The Dilemma of “Going Easy” on a Fencing Opponent

Is there ever a time when it’s appropriate “going easy” on your fencing opponent? The knee-jerk reaction might be to say “Of course not! Always fence your best!” It’s not really that simple though. 

Complicated situations

Fencing is a small community. Even in competition, we can see that there are nuances to various situations. Here are a few that might not seem so straightforward.

  1. What if you are fencing a clearly inexperienced opponent in a pool round at a local competition?  
  2. Sometimes in a school competition you might come across an opponent who is also a friend that you know is having a hard time, should you let them win to make them feel better? 
  3. What about in a simple practice, should you let an inexperienced fencer win just to boost their confidence?
  4. If you have already qualified for Summer Nationals and you end up fencing your friend who needs to win this bout to qualify, should you let them beat you?

These are some complex, nuanced situations. It is not always just a matter of going in and getting the point in order to win the bout. We are all humans and we would hope that we as fencers care about our opponents as fellow human beings.

The question is, well what exactly is caring?

You’re not fooling anyone

While it might seem like you’re helping someone out when you go easy on them, you really aren’t. In the first scenario, A, it sounds nice to be good to them and let them get some confidence through getting a point. They know that you let it happen! The same is true of B and C, these fencers are going to realize that you let them get a point on you. 

There is no hiding the fact that you aren’t fencing at your best. Everyone can tell that you’re not fencing the way that you usually do, and because they can tell they know that you should be doing better. We want to help out our fellow fencers, but this is definitely not the way to do it.

Your coaches and the referee will know that you are giving them the point. The people watching will know that you are giving them that point. They’ll know that they didn’t earn it, and that will make them feel worse rather than better. 

Never throw a bout 

Throwing a bout for any reason is unsportsmanlike, especially in our last scenario D. If you’re doing it to help a friend qualify and you get caught, that could cause you to have serious ramifications because it is cheating. We take that very seriously in fencing, and it’s not something that you want to play around with. 

If your friend is struggling to qualify, the answer is not to help them through cheating, the answer is to help them get better. Offer to practice with them more or offer them some of the training techniques that have helped you to get better. If someone asks you to help them through cheating, even if it seems like you’re doing them a favor, then they are not your friend. 

Cheating of any kind isn’t something that we come across often in fencing, but this kind of thing might seem like a grey area. Let’s be clear – throwing a match is not a grey area. It’s just illegal. Even in a local match. Even in an intra school tournament. Even in a pool round. Just don’t do it. Ever. 

Don’t feed your hubris with going easy

When it comes down to it, any talk of fencing down to your opponent is at its heart a show of your own hubris. You are either thinking that you are this amazing fencer who is deigning to come down to the level of someone with less experience, like you feel sorry for them, or else you are going too far on the other side and showing off. Neither one of these is in the spirit of fencing.

It feels good to give things to other people, right? It feels like you are doing something nice for someone when you allow them to get a point. The reality is that you aren’t doing them any favors, you are only feeding your own ego. Even if your intentions are absolutely the best, the outcome is still not what you might think it is. You’re really putting yourself up rather than putting them up. 

Instead of trying to calculate any of this out, just go in and fence your best. Keep things clean and focused, and don’t worry about saving anyone. It’s not your place to save anyone. In fact, when you play down your abilities on the fencing strip, it’s demeaning to your opponent. You are saying to them through your actions that they are not as good as you are. Who knows? Maybe they are inside a great fencer, even if they are new. 

On the other side of this, you could well embarrass yourself with your hubris if you make a miscalculation. You may think that a given fencer is a walk in the park, so you go easy on them trying to be kind. Then if you have made a miscalculation and they are better than you think, they might come back hard and catch you off guard. Remember that fencing is chess. Fencers often bluff or mask their skills to make their opponents think they aren’t as good as they really are.  

Every point matters

If you are in a tournament, every point matters. In the pool rounds, those points are going to be calculated into your standings for the DE matches. You don’t want to give away even a single point. 

Part of what makes fencing such an engine of personal growth is the individual nature of the sport. We are each forging our own path forward with every touch. Each fencer has the wonderful responsibility of creating their own victories. That means dealing with their own losses too, but that makes the victories much sweeter. 

If you can win a match, you should win it. Even if you’ve already qualified for whatever you need to qualify for. Every win gives you a better footing in the tournaments ahead of you and also helps you to grow forward. Even in a local tournament, it’s good to win your matches. In your school tournaments, you coaches are watching and they need to see your real deficits. If you are faking it, then you’re going to only be hurting yourself as your coaches will potentially start working on things that you don’t need to be working on or will question your training or judgment. 

There will be enough losses in your fencing career and enough points scored against you. Every point that you make is worthwhile, and not a single one should be wasted. You will face fencers who are better than you are and who will score plenty of points against you. No need to give extra points away now. 

What to do instead of going easy

With all of this being said about not going easy on the opponent, that doesn’t mean that you need to fence a novice with the same gusto that you fence an opponent that you are more evenly matched with.

If you are fencing an opponent who is struggling or significantly less capable than you are, it is perfectly acceptable for you to dispense with the match quickly. Don’t hold back, just get it over with fast so that they can move on. Think of it as ripping of the bandaid. This works particularly well if you are fencing a friend who is having a bad day at a tournament. They aren’t going to learn from you today, so go ahead and get through it. This isn’t about showing off, it’s about being merciful.

The opposite of this is that you can go more slowly if you think it will help them to develop. Allow them time to learn through the match if you feel that this fencer would benefit. This is really true if you are fencing novice fencers, because they need that time to learn and grow. 

Another thing you can do is to not go so hard physically. If you are dominating another fencer who is clearly not matching your intensity, back off and don’t beat them up with your sword. A touch is a touch and a win is a win, there is no reason to leave them feeling it tomorrow. 

Finally, it is almost always worthwhile to engage with your opponent after the match (only if they welcome this!) If you defeated your opponent easily, you can still find something that they did well and point it out to them when it’s all over. Shake their hand and thank them for a good bout. That’s mentorship. That’s what being a good sportsman looks like. It will also have a much better effect on their growth than giving them an easy point. 

The bottom line is that it is bad for everyone when people don’t fence their best, and it is good for everyone when fencers give every bout and every opponent the respect of a solid effort.