You have probably heard the aphorism: “Fencing is like playing chess and running 400 meters at the same time!” There are slight variations of this aphorism, and sometimes some other physically strenuous exercise is substituted for the running. It is a good aphorism for its purposes – describing that fencing has both a strong mental and physical component, and expressing that in a way that sticks in the listener’s memory.

However, I have sometimes seen rookie fencers who act as if they have taken the aphorism to heart a little too much, and fence as if they were playing chess. This has led me to the conclusion that the dissimilarity between the two types of combat should be pointed out in detail to some of those rookies.

So, what is the most important difference? You might think that the physical aspect is what I am getting at, but if so, then you are wrong. There is another characteristic in which they differ, and it shapes both the tactics and strategy of both activities to a great degree, so that both of them differ quite a bit.

In fencing, you are allowed to do as many moves as you like – and can – at the same time. Also, you do not have to wait for your opponent to finish his moves. That contrasts with chess, which is turn-based.

I already hear the response: “Well, that was profound, Captain Obvious!”

Allow me to explain why I think this should be stressed: I too often see rookie fencers performing one movement at a time, instead of doing two of them at the same time. Also, when they have done an attack that has missed, they stand there not doing anything for more than a second until they come up with something else to do – there was no plan B decided upon beforehand, they have to spend time figuring it out after the failed attack. They are not taking the opportunities that the fencing rules give them to do many things at the same time, and to continue doing things even if their opponent is not doing anything much.

To correct this, the rookie fencer should try to make his movements conform to these three rules:

  1. All movements must serve a purpose.
  2. Try to do several movements at the same time (as a general rule, there are several instances where specific combinations of movements will be counterproductive).
  3. If possible, see to it that a movement serves more than one purpose.

These rules are arranged in order of ease of following – rule #1 should be possible to follow almost always, and there is no instance where going against it is advisable, in my experience. Movements that serve no purpose take time, spend energy, and take up mental resources better spent elsewhere. Rule #2 is intended to speed up things, if you can do several things at once you will be able to reach the position from which the final attack can be launched faster, giving you opponent less time to escape or defend himself. However, do not combine movements that cause you to show your target area prematurely. Rule #3 is the hardest one to put into practice, and its results are the most complex of these three. If you can do it in an offensive context, your opponent will hopefully notice that there are two different threats, and get stuck thinking how to deal with both of them, or deciding which one to deal with first.For that to happen, two criteria – neither of which is within your control – must be met: He must be experienced enough to be able to notice the double-threat situation, and not experienced enough so that he has a ready response to deal with that specific threat pair.

One should be able to use these three rules to ask oneself three useful questions while reviewing video of one´s fencing. They are as follows:

  1. Find a sequence where the end result was not as desired, either offensively (an attack was launched by you, but it failed due to your opponent doing something that helped himself) or defensively (your opponent scored because you could not keep up with his movements).
  2. Study that sequence from its start until its end, and break down your actions into distinct movements. The sequence starts either when the previous sequence ended, or when either of you moved into close distance with regard to the other. The sequence ends either when you became so far away from each other so that neither of you could score without any preparatory footwork, a point is scored, the referee calls halt, or time runs out.
  3. Decide what the objective of the fencing during that sequence was, seen from your perspective: Was it to score a point? Not be scored on? Push him behind his back line? Run up the time?

Once all that is done, then ask yourself three follow-up questions:

  1. Was there any movement of mine that did not serve the objective of the sequence, either directly or indirectly?
  2. Were there any two movements that you did at different times that you could have done concurrently without risking too much with regard to showing target?
  3. Was there any time during that sequence where you could have done a movement that would have served two purposes – presenting dual threats, covering two targets, something else?

If the answer to question 1 is yes: Polish your technique, under watchful coaching eyes, so that you get rid of unnecessary stuff.

If the answer to question 2 is yes: Identify which two movements would have been useful to do concurrently, and train them in that way in addition to training them one at a time, so that you not by mistake do the second one of them when only the first one is useful.

If the answer to question 3 is yes: Ask your coach to come up with several sequences in which it is useful for your to do a dual-purpose movement somewhere in the sequence. Then he runs each of them with you, so that you can do them at least somewhat without having to think about the next step. Then he should do them against you randomly chosen, so that you do not know which sequence is about to unfold beforehand. Work on that until you are not befuddled by the variety, and then see what you need to work extra much on. Rinse and repeat. This should train your ability to see situations that call for double-purpose movements.

Now, do all of that for a whole lot of filmed sequences, so you find out which your most common mistakes are.

Remember that the rules are ordered – if you are struggling with #1, fixing your actions with regard to rules #2 and 3 should wait. Likewise, do not focus on rule #3 until you have a reasonable control of yourself with regard to #1 and 2.

One final note: If you do two movements that take the same time concurrently, you will save 50% of the time it would have taken if you would have done it sequentially. In theory, you could have reached the same time savings if you would have moved your body parts twice as fast – but unless you are very slow, that is simply not possible.