(Note: I wrote this before I started coaching. Several years later, it’s still true, and I’ve heard top fencing masters say much the same things.)
In 1997, when I had been fencing about two years, one of my coaches asked a group the (rhetorical?) question, “Why do you people fall into your lunges at the end of a preparation even though you can't hit your opponent? Why aren't you learning this stuff in the lessons?”, I started trying to mentally collate a bunch of the information I’d received from lessons and especially a recent competitors seminar by Maitré Ed Richards, and see if I could come up with an answer to that question that I could understand myself. This article attempts to explain what I came up with in reasonable detail.
WHEN CAN I HIT MY OPPONENT?
The goal of fencing is to hit your opponent without getting hit yourself. Obviously, there are some times when you can hit your opponent without any possibility that he can defend himself. Equally obviously, there are other times when you have no chance of hitting your opponent before he can defend himself. So to figure out what you need to do in order to hit, you first have to be able to distinguish between situations where you can hit, and situations where you can't.
I’ve heard this called one-tempo distance. However, this can be confusing or misleading, because there’s actually a lot more to it than distance. For example, the physical distance between you and your opponent may be one that you could cover in a lunge, but there can be a world of difference introduced by simply considering which direction you or he is moving, or where his blade is. Therefore, I’ll use the term one-tempo situation instead.
The definition of a one-tempo situation is a time when all relevant conditions indicate that you can hit your opponent with a simple (one-tempo) action, before he can successfully evade, defend, or counterattack. There are several components which contribute to this:
- The physical distance between the fencers .
- Which direction and how quickly each fencer is moving, if they are moving at all.
- How quickly each fencer could start a new footwork motion – this encompasses such maxims as: “Try to attack when your opponent is in the middle of advancing”.
- Where each fencer's blade is and which direction it is moving – this encompasses such maxims as: “Feint into an open line, attack an opening line”.
- How far the attacker can reach and/or lunge; defenders reach is also important in epee and saber.
- Expectations of the defender's probable behavior, e.g. previous reconnaissance shows that his parry four is big and early.
- Probably many other factors, maybe not all definable.
Note that most or all of these are changing constantly and rapidly. Moments when they all combine to produce a one-tempo situation are relatively rare, and usually fleeting.
WHAT IS PREPARATION?
Unless (a) you're Michael Marx and can lunge half the length of the strip, and (b) your opponent is fast asleep, when the referee says “Fence”, you’re not in a one-tempo situation. Unless your opponent is stupid or very reckless, he’s not going to walk into a one-tempo situation knowingly and willingly. Therefore you have to do something to create a one-tempo situation in order to be able to hit. The term used is preparation. Most of what you do on the strip is preparation, at least when you're not defending yourself from an opponent's attack. Once you have a one-tempo situation, the culmination where you start a simple action which hits your opponent is very brief and straightforward. (Incidentally, I’ll call this action a launch, because attack carries mental connotations that may not apply in this context. It also leads into an analogy which I'll get to later.)
If you try to force a one-tempo situation merely by manipulating the factors which you have control over (where you are on the strip, which direction you’re moving, where your blade is, etc.) without any regard to what your opponent is doing, your preparation basically degenerates into chasing your opponent down to the end of the strip, plus making your launches as hard and fast as possible just to make sure. This isn’t likely to work against more sophisticated opponents.
Therefore, one of the most important attributes of preparation is that you manipulate your opponent’s behavior to induce a one-tempo situation. By definition, your opponent is then in a position where he is going to get hit and cannot defend himself; this is a mistake on his part (assuming a perfect fencer would never let himself get hit). Hence the saying, “Must help opponent to make wrong”. This isn’t just a neat idea, it’s in fact the real core of what preparation is all about.
No matter how clever your preparations are, your opponent still has free will. You don't get to say “OK, stand here, put your blade here, don’t move” to get the touch. You have to do things that attempt to induce behavior in your opponent, ideally without him realizing it. (Of course, one of the most demoralizing things for him is when he knows it's a trap, but his body goes and takes the bait anyway before his brain can pull on the reins.) And sometimes, your opponent just plain won’t cooperate. Maybe he's too inexperienced to recognize that he's supposed to respond to that invitation with an attack in a particular line; you might have to go to simpler techniques. Maybe he's not used to a really fast tempo, so he doesn’t see your feint and doesn't parry it; you might have to slow down and make the feint more obvious. On the other hand, maybe he's more sophisticated and doesn't like the look of what you're doing; you might have to make it more subtle, make it look like a tactical error instead of an obvious trap. Or maybe he just gets bad vibes and decides to take that extra retreat and regroup.
In any of these cases, your preparation does not induce the proper behavior in your opponent. Therefore, you most likely don’t have a one-tempo situation. Should you launch into the situation anyway? Of course not. You need to keep doing preparation until you get yourself a one-tempo situation to launch into. Otherwise, by definition your launch cannot hit, and most likely you’ll get hit yourself with a riposte.
THE FOUR GOLDEN RULES OF PREPARATION
There are four things you need to be able to do in order to be able to launch an attack properly and have it hit.
1. Execute preparation properly.
Obviously you’re going to have problems if you can’t put two footwork motions together without falling on your face, or if your feints are weak and your opponent never believes them. You don’t necessarily need a huge vocabulary of preparation techniques, but you need to be able to execute the ones you know reasonably well.
2. Recognize a one-tempo situation.
Launching an attack in a one-tempo situation gets a touch. Launching an attack outside of a one-tempo situation doesn’t get you a touch (in fact, you probably get hit yourself). So clearly it’s important to be able to quickly assess all the factors that contribute to the situation and come up with a reasonably accurate answer to the question, “Do I have a one-tempo situation right now?” If you can’t do this, you’re essentially attacking at random times, and you’ll get random results. Since one-tempo situations are rarer than non-one-tempo situations, you’ll probably get mostly bad results.
Incidentally, though outside the scope of this article, which is targeted at the attacker's viewpoint, it’s equally important to be able to judge whether the current situation is one-tempo for your opponent, and avoid such situations.
3. Launch as soon as you have a one-tempo situation.
One-tempo situations don’t last very long. Once you detect one, you have to be able to launch immediately, before it’s gone. You also need to execute the launch properly (hand before feet, good lunge, etc.).
4. Don’t launch if you don’t have a one-tempo situation.
If your opponent doesn’t cooperate with your preparation, then when you finish a preparation sequence you don’t have a one-tempo situation. Therefore you need the ability to not launch an attack if you detect that you don’t have a one-tempo situation. The ability to not attack when the time is not right is probably even more important than the ability to attack when the time is right.
WHY DON’T DRILLS AND LESSONS TEACH THIS?
Actually, lessons often do teach this if you know what to look for. The coach may not beat you over the head with it as much as necessary, though.
Class drills don't seem to teach this much, possibly because they’re trying to train fencers for points 1 and 3 above, not point 4. This can be a drawback because there is no incentive not to just launch the attack immediately on finishing the preparation.
An example is the last drill which we did in Maestro Richards’ seminar. The preparation sequence was double-advance, double-retreat, advance, half inverse advance, press. When we practiced possible finishes after this preparation, the options for the defender’s response were:
- Do nothing. Attacker hits.
- Press back. Attacker disengages and hits.
- Circular parry. Attacker counter-disengages and hits.
- Retreat and present the blade. Attacker takes the blade and hits.
From these four exercises, except for the need to hesitate a bit to see what the opponent will do, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to just go ahead and lunge. But an additional response which was presented in the demonstration but not practiced, was:
- Bail out backwards and take away the blade. Attacker must start over with preparation.
Additional possibilities such as defender retreating but not changing the attitude of the blade are conceivable. In a way, these “negative” responses are among the most important to practice, because they show the pupil how important it is to not attack if a one-tempo situation has not been established. Without practicing these situations, the pupil is not shown why they must remain balanced at the end of their preparation and not immediately fall into a lunge. The coach can tell them this, but for driving a point home, explanation isn't nearly as good a teacher as getting hung out to dry in a lunge that falls short.
Consider launching an attack to be like launching the space shuttle. When getting ready for a mission, NASA performs countless internal preparations – the astronauts, the shuttle itself, ground control systems, fuel supplies, and on and on. But when the shuttle itself is ready to go, they don’t immediately press the launch button. They also have to consider all the external factors. Is it the right time of day, so that their orbit will intersect the satellite they’re supposed to repair? Is the weather too cold or too stormy? Are there owls nesting in the air intakes? All sorts of things like this also have to be considered, and only when internal and external factors together say that it’s a good situation for a shuttle launch, does the launch take place. Actually, once NASA did get impatient and launch Challenger without considering all the external factors and their implications. To continue our analogy, Mother Nature took one extra retreat and put out a point in line, and Challenger ran straight onto it.
Clearly I've only scratched the surface of one small area of fencing; there are many other topics such as defense, attacks on preparation, etc. which are not covered at all here. Still, proper preparation is certainly important if you don't intend to try and get all your touches on ripostes.
As a fencer, learn to dissect the drills and lessons you receive, and understand that you're being taught a preparation which is designed to evoke a response. If you do the preparation properly and it evokes the right response, you get to launch your one-tempo attack. It's not just a matter of “Oh, so if I do a feint-deceive like this, I’ll get the touch every time?”. Also, try to practice all four of the “golden rules”.
As a coach, try to teach cases where the preparation fails (even if it's done correctly by the pupil) as well as cases where it succeeds. If the pupil still launches attacks when their preparation hasn't evoked the right response, there's a problem. Responses which merely require an additional preparation are good, as well as responses which leave the pupil nothing to do but restart their preparations completely.
And, as the obliging target in a partner drill, don't help your partner practice mistakes. If that feint doesn't look like a threat, don’t parry it. On the other hand, really try to defend yourself, so that the attack won't succeed if it comes after the one-tempo situation is gone. And equally importantly, practice cases where you make a response that prevents the one-tempo situation from coming about in the first place, and make sure the attacker can hold back and continue preparation.
Prevot Greg Jones is a coach and the owner of Rain City Fencing in Bellevue Washgton. Copyright © 1998 by Gregory A. Jones. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.