A FENCING COACHES COMPENDIUM
What is a Preparation?
Allen Evans, Dominion Fencing
"On the preparation by the left, the attack from the right arrives. Touch right." When the referee says "preparation", what does that mean? What is a preparation? Is a preparation always done before an attack? Why, or why not?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PREPARATION
Fencing instruction—even until the 1960's—consisted primarily of instruction in blade actions. Attacks were preceded by an action—or multiple actions—on the blade. The fencing distance was close, often never exceeding an advance and lunge. Coaches invariably taught from engagement. The student was taught by the coach to out-maneuver his or her opponent's blade work. Footwork was taught as a way to deliver the final action of the attack.
In the 1970's and 1980's, this begin to change. A new breed of fencers begin to compete on the international stage. These fencers were more athletic, and capable of very explosive footwork actions. As the power and speed of the fencers increased, distances expanded to allow for human reaction time to respond. International coaches began to emphasize the control of the distance and the dynamics of the bout over blade play.
International referees—facing pressure from influential National coaches—begin to call time with a bias towards the attacking fencer, with the attack defined by aggressive taking of the space by one fencer over another. Footwork became the driving force in fencing actions. Any action of the blade was permissible as long as the "attacker" was moving forward. The advent of flicking thrusts to targets that were previously inaccessible allowed for blade preparations that threatened "zones" of the opponent rather than a specific target. This greatly blurred the line between what was an attack and what was a preparation.
Fencers adjusted to the new dynamic. Blade preparations became secondary to capturing space and momentum on the attack. Fencers—to deny their opponents any advantage—begin to fence with an absence of the blade, finishing their attacks with long, reaching "flicks" to hard to defend targets. A fencing style grew favoring fast and powerful footwork as the preparation to the attack. This new approach of making preparations with the feetas well as the willingness of referees to acknowledge such preparationschanged the priority weapons (foil and saber) dramatically. Each element drove the other in a spiral, as dynamic footwork removed the importance of blade work.
In 2004, the FIE decided that foil had lost its character as a weapon of "convention". The scoring machine was changed to reduce the ability of the flicking attack in foil to score. Worried about television exposure and their space on the international stage of sports, as well as complaints that fencing in the weapons of priority has lost complete touch with its roots, the FIE hoped that changing these timings would return foil to a "conversation of the blades". In many ways, the FIE has turned back the clock. Fencers must now plan their attacks more carefully. Preparation once again involves the blade, as well as the feet.
Fencing Masters speak of the "conversation of the blades". Decades ago, that conversation was the interplay of attack and defense using the blade. Now conversation is done through preparations and reactions to preparations.
"They have responded to one preparation by a type of preparation in return, giving the opponent misleading information."
Historically, preparations were done entirely with the use of the blade: "invitos" (invitations), beats, presses, and and others. With the adoption of new timings in foil, blade preparationsout of favor for some timeare regaining importance. The blade preparations are:
Blade preparations have many uses: they move, transport, bind, freeze, draw out, or otherwise occupy the opponent's blade in one area, so that a final action may be made in another. Ultimately, a blade preparation steals time away from the opponent or restricts the opponent's actions with the blade. Beats, binds, presses, and other actions directly on the blade prevent the opponent from making a defense. Feints, sweeps, invitations, and false attacks draw the opponent's blade into positions which give the attacker more time to make make an action in another (sometimes different) line.
Footwork preparations are difficult to classify in such an ordered manner. In order to be considered a preparation, the preparation with the feet must must have a purpose other than keeping the same tempo/distance between the fencer and the opponent, or done to avoid an attacking action. For instance, while retreating from the opponent, a sudden step forward may be a preparation, since it will steal time from the opponent, cause a unconscious reaction, or both. Changing the speed of the footwork is also a preparation, as it may freeze the opponent, draw a response, or steal time. Even footwork that is usually thought of as an attacksuch as a lungecan be a preparation: a false attack with a lunge is the classic method of initiating a second-intention parry and riposte.
Footwork preparations that have as their intention the furthering of a scoring action must either close the distance actively (the attacking fencer is initiating the collapse of distance), or close the distance passively (the opponent unknowingly comes into range of the fencer. For example: closing the distance actively could be done by a slow advance, followed by a second, faster advance: an accelerating attack. An example of closing the distance passively would be to take a long retreat, and then a shorter retreat. The opponent, not recognizing the change in the size of the steps, unknowingly steps into lunging distance of the fencer on the second step.
The footwork preparation may also "freeze" the opponent to allow the fencer to take control of the action. For instance, the fencer is slowly being pushed backwards by the opponent. The fencer makes a sudden half advance into the opponent's advance (while still out of distance). The opponent, unable to finish an attack, and unsure of the next action, stops. The fencer is then able to take over the action with advances or an attack of his/her own.
Of course, in addition to foot and blade preparations, there is a third class of preparation: combining blade and footwork actions into one preparation. Combining hand and foot preparations increases the effectiveness of both. Consider a feint as a preparation. A fencer is slightly out of distance from the opponent andwhile standing stillmakes a feint. The opponent should do nothing. The feint is meaningless to the opponent if there is no threat made by the point approaching. If the fencer makes a feint while closing distance with an advance, however, the opponent is more likely to react in some way that is meaningful and useful. The addition of a footwork preparation with the blade preparation convinces the opponent that an attack is imminent.
The difficulty in combining hand and foot preparations is the coordination of the two preparations into an action that does not disadvantage the fencer. For instance, the fencer that attempts to engage an opponent's blade while making a full step forward is vulnerable to an immediate attack on their preparation. In fact, this is a common cue for a student to make that very action. When footwork and blade work actions are combined, the order of the actions becomes important. Searching for a blade while retreating is a much different preparation than searching for a blade while advancing, with different reactions by the opponent, and different consequences for the fencer who does not perform the preparation well.
A blade preparation may be done at a variety of points during a footwork preparation: at the start of the footwork, at the end of the footwork, while executing the footwork, and so on. Each point in the foot work at which the preparation can occur has both benefits and risks, and may change the action done after the preparation. For instance, a beat on the fencer's front foot insures that the opponent is less likely to make an attack on the fencer's preparation, but also gives the opponent more time to make a defensive action. This may mean that a beat on the front foot will require every subsequent attack to be done with an initial disengage, where as a beat on the back foot—done closer to the opponent, but later in the development of the attack—will allow the fencer to make a simple attack after the beat.
When teaching a preparation and moving it from a technical skill to a tactical context, the coach must always be aware of the implications of the preparation and the timing of the preparation in the context of both fencers.
USES OF A PREPARATION
Many fencers prepare without thinking why they prepare. A preparation is done to a number of ends:
Preparations and stealing time...
At the beginning of each bout or fencing phrase, fencers start at a distance at which it is very difficult (if not impossible) to score with a simple attack. At the command "Fence!" each fencer attempts to put the opponent at a disadvantage in order to score. This disadvantage may be in distance (in which the attacker—unbeknownst to the defender—is close enough to score with a sudden attack), in the relative positions of the blade (the defender may have moved their blade to protect one target, only to be attacked in another, or the attacker may have temporarily seized control of the defenders blade), in the surprise of a chosen action, or all three. Any of these advantages are created by preparation on the part of one of the fencers.
No matter how many actions an attack is composed of, the final action of the attack is always a simple action. Through a variety of mechanism, the fencer creates a one-tempo situation in order to score. The attacker may use a combination of foot and hand actions to steal time or close the distance on the defender. For instance, a beat deflects the opponent's blade just long enough (or freezes the opponent long enough) for a simple thrust to score. A slightly more sophisticated preparation is an engagement that begins slightly outside of attacking distance, and controls the defenders blade while the attacker advances from outside the attacking distance into the attacking distance. The act of controlling the opponent's blade protects the fencer from an attack (or counter-attack) while closing the distance to finish an attack of their own.
"Combining hand and foot preparations increases the effectiveness of both."
Preparation is not only a part of attacking actions. An early parry or a sweep for the opponent's bladebefore the opponent is in an ideal position to scorecan be done to force the opponent to attack from too far away, giving the fencer more time to make a parry and score with a riposte. Suddenly breaking the space may cause the opponent to rush their attack, diverting their concentration and, making them vulnerable to an attack into their preparation.
Preparations and hindering...>
Preparations and hindering...>
Beating an opponent's blade aggressively as they prepare their own attack can disrupt and interfere with the opponent's ability to compose an attack, forcing them to either make many blade motions to avoid the hindering beat, or to withdraw the arm while attacking, making them vulnerable to attacks in preparation or counter-attacks. In some cases, a hindering action will cause the opponent to break off the attack completely. Blade actions are not the only actions that can hinder an opponent. A short, false step into an opponent's advance can force them to slow down, hesitate, or withdraw their arm. These actions keep the opponent off balance and in a constant state of "restarting" the fencing phrase, allowing the opponent to take over the attack or steal time for a scoring action.
These preparations can be folded into an over all plan (for instance, in making a false attack the fencer not only breaks up the start of the opponent's attack, but gains some insight into the opponent's choice of responses) or can simply be executed to harass the opponent and prevent them from launching an attack of their own.
Preparations made by the attacker can hinder the opponent in making a defense. The attacker that mixes false advances and hesitations (either by check steps or by breaking up the forward footwork) with real attack leaves the opponent unsure of when the fencer's attack is actually starting. While the attacking fencer runs a risk of being attacked during these preparations, the indecision may be worth the additional exposure. This strategy is especially useful against an opponent who does not have a strong counter-attacking game and relies on parry riposte for defense.
Giving false information...
False parries, feints, body checks, short attacks, and attempts to sweep or engage the opponent's blade all give the opponent false information on the intentions and timings of the fencer. For example, the opponent attempts to learn something of the fencer's defense and makes a false attack to the high inside line, to which the fencer responds with a false 4 parry. The opponentusing this misleading informationmakes a feint with the intention of deceiving a lateral parry. Instead the fencer makes a circular parry and scores with a riposte.
There is an entire class of actionsactions in "second intention"in which the initial action is designed to be misleading, and produce a reaction from the opponent. These are done in both attack and defense.
Preparations and the reconnaissance of the opponent...
At the same time that the fencer is giving out false information about his or her intentions, the fencer is also attempting to determine the actions of the opponent, or, at least, what the opponents tendencies and proclivities might be. Here, the fencer makes surprise actions in order to draw out reactions from the opponent. The fencer attempts to separate "real" reactions from false ones, as the opponent will be attempting to give false information of his or her own. To insure that the opponent's reactions can be counted on, the fencer's preparations must be forceful enough to convince the opponent to give away their intention. "Soft" or out of distance actions will encourage the opponent to give false information.
As the fencer makes a preparation, he or she must closely observe the reaction of the opponent. Is the reaction a planned reactiona deliberate response to the preparation as part of a larger strategy? Or is the response uncontrolled, either instinctual or a panicked reaction? Either one is useful to the fencer. Does the opponent react at all? Often the lack of a reaction to a preparation (such as a long, slow feint) is in itself, very telling.
The fencer is always balancing the distance and strength of their preparations with the risk of the opponent using the preparation to score against them. There are times when the fencer will make a preparation against the opponent and be scored against. This mistake can be turned in the fencer's favor. The same preparation, more carefully executed (usually in these cases the fencer has generally made an error in distance) can encourage the opponent to attempt to score again. This time the fencer turns the attack into their preparation in their favor, "taking" the action away from the opponent and scoring. In this case, the fencer turns the failed preparation into both a reconnaissance action and a misleading action for the opponent.
Preparations and the Lesson
Coaches spend a great deal of time teaching the final action of the fencing phrase. Comparatively little time is spent in the actions leading up the final phrase of the attack. While instruction in the technical execution of the final action of an attack is important, it is also important for the student to be introduced to the actions that facilitate the attack and in many ways, contribute to the attack's success. This training should start as early as possible in the lesson. It is important when teaching the technical execution of the attack that the coach also exploreeven in a limited waythe preparation(s) that lead to the attack.
At the very start, the coach should teach the preparation from a tactical point of view. Technical execution and expertise will come later, but will often lag behind the student's understanding of the concept. The student should know the purpose of the preparation and the most likely responses from the opponent (the coach should teach the responses most likely to the student's level). The coach will control much of the tactical set up for the student in the lesson, and at the start, these lessons will primarily be student-intimated but coach-controlled.
The beginning student's actions will be clumsy, and too large. At the very start, the lesson will be a struggle as technical errors may doom the execution of the preparation. This is not necessarily an undesirable result. If the student can assume that the tactical situation is correct, then technical errors should be very obvious, and help the student become self correcting in executing the action technically. At the same time, the coach is using the tactical situation to refine the student's preparation, and showing the student new responses as the student grows in skill. Tactical situations give a rational for the student to acquire the specific technical skills necessary to refine the action. The coach must understand that a certain amount of technical failure will always occur at this level. Technical skills must always be improved and refined, but the coach must put the student's skills in context with the student's opponents. Better fencers will always capitalize on the student's technical errors. At first, it is enough for the coach to introduce the concept of preparation itself, even if these concepts will often be ahead of the technical execution of the student.
A first lesson in preparation might simply be for the student to make an advance, and then decide whether the distance is optimal to finish with a lunge. If not, the student should retreat. Many lessons can be taught this way: the student makes a preparation, and if a certain, simple condition occurs, an subsequent action is made by the student. If that condition does not occur, then the student should abandon the preparation and retreat. For instance:
This is a very simple example. The coach should introduce the attempt to engage with a half-advance in the very same lesson, or in the next lesson, to make the action more real, and bring it into the context of the bout. From this lesson, the coach can build a number of different scenarios (attacks in various lines, attacking the student when the student fails to find the blade, etc). In all cases, the student must understand quickly that a preparation is not done in a vacuum. The coach might even consider two dissimilar applications of the same preparation, for instance, a beat as an attacking action and a beat as a defensive, interrupting or hindering action, to show the student the same action in two different contexts.
When teaching combined foot and hand actions, a new coach will struggle with the mechanics of combining them. What distance should a combined preparation be done? What action should be initiated first when combining preparations: the hand action or the foot action? These questions are not always obvious in their answers. The coach looks for "rules of thumb" to combine hand and foot actions, but does not always find these rules or finds rules that seem to contradict each other. It is reasonable that defensive, hindering, and reconnaissance preparations should be done slightly out of distance, but the same is often true of preparations in making an attack, since the preparation itself closes or helps close the distance for the attack to succeed. It makes sense, then, given what we know, that defensive, and counter-offensive blade preparations be done while opening the distance, while offensive blade preparations be done before closing the distance, or as a part of closing the distance between the student and the coach/opponent.
For the student, the distance a preparation is executed at becomes the key to getting a successful response. If the student executes a preparation at an almost realistic action distance, the opponent is bound to react in a more honest manner. When the student executes a preparation at the distance of a real action, they increase their vulnerability to an attack in preparation by the opponent. When they execute the preparation outside of a realistic distance, they are likely to get no response, or an incorrect response. Often a student will "err on the side of caution" and perform a preparation outside of a realistic distance. When the opponent does not react, the student will often close distance and execute the preparation again. This "rehearsal" of actions will usually result in the opponent scoring with an attack in preparation.
In the lesson, the coach's response to the student's preparation may take a variety of forms, depending on the level of the student and the level of the lesson. The student must understand that the preparation is a way to identify the blade and distance problems that future opponents will present, and the order in which they will need to be solved. At the start, the coach can react in a similar, consistent way each time the student makes a preparation. This will allow the student to make pre-planned actions (on the attack or defense) against the coach each time the student executes the preparation. As the student increases their sophistication, the coach should vary their response to the student's preparation. This lesson then becomes the choice reaction lesson. The student acts, the coach acts, and then the student responds, depending on the coach's last reaction. By demanding good distance, blade control, and technical execution, the coach teaches the student to control the fencing environment.
For more advanced students, preparations become a language the student and coach use to simulate bout actions and opponents. Each opponent tends to respond in a unique way to certain types of preparations. Some opponents will not be comfortable when their blade is taken, or when the distance is crushed in surprise. Discussing preparations, rather than ultimate scoring actions, can give the student and coach a framework to defeat any opponent, and to notice when opponents change or alter their games by their changing responses to preparations. The coach may take a very active role in the response to preparation: the student may make any preparation they chose, and the coach responds in a variety of ways, perhaps announced and perhaps not. The coach and student can simulate scenarios.
Translation of the Lesson to the Strip
The goal of any preparation is to remove choices from the opponent. The opponent, however, does not always cooperate! The student must always understand that the preparation is not the attack, and the student must be ready to react to unexpected circumstances or actions by the opponent. For instance, the student advances and makes a strong feint to the opponent's low line, expecting a parry of octave which he intends to deceive and score with lunge. Instead of parrying, however, the opponent makes a strong attack into the feint, forcing the student to make parry and riposte instead of the planned attack.
The ability to deal with unforeseen actions in the preparation rests on the student's technical skills and even more importantly, on their ability to control distance and maintain their balance during the preparation. The student who can make the approach to the opponent smoothly and in good balance, increases their ability to deal with unexpected actions by the opponent. In defence, controlling the distance allows the student opportunity to make unexpected attacks in preparation or stop hits. For instance, the fencer is retreating in the face of strong pressure from the opponent, who is making multiple feints and attempting to control the distance. The fencer realizes that the opponent has "out run the hand" and changes from an anticipated "false parry, real parry and riposte" to a simple attack on the opponent's preparation. Only if the student is retreating in the proper space and with good balance is this sort of action possible.
Seamlessly coping with unforeseen actions by the opponent is the true expression of being close enough to the opponent to "hit without being hit". This is a mixture of good balance and superb technical skills, coupled with the competitive experience to anticipate the variety of responses to a particular preparation.
The coach who wishes to develop students past the beginning stages must move lessons from the mechanical execution of scoring actions "further out" to the preparations that lead to these actions. Very advanced fencers score with the simplest of actions: straight thrusts and cuts, parries and ripostes, two-tempo compound actions and simple counter-attacks. The preparations that lead to these attacks, however, is where much of the fencing occurs.
Each fencer maneuvers on the piste, attempting to discover their opponents intentions and reactions while disguising their own. It is the success of these maneuvers that determine who will seize the initiate and score. Ultimately, this can degenerate into a contest of "…does he know that I know that he knows that I know …". Solving THAT problem will be left for another time!
1 Fencing Actions Terminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition by Prof. Zbigniew Czajkowski
This is complete redraft of the original article concerning preparations, orignally put on the site in August of 2004. This rewrite was done from July to September of 2008.