Some time ago, I saw a training bout in which the fencer on the right was clearly superior. During this training session, the fencer on the right in this bout became my strategy student, so I will refer to him as the student from here on in this blog post. He is the taller and stronger of the two of them, and he had a simple strategy: overloading. That strategy calls for doing lots of aggressive-looking activities, forcing the opponent to  quickly evaluate all those activities and then decide on how to respond, if at all.

If the opponent whom the overloading strategy is directed against is not sufficiently good at quickly evaluating all that, he gets stuck at Orient phase of the OODA loop, since new observations keep coming in faster than he can make sense of them and reach the Decide phase. Such an opponent will typically retreat slowly (in an attempt to evade the oncoming onslaught) and whatever blade movements he makes, are exclusively defensive ones. That works just fine for the fencer using the Overloading strategy. He can just continue tossing aggressive-looking activities at his opponent, and wait until the opponent cracks under the pressure and does something not well thought out that gives a clear opening for a decisive attack. It is not necessary that there is any rhyme or reason in the aggressive-looking activities – as long as they get the opponent stuck in the Orient phase, they have fulfilled their objective.

Well, that was what the student was doing, and it was going well for him. His opponent is not yet sufficiently good at making sense of what the student could toss at him, and the points kept ticking in. They did a few training bouts, all with the same result: a clear win for the student.

So far so good.

Somewhat later, the student was up against another fencer. Here, he still had the advantage of strength and reach, but this opponent is considerably more experienced, and can process information faster.

The student tried the same strategy, with decidedly less than satisfactory results.

It soon became clear what was happening – this new opponent would, armed with his faster information processing ability, quickly evaluate all the aggressive-looking activities that the student directed at him. In many cases he correctly saw that they did not constitute a significant and immediate threat, and thus did not warrant any immediate reaction. Those decisions – to do nothing – conserved arm strength, cardiovascular capability, and mental processing capability. In those instances where the actions of the student did constitute significant and immediate threats to the opponent, the opponent came up with a satisfactory response quite quickly. Several of those responses were of the parry-riposte type, earning points to the opponent. When the student made aggressive-looking activities that were not sufficiently believable as threats, this opponent saw that and could then go to the Decide and Act phases of the OODA loop by executing counterattacks.

Things were not going well for my strategy student.

I waited for the 5-point bout to end, and then gave him the short and the long version of the lesson.

The short version was (I paraphrase) “You are fencing the same way as you did against the previous opponent, and it is not working. You have persisted in doing what does not work for some time.” Then came the long version, which was essentially what is written above in this blog post, albeit with less fleshing out.

I then went on to the solution phase of the lesson, in which I firstly told him to drop what did not work, and secondly choose a different strategy based on first principles – leverage your advantages, see to it that your shortcomings do not come into play, contain his advantages, and expose his weaknesses. A little bit of back-and-forth on that, and we had put together a different strategy.Those two fencers went at it again, and now things worked out much better for my student.

Takeaway lessons:

  1. The overloading strategy is conceptually simple, and can give very good results against the right opponent – one whom is not sufficiently fast at evaluating what they see.
  2. While the overloading strategy is good in well-chosen cases, it does not work at all once the opponent is sufficiently fast. If you try the overloading strategy, and it does not work – do not try to do it faster or better, you will just dig a deeper hole for yourself. Step back and go for your backup strategy instead.
  3. In general, do not continue following the same strategy from bout to bout without there being a good reason to do so. Reevaluate your strategy for each new opponent, and tailor it according to the strengths and weaknesses of that particular opponent.
  4. If you can come up with a strategy that builds upon a difference in capability between you and your opponent that  cannot be changed during the course of a match, it becomes that much harder for your opponent to come up with a successful counterstrategy.