I once watched a coach give a lesson to a young fencer. The coach would open a line, the student would start his lunge, and the coach would step backward. The student would stretch his lunge and hit the coach. This action was repeated a number of times: the coach cuing and the student lunging to score. Occasionally the coach would suddenly make a parry and riposte against the student's attack. Lighting fast, the student would parry the riposte and counter-riposte to score.
At one point in the lesson, after a particularly fast and accurate riposte by the student, another fencer watching the lesson turned to me and said: "What an amazing lesson!".
I turned to the fencer (who also took lessons from this coach) and asked: "Why don't all the attacks hit?"
The fencer didn't understand the question. I explained: "The student scores several times in a row with a direct attack, then, with the same attack, he is parried and must score with a counter-riposte. So why does that one attackout of all the othersfail to score?"
"Because the coach parried the attack!" the fencer replied. I shook my head. "If that is true, why didn't the coach parry the other attacks? Were those attacks any different?". I went on: "The student makes a series of attacks that score, then, suddenly, the same attack is parried. Does he know why? Does he know what didn't work in the attack the coach parried that worked the first three times?"
The other fencer didn't have an answer. Later, I talked to the coach, who told me that the parry and riposte was "replicating the bout", in which the student must be ready to make a quick counter-riposte if the initial attack failed.
This seems reasonable on the face of it. But as I thought about the lesson, I wondered what the purpose of this lesson was. To teach the straight attack? If so, it was not a very good lesson if the coach, at any time, could chose to successfully defend against the student's attack. Was the lesson teaching the student a lighting fast parry and riposte? It certainly did that, with the disadvantage that the student was also being taught to make the initial attack at a distance from which they would most certainly be parried. Except the coach didn't parry and riposte every time. So...what did this lesson teach?
I watched this student in later competitions. In local competitions his speed and technical ability resulted in his scoring against weaker opponent's. In National competitions, however, his opponents could either parry his direct attack, escape his initial attack and take over, or shut down his counter riposte by scoring on their first riposte. I never saw the fencer's coach notice this problem and take steps to correct it.
I do not think it is wrong to teach a student to make a long lunge, or to teach the student to be able to parry and counter-riposte when their attacks are parried. However, I feel that lessons like this (and there are many examples) ignore a principal component of fencing, which is tempo.
WHAT IS "TEMPO"?
Tempo is a popular word with fencing coaches. Perhaps the word "tempo" is too popular, since it is used in so many places and for so many ideas that it is difficult to understand what the user is talking about without paying close attention to the context. This flexibility in definition makes it difficult to know what someone is talking about when they say "tempo". Is "tempo" the same as "rhythm" or with "speed"? I have heard both used as definitions.
I believe the definition of tempo lies closer to the idea of a "moment to go" or, in the French school, l' á propos. By my defining "tempo" to the idea of "the moment to make a hit" I encompass many ideas and concepts, including: distance, timing, speed, and technical skill. This does not make it easy to quickly define the word "tempo". Maitré Gary Copeland, of Northern Colorado Fencers Club says:
"This concept of the tempo is so elusive that many coaches don't even mention it. It is a concept that defies description, because it is not rooted in a fixed distance or motion. It is so variable, so transitory, that anything written of it doesn't quite describe it; in fact, any description can be shown to be wrong under certain circumstances. Often coaches avoid the issue all together and hope that the student learns it on the strip." 1
The famous coach (and coach to coaches) Zbigniew Czajkowski says almost the same thing in his work, Understanding Fencing:
"...most fencing textbooks, while stressing the element of "choice of time" delicately side-step the difficult problem of defining, describing, and discussing it."
The Professor goes on to say:
"And yet it is very obvious that this is not a question of mere time. The opportune application of an action in a bout, taking the opponent unawares, is closely connected to the many factors of the tactical situation, such as distance, the moments of the two fencers, the opponent's state of attention, etc." 2
Both Maitré Copeland and Professor Czajkowski define "tempo" as the relationship between two fencers, including the distance between them, their relative speed of execution of fencing actions, the position of the blades, and finally, the ability to confound the opponent's expectations in the bout, to achieve surprise.
To simplify, I think of "tempo" almost as a mathematical word problem. If the tip of a fencer's weapon is here and it must travel there to score, the weapon must cover a distance of a certain amount (which is always changing, depending on the distance between the weapon and the target). The attacking fencer moves at one rate, and the defending opponent at another (the respective rates depending on the skill of the individual fencers). If the attacking fencer can move their weapon to the opponent's target before the opponent can move their blade to either oppose the hit (parry) or counter-attack (within the time allowed by the scoring apparatus), the attacking fencer will score against the opponent.
An action in a single tempo scores against the opponent with one motion, one tempo. Attacks may be multi-action, or "compound" in their execution, but all actions preceding the final, scoring action are preparations. These actions may facilitate scoring, but do not score themselves. Further, an action may be one movement, but not be able to score in one tempo, such as a very long lunge.
This can be confusing. Here is a simple example: two fencers are maneuvering on the piste. One fencer has been controlling the footwork, and the other has been following just out of the lunge distance of either fencer. On the leading fencer's advance, the fencer "following" does not retreat as expected, but lunges into the start of his opponent's advance to score. The combination of the closing of the distance and surprise creates a one-tempo scoring situation.
Here is an example of a failure to understand the proper tempo for the attack: at long lunge distance, a fencer makes a direct, simple attack. Her opponent parries and ripostes to score against her. Even though the lunge is often categorized as a "one-tempo" piece of footwork, the fencer was unable to score in a single tempo against her opponent (a good example of the confusing use of the word "tempo" to define both a motion and a tactical situation). The fencer may have been able to reach her opponent with her lunge, but the long distance (and thus, extended time on the attack) prevented her from scoring. To correct this, the fencer must either shorten the distance, gain time against her opponent, or do both. On her next attack, the fencer engages the opponent's blade and controls it while quickly advancing to close the space. Having closed the space to a one-tempo distance, the fencer can release the opponent's blade to lunge and score.
In this example, the engagement of the opponent's blade was the preparation the fencer needed to both gain distance (close the space) and gain time (delay the opponent's defensive blade work). Distance, time, and surprise were at work here, as the opponent was temporarily "frozen" by the abrupt blade engagement and closing of the space by her opponent.
Of course, this is not the only possible solution. The fencer could have made the attack from the same distance as before, and executed a disengage in the lunge, turning her attack into a compound attack (two tempo) in order to score. Because tempo involves many different factors, there are many ways to "slice" up tempo in order to achieve a hit.
Footwork is what controls the distance between the two fencers. Blade preparations (feints, actions on the blade, and so forth) misdirects or actively controls the opponent's blade. Surprise gives the attacker time by increasing the time for the opponent to either react, decide on a course of action, execute a choosen action, or do all three. Surprise also leads to technical failures: large and involuntary blade actions that open a possible line of attack, or gives the attacking fencer more time to reach the target with a given speed of execution.
Explained in this way, the word "tempo" seems very complicated. Yet, this relationship of time/distance/action/surprise is in every bout and every scoring touch. Finding the one-tempo situation is seen in the methodical bouncing of épée fencers, the slow marching attack of foil fencers, and the chasing footwork of saber fencers. In each case, the attacker is moving and looking for an advantage in time/distance/blade/surprisea tempo advantageagainst the opponent. The fencer that scores is the fencer that either creates a tempo advantage over the opponent (or recognizes their advantage first) and uses good technique to score.
In the example above, the fencer was at her lunge distance from her opponent, but did not have the proper tempo to score. As coaches, we often make the mistake of teaching the idea that an attack occurs over a fixed distance determined only by the student. We tell students to "find your distance", as if the fencer's ability to reach a target with lunge is the same has being able to score against that target when it is an active opponent. Tempo is not a fixed, but intensely variable and opponent dependant. A very skilled fencer facing a relatively weak opponent can create a one-tempo situation at near the full length of their lunge. Against a more skilled opponent, however, the same fencer may have to be much closer to score, or use one or more preparations to move their opponent out of position or mitigate the opponent's ability to use their weapon.
TEMPO AND DISTANCE
What does this mean for a fencing lesson? It means that when you are teaching, you must build the lesson to reflect real values of timing and distance for the student. The student must not only learn good actions, but good tempo, as well. Every situation in the lesson has a tempo associated with it, and that tempo must be consistant through out your teaching. All other things being equal, a simple attack by your students should be done over a shorter distance than a compound attack. It is just as incorrect, from perspective of proper tempo, to do a compound attack over a short distance as it is to do a simple attack over too long of a distance. In committing either error, the student is vulnerable to the opponent.
Teaching the student to understand the relationship of distance, time, speed, technique, and surprisetempois the difference between teaching a student fencing "things" and teaching them "fencing".
The technical abilities of the student at the start of their training are going to be poor. This will mean at the start that the student's steps will be slow and too big. Their blade motions will be much larger than they need to be. Fortunately, their peer group of opponents will also lack these skills and your lessons and cues should reflect this. The goal in teaching the student is to improve their technical skills while working during the lesson at the very edge of the distance/time with which they can effectively score. Additional technical work outside of the lesson will accelerate this improvement. Not technique OR tempo, but technique AND tempo.
Here is a simple drill to show the student the importance of creating and seeing a one-tempo situation:
A Drill to Understand Tempo, Part One:
The student takes a position at a close lunge distance from you, and then makes a retreat to be at advance-lunge distance.
The student should now be unable to hit you with a single tempo attack, even if they can reach you with a lunge (this starting distance may need some adjustment). With both you and the student on guard, the student should make an advance in preparation, with a short, smooth step.
Before the student begins their step, you should decide to either stand still or to retreat as the student starts their advance. If you stand still when the student advances, the student should see that you haven't started to move on the start of their advance, and should finish the advance and lunge without hesitation to score against you. If you retreat as the student starts their advance (watch their front foot if you have trouble seeing this and retreat when the foot moves), the student should recognize that the one-tempo situation has been lost, and reset (either retreating back to the start line, or simply stopping in balance).
You should stand still several times (the student lunges and scores), then retreat several times (the student aborts their attack and resets), and then stand still or retreat randomly on the student's advance. Each time, the student should either flow smoothly into the lunge, or stop, and "reset" without bobbling or taking an extra step.
To facilitate this drill, you must make the choice for the student very clear. You must move instantly on the student's advance, or you must stand still (you may step back slightly as the student's lunge unfolds, to accustom the student to score against a retreating target). Only by showing the student a marked difference in the two tempos will they start to recognize the right moment to attack.
When we teach someone to attack, we have two skills to teach: the skill of executing an attack (the thrust and lunge, or other technical skill) and the skill in recognizing when to apply the attacking skill (the proper time/distance, or tempo). Your role in this lesson is to use both skills to complement each other: to make the lunge correctly and at the right moment.
At first, your student may advance and immediately lunge, even if you have stepped back. If they do, you should be able to make an easy parry and riposte against their attack. The student will then try to compensate by making the advance very quickly (you should be ready for this and always retreat on these attempts). At the end of the fast advance the student will be off balance and try to rush into the lunge. Again, you should be able to parry and riposte against them. A student may also try to beat the blade, and you should admonished that they should be able to score without making time by attacking the blade.
On the other side of the drill, the student may make the advance, fail to notice that you have stood still, pause at the end of the advance, then and lunge late. You should step back, and again be able to parry and riposte against the late attack. After several repetitions of this, the student should be observing you more closely and make their decision at the correct time. This is a good time to begin to randomly move between one option or the other.
By trial and error (and perhaps with some help from you) your student will understand that they must watch the distance between the two of you at all times, and that the decision to lunge has to be made on the landing of the heel of the front foot (at the very latest). If the student is struggling with this drill, tell your student to slow down, and to pay close attention to you as they begin their step, and not after they finish the step. Having a very late back foot on the advance will also slow the student down. Their advance must be coordinated with both feet, and the student should be ready to lunge without delay.
As the student gets comfortable in this drill, they will move confidently into their advance, learning to accelerate from their back foot to score if you do not leave the space on time. If you retreat in time, the student should be able to come to a stop without bobbling or losing their balance. When the student is making the correct choice 80% of the time when you are cuing them randomly, you can increase the difficulty of the drill, as in Part Two, below.
A Drill to Understand Tempo, Part Two:
This drill begins exactly like the first drill. The student advances in preparation, and either attacks on your failure to retreat, or aborts the attack if you escape.
You now add an additional component. On occasion, when you hold your ground, make a slow sweep for the student's blade at the very start of their step. Do not make the sweep a sharp motion. The student should be able to see the sweep and avoid it. Your sweep should be early and obvious, and can go from outside to inside or the reverse. The student should "protect" their blade from your search with a disengage while finishing the advance, and then lunge to score. The analogy here is much like timing the swing of a jump rope before stepping in.
Including the sweep while standing now gives the student three possible actions:
- To advance and hit you (you are motionless and not looking for the student's blade).
- To advance, protect their blade from your search, and lunge to score against you (you stand still while sweeping for the student's blade).
- To abort the lunge when you step back (you step back but you do not make a search).
After the student is comfortable with this, you should sweep for the student's blade AND step back. A large percentage of students will only see the sweep, ignore the change in distance, and lunge after avoiding the sweep. Again, you should be able to parry and score easily. The student is distracted by one component (the search for the blade) and has ignored the other (the change in distance). Your parry and riposte brings the student's attention back to watching the space.
Many students will be fooled by your blade action and ignore the change in the space. Michael Marx (past United States National Coach) has termed this behavior "Pavlov's Lunge" after the psychologist who studied conditioning behavior.
Make sure your sweep is early, slow, obvious, and easy to deceive. A small, tight, abrupt beat on the blade will deny the student the chance to make their attack. You will have "stolen the tempo" from them and they will not be able to avoid your blade.
So far our discussion of your movement as the coach in these drills have been in a "good distance/bad distance" framework. Either the tempo for a direct attack is correct for your student, or it is not. However, fencing is never quite so black and white on the strip. What happens when the tempo is almost correct? Opponents move at different rhythms and speeds, and unlike you, the opponent may not cooperate by offering the student such distinct tempos.
Now you will present the student with a two-tempo situation in a distance in which they can still reach you in one movement (a lunge), but will not be able to hit you with a direct attack. The situation presented is no longer a one-tempo scoring situation, even though the student will still be using footwork similar to the one-tempo situations they have been scoring with previously.
A Drill to Understand Tempo, Part Three:
As before, you and student assume an advance and lunge distance. Begin the exercise again with the two choices allowed to the student in Exercise One. Do not include the sweep for the student's blade in this version of the lesson.
After several repetitions of leaving ahead of the student, or not leaving, change the timing of your retreat. Begin leaving just a little late, but not enough to tempt the student into attacking. At first, make it clear by the timing of your movement that while you might be a moment behind the student in making your retreat, the student cannot hit you. Gradually make your retreat slightly later each time you leave (you may still stand still and allow the student to score at times). At some point, you will be so late that the student will be indecisive about whether to lunge or notthe student will "bobble" at the end of their advance as they hesitate in their decision. It is now time to introduce the next action.
Explain to the student that the space is "almost" right, and the student simply needs to steal a bit of time in order to reach you. Some students will try to steal this time by lunging as fast as possible, but this approach will work infrequently. Instead, the student must now make a compound action to score.
It is important that for the student to capture the tempo on the action, that they make the feint in the lunge. If the student stops on their advance and makes a feint, you will be opening the space while they are standing still, and not threatened enough to parry. Even if you (mistakingly) parry the non-threat, you are still in the midst of leaving the space, and the window for the student to disengage and then hit you with a direct attack is closing quickly. The student must make their advance, recognize that distance is not favorable for a one-tempo attack, and lunge with a feint and disengage performed in the lunge.
Do this third action in a serial, blocked manner several times. Now continue with the lesson, stepping back very early (no attack), standing still (direct attack, no feint), and stepping back late (feinting in the lunge and disengaging in the lunge to score). For additional torture, you can repeat the early and late sweeps of Lesson One, though this raises the level of the lesson over what I would expect most beginning fencers (less than a year) to be comfortable with.
As you teach these additional actions, keep in mind that students will often try to get to the one-tempo distance and then start a preparation. By then, you should be able to escape the student and take the action away from them. Preparations are done to create the one tempo situation, not to exploit it. That lesson must be firm in the student's head.
TEMPO AND COACHING BLADE ACTIONS
Your blade actions in the lesson play a part in creating tempo in an action. Imagine you are standing very close to your student, so close that they can hit you with an extension. You move your blade a few inches to open a line, and if your student is alert, they hit you immediately, before you can parry. Now move the student to their maximum lunge distance and move your blade as before. If the student lunges, you should be able to parry their direct attack immediately. The combination of the longer distance and the small "window" of time made by your small blade action precludes them making a successful direct attack. They know that by the time that they start a lunge, your blade will have stopped moving, and you will be ready to close the line on a parry or other defensive or counter-offensive action. This is the idea behind the classic admonition to "Attack opening lines and feint into open lines".4
Suppose, again from a long-ish lunge distance from your student, you make a larger sweep for the student's blade. The distance between you and the student has not changed, but your larger and slower blade action gives the student a window they can score in. Your blade is still moving when the student starts their attack. Your blade's momentum and your inability to stop your blade and bring it back to close the line lets the student finish their attack to score.
Because of this, the blade motions your lesson must give the student the appropriate amount of time to score, or the student should ignore the action. A beginning student needs to see actions earlier, somewhat larger, and somewhat slower than a more skilled fencerthe beginning fencer needs a larger window to operate in. As the student improves, the size and speed of your cues grows both smaller and faster as you raise the skill level of the student by shortening the "window" in which they have to score.
Some will argue that large blade actions by an opponent are not realistic, or that large blade actions by you, in the lesson, will encourage large blade actions by the student. However, any amount of time spent watching video will show that under pressure, and surprised, blade actions by even skilled fencers are bigger, more "open", and telegraphed early. There is benefit in training the student to make small blade actions in performing an attack, but these can be done with specific technical exercises, and gradually narrowing the window in which the student has to score. Teaching the student to attack into small blade actions at long distances encourages the student to fall for traps laid by a more skilled opponent.
TEMPO AND SURPRISE
Fencers create surprise by building expectations in the opponent, and then acting contrary to those expectations. Changes of direction, changing the size of steps, making changes of rhythm in blade (or foot) actions, all can create surprise. Surprising the opponent effects tempo by changing a physical characteristic of the bout, a mental aspect of the bout, or both. Some of the physical aspects that change may be:
- A failure to keep the space between the two fencers to the opponent's advantage.
- Technical failure on the part of the opponent. Blade actions by the opponent may get bigger, or be poorly coordinated with the feet.
- There may be involuntary blade actions, such as a "panic" parry or counter-attack.
- When surprised, the opponent may exhibit a predictable response, such as a making the same parry on every occurance.
Mentally, a surprised opponent may freeze as they try to asses a novel situation and chose from a number of possible courses of action. Surprise will influence the time it takes for the opponent to react, chose, or act (or all three) and effectively gives the fencer more time to make an action against the opponent. In air combat, this is often called "being inside the opponent's decision loop", in which the opponent cannot adjust to the changing situation they are presented fast enough to make well thought out tactical decisions.
Skilled fencers are not immune to surprise, though they rely on experience to recover from the initial surprise much faster. Skilled fencers may often, when surprised, resort to an instinctive response. In some fencers, this will often be a poorly considered action, such as a big parry, or a counter-attack. In more experienced fencers, the instinctive reaction may be more appropriate to the situation, but not under completely voluntary control. By careful reconnaissance, the fencer may have a good judge of what reaction the opponent will have.
An easy lesson using the idea of a one-tempo attack and surprise can be taught in this way
A Drill to Understand Tempo and Surprise, Part Four:
As before, you and student assume an advance and lunge distance. This time the student initiates the action by making a smooth step forward, and you leave the space in time to deny the student the tempo needed to make a simple attack. The student "resets", making a retreat back to his or her starting point, and you follow.
After several repetitions of the student advancing while you retreat out of distance, the student has "trained" you to follow the size and speed of their steps. Now the student old make an advance, and then, rather than make a full retreat, the student should make a half retreat and lunge immediately to catch you as you come forward. There should be no pause in the change of direction by the student, the student must "turn the corner" from the half retreat to the lunge very quickly. Done correctly, the student's lunge should catch you in the middle of your advancing step. The student's sudden change of direction both collapses the space to give them the proper attacking distance and freezes your reaction, giving them time to finish their direct attack. The student has "stolen the tempo" from you.
After several repetitions of this have the student make the attack and deceive your (panic) parry. The student can learn which parry you will use either through reconnasianse, or by being parried on one of their surprise attacks.
Surprise can also be taught as a variation of Lesson #1, by letting the student occasionally make a second, additional step after their first preparatory step fails as you move away "in time". A second, sudden advance by the student accelerates and "steps" on your retreat, gaining time to finish either direct or with an indirect attack if you sweep for the student's blade. OF course, the student must not do this every time you escape, or there will be no surprise.
PROBLEMS AND DIFFICULTIES
When you and student begin these drills, a beginning student may have to be very close to you to score with a simple attack. You might feel that the student should be moved further away. Students with more skills (and more developed athletic ability) will be able to score with direct attacks from further away. However, it is a rare beginning student whose one-tempo distance is more than three quarters of their lungeat least at the start. For every student, you must find a distance/time at which they can score with a direct attackwhether that combination be nearly the length of their lunge, or only half of itand build the lesson around the idea of this space.
Adjust the window you give to the student to score in to the level of your student. If you are teaching a beginning student, you cannot teach them in a way that asks them to respond to small windows of opportunity to score. The student's grasp of time/space/speed/technique/surprise is just beginning, and the lesson must be built around their abilities while still challenging them. As the coach, you are always seeking to narrow that window by increasing their skills.
Remember that technical skills and tactical skills go hand in hand. The higher the technical ability, the more tactical choices a fencer often has, and their window to execute attacks against the opponent in the proper tempo increases in size. If necessary, technical lessons should be done outside of a tactical context (for example, in front of a target, with you giving feed back on the technical execution of an action). One of the good things about giving lessons in a context of tempo is that you can more easily point out where technical mistakes cost the student time in execution. If the moment is correct, but the technical skill fails, then the student will not score.
You may occasionally find it necessary to teach an action outside of its context of tempo in order to help your student develop a skill that is standing in the way of the lesson. You should end the lesson in returning to the skill in its context of tempo (for example, a feint-disengage at a difference distance than a direct attack).
As I mentioned earlier in this work, we must always keep in mind that we are teaching a student two skills: a physical skill of executing a given stroke or action, and a mental skill in recognizing the moment to exectute that skill of execution. Knowning both sides of this equation is what leads to an understanding of fencing. The student must be shown how to fit blade and footwork actions into the distance/time/technique situation (tempo) that they have been given. The four simple examples above can be turned into numerous lessons through small variations (by changing lines, attacking with different footwork, and so forth) and by asking simple questions ("How does using a beat change or modify the tempo situation?") and can serve as a framework for introducing other blade actions.
Lessons need not make a radical change to be taught in a proper context of tempo. Every fencing action has a tempo associated with it, and many actions can be thought of as being in the same "tempo family" and can be taught in similar ways. If you take the time to teach actions to the student while being aware of the context of tempo gives the student a powerful start to their competitive career.
1"Beginning Épée Manual" unpublished. Gary Copeland, Northern Colorado Fencers.
2Understating Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice" by Zbigniew Czajkowski.
3 Haremburge, Epee 2.0
4 A very well trained student WILL attack, but by feinting into the small opening and disengaging your parry.
Written: January 2006.
Edited December 2008 for formatting and spelling
Edited March of 2013: redrafted and updated with new material.
Copyright ©2013 by Allen Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.