting with their friends.
Serious competitors will spend this pool time learning their pool opponents.
Methods to Learn from Pool Opponents
Just watching is not enough, though. We want to give you some ideas about how to to watch your pool opponents effectively in order to improve your pool fencing. This is only guidance, as every fencer has to apply these methods in their own way during the pools, and it is only a small set of things to watch among myriad of actions and situations. Moreover, initially you will not be able to apply everything that’s laid out here, but with time you will learn to observe and internalize better and better.
The first thing is that with each pool bout that you are not fencing in, you want to watch the fencers in front of you closely. Mostly you want to focus on the opponents that you have not faced on the strip yet. As the pool advances, you will have less fencers that you haven’t competed against in the pools. When that happens, you want to move your attention to the fencers who you didn’t fence against yet.
What to watch for and, more importantly, how to watch the pool opponents is what you need to know.
Pay close attention to those big picture actions that the opponent takes. It’s honestly easy to overlook them and get lost in the weeds. Is the fencer defensive or offensive? If they are defensive, what are their favorite defensive actions: parry, counter-attack? If they are offensive, how do they typically finish their attack: with a lunge or with a fleche, for example?
The rhythm of the bout is not solely based on one side or the other, but you can learn a lot from figuring out what one fencer is doing. Do they make meticulous preparations for their actions, or do they rush? Does the fencer seem to pause at times or to speed through certain movements? How do they respond to their own opponent? Also look for how their opponents are able to break their rhythm, which you can then perhaps replicate when you face this same opponent.
Every fencer has patterns that they fall into. Decoding these can go a long way to making headway against an opponent. For example, they might tend to do similar footwork preparation before each attack. They could also leave an opening when they move backwards each time or the could consistently look at the scoreboard. Or their blade work is repetitive. Understanding their habits will let you exploit them.
Many fencers will aim for the same spot over and over again when they go in for the final touch. Look for where your opponents lean in to go for a point. What sector is their favorite? If you know this, then you can plan to avoid it! Do they typically go for the first intention or second intention? Pay attention how they score.
Getting past the opponent’s defense is how you’re going to get that point. What is their favorite parry? Are they good with 4 or 6 or 8? Do they do flat parries or circle parries? Get a read for how your opponent acts in defensive posture.
Pay careful attention to their distance. Controlling space is integral to controlling the bout. Do they work mostly in long, short, or bout distance? When they start their attack, what distance do they start from?How efficient they with maintaining a safe distance in defence?
This one is so simple, but a detail that can make all the difference. How does your opponent fence against a lefty or righty? For left handed fencers, where do they finish their attack or defence?
Look for how fencing opponents work against short or tall opponents. Long legs make for a different distance control than shorter legs, and the same goes for long arms that can make your work more challenging or give you advantages.
Think about these fencers in relation to your own body, how physical differences between you and this opponent need to be addressed. You will find a valuable window into what you need to do.
It is not only about the weapon. In foil, pay attention to their non weapon-arm and to their mask. Sometimes fencers intend to cover their target area with their non-armed hand or mask. Pay attention to whether they do this (and whether they are penalized for that!)
How a fencer responds to the score is important! Check out what they are doing when they are behind versus when they are ahead. This makes a big difference, because you’ll see those same responses play out when you are fencing against them. You’re also going to see them react in certain ways when they get a touch or when their opponent scores against them. If they got touched, how do they process this information? How do they adjust their game based on that?
There is a repeated way that fencing goes, the common groove of the fencing match when same situation happens in many bouts. We call these “standard” situations. For example, when they are positioned at the end of their strip – will they attack or continue to be defensive? If there was a simultaneous attack on both sides, what decision will they make on the next “Allez” or “Fence!” command? Look for how the fencer responds to the decisions that are made by their opponent, starting with standard fencing situations, and there are many of such in fencing.
We all respond to the fencing clock in different ways. When the time is running out – what is their strategy when they are in the lead or when they are behind. If they are in the lead, do they stall out, or do they continue on with their usual fencing? If they are behind, depending on how much they are behind, do they just let it go or do they try to catch up to their opponent? Did they get a priority? How do they work in the priority minute? What do they do if their opponent gets a priority?
Risk and reward
Is the fencer risk prone or risk averse? Does their game change against different opponents, or do they continue mostly the same? How do they change their game if something does not work? What do they change? Look at how they react to provocations. Will they take parries, retreat, do nothing or counterattack?
This list above is a very basic list of things to think about, and this list changes based on weapon’s specifics. Also, only paying close attention to these things is not going to guarantee your victory. These opponents will not continue fencing the same with every fencer in the pool. They will respond to their own opponents. However, the more you watch them, the more you will learn and the better your own performance will be.
Take advantage of watching your pool opponents
There is a lot to juggle when you are watching your pool opponents fence in the pools too. You know that you will face each of the fencers in front of you, which means that your attention is necessarily split between two people during this stage. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it doesn’t have to be stressful.
Make mental notes about everybody, imagining that it’s a mental journal about your pool opponents. You can even use a physical journal or notepad if that makes sense for you. All you need to do is to jot down the name of the fencer and then make a couple of quick notes, words that will jog your memory. Then when you are about to go take the strip to fence them, you’ll be able to quickly look over your note and remember. This is not about cataloging every detail of your pool opponents – there are just too many for that and this is only one competition. What it will do is to help you to focus and remember.
With time and practice, several things will happen when you observe the pool rounds closely.
- You will learn how to effectively watch your pools and build your game against your next pool opponent before you even set foot on the strip.
- You will improve your understanding of the tactical side of fencing.
- You will become more attuned to the details of fencing. Aspects of fencing that you didn’t even know you didn’t know.
The list above is really a basic beginning, and also it is something that you develop yourself, based on your own fencing and your own individual experience.
Your analysis will improve with time. Initially, you’re going to make a lot of wrong observations. You won’t really understand what it is that you’re seeing, which will lead you to the wrong conclusions. The more you do this, the more you will learn to recognize the patterns and behaviors. Your analysis will become more accurate. If you record your pool observations in a fencing journal, you can even see that growth over time as your observations become more pointed and truthful.
The additional hidden benefit, especially for beginner fencers, is that in doing this you will learn to take your emotions out of the equation. You won’t dwell on your lost bout or on some incorrect call by the referee, you won’t even worry so much about the potential outcome of the pool round. Instead, you will be able to focus your attention on what really matters – your growth as a fencer and your improvement as a tactical competitor.
Improving your fencing through the pools is very, very important for fencers. It’s the perfect opportunity for you to make real progress, and in a place that fencers don’t always look.