After a recent training session, I came to think of this:

Now, take a minute and figure out how this relates to fencing. No – strike that – take your time, and think it over good and hard. While you are at it, figure out how it differs from the “charmed snake” phenomenon that I blogged about earlier.

Not sure what I am getting at? Allow me to explain.

Pike are ambush predators, which means that they move slowly until they are in range to strike, and once in range, strike as quickly as they can. By doing so, they conserve energy and lessen their risk of spooking their prey until they are within range.

In order to do so, it is critically important that they start out moving slowly, and only later on move much faster.

In contrast to that, I too often see epee rookies start off the guard line, and move at a significant clip forward two-three steps or so until they come within attacking range of their opponent. Then they stop, seemingly doing nothing. This ensures that they are both stationary and close, making them ideal targets for an opponent whose experience level is only somewhat higher than their own.

If have seen this before, and in retrospect, done my share of it and then some. At that time, I did not have the ability to analyze this behavior, but since then I have acquired an understanding of it.

I have come to the conclusion that the explanation is that among rookie fencers, planning and choice of action is typically done just before the action is going to be done, and that there is very little in the way of long-term planning. The mental map inside these rookies is something like this: Plan action 1 -> Do action 1 -> Plan action 2 -> Do action 2 -> and so on and so forth, until something interrupts the sequence, usually their opponent scoring on them.

The problem with this mental map is that a lot of time is wasted, since planning and evaluation of actions takes time. That makes it hard to capitalize on short-lived mistakes by their opponent, and gives their opponent plenty of time to evaluate distance.

A better mental map is one where the planning is at least partially front-loaded, so that it looks somewhat like this: Plan action 1 and 2 -> Do action 1 -> Do action 2 -> and so on and so forth

Here, the time-consuming planning is moved over to when there is much more time to use, for example before the “Allez” command. That simple mental map lacks flexibility, but at least the fencer is doing something the whole time once he starts, which is better than doing nothing.

A even better mental map is one where the planning is at least partially front-loaded, and multiple alternatives are planned. Then, we get something that looks somewhat like this: Plan action 1 and 2, with alternatives 2a and 2b -> Do action 1 ->  Evaluate actions 2a and 2b -> choose one -> Do action 2a or 2b -> and so on and so forth

Evaluation and choice takes much less time than planning from scratch, so this mental map permits a better usage of temporary mistakes by the opponent, and it is almost as flexible as the first mental map.

So how does this work out in the context of a rookie fencer just after the Allez command? Under the first mental map, he will advance, since that has been ingrained into him, and it is not something difficult to do. Once he reached attacking distance, he starts figuring out his possibilities and evaluating them, but since he is a rookie, that takes a long time to do, and circumstances move faster than he can evaluate them, and non-action sets in.

If the rookie has managed to work according to the second mental map, he will sit on guard, and while waiting for the Allez command, make a decision of what he wants to do once the distance is closed before the command is said by the referee, advance, and do whatever he had decided upon earlier. This goes a whole lot faster, and can work if the opponent is not protecting whatever is the target area of that pre-planned action.

Once the fencer has managed to work according to the third mental map, he will sit on guard, and while waiting for the Allez command, decide which two or three actions he wants to do once the distance is closed, and figure out the selection criteria. All that is done before the command is said by the referee. Once fencing starts, he immediately starts advancing, and does one of the actions decided upon earlier. The only mental effort exerted during the actual fencing is the selection, from a shortlist, of possible actions. This goes almost as fast as the second mental map, and it can work if the opponent is not protecting one of many target areas of that pre-planned alternatives.

Put otherwise: Do not just go in there and get stuck doing nothing! At the very least, chose something to do before you start, and stick to it. It does not have to be a good choice during fencing training – anything is better than nothing! You will learn something, no matter whether your choice of action was good or bad. Once you have managed that, figure out three things before you start: two different actions to do, and one simple way to decide which one to do once you meet your opponent.

As a write this, it strikes me that some epee rookies might learn a lot if they were to fence sabre on the side. Sabre does not allow any dawdling whatsoever, so its practitioners are forced to the second mental map from the beginning – otherwise they are completely obliterated.

Oh, as for the difference between being a charmed snake and a anti-pike: In the former case, the rookies non-action is a result of not being able to make sense of intentional actions by his opponent, that were done to confuse him. In the latter case, he stops doing stuff completely on his own accord.