The bout which is described below happened just after the two bouts described in the previous post, with the winner of those bouts up against a considerably tougher foe this time. In this bout, the advantages were on one side only – the new opponent is older, taller, has longer reach, stronger, more experienced, and has a wider technical repertoire than the rookie fencer whom these two blog posts are centered around.

Given that imbalance, I have often, in the previous times those two fencers have been paired up against each other, used special rules in order to create a learning experience in which the more experienced fencer has a bit of a challenge, and the less experienced one is not demoralized by lopsided results. Most recently, that took the form of lot of 4-3-10 practice bouts. In those bouts, the score is 4-3 favoring the less experienced fencer, with 10 seconds remaining. That gives both fencers a lot of experience in finishing off matches, so that they will not be stumped when faced with the prospect of either righting the ship – fast – or seeing off a better opponent, depending on which side of the exercise they are on. Should one fencer win too many of those practice bouts, one can fine-tune the rules by changing the remaining time so that the results become more balanced.

Not so this time, though. Here the fencers were fencing ordinary bouts to 5, with no timing. In the previous two bouts, in which the protagonist of these two blog posts for the first time found himself fencing with the advantage of superior fencing experience, he really blossomed. He tried, and succeeded, with several strategic choices. In contrast, when he faced a familiar opponent who holds all the advantage cards, he narrowed down his opening strategy down to only one choice, and his tactical choices – once the fencers engaged – down to three.

All fencing phrases were similar, and they went like this: the more experienced fencer advanced, the less advanced did so tentatively until he was just outside the reach of a lunge attack, and then he retreated with the more experienced fencer following. The more experienced fencer would then execute an attack at the time and place of his choosing. In response to that, the less experienced fencer would either do a straight counterattack, parry, or step back.

That was not working out for the less experienced fencer. If your opponent has the dual advantages of experience and reach, your chances of successfully pulling of a counterattack, which you did not trigger and thus are only reacting to, are slim indeed. While parries are necessary, they will not give you points without a riposte unless your opponent is kind enough to impale himself on your fairly stationary tip. A correctly executed step backwards avoids being hit for the time being, but if your opponent feels that he has the upper hand, he will simply follow you and the whole thing repeats itself one or two seconds later.

I stopped the practice bout, and had a few words with the less experienced fencer. I told him the following (the gist of it, not verbatim): “You cannot avoid meeting your superior foe – he will simply follow you. What you can do, however, is to meet him on your own terms. Do not look afraid – go for him, and force the engagement to happen when you want it. If you look as if you are not afraid, he will consider you more of an opponent as less as a pushover. Also: stop doing those untriggered simple counterattacks. They are not working. He has the reach advantage, and decide when the attack starts. Unless you do something about his blade, he will continue to score on you quite a bit. Go for more parry-ripostes instead.”

I then restarted the bout, with the same rules, from the score of 0-0. This time, the less experienced fencer mostly avoided doing the ineffectual counterattacks, and did more parry-ripostes. Half way through the bout, the score was 3-3, and the advances of the more experienced fencer were at that time a bit more measured. The more experienced fencer then improved his attention to detail in his offensive actions, and the less experienced fencer had no answer to that. The less experienced fencer lost the bout 3-5, but he fenced his best bout ever against that opponent, and held the score even for a much longer time than he previously had managed to do.

So far so good, from a fencer development perspective. However, there is a problem hidden in all of this that I only noticed later on, while mulling on the whole thing late at night.

When a fencer is up against opposition where he feels that he has the upper hand, he will often try out different things, and in so doing become difficult to predict for his opponent. In contrast, when he is up against opposition where he feels that he is the weaker fencer. he will often react by discarding all strategic choices except one or two, and those are the ones that he feels most at home with. He discards the other ones since he feels less proficient with them, and subcounsciously does not want to compound the risk of losing by using things that he is not good at against a superior foe. However, that has an important drawback for him. In so doing, he reduces his variability on the piste, and thus becomes quite a bit more easy to predict for his opponent. Now, since the opponent is better, it stands to reason that the opponent is capable of using this, and responds to this by using opening strategies that leave no good tactical choices left for the weaker fencer. From the perspective of the latter, this is vicious cycle:

Fear of losing -> limited strategic choices -> increased predictability to opponent -> being presented with choices with no easy tactical responses -> larger chance of losing

So, what to do about this from a coaching perspective? How can I tweak the rules for a practice bout so this vicious cycle gets broken? I have no ready answer to that conundrum at the moment, but it will something to ponder until I do.