In fencing, the advantage goes to the fencer who takes the initiative and controls the bout. In foil and saber, initiative is often measured in getting and keeping the priority in the bout. In épée it is still vital that the fencer control and lead the opponent, though épée will often reward a reactive game more than foil and saber. By controlling the initiative in the bout, the fencer creates opportunities to score while denying the same to the opponent. By constantly controlling the initiative, the fencer increases the psychological pressure on the opponent: forcing them to be "behind" in the bout. Playing "catch up" in the bout insures that the opponent will make mistakes in timing, distance, and/or execution, increasing the opportunities for the student to score.
"Taking the initiative" or "controlling the bout" (the two are similar but not exactly the same) should not conjure an image of a fencer always on the attack. Rather, the fencer that is in control of the bout is picking the time and the actions most favorable to them. The fencer may actively control the opponent through strong preparations and attacks, or may control the opponent in a more passive way by denying the opponent opportunities to score; by laying traps that lead to parries and ripostes or counterattacks. The actions done by the fencer depend on the situation, the opponent, and the fencer's own abilities and preferences. In all cases, control of the bout means control of the distance and the timing. As Maitré Ed Richards has said: "If the time is right for me, it is wrong for you."
Initiative in any particular phrase goes to the fencer who makes the first meaningful fencing action, the one who "begins fencing first". If a fencer is facing an opponent he or she believes is superior, that fencer might be very cautious. On the command "fence", the fencer may step from their on guard line to a distance that he or she feels comfortable, and then wait for the opponent to make some action (even if that action is a preparation). By waiting for the opponent, the fencer surrenders control. Even though the fencer may think that by being cautious, they are playing the safer game, they've allowed the other fencer to begin to create a framework in which they must react, rather than control.
Controlling the bout may take the choice of an aggressive strategy, but can also be defensive, if the fencer initiates actions designed to channel the attacker into making ill timed attacks, or attacks into lines the fencer can control. The opponentin attacking at the moment offered by the fencermay be initiating fencing actions, but is still being controlled in a passive way.
Controlling the bout is not easy. Not only does it demand good technical skills and an ability to gauge distance, it must also be done in the face of an opponent who is not willing to cooperate. To control a bout the fencer must have a good technical foundation and a good grasp of distance. Above all, the fencer must have confidence in his or her ability to control the actions of the opponent. Fortunately, the fencer does not have to be a World Champion fencer in any of these abilities. They must simply be able to do them as well or better than the opponent, and the confidence to make definitive actions in the face of the opponent's opposition to those actions.
To help your fencer accomplish all of this, training in taking the initiative in the bout and in controlling the opponent must begin in the lesson, and then transferred to the strip.
The Coach Controlled Lesson
Lessons run a spectrum of control. At one end of the control spectrum is the coach controlled lesson: you lead the footwork, determine the blade work to be executed, and pick the time and distance for the blade work by giving a cue.
This lesson can be very helpful and necessary. This is a good lesson to teach technical skills to the student and is the way all actions new to the student actions should be executed. A coach controlled lesson enables you to teach complex phases that might not be possible if the student was left to decide when and where to execute actions. In the coach controlled lesson, the student can work at the limit of their technical ability.
Of course, in this lesson, the student is passive. They wait for your cue, and they act on it every time. There is little discrimination of actions (even "choice reaction" drills in the coach-controlled lesson are somewhat contrived. This is the opposite of the practice we want the student to have when they step on the strip against a real opponent. To teach the student to perform on the strip, we have to move past this lesson to one in which you give up some of the control to the student.
The Partially Coach Controlled Lesson
The partially coach controlled lesson is the first step to teach your student to discriminate, to look at their opponent, to be aware of their environment, and to make choices based on what they perceive. The student learns to decide, rather than to simply act. The student may not be initiating actions in the coach-controlled lesson, but they are learning not to be Pavlovian in regard to your actions, and this is the first step in the progression to complete student control
In partially coach controlled lesson you will control the footwork (and thus, by extension, the distance). You will still give cues, but now, the student will have a choice of acting on those cues or letting them pass by. This lesson hinges on you making both false and real cues, in giving the student actions that they should not act on, and some that they should. You may give the student a perfect blade take cue at the right distance several times, and then, on the next cue, give the blade at the wrong distance. Unlike the coach-controlled lesson, you should expect the student to discriminate between those cues that he or she can act on, and those they should pass by.
Here is a simple example: you are training in making a simple attack. You are moving slowly, and the student is following. At the right distance, you open the line, and the student scores with a simple lunge. On the next repetition, you move the student back quickly and open a line. The student, unbalanced, should let this "opportunity" pass. There is too much backward momentum for them to change direction, and they are not ready. The student ignores your cue, recovers their balance, and re-establishes the distance that they are maneuvering at.
Another example: you are maneuvering the student, and on the student's advance, you sweep for the blade. The student, seeing that he or she is within distance, on balance, and in control of their inertia, deceives the sweep and executes an attack to score. On the next cue, you sweep while the student is still slightly out of distance. The student protects their blade from your sweep, butrecognizing that they are too far away for a simple attackdoes not lunge.
And a final example: you are maneuvering the student, and you close and try to engage the student's blade. The student, not expecting the attempt to engage, deceives the engagement but does not attack. On another attempt, the student recognizes (and is ready for) the opportunity, deceives the attempt to engage and attacks in the preparation to score against you.
Slightly more control can be given to the student in the partially coach controlled lesson by expecting the student to make some actions on their own, to improvise when an opportunity is too good for the student to pass up. An example might be one in which you are working on feint and disengage. The student is expected to take those opportunities in which the distance is a two-tempo one, and to ignore (or call off) those attacks that are more than two tempo. However, should you collapse the space to a point where a feint disengage isn't necessary, the student might be expected to execute a simple attack without warning. A very clever student might also pass on good opportunities to score simply to confuse and goad an opponent into rash behavior.
Much of the work in the partially coach controlled lesson is still being done by you. In fact, much of the lesson is still under your control, but this step is the first in learning to see and respond to an opponent. By "failing" to respond, the student is passively controlling.
The Partially Student Controlled Lesson
The next step in control of the lesson is a reversal of roles. Now the student initiates footwork and controls the distance. The student attacks when they that they have the correct distance, either made by their actions or when you have "fallen" for a distance trap the student has set. You are still giving cues, but now the student is allowed more leeway in responding. You can give cues when the student is in the proper distance, is balanced, and is ready to act. The student should execute the necessary action at those times. You can also give cues when the student is not in distance, balanced, and is unready to act. The student should not act on these cues. The goal in the partially student controlled lesson is that the student now must become discriminating. They are no longer "Pavlovian" and jumping on every cue that you give.
This lesson is different than a "choice response lesson" in which you give a variety of cues and the student must do something different every time. This lesson can be taught with only one cue (though that would be rather boring). However, a choice/response lesson can be added on top of the partially student controlled distance. For example, the student makes a false attack to the hand (in epee). You can chose to:
- Parry (the student should disengage and attack another line).
- Counter-attack (the student could take your blade in opposition and score to a deeper target)
- Open the distance (the student returns to maneuvering to attack again. In a more advanced lesson the student would press forward with another preparation, which you can again chose to act on or ignore).
With the student in control of the distance, they should also be opportunistic. If the lesson is about you offering the blade at various distances for the student to attack the blade and score, the student should not ignore those times when you "blunder" (either accidental or on purpose) into distance without the blade. The student who makes a simple, direct attack without a cue should be praised.
The Student Controlled Lesson
At end of the spectrum of lesson control is a lesson that the student controls completely. The student initiates the footwork, chooses the time and distance for the given blade work and may even pick the action to be executed. You may still be executing cues for specific actions (and the student's choice of actions in this lesson may be restricted, thought that is not always a given). Your job in the student controlled lesson is to put up reasonable obstacles to the student's execution of actions, to give correct responses to the preparations the student does, and vary the time and distance of any cues you might give.
Your actions in the lesson can either support the student's preparations, or attempt to frustrate them. As a result, this lesson is very tacticalvery "noisy"especially if you have enough skills to be very uncooperative with the student. At its highest level, this lesson looks much like a boutalmost too much so. Completely student controlled lessons are much less common than completely coach controlled lessons because of the skill necessary on the part of the coach to keep up with a very dynamic lesson. A completely student controlled lesson can lose one of the reasons we teach lessons in the first place: the creation of a repetitive situation that the student can learn in. By default, student controlled lesson often become, in a sense, "blocked" drills in which the student may repeat a stroke over and over again, but only when the student has created (or you have allowed) the perfect situation for the given stroke to occur.
There are two approaches to your own movement in a student controlled lesson. You can stay slightly outside of the student's distance and force them to penetrate the space to hit you. For some coaches, this can be very difficult. Another option is to give the student a pattern of movement in the lesson that you can predict and follow. (see: Using Footwork Patterns in Foil and Epée Lessons) The student initiates the footwork, and then fights for control of the space.
It is also common in a student controlled lesson to give the student a preparation to perform. These actions can be blade actions, distance actions, or both. For example: the student makes a false step with a sweep for your blade. You can chose to ignore the preparation (retreat), support the preparation (make a disengage attack against the sweep), or frustrate the preparation (disengage, and stay in distance, but do not attack). The student should then have a choice of responses, either active, or passive, in return.
Another option when the student leads the footwork is to follow a footwork pattern, but the attacking footwork is the choice of the student. If the designated action is a press, disengage attack, the student maneuvers you in the lesson, but then breaks out of the footwork pattern (with a lunge, or fleche) when he or she succeeds in finding the blade and has the proper distance.
Another expression of the student-lead lesson is an exchange lesson, in which the student makes a preparation on his or her own time, observes your reaction to the preparation, and then acts on the observation in the next phrase. For example: the student leads the lesson and comes to the middle distance and makes a preparatory beat and small feint. You a small parry appropriate to the feint, or makes an attempt to counter attack. On the next preparation by the student, you must replicate the same response, and the student, with foreknowledge of your response to the preparation, acts to score. You may cycle through any number of responses, by "revealing" your intentions to the student on the first preparation, and allowing the student to learn and score in the next preparation.
In student lead lessons, the student will at first be hesitant to initiate footwork. You may find the student waiting to make a blade action independently against you. This is exactly the reason you are doing these lessons, and their reluctance is the best proof that these lessons are necessary for the student. The student must start and finish actions decisively. The other side of the coin in student-controlled lessons is the student who makes actions at random, without observing you at all. The student will usually "cheat" by stretching their lunges out over a long distance, excessively crowding the space, or in other ways that are unfaithful to a bouting situation. Often it is the very athletic student that will make these mistakes: relying on their physical abilities to get them out of trouble. When faced with a student of this type you may use "shock-exposure" actions: attacking with out warning, sudden changes in distance, or surprise parries and ripostes, to make the student pay more attention to the action.
A student-controlled lesson does not preclude the type of lesson called "choice-reaction". The student simply initiates the preparation on their own time, and at a distance of their own making. In fact, the choice reaction lesson can be expanded, with the student making a preparation, and then required to make various changes of action depending on your response, never repeating the same action twice.
You can make the student controlled lesson easier on you by telling the student that your actions can be serially presented (the same action one done over and over again), done in a blocked teaching style (two or more actions presented in order) or done randomly (the student does not know what your response will be to his or her preparation).
At the limit of the student controlled lesson, the actions are very simple, usually direct, indirect, or two tempo compound attacks. The student is maneuvering and looking for the opportunity to score (say with a direct attack to the foot, or a beat fleche to the body). You are maneuvering outside of the student's distance, simply attempting to deny the student the time and the space to perform the indicated attack. The student has few preparations to make, and is simply hunting for the moment to go.
Student-controlled lessons are not presented as an element of more traditional "classical" training. Even in modern fencing salles, there is a feeling that the student benefits more from work on technique under the control of a coach then in the initiation and control of the lesson. It is true that when a student first undertakes to control even small elements of the lesson, their technical abilities often show a marked deterioration! The student is often awkward and off balance, rushed, and moves the blade too much. You, alarmed, cut short this lesson and return to work on technical skills. The student continues to fence well in lesson, but loses bouts, unable to make the final steps in controlling an opponent.
While the acquisition of technical skills is necessary for the fencer, it is not always the best fencer in the room that wins the tournament. In the final bout of the day, the fencer that can pick the time and place for their actions, control the opponent while keeping calm, while avoiding being controlled, is the fencer that will win.
The author is indebted to Coach Jim Denton for his assistance with this article.
Written: October 2005. Last edit: January 2013 for format and some small content changes. Copyright © 2008 by Allen L. Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.