The Most Important Thing

What makes one fencer better than another?

Is it the speed of their blade or the strength of their attack? What about hours of practice and drills? Is it their strategy and mental toughness?

The answer to all of these questions is: sometimes. But in all of fencing, there is one aspect of the sport that can always override these other factors. What is this nebulous factor that allows the experienced fencer to out-maneuver the novice? It lets the skilled fencer execute their blade work and attacks against a weaker opponent. It makes the strategy possible.

What is this amazing thing? It is the ability to judge the proper distance and to manipulate that distance. By extension, this also relates to footwork and athleticism, but even the most fit fencer’s game will falter if their sense of distance is off.

Please bear with my ninja artwork.

In the movies, sword fights are flashy and dramatic. The focus is on large sweeping moves and the clash of metal as multiple attacks and parries are exchanged. In a real fencing bout, most actions are simple and blade actions are brief exchanges. Especially in sabre, it is MUCH easier to hit your opponent than it is to block the attack. This blocking action is called a parry. If you parry your opponent’s attack and then return the attack, that is called a riposte.

A fencing point is over quickly because it does not take very long for someone (or both fencers) to get hit. The referee will call a halt and will award a point to one fencer, neither fencer, or both fencers (only in epee). Whether or not a particular hit translates into a point in the match is a separate discussion.

So how does distance become important to this? In a simple attack (one fencer advances, the other runs away), the attacker must close the distance and strike the target area. If the attacker judges the distance correctly, he will score the point. If the defender is a better judge of distance and can manipulate that distance, he can trick the attacker into falling short. Once the attacker has missed, he loses the advantage and the defender can take over. Or even worse, the attacker may be off balance and will be unable to defend after missing his attack.

At the next level of complexity, the defender is no longer going to let the attacker simply hit her. She is going to take a parry (block). In order to do this, she must do two things. First she must pay close attention to her distance. If she fails to keep enough distance from the attacker, she will not have time to see where the attacker’s strike is aimed. In this case, she may still try to parry, but it is more risky and can become a guessing game. If the defender can use the distance properly, she may even throw out feints or stutter her footwork to entice the attack. As a result, the attacker may decide (wrongly) that she has the proper distance and timing to finish her attack. The second part of the parry is the physical movement of the blade to block the attack. If the defender has judged the distance correctly, this is the easy part.

So if the defender just scored that last point, what will the attacker do if he wants to still make an attack? He might think that the defender will try the same move again. If it worked once, why not twice? The attacker does not want to lose this next point, so he must adjust his strategy. Let’s say that the attacker starts out the same way and chases the defender. The attacker thinks that the defender will try the same parry-riposte strategy. This time when the defender makes those feints and stutters his footwork, the attacker ignores it. The attacker is patient and advances more smoothly. When he sees the defender hesitate to attempt those feints again, he takes a larger step and finishes his attack with a quick lunge. The defender has overcommitted and does not have enough distance (which translates to time) to see where to parry. Unless he makes a lucky guess and can get his blade there in time, the defender is struck.

This can become much more complicated and is part of the reason why fencing has been called physical chess.

The use of distance by itself can be best demonstrated by watching an experienced fencer bout against a very new fencer. When someone first starts fencing, they can be a dangerous opponent. This new fencer does not attack smoothly, moves unpredictably, parries strangely, and does not react to feints or other body language. She is so awkward that it can make it tough for another fencer to figure out what to do against her. The best strategy for me when bouting against someone very new is to just keep my distance. I will stay away until the new fencer makes enough of a mistake that the way is clear for me to attack. If I choose to attack, I make sure that I’m extra patient. I will advance, but I’ll stay just far enough away that the new fencer cannot reach me with any surprise attacks (which would not necessarily make sense to do when retreating, but a new fencer will do them anyway). Once the new fencer is off balance or stops moving her feet I will close the distance and finish my attack.

I would venture to say that distance is critically important in many other martial arts. However, this may be a difficult detail to translate into your writing. It will be tough to describe and it may be tedious to read. I think the take home messages should be: 1) a real sword fight will be over fast, 2) it is more risky to parry with the blade than to just jump back, 3) inexperienced fencers can occasionally do something bizarre that will catch an experienced fencer by surprise.

Oh, and the London Olympics start July 27th. Fencing at this level can be tough to follow, but if you’d like to give it a try, here is a guide that might help. The fencing events begin on July 28th.

This is NBC’s Olympic fencing page.

And here is the schedule for the online broadcasts of fencing.

Does anyone out there practice a different sport or martial art? Is distance important to your sport? Or are there other things that play a bigger role in the game?

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sue Bolich
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 12:47:12

    Good stuff, Clare, very interesting.


  2. anseris
    Jul 29, 2012 @ 05:58:06

    Clare, I’ve finally had time to go through all these posts. Thanks for going to the trouble to write this all up, and please continue! Lots of useful details here.


  3. Trackback: Asymmetry in Fencing | Clare L. Deming

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