In my opinion, the optimal fencing phrase consists of three parts:

  1. Preparation
  2. Set-up
  3. Scoring

Why is this the best type of fencing phrase? It is so because it, well executed, achieves several objectives:

  1. It scores a single light
  2. It does not put the fencer executing it at any excessive risk during any part of the phrase
  3. It makes it clear to the opponent that he was never really close to scoring during any part of the phrase, thus demoralizing him
  4. It can be started by the fencer without having to wait for the opponent to do something – i.e. no necessary prerequisites other than being on a fencing piste

After outlining the positives of this type of fencing phrase, I will describe in more detail what I mean with the three parts of it.

Preparation: These are all the actions done in order to facilitate the set-up. These actions can be anything that achieves the goal of making the opponent less able to deal with a set-up.This is done by getting the opponent in at least one of the following conditions:

  1. Tired – This refers to both tiredness in the cardiovascular and the muscular sense. The fencer delivers a lot of beats to the blade of the opponent, and/or makes him move around alot on the piste.
  2. Hemmed in – This is accomplished when the opponent is surrounded by the lateral lines of the piste, the fencer doing the preparation, and the back line . Once the opponent is there, retreat is no longer an option, and he has to choose from riskier options.
  3. Confused – The opponent had expected one, or a few actions from the fencer doing the preparation, but that fencer chooses actions that the opponent was not prepared for. Furthermore, the opponent has not trained against the actions that he is seeing to the extent that he can immediately recognize them, and have a response ready in his muscle memory. Therefore, the opponent has to use his conscious thinking when he makes sense of what is going on, and decide how to respond.
  4. Angry/Irritated – The fencer doing the preparation is doing something (usually repeatedly) that gets under the skin of his opponent. This causes the opponent to lash out against what is irritating him, which is generally not the best way to create an opening. If the opponent has a predictable way to lash out, the fencer doing the preparation can use that information to decide which set-up to use even before the preparation begins, and that fencer can thus speed up the action by frontloading the decision process.
  5. Feeling helpless – In this case, the opponent is trying to counter the preparatory actions, but the fencer doing the preparations is so good at countering those counteractions so that the opponent starts to feel that there is nothing that seems to work. Once he has tried, and failed with, the actions that are his usual go-to actions, his orientation and decision processes will go slower, and he might not respond at all to the set-up, once it comes.
  6. Overstimulated – This works best against an opponent who is relatively inexperienced, and therefore must spend a significant amount of conscious thinking during the orientation phase of his OODA loop. A more experienced fencer can quickly sort out the unimportant noise from the important information when he observes his counterpart, but this inexperienced opponent must spend effort on that sorting process, so if there is too much data to sort into the two noise and information piles, then there is no more cognitive ability to use the data in the information pile and perform the OD stages of the OODA loop. The fencer who is doing the preparation does not have to think all that much about what he should do, he can simply throw everything and the kitchen sink at the inexperienced opponent and wait for him to show the telltale signs of not being able to make sense of it. The only thing that the preparing fencer must worry about is to not be so close so that a straight extension from the inexperienced opponent might be enough to score. However, if this type of preparation is attempted against a more experienced opponent, it is quite likely to backfire. That opponent will sort through the data faster than you can toss it at him, and you will only get tired for your troubles. Even worse, he might see when you are momentarily focused on yourself too much, and score with a simple attack.

Note that of those 6 conditions, one is about the opponent, one is about his position, and four are about his mental state. Fencing is truly about the mind. (Note that “overconfident” is not on that list. Those conditions are about degrading the opponent´s capabilities, and doing so in a way that makes the opponent feel just that. More on overconfidence in a later blog post.)

Ideally, the preparation is done in a way so that the opponent does not get a chance to rest – physically or mentally – so that his overall capability is degraded as surely as possible, yet also done in a way that exposes the fencer doing it to as little risk as possible. Then the preparation ends with a state where the capabilities of the opponent are diminished more than those of the fencer doing the preparation, so that the former is relatively better than what he was before the preparation.

Set-up: These are the actions that are done in order to make the final scoring possible, or to increase the chances of that happening.

In any common fencing situation, the closer a fencer comes to his opponent the better his chances are to score with a final offensive action. However, that goes for the opponent also. So, just getting closer does not achieve the perfect situation before that final offensive action. Instead, that perfect situation is one where the tip of the fencer´s blade is reasonably close to the target area of his opponent, the direction of the fencers blade is roughly aimed at the opponent, and that neither of those conditions are true for the opponent’s blade regarding the fencer. Put otherwise: The fencer should be able to strike easily, while the opponent is for the moment incapable of doing so.

That means that the set-up is a part of the fencing phrase in which the tip of the fencers blade gets closer to the opponent´s target area, while the tip of the opponents blade gets further away from the target area of the fencer. That asymmetry is in stark contrast to most fencing movements, in which the tips either get further away or closer to their respective target areas, in unison with each other.

Geometry and the Pythagorean theorem then gives us that the fencer must displace the blade of the opponent in a direction perpendicular to the line between the fencer and his opponent. If the fencer can keep his blade in contact with, and on the inside of, that of the opponent, so much the better.  In that latter case, there is not only a distance asymmetry, but also a speed differential when it comes to moving the blade to a position where it is aimed at target.

The observant reader has of course by now noticed that the above is a deduction from first principles of what beat attacks and attacks in opposition are all about.

Scoring: This is the final offensive action in which the fencer moves the tip of his blade onto target area of the opponent, without any breaks in the motion. If the preceding parts (preparation and set-up) have been done correctly, this is the easiest part to do well. The fencer is already close to his opponent, and that opponent has the tip of his blade in a position where it is not an immediate threat, and a well-done preparation has worn down the capabilities of the opponent.

Most difficult part: That distinction surely belongs to the set-up stage. If one drags out the preparation stage too long, one loses time, but not much else. If one loses focus during the preparation stage, one can apply the pressure yet again, and then wear down the capabilities of the opponent to a safe level. If something truly bad happens during preparation, one can retreat, and start all over again.

In contrast, timing is quite a bit more crucial in the set-up stage. If the fencer goes from preparation to set-up too soon (a common error in non-elite fencers) the opponent will be dangerously capable, and he can counter-beat the fencer, counterattack him, evade a beat in degage, or catch him in preparation. If the fencer has let the opponent get a little breather during preparation, the same things can happen, for the same reasons. If the fencer starts the set-up at too long a distance, he will not be able to score with the final offensive action – the weapon arm can only be extended so far, as Harmenberg once pointed out. If the fencer starts the set-up at too short a distance, a fast counterattack might save the point for the opponent. Once the set-up stage has been started by the fencer, he must do it well and get it over with – if he stops moving, the opponent can easily take over the initiative. Put otherwise: the set-up stage is the most difficult because the opponent still is dangerous (in contrast to the scoring stage), and it is not possible to break off the phrase (in contrast to the preparation stage).

Take-home lesson from a coaching perspective: Coaches are probably well served by evaluating situations where their students got hit in terms of failed set-up stages. Look at the video, and answer the following questions:

  1. Was the preparation too short? Was the opponent still in perfect control of himself when your fencer started the set-up?
  2. Did your fencer let up the pressure on the opponent during the preparation, so that the latter got a breather?
  3. Did your fencer start the set-up at the correct distance?
  4. Was the set-up badly done, so that the tip of the opponent’s blade still was in a dangerous place when your fencer started the scoring movement?
  5. Does your fencer do the preparation stage in a repetitive fashion, which the opponent picks up upon, and is he capable of using that for his own ends? Can he predict when the preparation stage ends beforehand? Can he flip the pressure?

Other types of fencing phrases: I mentioned above that this preparation/set-up/scoring is the best type of fencing phrase. That does not mean that it is the most common one. If the two fencers are roughly equally matched, it will not be easy for either one of them to completely dominate the other one to the extent that he has dictates the terms of the entire fencing phrase from start to finish. Another common type of fencing phrase is of course the attack/parry/riposte, where the main difference is that the control of the fencing phrase shifts mid-phrase, with the parry being the action accomplishing that change. However, from a purely geometrical standpoint, set-up/scoring and parry/riposte are fairly similar. Then we have the fencing phrases that follow the pattern failed attack/successful counterattack – picture a fleche that misses, followed by an extension by the static fencer that hits something. What all those other types of fencing phrases have in common are that there is a stage in them in which the fencer that ultimately scores is not driving the action. That means that he cannot set up such a fencing phrase entirely on his own – they can only come about if his opponent does something, and does that something in a less than perfect manner.

Almost 2000 words about at most one second of fencing! Then again, if you do that bit of fencing in the right time and place, and in the right way, due to reading this, it is time well spent.