For some time, I have been posting stuff that is more geared to readers who are coaches, parents, competition organizers, or other adults – and I have consequently been overlooking the needs of the younger readership. This post is an attempt to remedy that.

The other night, I was coaching, and it dawned upon me that for many of the points scored, the fencer scoring that point was the one that did the last tempo change prior to the point being scored. (Here, fencing tempo is roughly taken to mean average speed of the blade prior to the ultimate scoring movement, with consideration to changes in direction. There is some better way to stringently define that from a kinematics point of view, but that definition is past the scope of this blogpost and enough for at least another one.)

Given the nature of a epee fencing phrase, that is not surprising, once one thinks about it. Many epee phrases can be seens as an ebb and flow where the fencing tempo goes from low to high and back again – with intermediate levels – and the fencing distance also changes from large to small, with gradations. If we simplify matters and only consider the small and large levels, we then get four possible combinations:

  1. Short fencing distance, low fencing tempo
  2. Long fencing distance, low fencing tempo
  3. Short fencing distance, high fencing tempo
  4. Long fencing distance, high fencing tempo

Of those four combinations, #2 and #3 will be the b far most common. #1 is tactical suicide – you are close to your opponent, and you are generally not doing much to distract him with your blade, or forcing him to deal with an imminent threat. He is then free to start an attack from a short distance at a time of his choosing. #4 is a waste of energy – moving your blade around to and fro at a distance where neither of you can beat the other fencer’s blade without previous footwork will not accomplish anything.

So, when the distance becomes shorter the fencing tempo will increase, and vice versa. So far, nothing special – I am just restating what any fencer will have seen for themself.

Here comes the crucial part: The increase in fencing tempo tends to happen in stages, not as a gradual process. That means that when the fencing distance becomes shorter, one fencer will go into a high fencing tempo somewhat before the other one. That late-to-change fencer will then be forced to either deal with a fast-moving opponent blade which is close to him (which delays his own offensive actions) or to start an offensive action after the opponent is both close and moving quickly. Neither options are conducive to him winning the phrase.

Conclusion: The fencer who is the first one to increase his fencing tempo once distance collapses is at a very significant advantage.

Lesson for fencers: Look at videos of your matches, and see whether you or your opponent is the first to increase the fencing tempo in those situations. If you find yourself being the one reacting rather than acting, train a lot at the club and seek out risky situations as much as you can. Once you have managed to master them by being the first to increase the tempo, then you can always be less risk-averse later. But you cannot become better at fencing close to your opponent without actually doing so in practice.

During this coaching session, I started seeing this between two fencers, and told the rest of them to come and look – and I asked them explicitly to look for which fencer was first to increase the fencing tempo. The correlation between first increase and scoring was quite something. The better fencer in that training bout scored (IIRC) six straight points after having being the first to increase fencing tempo, and then the other fencer scored his first point in that bout, also after having being the first to increase tempo. The pattern was only broken a bit later when the better fencer had gained the tempo advantage only to do an unforced error and miss at his first attack, so that the counterattack could score.

In the training bout immediately following that one, the better fencer stayed on, and he was up against an opponent who is both taller, has longer reach, and is stronger, but is less experienced. The more experienced fencer had listened, and overcame his physical deficits by gaining the increase-of-tempo advantage, and getting his opponent´s blade out of the way before scoring. Later on, the less experienced fencer made the most of his physical advantages by advancing in a more measured manner and taking care to only attack once he had beaten his opponents blade, but that did not prove to be complete problem-solver – the shorter fencer still scored a lot of points whenever the execution of this patient approach was not good enough.

So: When you get close to your opponent, do not let fear get the better of you and cause you to stop doing stuff! Remember, he is also close to you and has just as much reason to be afraid of your blade as you of his! Overcome that fear, and be decisive before him so that he has to deal with you before he can do anything on his own!