Another fall season starting!

I coached my first tactics lesson for the fall-2018 season earlier today, and both of the fencers I coached showed themselves capable of strategic thinking.

First, the setting: I coached two fencers of quite disparate proficiency levels, and that was obvious in the initial bouts: two 5-1 wins to the more experienced fencer. Switching fencers around so as to create less lopsided matchups was not an option this evening. Therefore, I went to my old standby for coaching situations like this – the killer move.

In the first matchup, the less experienced fencer was given the killer move of retreating behind a line about a meter behind his guard line, and scoring from there. That was based on my observation that the more experienced fencer liked to take territory. My thinking was if the less experienced fencer could retreat in an orderly fashion while looking as if he was ripe pickings, then he could goad his more experienced opponent to do something brash that could be counterattacked upon, thus ending the bout right then and there under the rules of a killer move bout. Meanwhile, the more experienced fencer was given the additional task of figuring out the killer move given to his opponent.

That did not go as expected. The more experienced fencer came up with a conceptually simple and overall sound strategic plan, even if its execution is not as simple. It can be summarised as follows:

  1. Pay attention to detail in all defensive actions, so as to limit the offensive openings available to the opponent as much as possible.
  2. Stress a less experienced fencer by lots of bladework at a relatively long distance, so that one unexpected move by him can readily be parried.
  3. Wait for the less experienced fencer to make some mistake that can safely be scored upon.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

The big danger to the more experienced fencer in a killer move bout is that he does not know what kind of attack on him is a game-ender. By using the strategy described above, the more experienced fencer bypassed the risks that are entailed with that by preventing each and every attack. Result: 15-0 to the more experienced fencer.

In the post-bout analysis, I asked the more experienced fencer to describe what the killer move was, and he struggled quite a bit with that task. Even after given a few hints, he still failed to give the correct answer. I have tried giving that task to other fencers before, and the results are similar.

Conclusion: When using the killer move format in training sessions, it is probably futile to train fencers to become better at pattern recognition by asking them to describe the killer move that they were up against. Drop the idea.

In a surprising contrast, the less experienced fencer could roughly describe the strategy of his opponent.

I then decided to make the task even more difficult for the more experienced fencer by giving two different killer moves to the less experienced fencer. In this format, the less experienced fencer can win the bout outright if he manages to score a point using either one of the two killer moves, in addition to reaching a 15-point score. So, the more experienced fencer has not one, but two potentially fatal blows to watch out for – and he does not know which they are.

The more experienced fencer managed to win yet again, but one could tell that the stress was taking some toll on him, and that his attention to detail was dropping momentarily.

I continued with the double killer move format, only changing the killer moves from bout to bout. I chose them together with the less experienced fencer, asking for his input. I figured that his input would result in a bigger buy-in, which would improve results. However, he was not at all sure of which killer moves he wanted, so I had to help him choose quite a bit. I also gave a few purely technical pointers.

That did the trick – the less experienced fencer won two bouts in a row, with differing sets of killer moves.

We had then been going on for some time, and the father of the less experienced fencer came to pick up his son. There was yet time for one more double killer move bout, though. I took the less experienced fencer aside, and this time he chose his killer moves right away, without any hesitation. He stated that since the killer moves had changed from bout to bout every time before this, he wanted to surprise his opponent by simply keeping the previous pair unaltered. I asked him if he really was sure of that, and he responded in the affirmative. What a devious plan!

They started fencing, and the less experienced fencer scored a killer move right off the bat. Win 1-0,  in front of dad!

So, both fencers managed to show some strategic thinking. I am not surprised that the more experienced one did it, he has repeatedly shown himself able to come up with workable tactics and strategies before, which I have mentioned in previous blog posts on several occasions. One might gainsay that the killer move is a contrived scenario, and that the response he came up with is fairly simple. Yes on both counts, but that is beside the point. It is my strongly held belief that fencers should be able to handle many different types of scenarios on the piste. Also, he came up with the appropriate response right then and there, when it was needed.

The bigger surprise is the less experienced fencer. He came up with a high-risk, high-reward, deceptively simple strategy under the pressure of his father looking on, and carried it out to the t.

Conclusion: those that say that inexperienced fencers cannot understand tactics and strategy, and instead must learn a lot of technique before being able to grasp tactics and strategy might want to reconsider their position.