Fencers build up an impressive toolkit through experience and constant learning. There’s a cache of potential proactive and reactive movements that we have stored in our mental files that we pull out to try to beat our opponent. What happens when you’ve used up all of those files? What happens when you get caught off guard and don’t know how to respond to your opponent effectively at all? What happens when you just run out of ideas?
Fencing matches go so quickly. Did you know that it’ll take the average person around six minutes to read this article? That’s as long as two periods in a fencing match. It’s so quick that it can feel like it evaporates right beneath you. Sometimes it goes so quickly that you get swept up in the wave of your opponent. Luckily, there are ways you can pull yourself up and take a breath of air.
When your opponent is a mind reader
We’ve all had these matches. The person on the other side of the strip seems to be a mind reader. Every time you attempt to take a step, she seems to always know and takes one step to counter you just a moment before you can make headway.
It’s like she’s inside your head.
Obviously, she’s not actually inside your head. It just seems that way. All that’s really going on is that your action isn’t quite as good as you want it to be, that your distance isn’t quite right, or that you aren’t executing the movements in quite the right way. There could be a thousand reasons that this plays out this way. None of them have to do with psychic powers.
The result is the same as if she did have psychic powers, though. Your opponent is effectively stopping you before you can score, and once you get into that rhythm of fencing, it’s difficult to get out of it.
The crashing of someone else’s flow
When you find that flow in fencing, you are pulled out of your head and are letting your body and your training take over. The problem is that you can get into a bad flow just as you can get into a good flow. Another way to think about it is that you are getting caught up in your opponent’s flow.
Whenever that flow is going, it’s like being swept up in the ocean’s current. It’s powerful and it’s all consuming. The waves pull and push you as your opponent attempts to drag you down into the deep. This all happens very fast, and fencing matches are necessarily short. The end can come quickly.
The biggest problem in fencing has to do with the mind. The mind is racing when you’re caught in your opponent’s flow and so you’re not able to find your own. It’s like scrambling through the water, thinking so much that you can’t let yourself just float to the surface and grab some air.
When you’re in the crashing waves of the bout, you have very little time to confront your mind. You have very little time to tell it how you want it to behave. It can take you places that you don’t want to go, wrecking your focus. You don’t have the time to take a breath and tell your mind how you want it to behave and take control of it.
As the waves of your opponent’s points keep on rolling over you, there’s still a ton of time on the clock before the one-minute break when you can come up for air and your coach can throw you a life preserver. Until you get there, your opponent continues to score point after point, pulling you farther from shore and deeper into her clutches. Every time you scramble to the en-guarde line and start over, the result is the same, you get pounded again by a wave.
Breaking your opponent’s streak
Getting out of their flow isn’t as simple as taking a timeout, mainly because there aren’t timeouts in fencing.
What you can do is use small tactical breaks to buy yourself a few extra seconds between the “halt” and “fence” commands of the referee. These precious moments will allow you to analyze what is actually happening, collect your thoughts and mind, and hopefully break your opponent’s winning flow. It’s like coming up for a superfast breath of air when you’re being pulled into the undercurrent. This isn’t your means to actually being rescued, but rather think of it as a few moments to reorient yourself and pull out of their flow.
This is totally legal! Note that the following tactics are not at all breaking the rules of fencing. We are maximizing what’s possible here, taking advantage of the current to sweep you in the direction you want to go.
Here are some examples:
- Ask to change your weapon. This is a common occurrence because sometimes there really is a problem with the weapon that causes you to miss touches. It could be malfunctioning in a way that’s not obvious, for example, intermittently. Perhaps the weapon doesn’t feel right in your hand and you’re uncomfortable. Maybe the physical part is all ok, but your weapon is just “unlucky”! It doesn’t matter the reason. Changing your weapon will give you just a few moments to collect yourself and break your opponent’s flow. Or even a simple straightening of the weapon will do the trick.
- Ask to adjust your mask. This really works if you have long hair and need to stop to put it back up, but it’s also if you’ve just got shaggy hair that’s bunching up under the mask. With the permission of the referee, take just a few moments to breathe a resettle yourself. This is a legitimate reason to pause the bout for just a few seconds, and it’s true that a crooked or uncomfortable mask can make your performance worse. With long hair especially, it’s totally understandable as hair does get in the way of the mask on occasion.
- Ask to retie your shoe. Perhaps your sock got bunched up or your shoelace is loosening. This is a very normal thing to happen during a fencing bout, and the referee will give you just a bit of time to do it. No one wants to have someone’s shoe fall off during a fencing match! Though fencing is not a dangerous sport, there is a matter of safety here as well. A loose shoe could cause a fall or a twisted ankle.
None of these is going to buy you enough time to totally redo your strategy, and you of course will not be able to consult with your coach during this time. Neither of those is the point here. All you are trying to do is to give yourself a little hair bit of time to think and to recalibrate.
Redirect the match tactically
The simple act of pausing the match for a few seconds is often enough to break someone’s streak. They get out of their rhythm just as you get out of yours. Oftentimes, all you need is just a tiny bit of air to be able to pull yourself back in the direction you want to go.
This is especially true when you’re struggling with frustration that is clouding your judgement. It is so infuriating to feel yourself caught up in the current of another fencer, and that can give rise to emotions that cloud your judgement. When you take a small, tactical break in a fencing match, take three breaths, filling your lungs and keying into your surroundings. Count to ten. Think of the last advice your coach gave you, then let your inner monologue repeat it. Make yourself the master of your mind and force it to think of the actions you’re taking, rather than being run by the emotions that are taking over your match.
Again, this is a totally legal and ethical way for you to create space in your fencing match. This is not in any way advocating for you to break the rules or cheat the system. Sometimes, we don’t even know what is going on with a piece of equipment or with a shoe or a face mask until we’ve fixed it.
You will hear coaches yelling to their students from time to time “Ask the referee to change the weapon!” They’re just getting their fencers to take a minute and rethink what’s happening instead of going with a bad flow. You’ll see this in every possible tournament at every possible level. Watch for it at everything from the smallest local tournament to the World Championships to the Olympic Games. Fencers change their weapon mid-bout, and oftentimes it is for exactly the reason of breaking the flow of the match!
Don’t make breaks an overused habit
Of course, using these tactical breaks does not mean abusing them! You should not retie your shoe or rebraid your hair after each touch. This is definitely unsupportive behaviour and will alienate everybody. Only resort to this kind of tactic when you absolutely need it.
It’s like anything else in life. If you use something over and over again, it’ll become a habit. Then it’s suddenly very hard for you to function effectively without using a negative coping mechanism. Leaning on these kinds of tactical breaks until they become a crutch will absolutely have a damaging effect on your relationships and it will weaken your fencing.
This is built into fencing. You don’t need any reason to change your weapon, and you don’t have to explain to anyone why you want to change it. Who knows, maybe it will turn out that your weapon really is cursed or that some connection really is a little loose. Fencing is a sport with complicated equipment that involves a fully covered body. Things do legitimately need adjusting from time to time.
Used correctly, and in the right moment, these small things will allow you some extra time to think differently and so analyze the situation on the strip more effectively and objectively. That is precisely the goal here, to use these extra few seconds to think and create a plan that changes the trajectory of the game.
Start when you’re ready
The most important thing here is that you do not move to the en guard line if you aren’t ready. Many fencers after being scored against, rush to the en-guarde line to quickly remedy the situation, only to receive another touch. Again and again. You would not want your opponent to come up when you aren’t in the right place yet, and you don’t want to rush. This is all about getting yourself into the right mindset as you move forward in a match.
Take a few extra seconds (we are talking about seconds here, not minutes) to contemplate and calm down. Then re-enter, ready to go for the next point and ready to give your opponent the match that you both deserve.