Hedging your bets: Attack/Preparation

A recent thread on Fencing.net drifted into a discussion of epee attacks and the distinction of the moment where preparation ends and an attack begins. Part of this discussion focused on “change of decision” actions where the fencer changes what they are doing at the beginning of the attack tempo. I think a large part of the confusion in that thread centers on the lack of functional definitions within fencing for the terms preparation, attack, or even tempo. For example, many coaches will call an advance-lunge a single tempo attack. This works alright for the conventional weapons (foil and saber) because the attack maintains priority. However, in epee, the advance is a vulnerable moment that is more akin to preparation than part of the attack (see my post on Problem Solving). For the purposes of this post, I define the attack to start at the beginning of the action where the fencer is intending to hit. This is the start of the lunge or fleche, not the advance that precedes either. Preparation is everything that comes before the attack. I define a single tempo to be the time of a committed lunge or fleche, so a single footwork action. Defining these terms is not the focus of this post, but it is a prerequisite to discussing the main point: actions that can be both preparation and attack at the same time.

Within my definition, the attack happens so fast that it is almost impossible for a fencer to change what action she is performing based on the opponents reaction. This is why I believe that epee attacks are almost exclusively eyes-closed actions and that any change of decision happens during the preparation (see my post on Preparation Distance and Depth). There are actions where decision changes happen during the attack, such as an immediate remise after being parried or stopping the attack when the opponent pulls distance. I consider these types of actions to be reactive whereas attacks and preparation should always be proactive. To rephrase, the fencer should always be trying to make their opponent react to them and should not be trying to react to their opponent. I do not coach students to make feint-disengage by extending during an advance, then reacting to the parry of their opponent. This type of action makes them vulnerable to the opponent using an early parry to drive the attack into the line where they actually intend to parry.

Big advance

Now that I have that long preamble out of the way, we can get on to the much shorter primary content of this post, which is an action that works as both preparation and attack. I only have one specific action that I use this way: an explosive advance. I learned this action from Sebastien and I don’t use if often, but it can make the difference in a few clutch moments. The action is very simple. It is an advance that covers the same distance with the same explosion as a lunge. Another way to think of it is as a lunge-forward recovery in one motion. It is a one tempo attack that is meant to hit a deep target, but leaves the fencer balanced and ready for the next action. Where I really like this action is if an opponent has been successfully drawing my attack and making me fall short, but I can catch them about half the time, or where my opponent is vulnerable to attack in preparation, but has been successfully pulling distance some of the time. I can make this attack intending to hit the deep target at the proper moment, but if they do manage to open distance, I can immediately make another attack. The change of decision happens during the attack, but is simply based on whether or not the attack lands.

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Technique fundamentals

Thus far, I have prioritized tactics and strategy on all of my blog posts. I have done this because I think it is more difficult to teach these more abstract topics than it is the physical execution of technique. However, I don’t want to give the impression that technique is unimportant. Technique is what allows a fencer to score once they have recognized or created a moment to hit. Without good technique, great strategy goes to waste. I’m writing this because this year I mostly have beginning fencers and I want something to point them to outside of club practice time.

I have worked with a lot of different coaches and every single one had a different idea of what specific motions and hand positions constitute good technique. The conclusions that I’ve drawn from this experience is that there is a wide range of techniques that work, but that a large part of why they work is dependent on two factors:

  1. Consistent practice and application
  2. The context of the technique within the larger tactical and strategic system

So, even though I have seen very little consistency throughout the fencing world as to what specifics constitute good technique, I needed to decide what specifics make the most sense within the strategies and tactics that I emphasize. I have tried to minimize the number of techniques within my coaching so the students can spend more of their mental energy on strategy and application.

Technique Specifics:

  • Hand position
    • Above shoulder height
    • Outside the shoulder (to the right for a right handed fencer)
    • Slightly supinated (palm up)
    • Extension motion drives forward fast, not in an arc
    • Enguarde position is with hand outside and slightly supinated
    • Fencer rotated to face opponent more than turned sideways
  • Parries are discussed in another post, but they also tend to be outside
  • Hips engaged forward for footwork

Hand Position

The reason I emphasize this hand position – high, outside, and slightly supinated – instead of a more directly line to the target is that it protects the arm from the easiest counterattacks, which generally come over the top, while also providing the leverage outside to make parries harder and still keeps the tip on target. It solves a lot of common issues.

The extension going forward and not in an arc is common among almost all decent coaches and minimizes the amount of time the arm is exposed to counterattacks and drives tip penetration to hit before parries arrive.

The enguarde position facilitates the extension while also maintaining an angulated position for angulation. Rotating the fencer forwards moves the hand more outside and facilitates the hand position without any real downsides.

Hips engaged forward

I like the hips pushed forward, more towards the lead leg than the back leg. This provides an aggressive position that helps keep focused on hitting the opponent. It also helps keep the legs and core engaged and stable to facilitate direction changes and keeping upright through lunges and fleches so the hand position is more consistent. It gives up a little bit of lunge distance in favor of supporting preparatory footwork and fleches, but I see those factors as more important to epee than lunges.

Strategic context

The context in which I teach these techniques is just as important as the techniques themselves. I emphasize footwork based strategies of finding the moment to go and drawing the opponent out more than bladework based strategies. I also emphasize hitting more than avoiding getting hit. This means explosive attacks into foot tempo, which require fast tip penetration and locking the line. It also means counterattacks or parries that facilitate an immediate hit – either driving the tip to target and intercepting the opponent’s blade or closing distance with a deep parry. Getting the hand outside and hips forward provides the leverage needed to support these actions.

At the request of a comment, here are a couple videos that show the hand position I’m talking about. It’s Eric Boisse taking a lesson with Sicard, and Grumier taking one from Obry, so it’s not just random fencers!

 

Pool vs DE bout strategy

With the first NAC of the year coming up this weekend, I’m running a session at club tomorrow night focused on high level bout strategies for pool and DE bouts.

Pool bouts
The goal in pool bouts is to maximize your win-loss ratio and indicators while minimizing energy output so that you have plenty left for the DE round. The detailed placement after pools is not incredibly important because if a top fencer gets lazy or slips up and loses a bout, you may have a very difficult bout early in the elimination round no matter how highly you place out of the pools. I had one tournament where I was the top fencer out of pools and Cody Mattern was number 16. If I was the number 2 fencer, I would have had a relatively easy path to the final. Instead I got hammered in the round of 16. So, generally placing higher out of pools is important, but the difference of a place or two is not.

The first thing to assess is where you stand in your pool. Are you one of the top fencers? One of the bottom fencers? Somewhere in the middle? You can figure this out before the tournament even starts based on the overall strength of the tournament and this will help figure out your pool strategy. If you are one of the top or bottom fencers in the pool, then you can fence every bout similarly. Being in the middle of the pool requires a bit more conscious assessment.

Pools are short bouts, so there is not a lot of time during the bout to figure out your opponent. Therefore, I like to keep my strategy as simple as possible during the round and no matter where I am in the pool, I start every bout focused on hitting technique.

As a top fencer, I like to keep my strategy extra simple. I focus on finding the moment to hit and then capitalizing on it. I then repeat that as many times as my opponent will let me. Complex setups are very risky in pools because you don’t have enough time to assess if your opponent will react the way that you want them to.

If I am one of the bottom fencers in the pool, then I try to force double touches until I can find one action to set up for a single light. This has the advantage of keeping the score close enough to keep my indicators good if I lose while also minimizing the amount of physical effort in the bout. As a bottom fencer, there is very little risk in trying weird and different actions. Sometimes being unpredictable works better than being good.

Being in the middle of the pool is a bit more complex. I like to assess each opponent to determine which bouts I expect to win easily, which I expect to lose, and which will be close. The most effort goes into the bouts that will be close because winning those will make the most difference in placement going into the DE round. The ones that should be easy to win, I am patient and try to setup single touch actions to win 5-0 or 5-1. The bouts I expect to lose, I just try to force doubles and keep the score close.

Elimination Bouts
Fencing 15 touch elimination bouts requires a very different mindset than pools. There is a lot of time to figure out your opponent. While falling behind in a pool bout can be devastating, it does not matter as much during the DE bouts.

The first period of a DE bout is about exploring your opponent. Find out what actions they prefer and at what distances and timings. The hard part is to gather this information without giving away much information about your own preferences. Sometimes I will make an action that I expect to fail in the first period because I can learn a lot about my opponent and hopefully they will think that I actually wanted to make that action work. My goal is generally to keep the score very low in the first period. If I come out of the first period with a lot of information about my opponent and they are leading 3-2, then I am in a good position. If I’m leading, then even better.

The second period is the time to apply the information learned in the first period and to get a solid lead. If it’s working, keep hitting it, but mix up actions enough to avoid becoming predictable. If your opponent seems to have the upper hand, then minimize the damage. I always aim to be ahead by as much as possible going into the break between the second and third periods. If that is not possible because my opponent is out fencing me, I want the score to stay low and close so that I have a lot of opportunity to catch up in the third period.

The third period is the time for significant strategy changes. Whichever fencer is behind is going to need to make adjustments to come back. If I am behind, I spend the break think about what is working as what is not. Is it a distance issue? Point control? Action choice? I then come up with a plan for adjustment. If I am down by more than a touch or two, I know that I need to apply a lot of pressure, take risks, and force actions.

If I am leading going into the break, I think about what my opponent is likely to change. I don’t plan to change my strategy unless they actually change theirs, but planning ahead will prepare me to adjust to their changes more quickly. Going into the third period with a lead means that I can be really patient and pick the ideal moments to allow distance to collapse and all I need to do is make sure my point is on.

Watching video

This is just a really short post. I was sick last week and spent a few hours watching fencing videos because, well, what else would I do when sick with a NAC coming up? I’m really glad that I did because I had never really spent much time watching the Korean men’s epeeists. I know that they have one of the strongest teams in the world right now and I’ve seen a fair amount of Jung, but I hadn’t really watched much of the two Parks. They are two of the most well rounded fencers I’ve seen and the way they move and control distance is just incredible.

I’m not going to do a full bout analysis now, so I’m just going to post one of my favorite bouts I’ve seen recently. Kyoungdoo Park vs. Benjamin Steffen from the 2014 world championships.

Check out:
Park’s toe touch at 1:45
Park’s riposte at 4:45
The way Park draws Steffan at 7:00 to setup the attack
The way Park pushes at 8:00 to get Steffan to attack so he can counter-attack at 8:07 (and again at 10:07)
Park attacking when Steffan is focused attacking himself at 10:40

Preparation distance and depth

I haven’t competed in many tournaments the past few years as I had been dealing with a series of injuries and had transferred much of my focus to coaching.  Now that I’ve been uninjured for a while (thanks to my strength coach!), I went to a couple of tournament the latter half of this season.  The first was a relatively weak tournament with about 25 fencers, only 3 of which were A classified.  I won that tournament with the hardest bout being my semi-final against one of my students.  He got up on me 5-1 and didn’t have the confidence to recognize that I was floundering and he should just keep doing what he was doing.  I’m extremely proud of him for his progress and he has become a very strong epeeist.  The other tournament was much stronger with about 40 fencers, 15 of which were A rated.  I also won that tournament with 4 of the 5 DE bouts I fenced being against strong A fencers.  These tournaments provided some great reminders of important concepts and helped me recognize some of the specific things I do when fencing.  One of these concepts has to do with the depth at which I make preparatory actions.

One of the ideas Michael Marx talked about in the coaching clinic I went to is that it is easier to get away from an opponent when you are close to them when making a preparation than if you are farther away.  The reason for this is because when starting farther away, you need to step in to get close enough to draw the opponent with a preparation.  While stepping in, you provide a bigger window for foot tempo and make the direction change to get away and expand distance more difficult.  This is counter to what I have been told by most coaches throughout my life and I often hear coaches yelling at students that they are too close when they get hit during a bout.  My observation is that the distance is rarely the issue when coaches yell “too close.” The problem is that the fencer is stepping in and collapsing distance at the beginning of their preparation.  If anything, they are too far away at the start of the preparation, so they make a big step and give the opponent an opportunity to attack into it.  If they instead start closer, the preparation can be smaller and they can turn the corner and get away faster.

The other side of this is that different fencers require a different depth of action to draw a response.  Almost every coach I’ve worked with except for a few have told me to prepare with an action that is to the hand.  This either draws the opponent into attacking or gets them to parry, counterattack, or pull the hand back — all of which provide opportunities to attack.  The problem with this is that smart fencers will use their reaction to a preparation to setup another action.  I love when all I have to do to get my opponent to attack is pull my hand back or parry their shot to short target.  Once they have committed to their attack, I can step in with a parry or pull distance and counterattack.  This is not to say that there are not fencers out there who will react to short target preparations in such a way to create an opportunity, just that it is stupid to expect all fencers to fail to recognize that preparation as a setup for something else that they can turn around in their favor.

The second tournament that I mentioned above was a great reminder of how I adapt the depth of my preparation to my opponent and also how I manipulate distance to encourage them to give me opportunities during their preparation.  The traditional solution to prevent an opponent from capitalizing on the time between reacting to a preparation and the actual hit arriving is to make the final attack flow smoothly from the preparation and super explosive.  In order to do this, I find that I first need to have gathered enough information about my opponent’s reaction to predict what they are going to do so I can make an eyes-closed action (see my post on problem solving).  The second thing I need to do is to keep my preparation footwork slow so that the difference in speed between preparation and attack is maximized.  In this way, I may know that when I prepare with counter-six my opponent disengages and extends trying to counterattack the hand.  I can use this to draw that extension and blast in while locking the line in 8 and picking up the blade and I can start this action before they have made the actual counterattack because I know it is coming.  The problem arises when my opponent knows that the point of my preparation is to draw this response and they just expand distance a little bit and don’t give me any openings.  If I’m stupid, I’ll make my preparation bigger or faster trying to get a reaction, which just serves to hand my opponent an easy opening.

The other solution that I was reminded of is to make preparations at different depths.  One of the most effective ways I have found to get an opponent to react is to make a committed action to the bicep.  I don’t even care if I hit this action, the point is to draw a predictable response.  Some people will parry, some will counterattack, some will make me fall short and take over the attack.  All of these reactions provide opportunities.  For example, if they parry, it is easy to adjust distance the next time to make a disengage to the body as part of a one tempo attack or to finish the attack in a second tempo.  What I really like is when they think that my attack was actually committed to the body and they made me fall short and go to take over the attack.  At this point, it is easy to get away and be in a good position to counterattack or just pick a moment to step in and hit.

From the other perspective, my favorite time to attack is into what I think of as the “hole” in my opponent’s attack.  This is when they are committed to the attack, but have not yet physically launched into the final motion.  For example, between the advance and lunge of a one tempo advance-lunge attack.  I have found that if I keep my preparatory footwork slow and I’m patient with picking moments, I can get my opponent to try to capitalize on marginal opportunities.  In this way, I can start pulling distance on their preparation and get them to either look for multi-tempo attacks or make a bigger step on their preparation trying to get a reaction from me.  This creates the “hole” into which I can attack.  The hardest part of this is to identify when and where the hole will be.  Once I find it, it is relatively easy to capitalize on it.  Better yet, if my opponent figures out what I’m doing, they usually give me even easier scoring opportunities while trying to avoid the situation in which I have been scoring.

So, in summary:

  1. Keep prepartory footwork slow
  2. Try preparing to different depths to find where your opponent reacts
  3. Look for the hole

Structuring curriculum at a club

I have recently started occasionally coaching at a club in another city.  This is what I think of as a mid sized club with 8 strips, but rarely enough fencers to fill all of the strips on any given night.  I think this club is in the most difficult growth phase where they have progressed past the point of being a small easily managed and structured organization, but have not yet attracted the membership base to support the structures that large clubs use.  I am not the head coach at this club, which currently is between head coaches (another challenge they face), but they do have a part time coach that they really trust.  He and I tend to be on the same page and we are working together to overhaul the curriculum for this club.  I have had the good fortune to train at a large number of clubs, so as part of our brainstorming I put together a little document outlining the different instruction organizational models I have seen and what I perceive as their strengths and weaknesses.  I hope for this to be a bit of an ongoing wiki sort of post, so I’d love to hear other people’s ideas on this topic.  For the purposes of keeping the club anonymous, I have edited my document to refer to them as CLUB.  I really don’t want anyone thinking that I have an even remotely negative opinion of this club.  It is quite the opposite, I have been very impressed with what they have accomplished and I am truly excited to be part of the growth that is yet to come.

General club formats

Entirely private lesson based:

Beginners get instruction through private lessons 2-3 times/week for the first month before being invited to join open fencing.  Continued instruction is through private lessons.

Pros:

  • Student technical skills progress quickly
  • Instruction is specific to individual student needs
  • Excellent for forming student coach relationships

Cons:

  • If students come in as a group, there is no structure to keep friends together (although coach can easily choose to do small group lessons)
  • Lack of social cohesion among beginning students
  • Resource intensive and does not scale well

Summary:

Seems to work well for clubs where beginning members trickle in and there are rarely enough beginners starting together to form a class.  This is also very reliant on the ability of the coach to connect with each student individually.

Single beginner class/private lessons

Beginners receive instruction through a group class before being introduced to open fencing.  Continued instruction after beginning class is through private lessons.  This is the format I currently use at UO.

Pros:

  • Helps with social cohesion of beginners
  • Provides some structure for beginners
  • Emphasizes open fencing as the primary site for learning
  • Strongly encourages individually tailored instruction
  • Intermediate and advanced student education is reliant upon the motivation of students to take private lessons.

Cons:

  • Intermediate and advanced student education is reliant upon the motivation of students to take private lessons.
  • Lack of social cohesion through classes for intermediate and advanced students.
  • Beginners don’t immediately mix with more advanced students.

Summary

I like this organization for small clubs that tend to get beginners in waves.  At UO we tend to have beginner groups start the first week of every term and attendance is often hit and miss.

Series of structured classes:

This is what CLUB and NWFC have as their structures.  Students advance through a series of structured classes, each one progressively more advanced.  This mirrors the generally accepted academic system in the U.S. and shares many of the same pros and cons.  Note: NWFC uses the single beginner class format for adult classes.

Pros:

  • Fosters peer relationships between students of similar ability levels (peer groups)
  • Maximizes efficiency of resources – more students with fewer coaches
  • Ensures students have a standard body of knowledge after each class

Cons:

  • Requires a large number of students to maintain sufficient class sizes and consistent ability levels within each class
  • Students receive less individual attention and curriculum is not individualized to the student
  • Does not encourage social integration across ability levels

Summary

I think this format works best at large clubs where it is necessary to train a large group of beginners.  At smaller clubs, such as CLUB, it is very difficult to ensure critical mass in each class after the first as there will be some attrition at each level.  CLUB’s solution has been to expand the range of ability levels in each class, which has resulted in increasing the difficulty of teaching the class as the lowest level students struggle to keep up and the most advanced students are bored.

Unstructured/Peer instruction supplemented with private lessons

I have never seen a club officially organize instruction this way, but I have seen many clubs that use this as the default organization due to either the overworking or laziness of the coaching staff.  Beginners are instructed by more advanced students, usually one on one until they are up to speed enough to join open fencing.

Pros:

  • Fosters social interaction throughout the club across ability and experience levels.
  • Advanced students learn through the act of teaching
  • Creates a system in which club mates can coach each other, thus easing the strain on coaches.

Cons:

  • Instruction is inconsistent and often of poor quality
  • Advanced students spend time teaching instead of training
  • SafeSport could be a major issue if one student is a minor and the other is not

Summary:

It is difficult to evaluate this method because I have never seen it consciously and systematically implemented.  I have thought about the idea of formalizing this sort of structure because I think paired peer learning can be really powerful, but I haven’t done it yet.  I think this organization could be ideal for transitioning students from a very short beginner class to primarily open fencing in small clubs like collegiate clubs and I may try systematically implementing this sort of instruction at UO.

CLUB Specific Ideas

I think CLUB faces two issues with their curriculum.  The first, as highlighted above, is that there is not a sufficient student base to support the current class structure so classes are too small with too wide a range of ability levels within each class.  The second issue is the specific curriculum design that separates technical and tactical skills.

The class size/ability range issue is hard to find a solution for without changing the fundamental curriculum organization of the club.  I think that the club is not large enough to support 4 levels of classes currently, but I don’t really have a good suggestion about how to fix this issue.

The specific curriculum should be redesigned to teach technical skills in the context of useful tactics.  I actually reverse the order of instruction that CLUB uses at UO.  I start with foot tempo, defending with distance, and taking over the attack.  From there, I start adding in basic technical skills starting with angulation and emphasizing hitting targets within the context of distance and tempo (first shoulder, then hand, then expanding later to foot, leg, flank, etc.).  Next parries and disengages can be taught together.  I generally start with intercepting parries (opposition with the arm fully extended) because the motion is the same between these and disengages.  Then strong parries while collapsing distance.  The main thing is that by starting with distance and tempo, every blade work action is then taught within a framework of when to use it tactically.  This could be split into two classes, one that is a basic introduction for beginners and then the first epee specific class.  NOTE: I don’t have much experience working with kids and my colleague has pointed out that he agrees entirely with this model for adults, but that kids need a lot more technical training and general proprioceptive activities before they are mature enough to grasp these concepts.

The next level class could then expand on these skills by focusing on how to gather information about your opponent – when they trigger attacks and what blade work actions they favor – and how to then use the technical skills to manipulate them.  This can start very simply with concepts like drawing the attack to setup a parry.  From there a natural progression could be to use early parries to force a disengage into a known line or to show the opponent that you want to parry, but then counterattack instead.

The highest level class could take expand the information gathering and tactical interplay to the bout level to work on concepts like controlling the strip and the clock or disrupting the opponent to create opportunities later in the bout.  This could also include topics like when in the bout to increase the complexity of setups and when to simplify.  In general, it would be focused on ways of conceptualizing the bout as a whole instead of focusing on individual actions and points.

Parrying in Epee

I have had the great fortune to work with a lot of fantastic coaches from around the world who use a variety of systems, all of which have different ideas on how and when to use parries.  This post will start with a bit of background so you have some idea how I came to my conclusiosn.  I have worked with coaches that come from the Beck/Barth/Tauber/German system, the Hungarian system, and the French system (both classical and modern).  My thoughts are derived from distilling the ideas of these various coaches and looking for the commonalities.  Without getting into the history and nuances of the various systems, I’ll give a brief characterization of each.  All three systems teach the same fundamental set of actions, but with different emphasis on which techniques are most important.

I have only worked with one Beck system coach, Maitre Gruber, who I only got the chance to take a few lessons from, but he was excellent.  In my lessons, the Beck system is characterized in general by flick preparations to the hand to draw a reaction of either withdrawing the hand, which exposes the body for a deep attack, or attacking into preparation.  The preferred finishing actions are parry-ripostes or strong fleches.  Even though it was only a few lessons, I learned a lot from Maitre Gruber.  The 2 things that have most impacted my game are proper flick technique and thinking of the fleche as starting with the front foot making a half step.

I worked with a few Hungarian coaches, both in Hungary and in the U.S.  I can’t say there is one philosophy that characterizes the Hungarian system, although all the coaches taught very similar techniques and action choices.  I guess I would say that they favored actions on the blade than ones off the blade, but there were a lot of counterattacks and disengage based actions in all of the lessons as well.  All of the Hungarian coaches were adamant about parries starting with the tip and keeping a straight line from elbow to tip to make them very strong.  The biggest thing that impacted my game from these lessons was the application of foot tempo as a moment to go.

Most of my training has been with coaches that come out of the French system.  They used a wide range of methodologies ranging from Maitre Calvert, who was trained using the early 20th century French military coaching manual and still referenced the manual regularly, to Sebastien Dos Santos, who exchanges ideas with the top modern French coaches, such as Michel Sicard and Jean-Fracois Dimartino, and has modified them.  The French system generally emphasizes actions off the blade and avoiding blade contact.  In addition to these two coaches, who were the primary influences on my current fencing, I started with Bill Reith, who comes from a fairly classical French background, and have also taken lessons from other French coaches including Jean-Claude Magnon, Christophe Duclos, and Benoit Bouysset.  Coming from this background, much of my early fencing game was built around counterattacks to short target and attacks with disengage to deeper targets.  All of these coaches taught parries in their lessons, but disengages and absence of blade was generally emphasized more by the classically trained coaches, and still played a large role in the lessons from the more modern French coaches.

Each coach or system had different ideas on parry technique.  The Hungarian coaches were very specific that parries lead with the tip and keep the wrist and point straight.  This results in a very strong parry with tip pointing away from the target and the riposte would start by bringing the tip back to the target.  The more classical French coaches insisted that the parries lead with the guard and keep the tip pointed towards the target.  Maitre Gruber liked parries to take the tip away from target to facilitate a flick preparation.  The more modern French coaches didn’t worry much about my technique on strong parries, but they really focused on parries that drive the tip toward the target.  The one thing that was really consistent between all of the coaches is that they did not explicitly talk about parry timing and distance.  Sebastien Dos Santos and Michael Marx are the two exceptions that I have worked with.

Distilling all of this, I have come to the conclusion that there are two primary ways to score with parry-riposte in epee.  The first is what I call Intercepting Parries.  I got the term from Sebastien who couldn’t put his finger on the English term, but I think it describes the action better than the English terminology.  I have heard this called opposition or binds, but those terms also have different actions associated with them as well.  Intercepting parries are executed with the arm fully extended and rely on the collapsing of distance to clear the line.  They do not start by pushing the opponent’s blade to the side with the guard and the guard does not move sideways at all.  The strength of the parry comes from the guard moving forward as you drive the tip to the target.  You can see Grumier working on these parries in a lesson with Hughes Obry.

The other primary way to score with a parry is with the hand very close to the body and a very deep parry.  You can see Fiedler hit Tagliariol with a parry like this in the Paris 2011 World Cup Final.  As with Fiedler’s parry in the video, ideally you create a situation where you can step forward at the same time as making the parry.  I first got this idea from Sebastien and, as with many great ideas, I thought it was stupid and crazy because it went against everything every other coach had ever told me.  The more I thought about it and tried it, the more convinced I became that it is really important to step forward with the parry. The reason this works so well is because it puts you in control of when the distance collapses.  When you control the distance collapse, it makes it almost impossible for your opponent to find the right moment to disengage.  It also puts your tip in front of your opponent while their tip is behind you so you will have the advantage making a remise if you don’t hit the riposte.  If you are stationary or moving backward with the parry, it gives your opponent more time to disengage or remise before you can land the riposte.

Parries in between the two parry options (very deep or very forward) should be used as preparatory actions.  If you are actually trying to parry in the middle distance, it is too easy for your opponent to react after the parry by remising or retaking the blade.  Searching for the blade in the middle distance is still incredibly useful to interrupt your opponent or drive them into a position where you want them, but I don’t find it useful when looking to score with parry-riposte.  Occasionally opponents will do something stupid and let me parry-riposte in between, but that tends to be the exception.

Building the puzzle: the role of preparation

This post is the corollary to my earlier post on problem solving, which looked at how to “solve” your opponent.  If fencing was just about finding and exploiting holes in your opponents game, it would be much less challenging.  Part of what makes the sport especially difficult is that a fencer needs to find and exploit holes in their opponent’s game while at the same time hiding what they are doing and masking the holes in their own game, thus being a puzzle that the opponent needs to work to solve.  This post focuses on how to hide your actions and make the holes in your game harder to exploit.  I view preparatory footwork as the foundation of this.

The role of preparatory footwork is to facilitate a wide variety of finishing actions while the preparation looks the same to the opponent.  As I discussed in the previous post, one of the keys to setting up an action is to anticipate what your opponent will be doing.  If every action looks the same at the beginning, it is very difficult to anticipate what your opponent is trying to do.

Beginners generally think about the preparation and the finishing action as one unit, such as advance-lunge, half-advance-fleche, or retreat-counterattack.  However, it is very important to practice different finishing actions from the same preparation as well as to practice doing the same preparation repeatedly without any finishing action.  The preparatory footwork that I prefer to teach for beginners is a half-advance because it is very easy to turn that into a fleche, lunge, or retreat.  It is also easy to make a half-advance, then return to en-guarde.  This is definitely not the only preparatory footwork that facilitates multiple finishes, but I think it is the easiest starting point.

The second portion of hiding actions is to have preparatory blade work that also facilitates multiple finishing actions.  This is something that most coaches seem to do a good job with, so I won’t spend too much time on it.  The most common ones I have seen are to search for a counter-6 parry or engagement, a beat-4, or to make an extension or half extension.  I start beginners with just the half-advance footwork with no blade work and then progress to also using an extension.  I do this because I find it is more important to hit in epee than it is to defend with a parry.  It is also easier for beginners to hit if they have their tip pointed at the target.  With more advanced students, I train all sorts of preparatory blade work actions.  Again, the important part is to facilitate many possible actions from the same preparation.  I drill beginners from half-advance without any blade work to open distance with an angulated counterattack, to open distance and then close it again with a parry, to finish with lunge or fleche with or without disengage or with the blade.  We usually get to this point by the end of the second lesson.

From a consistent base of preparatory footwork and a mixture of preparatory blade work actions, a fencer can mix which finishing actions they use and keep the opponent guessing.  So far this is a pretty basic concept.  The hardest part is the execution to smoothly transition from preparation to finish without giving the opponent clues about what is coming.  Practice smoothly transitioning from half-advance to fleche, lunge, and retreat while keeping the half-advance so it looks identical each time.  This is much more difficult than it sounds.

Mixing up which actions a fencer uses is still only part of the process.  This makes it difficult to for the opponent to interrupt the attack and it gives them a controlled moment to attack that allows their attack to be interrupted.  What this means is that the most predictable pattern that the opponent will have to “solve” the fencer is during the preparation itself.  The conundrum is that in order to hide your actions, you need to make your preparation follow a consistent rhythm and look the same each time.  This makes it predictable, which makes you vulnerable during that time, so it is important to adjust the distance at which you make the preparation so that you are in control of when your opponent has opportunity to capitalize on this vulnerability so you are prepared to interrupt their action with your own.  Sometimes this means breaking the preparation pattern with a larger or faster footwork action to draw the attack.  Sometimes it means starting from closer or farther away, but keeping the preparation the same otherwise.  What this means is that while it is important that your preparation looks the same to your opponent, it is equally important that you practice making changes in your preparation to trigger reactions from your opponent.  This is part of what I call “training your opponent.”

Training your opponent means setting a pattern with your preparation in order to get a specific reaction from your opponent.  For example, I might make a strong beat-4 with half-advance.  I will then return to my relaxed preparation of half-advance with half-extension for a few seconds.  Then make the strong beat-4 again.  When my opponent gets tired of getting their blade whacked, they will usually try to disengage.  Once I have trained my opponent to disengage my beat-4, I will start the beat-4, but instead of actually making the beat I will transition into a fleche and lock the line in 6 where the opponents blade will end up when they try to disengage my beat.

One of the most common mistakes I see with fencers preparatory actions is that they do them too fast.  In order to train your opponent, they need to be able to see what you are doing.  In order to read your opponent’s reaction, you need to be moving slowly enough to see what they are doing.  In order to surprise your opponent with an explosive attack, there needs to be a very distinct difference in speed between the preparation and the fleche or lunge.  The faster the preparation, the faster the fleche or lunge needs to be to make it surprising.  A lot of students ask about how to make their attack faster and I instead work with them on slowing down the preparation to make their attack SEEM faster.  A fast preparation tells the opponent that something is happening.  This can be a tool too.  A fast forward movement can draw the opponent into reacting, but if most preparations are fast, then the opponent will start to ignore them and there is no way to change the tempo on the attack.

Even with all of the thought that goes into training your opponent, smoothing out the transition from preparation to finish, being conscious of when you give the opponent the moment, and solving your opponent, you will get caught at some point when you are not expecting your opponent to attack.  At this point, your goal is damage control by either avoiding the touch or forcing a double.  I approach this by using the information I’ve gathered to have a safety action stored in the back of my head.  For some opponents, this is a parry to close their preferred line of attack.  For some it is a simple counterattack to force a double.  For opponents that like to close a line when attacking, it may be a counterattack from an unusual angle.  The point is that I have selected it ahead of time even though it is not the action I am actively trying to set up.  That way, when I do get caught unexpectedly, my mind is ready to react and I am more likely to do something useful instead of flailing wildly.  A consistent balanced preparation also facilitates being in a balanced position to execute this action properly.

 

Problem solving

One of the most difficult skill sets in fencing is learning how to “solve” your opponent.  By solving your opponent, I mean identifying their weaknesses and exploiting them to score touches.  There are lots of different ways fencers approach this, but very few below the elite level seem to approach it systematically, instead favoring an intuitive process.  There are some great intuitive fencers out there, but the problem with this approach is that they tend to react the same way every time to the same stimuli, which makes them predictable reactive fencers.

The first step to solving the problem is to gather information.  I think far too many people go about the entire process backwards if they think about it at all.  They start with what action their opponent is doing to hit them, then trying to avoid it.  In other words, they start with their opponents strength and try to figure out how to neutralize that strength.  This can be useful, but it  has two major issues associated with it.  First, the fencers are thinking in terms of actions.  By this I mean they view what happens during a fencing bout as a series of discrete units.  For example, when asked what the opponent is doing to hit them, the response might be “bind 6 fleche.”  The problem with this approach is that this is about the least useful information about the opponent’s game plan.  A much better response would be “attacking on foot tempo with opposition,” which identifies more of what the opponent is looking for as well as including the fencer’s own movement in the equation.  The second major issue is that by focusing on what is working for the opponent, it leaves the fencer trying to beat their opponent where they are strongest.

My approach is generally different.  I start by trying to identify a pattern to what automatic reactions my opponent has ingrained from their training.  This includes looking at how they react to changes in distance, actions on the blade, attacks to short target, etc.  For example, if I make a hard juke with an extension, does my opponent automatically retreat, stand still, or attack into the preparation?  Do they try to take the blade?  I don’t need to make a real action to see these responses.  For example, in a recent tournament I made just this probing action in a pool bout and my opponent’s tip twitched up a few inches and he started to retreat.  That told me that he would parry 6 and try to open distance when I attacked, so I hit him 4 times in a row with a fleche with disengage.  Knowing that he was reacting to my footwork meant that I didn’t even need to wait for a foot tempo situation.  Another example is if my opponent retreats when I start an advance and then advances when I start to retreat, I know that I can create a foot tempo opportunity by advancing and starting my retreat.  I might advance – half retreat – fleche knowing that my opponent is going to be stepping forward.  I might keep forward pressure on them until they are cornered at their end of the strip.  There are lots of options once you know how they will react to the stimuli you give them.

For when an opponent attacks, I approach the problem a little differently, but it is the same overall idea.  I start by looking at when they like to attack.  Do they want to push me to the end of the strip where I can’t retreat any farther?  Do they try to catch me on foot tempo?  Do they just attack randomly because they feel like it?  Once I know this, I can trigger the attack when I am ready for it.  I then think about the attack itself.  Is there a preparation, or do they just attack?  If there is a preparation, do they use the same one every time?  More importantly, is the preparation performed at the same tempo every time, i.e. slow half step to explosive fleche?  I then pick a moment that I want to interrupt the attack.  I coach my students to break these moments into four groups: preparation, beginning of the attack, during the attack, and after the attack.  Once you have the moment you want to interrupt the attack, pick an action that you are comfortable with and fits the action the opponent favors and be ready to interrupt the next attack at that moment.  Make sure you know what direction you will be moving when you interrupt.  You may want to expand distance early in the action if you want to interrupt the middle of the attack with a counterattack.  You may want to collapse distance at the beginning of the attack to interrupt with a beat riposte.  You may want to expand distance throughout to make the attack fall short and interrupt after the end of the attack.

Picking the moment to interrupt and mixing this up is more important than the choice of action.  I won a bout against another strong A fencer who was fairly high on the points list at the time in the first two touches.  I knew he would push me toward the end of the strip then attack, so I decided to take the first touch to determine the timing of his attack by presenting little foot tempo opportunities, but continually giving up distance until he attacked.  My plan was to interrupt at the beginning of the attack by stepping in to force a double touch.  He attacked, I stepped in, but my hand didn’t do what I asked it to.  It took parry 6 instead of forcing a double touch.  Completely opposite my strategy, but because I was in control of the moment, I got the touch.  I decided to pursue my original strategy on the second touch because in the panic of doing something completely different than what I planned, I missed the timing of his attack.  Second touch, he attacks with a cut over to avoid the parry he thinks is coming.  My had fails me again and takes prime, which locks his tip up in the air, but because the beginning of the attack was a good moment to interrupt, it worked anyway.  After that, he had to attack.  I mixed up interrupting the preparation (attacking into the preparation with beats or just straight), the beginning of the attack (binds, beat ripostes, counterattacks), and during the attack (open distance and either counterattack or step back in with a parry).  I don’t remember the exact score, but it was on the order of 15-6.

Now that I’ve written a long, probably confusing, post on this, here is a brief summary in a list:

  1. Identify your opponent’s automatic reactions, including when they like to attack.
  2. Pick the moment you are going to make your action.  This moment is the most important part.
  3. Choose an action to make at that moment.
  4. Execute your plan.  It is more important to capture the intended moment and execute with confidence than to actually make the action you planned on.

Conceptualizations of distance

I wasn’t really planning to write this post at all, but a discussion on Fencing.net surrounding this blog has got me thinking that it is a good idea.

I have been taught a number of different ways to think about distance and heard others throughout the years.  I’m just going to describe them here.

Keeping distance

This is the most simplistic understanding of distance and is the way most beginners are taught.  It is certainly the way I was taught.  The idea is that there is some “correct” distance from which all fencing actions should start.  This is usually taught as advance-lunge distance.  Within this conceptualization of distance, the goal of a fencer is to stay at advance lunge distance until someone attacks.  If one fencer moves forward, the other should move back to maintain distance.

From all the coaches that teach this, I have never heard one of them discuss what to do when your opponent’s lunge distance is longer than your advance lunge distance.  These are generally the same coaches who tell their students they were too close when the opponent hits them.  The problem with this is that the fencer with the shorter advance lunge will always be within range of the fencer with the longer range.  If they are “keeping distance” when the opponent attacks, they are reacting to the attack by trying to keep out of range.  If a fencer is reacting to distance, they are a tempo behind by the time the distance changes and are not in control of that distance to start with.  Therefore, I believe that teaching this concept of distance does the student a disservice.

Assessing distance

Michael Marx’s students all know that the first thing you do at any point in a bout is assess distance.  What this means is that wherever you are as either fencer moves, you need to know if you can get to the opponent with a one tempo action before they can get away.  Michael teaches a lot of footwork actions such as check steps and varying the size of steps to adjust distance and hide getting into and out of distance.  This is a great idea, but it never resonated well with me because I struggle with being constantly in a position to take advantage of the distance once I make my assessment.  This conceptualization works well for a lot of people, but since I struggle with it, I don’t use it much when coaching.

Red zone, dead zone, out

I picked up this concept from Travis Exum, who in turn learned it during his time training in France.  The basic idea is that distance is divided into three zones.  The red zone is where both fencers are within range of a one tempo attack.  Out is where neither fencer is in range of a one tempo attack.  The dead zone is where the fencer with the longer range is within range of a one tempo action, but the fencer with the shorter range is not.

I find this concept to be very useful and is easy for even beginning students to understand.  The goal of the fencer with the longer range is to get the fencer with the shorter range stuck in the dead zone.  The goal of the fencer with the shorter range is to create scenarios where they can get to the red zone while minimizing opportunities for the opponent to hit in the dead zone.

The drawback to relying entirely on this conceptualization of distance pedagogically is that it does not inherently include strategies for how to either trap the opponent in the dead zone or get through the dead zone.  I still love it as a starting point for distance discussions, but it needs to be supplemented with discussions on tactics surrounding it.

Tactically dependent distance

I have never really heard a name put to a variety of the more complex conceptualizations of distance I have been exposed to, so I’m calling the whole group tactically dependent distance.  This conceptualization is that distance dynamically expands and collapses constantly throughout a point.  Movement is all about controlling the expansion or collapse depending on what action a fencer is trying to hit.  Counter attacks usually require an expansion of distance.  Attacks require a collapse of distance.  Getting to the point of expanding distance before a counter attack or collapsing during an attack requires numerous cycles of expansion and collapse as preparation to the final distance adjustment.  I go into more detail on this in my post on the role of footwork.

I think this is the best conceptualization of distance for a competitor, but it can be the most difficult to teach.  To get to this point, I try to teach much of this implicitly to beginners while they work on more easily understood skills.  For example, when teaching a beginner to hit an angulated counter attack (one of the first actions I teach), I get them to initiate the action with a check back (half advance turned into a retreat).  When teaching disengage based attacks, I make a half advance as I parry so the student is attacking into distance that is collapsing, not expanding.  I realize that I am still in control of distance at this stage of lessons, but it prepares students for the concept later.

When I explicitly start teaching students to think about distance, I usually begin by introducing the red zone, dead zone, out conceptualization and then working on strategies to trap the opponent in the dead zone or to get through the dead zone with minimal exposure.  From there, we can start generalizing the concept of distance to depend on more than just the range of the two fencers.