Why do Experienced Epee Fencers Sometimes Lose to BeginnersRecently I had a thought-provoking conversation with a mom of one of our serious epee fencers. This experienced epeeist had gone to a fencing competition where he’d won all of his bouts against A and B rated rivals, but oddly lost two bouts against relatively “beginners”. How could this happen? The mom thought that it came down to nerves, however there’s much more to it than that.

This outcome, while it doesn’t happen every day, is at the same time not at all uncommon. How and why experienced epee fencers specifically can find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard against beginners is threefold.

1 – In epee, every mistake is punishable

For epee fencers in particular, every mistake is punishable. Even a very minor mistake. This is not exactly the same case in the other fencing weapons, and it can make the process more challenging for experienced fencers while also being tantalizingly good for novice epee fencers.

How? For example, if you miss in an attack and by pure luck your opponent barely touches, then they’ll score a point. Just like that. You might have created a beautiful execution, but leaned just a bit this way or that. Maybe you go distracted by someone in the crowd, or your sock slipped down, or maybe your distance was a bit off or the arm did not extend the way it should. Whatever it was, you slipped up.

New fencers sometimes have a very strange stance. They choose a little bit of a wrong distance. Their reactions are not what is considered to be “good” fencing. Oftentimes those reactions could even be considered “wrong” simply because you would not expect it from a trained fencer with experience. Maybe it would be better if they were to step back or to parry, so that’s what an experienced fencer who is used to fencing experienced fencers is going to expect. In this way, beginners can catch their opponents off guard.

Novice fencers haven’t developed the proper instincts yet, because we must be clear that in fencing our instincts are developed through training. Oftentimes this unexpected move will cause the more seasoned epeeist to make an action that they wouldn’t do or didn’t plan otherwise. This in and of itself is a big driver of novice fencer points. This kind of mistake by the attacking fencer ends up resulting in a touch being scored against them!

The double touch is what makes such surprise wins possible. It means that an epeeist doesn’t have to be doing the right technique in order to get the point. All that matters is the touch. Whether it happens because one fencer is masterful or the other is bumbling doesn’t matter.

And of course epee, unlike other weapons, has as its target the whole body. Everything will count. Every touch will count. Add to this a short lock up time between opponents’ touches and oftentimes a single “lucky” touch is scored by the novice fencer. This means that the mistakes and luck touches have plenty of room to get through.

2 – Length of the bout makes a big difference

Once a mistake is made, changing the momentum is not easy. It’s where focus and mental tenacity are so important for competitive fencers, because if that novice fencer blows past and gets a couple of points it can feel impossible to catch up in 5 touch bout. It might happen that there was initially just one mistake that resulted in a single touch for the beginner, then several repetitive actions that resulted in double lights. The beginner then takes the bout in short order.

Where this can really happen is in the pool bouts. In a five-touch bout where there is no break, the time is short, and there are only five touches, it is easy to make a mistake and then find yourself with not enough time to make up for it. Five touches evaporate quickly on the strip. Obviously when you’re nervous you’re more likely to get additional touches scored against you or to have double touches scored.

We see experience come into play if the score is going to fifteen touches. In this case, there’s enough time to think. With three periods, there’s room to take a breath and to get those thoughts into place. You now understand how the novice fencer’s reactions are unnatural and you can then anticipate the moves that they will make. There are lots of things you can do now which you might not have had enough time to do in a pool bout with just five touches.

All of this is why you might see that novice fencer progress through the pool bouts with unexpected wins, but once the DE bouts start then they are quickly taken to task by their more experienced opponents.

3 – Right of way has a huge effect

Here it’s very important to understand the difference between epee and foil.

In the right of way weapons you don’t see novice fencers get points on experienced fencers in the same way. It’s less flagrant because the right of way hammers home the validity of the point. In epee, if the offensive and defensive fencer touch at the same time then they both score. It doesn’t matter who started the encounter, who had the right technique, or who parried the most effectively. All that matters is that the tip of the blade made contact.

However, in the case of foil there is the right of way rule. It matters not only who’s tip touched the opposing fencer in the target area, but also which fencer was on the offense and which fencer was on the defense when the touch occurred. Only the offensive athlete gets the point. In this case the defensive player (which will more likely be the novice fencer) will have much less opportunity for those lucky touches. The way the offensive fencer just misses the target with off target touch and the defensive fencer just barely touches to result in a point in epee simply does not work with right of way rules in foil.

What’s great is that both weapons have their high and low points, which even out eventually. It’s interesting to dig in and understand how the right of way rule affects not only foil where it’s used, but also how epee works in contrast.

Takeaways for experienced and beginner epee fencers

There are several conclusions that we can take from this, for both the experienced epee fencer and for the novice epee fencer.

For the experienced fencer:

  • Winning is not just about experience. There’s more to the art of fencing than practice. Getting a firmer understanding of how and why bouts are won and lost in the context of the rules that shape them will help fencers to improve their performance. Theory, like the fencing theory we’ve just delved into, brings us a better picture of why some things happen on the strip in competition.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. Secondly, for very experienced fencers who have lost to novice fencers it’s critical to not be hard on yourself. You’re not the first fencer who this has happened to, and it’s certain you won’t be the last. It happens all over the world in all levels of competition. In epee you do just sometimes lose to less experienced fencers.
  • Take nothing for granted. No matter how much more experienced you are than your rival, never take it for granted that you will win. The best epeeist on earth could lose to a significantly less experienced epeeist, it’s just a thing that happens in this sport. You might not. You might, but you might not. Play with the same focus and determination against any opponent.
  • Novice fencers are unpredictable. The reactions of a new fencer are sometimes unpredictable. Their lucky touch could be a punishment for you and a rash decision, and the worst thing for you is to let that luck throw you off of your focus. A small mistake becomes a big one if you let their unpredictability run away with you.

For the beginner fencer:

  • Don’t make more of a win than it is. If you’re a novice fencer and you win a bout against a much more experienced fencer, that’s great! Enjoy the moment, but don’t think that it means you’re this great fencer and you beat this opponent easily. You had luck in this bout, but you have a lot to learn and a lot to work on.
  • Next time will be different. When you go up against a much more seasoned fencer for the first time and win, know that next time you meet that opponent it won’t be so easy. They will take apart your fencing and put it back together in short order before the next bout, and they’ll be ready for you!
  • Take it as a learning experience. You’re going to develop your own style as an epee fencer, and that’s built on every win and every loss. When you win against a more experienced fencer, go through the match after to understand why you won, just as you would with a loss. Figure out what you did that worked versus what was luck. Remember, one day you’ll be an experienced fencer against a novice opponent!

Now it’s time to turn luck to skill and win! That goes for new fencers who are just learning as well as for seasoned fencers who have much knowledge. There is no way to 100% control how every bout goes, which is a big part of the excitement! However we can strive to understand why things happen on the bout and so have more insight into getting what we want out of the next match.