Last saturday, I coached two of my students at one of the competitions that make up the regional series, both fencing epee. One of them – the one whom this post deals with – fenced his second competition ever in the U13 ages category, the other fenced his first ever in the U15 age category. There are a few points to be gleaned from that competition, but in this post I limit myself to one single minute of fencing, during which not a single point was scored – but my fencer achieved the best possible result, given the circumstances at the beginning of that minute.

Background: My student was fencing against a more experienced opponent in one of the poule bouts, and at the end of full time the score was 4-4. My student had been up 4-2, but had not closed the deal. After the equalizer was scored, he had the good sense to not make any rash attacks, but instead defended himself until the time run out.

Overtime minute: The priority lamps blinked, and my student was assigned priority. I was nervous, but since we had been working on overtime minute scenarios, I knew that he was had some experience dealing with the specific circumstances of that sort of fencing. He made some tentative advancing steps, but not so forceful so as to trigger a strong response from his opponent. Those marché steps took him to a distance where the blades could engage, but neither fencer could have scored without preparatory actions. He then retreated, but so slowly so that he did not trigger any decisive offensive actions by his opponent. Instead, the opponent followed my student, seemingly waiting for an opening to pounce on or an offensive action from my student to defend himself from. Neither of those things happened. Instead, my student continued retreating at a slow but controlled pace, being careful to not trigger anything much happening by either going for the decisive attack or being sloppy in his defence. This kept on going until my student go behind his warning line. Then he did a few beats on his opponent’s blade, but they were not really forceful – they only served to buy time so that he could advance two meters or so, in order to get out of the immediate danger of losing by being pushed behind his end line.

During all this time, the opponent´s bladework consisted almost completely of beats which looked like they were intended to test out my student´s preferred actions, resolve, and to keep my student´s blade away from a position from which my student could launch an attack, should a big opportunity present itself. To this, my student responded simply by putting back his blade in the line, not doing anything that looked like an offensive threat and kept on doing that all the time.

Finally, the coach of the opponent (or a parent, I did not look) told his student that time was running out: “Only five seconds left!!!” The opponent tried to shift into all-out attacking mode, but by now the bout tempo was so low so that he did not make that transition immediately. My student did a few more beats, stronger this time, and a feint attack in sixte to the lower arm of the opponent which served to blunt the offensive of the opponent when he had to switch from offensive to defensive actions in a much higher tempo that he had been fencing at just seconds before. With about 2 seconds left, my fencer retreated a meter or so, opening up the distance. The opponent did not instantly follow him, and the clock ran out. Victory! My student, in his second competition, had won over the silver medalist of the previous competition in the series, who is a comparative veteran of 12 competitions. Nothing much happened on the piste during that minute, and a viewer who had no stake in the outcome would probably have considered it fairly boring fencing. That matters not a whit to me though – my student showed one minute of continuously making perfect tactical choices, and he was rewarded for that with the win.

What are the overarching lessons that can be learnt from this? In my opinion, they are:

You are not fencing some generic opponent. Be aware of the traits of your actual opponent on the piste, and account for them. My student did by choosing not to finish off the overtime minute in the beginning, which was a correct choice given that his opponent just had dug himself out of a hole by going from a 2-4 deficit to 4-4, in so doing showing that he was perfectly capable of capitalizing on any offensive sloppiness on my student´s part.

If your opponent has some exploitable weakness, by all means exploit it – even if that would have been harebrained against some other opponent. This is a special case of the lesson above, but it merits special mention. Bouts are often decided due to some weakness of the loser. If you can score an early point due to a weakness specific to your opponent, it will demoralize him if he notices it, and give you further opportunities later on if he does not. Either way, that early point is to your advantage down the line. In this instance, my student exploited the less than perfect time awareness of his opponent, and the opponent suddenly found himself in a situation where he had to score fast.

If you can give away some relatively minor advantage in order to gain something more valuable, do so unless there is a good reason not to. By first advancing and then retreating, my student effectively pulled his opponent slowly past the center line of the piste – making it impossible for the opponent to see the clock while fencing. By seeing to it that the referee had no occasion to halt the bout during the overtime minute, he did not give the opponent any good opportunity to check the time left on the clock. My student gave away territory, yes, but in a controlled manner so that the opponent did not have my student stuck against the back line, with plenty of time left to push him over in a controlled manner.

If you sense that your opponent might be prone to indecision at crucial times and you have the lead, preserve it and do something that presents him with a difficult decision when there are only seconds left to spare. My student advanced far enough up in the piste so that he would have some space to retreat to, without being needlessly offensive. Then, when he retreated with 2 seconds left, he exploited the “watch out – it is a trap!” mindset that many epeeists have as second nature.

Most of the time, your short-term goal should be to score another point. Be aware of the situations when this does not apply. Even more critical, be aware when it applies to you – but not your opponent. There are some situations where you can be content with letting the current score stand, mostly when there is a time limit coming up soon. In this case, it did not apply to my student once he got the priority.

The exhortations in bold are exemplified in this one minute of fencing, but they apply in other situations also. It is your job as a fencer to figure out if they come into play in the situation that you currently are in. You can hone your tactical and strategic by looking at fencing bouts (preferably taped, so that you can look at specific situations over and over) and try to find instances where the loser lost because he did not take the exhortations into account. Once you become proficient at spotting those instances and can use that information (either yourself or as a coach for your students), there is one more thing to remember:

Survivors survive.

Final note: My student showed, more than once, during this overtime minute that he was able to get inside the OODA loop of his opponent, thus making the win so much more achievable. But that is a topic for several later blog posts.

PS: I sure am wordy! 1391 words about one minute of fencing! I had expected this to be a short blog post, in contrast to my usual multipage things. But no.