This evening, it all boiled down to: “When your training opponent is better than you, act decisively.”

That sounds counterintuitive, or at least easier said than done, but it will become apparent from the description.

The training bout that I am about to write about featured a fairly lopsided matchup in several ways, all of them favoring the opponent of the student whom I coached this lesson. The opponent has been fencing for as long as the student has lived (give or take), the opponent is significantly taller than the student, and the opponent has a significantly larger bag of technical tools to choose from. There is no aspect in which the student holds the upper hand, for the moment.

A pattern soon made itself obvious: immediately after I called Allez!, the student would advance from the guard line, as would the opponent. When the distance closed, the student would become hesitant, and the opponent would decrease her forward speed. The fencers were then spending a significant time at a relative distance where the opponent can lunge and score on the student, but not vice versa. The opponent would then start moving her epee in movements that were both slow and fairly large. This caught the attention of the student, who appeared to spend all his mental effort at that time to try to figure out what those blade movements meant, to the exclusion of all other thought processes. While the opponent in that way had directed the attention of the student to where she wanted it to be, she slowly advanced, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, did an explosive offensive action that the student could not handle since he was a few critical tenths of second late in reacting to it. There were other patterns also, but this happened far too often.

I stopped the bouting, and took my student aside. I explained to him that he had a few problems that needed fixing, namely:

  1. When he is shorter than his opponent, there is a danger zone where his opponent can hit him but not vice versa. He should spend as little time as possible in this danger zone. Stay away or go for infighting, but move quickly between those alternatives.
  2. His opponent was given all the time in the world to plan her offensive actions, and decide when to start them. No wonder it worked for her! He should start disturbing her preparations, thus degrading them.
  3. His attention was tied to his opponents´blade work, leaving too little for her other actions.

I advised my student to be proactive in closing the distance, and use bladework to force his opponent to spend effort to replace her blade where she wanted it.

They then started fencing again, and I saw much less of the snake-charmer vs. snake patterns described above. The opponent still scored the lion´s share of the points, but she was forced to fence longer phrases now.

She quickly capitalized on the next piece of inexperience of the student: his propensity to beat several times in a row in the same line. Thus, and new pattern emerged: the opponent was advancing and the student was retreating. The opponent would then do a few blade extensions to the upper chest of the student, from a relatively safe distance where the student could not simply extend and score. However, the student would be threatened by the extensions of the opponent, and he would respond by a beat parry quarte. The blade of the opponent would be displaced by this, and she would retract her blade. Shortly thereafter, she would do another blade extension in the same line, to which the student would respond with the same type of parry. The opponent would then retract her blade this time again. The third time around, the opponent would not let herself be parried, but instead drew the parry and deceived it by a degage. The opponent they got a easy score, while the student was parrying thin air.

After a while, I stopped this and again took my student aside. I pointed out that his opponent was using the two first extensions to train him to respond in a for her predictable way, and the third time she would exploit that predictability by scoring on a target that she could expect to not be defended. After they restarted fencing, there was an improvement in the student´s fencing, but the opponent was still most controlling the bout.

So, what are the general lessons seen in this lesson? 

  1. Be bold in your transverse of the danger zone. It is hard to prevent the danger zone from being dangerous, but you can minimize the time spend in it.
  2. Take risks in training bouts. It is scary to advance in the face of a better adversary, but unless you face your fears head on, they will control you – not the other way around. The score in a training bout is in the long run unimportant. What matters is that you learn something. You learn from taking risks, including those that would be harebrained in an actual competitive match. The goals are different – winning vs. learning – so the way to reach the goal will be different. Stare down the monsters of your fears, and thus vanquish them. In the beginning, you will fail a lot and whatever infrequent success you will have will be due to dumb luck. However, with repetition, you will become better. However, if you never take those first faltering steps, you will never advance.
  3. Being unpredictable is good in and of itself. On the other hand, if your opponent can trigger you to do something that is predictable to him, he will – if he is any good – do so over and over, making your wins infrequent and tiring.
  4. Never let a better opponent plan and prepare their offensive actions undisturbed, unless there is a really good reason for doing so. If he is better than you, and gets the opportunity to plan an offensive action and then start it at a time of his own choosing, chances are worryingly high that he will succeed.

Well, that concludes my thoughts on this matter for today. Without any doubt, I will get a reason to revisit this topic.