Without a large set of reasonably evenly matched fencers to choose from, there will be a lot of bouts that are not that useful for fencer development. The reasons for that are discussed. Common solutions are presented, and their drawbacks are outlined. Finally, a solution which creates a large proportion of useful bouts even with a non-optimal fencer mix is presented. If you want to skip past all the preamble and only read about the solution, go to the line break lower down in the text.
In a large club, where there are many fencers of roughly the same level of fencing prowess, it is easy for a coach to create a bout schedule where many of the bouts are challenging and thus instructive to both fencers, while at the same afford each fencer a healthy sample of different opponents.
However, if you are in a small club environment – or if you are putting together a bout schedule for a fencer who is either considerably weaker or stronger than his clubmates – it becomes quite a bit harder to put together a good bout schedule. (Here, bout schedule is the set of bouts planned for, and fenced, during a training session.) If you pair up fencers randomly, a lot of the thus created bouts will feature two fencers who are mismatched. If nothing is done with those bouts, they will not create much value – the better fencer will not sharpen his skills (instead, bad habits can easily creep in), and the weaker fencer will frequently be overwhelmed. Neither fencer will advance his fencing skills as much as a bout against an optimally chosen opponent. If you, on the other hand, pair up fencers so that they are evenly matched as much as is possible in a small club, then fencers will tend to fence against a small group of peers session after session. Those fencers will learn the details of their opponent´s fencing styles, since they have so much exposure to them. The better fencers will figure out how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of each one of those few opponents, by trial and error if nothing else. However, the fencers will soon cease to experience the special challenges of fencing against an unknown fencer. They will therefore be untrained in the art of quickly understanding a new opponent, and putting together a game plan that takes into the consideration the personal characteristics of both themselves and a newly seen opponent.
So, in a small club environment, both types of bout pairings have their drawbacks. What to do, as a coach that wants the fencers to have as many instructive bouts as possible?
If one could magically change the fencing styles of fencers, the latter type of pairing would not have any drawbacks – just rejigger a fencer from say, fleché specialist to super-defensive, and his opponents would have a healthy selection of different types of fencers to fence against.
But we cannot do that. Fencing styles are fairly constant, at least in the short term. The only remaining option is to somehow make bouts between fencers of different skill levels more instructive than they are now. While fencing styles are fairly constant, bout rules can be changed by the coach at whim, so we are in luck.
So, which bout rules should be used to create as instructive bouts as possible?
What is commonly done is to do nothing. Fencers follow normal competition rules. What generally follows is a bout where the better fencer can do more or less whatever he wants without much fear of bad choices leading to bad outcomes. If the better fencer wants to get as good a result as possible, he can choose whichever option that the weaker fencer has the most problem with, and rinse&repeat to a safe win. Some of the better fencers work on whatever their weak points are, but that is fairly uncommon. Bout ends with a comfortable win for the better fencer, and very little than frustration for the weaker one. This really does a number on beginner retention.
The second version is to give the weaker fencer a points handicap, and leave it at that. This has the advantages of simplicity, and it gives the weaker fencer more of a chance of winning. However, there are still limitations. If the better fencer has some tactical ability – and he most likely has, otherwise he would not be better – he can sport the offensive actions that the weaker opponent has the least ability to score against, and repeat that action until he wins. Even if the weaker fencer is given a 4-0 handicap, the better fencer still only has to score 5 points in 180 seconds, by no means a difficult task against a weaker opponent. The better fencer does not have to find whichever action has the best overall success rate, it is better to find the action that has the least risk of backfiring. What we see is frequently a bout in which the better fencer meticulously picks off point after point against the weaker fencer, using a small set of safe actions. Neither fencer gets much training in anticipating, and dealing with, a large set of actions.
A few years ago I came up with a third, and in my strongly held opinion, better, solution. For reasons that will become apparent, I call it “Killer Move”. The rules are as follows:
- There is an offensive action, that if successfully done, will end the bout with a win for the fencer that pulls it off, no matter what the current point standing is. This action is called the Killer Move.
- The Killer Move is decided upon by the coach in advance of the bout. The coach tells what the Killer Move is to the weaker fencer in such a way that the better fencer cannot hear what it is.
- The Killer Move is only bout-ending when done by the weaker fencer. If done by the better one, it scores just as any other action.
- If the Killer Move is not successfully done by either fencer, the bout goes to 5 or 15 points, or time.
- The Killer Move is announced by the coach at the end of the bout.
- In all other respects, the bout proceeds according to normal competition rules.
If the fencers are really mismatched, the coach can give more than one Killer Move to the weaker fencer.
In a Killer Move bout, the better fencer cannot just fence to his opponent´s weaknesses and slowly pile up points and/or wait for the clock to run ut – he might lose at any time in the bout, and he does not know what to be afraid of. This generates a lot of stress, but it is only good for him if he gets more experience with dealing with stressful situations on the piste. He is going to need it on competition pistes once he is up against stronger fencers than what his club has to offer! It also forces him to be precise in his defensive fencing, since any sloppiness might lose him the bout right then and there. It also hones his ability to pick up on any signs given off by the weaker fencer as to what the Killer Move might be.
For the weaker fencer, a Killer Move offers other advantages. Since he can win despite trailing in points, there is less risk of him losing his drive if the points against him start to pile up. With a markedly higher win ratio, beginners will be less likely to give up fencing altogether since they get beaten all the time. The Killer Move offers a large incentive to perform an offensive action during that bout, but it does not constrain the choices of other actions, in my experience. Nor does the Killer Move motivate fencers to become one trick ponies – the coach can, and should, choose different Killer Moves from bout to bout, making excessive special training on one offensive action pointless in both the short and long run.
Finally, the Killer Move offers the possibility to kickstart the development of a useful tactical thinking in the weaker fencer. During one of the first times that I used it as a coach, I saw the weaker fencer repeatedly doing something else, without scoring, than the Killer Move. I wondered if it was just bad thinking or if he had thought that one out. When he won the bout while down in points it became clear – he had used those seemingly pointless attacks to establish an expectation in his opponent. The prior attacks had caused his better opponent to expect more of the same, and to defend in a reasonably predictable way. Once the weaker fencer was confident that the expectation was established and that a specific defence could be anticipated, he attacked once more in the same way, but this time as a feint. He drew the anticipated defence – but before the defence was completed, he changed to another line – and this time he attacked with the Killer Move. Bout over. Experienced fencers will of course recognize the thought process behind all this, but this fencer had not realized it before this bout. One could almost see the lightbulb go on above his mask!
So, that concludes my description of a way to get instructive and meaningful bouts, despite having two unevenly matched fencers on the piste. Do try it out during your club training sessions! Please report back your impressions, good and bad. If anyone comes up with an improvement, do tell how it works and the results.