The morning after the sabre refereeing seminar, I coached two of our fencers for a series of 5-point matches.

They are the most evenly matched pair of fencers among those that I coach, and both of them have a knack for thinking fencing. Those factors combined to make this lesson one of the best experiences I have had as a fencing coach. To make matters better, their respective strengths and weaknesses are not symmetric matches, which allows for a lot of tactical and strategic issues to come into play.

Since they are so evenly matched, I decided against using any special type of fencing (killer move and whatnot) to even things out, I could just let them have at it.

The first match started, and the fencer on the left started pushing hard against his opponent, and simultaneously used a lot of blade movement to force him into failure of orientation – the stuff kept coming at the guy on the left so fast so that he could not keep up, and thus could not make sense of the quickly unfolding situation. (The observant reader will of course notice that I am using the OODA loop mental framework here.) The fencer on the right also tossed in a toe hit in the mix, thereby forcing the fencer on the left to widen his defensive focus. That worked out splendidly for the fencer on the right, who quickly got a 4-2 lead.

However, that is where one of the two main strengths of the fencer on the left kicked in. He is naturally good at gathering is wits when presented with a sticky situation, and that is what he did this time again. 3 scrappy points later, and he had dug himself out of the hole.

I then stopped the fencing, and analyzed what had gone on to both fencers. Both got technical and tactical pointers, and they got the task to use them to create a really lopsided win.

The fencer on the right started out as before, but now his opponent was on the lookout from the get-go, so he was quickly down 0-2. He did not help matters by attempting toe hits at too far distance – at that distance those attempts present no credible threat, so they do not force the opponent to do a predictable defending action which then can be used to create another situation advantageous to the fencer who originally did the toe hit threat. The fencer on the left read all the technical mistakes that the fencer on the right did, and used them to his advantage, each and every one. 5-0 to the fencer on the left.

I stopped the fencing, and pointed out to the fencer on the right that he was not doing enough to use his superior reach – he was extending at a speed somewhat less than his maximum, and would at times get distracted by counterattacks instead of finishing off his attacks without hesitation. When you have the reach advantage, that is something that really pays dividends.

Off to the next bout, and this time the fencer on the right got the attack speed right, and pressed home as I had told him to. For this, he got his first bout win this session.

After that bout, I explained to the fencer on the left what was going on, and gave him the task of figuring out some way of disrupting the reach advantage of his opponent, since he could not simply increase his own reach to parity. I left it to him to figure out what that would be.

The fencer on the left found a solution – jumping around as much as he could, so that the fencer on the right could not find the exact right time and place to start extending the weapon arm. That is of course standard post-Harmenberg epee, but the salient fact is here that the fencer on the left figured out that it was applicable here, without me having to spelled out in detail.

After that, the two fencers got into a zigzagging arms-race pattern of improvement, where the loser of each bout would improve and force his opponent to do something different better. My only regret is that I did not have a video camera with sound going on, since I cannot remember every single improvement they did, and all my suggestions.

Lesson: If you have two fencers who simultaneously fulfill three criteria (reasonably equally matched, able to think fencing and not just do as they are told, and having different strengths and weaknesses) you can create lessons in which the fencers learn A LOT. 

Problem: How does one get this improvement to help all the other fencers in the club? If two of the better fencers start improving quickly, then their bouts with the other fencers in the club will become even more lopsided which should limit the improvement rate of the less experienced fencers. Quite the conundrum. Once that is solved, then the club will truly take off.