#1. It’s all in the fingers!
At the club I always advise the children to start fencing with a ‘French grip’ foil and to practice with one for at least a few years before moving on to a ‘pistol grip’. I am often asked about my reasons for this, especially as anyone watching the Olympic foil fencing at Rio this past summer would have noticed that all the fencers there used a pistol grip. I want my young fencers to be aware, that the smaller they can make an action, the more efficient it will be and therefore the faster they can make it. This can be a challenge when all Hollywood film duels seem to make the actions in their sword fighting scenes as big as possible to thrill their audiences.
Controlling the point of your foil by moving your wrist is slow and easy for your opponent to see. Using just the forefinger and thumb, a fencer can shave valuable time of each action and make their opponents moves appear cumbersome and obvious. Starting out with a pistol grip encourages the pupil to use their wrist, but starting with a French grip promotes using just their fingers in order to make small movements.
If the pupil is struggling to use their fingers, one good idea is for them to hold the handle of their foil with just their forefinger and thumb. They then rest their three remaining fingers on the outside of the guard.
From this position, I ask the fencer to either write their name in the air with the point of their weapon, or to do the blade work section of the club session using this grip. We will encourage children to try this out at the club. Enjoy scoring many hits using just your fingers!
#2. Bend your knees
An experienced fencing coach may helpfully tell you that in order to get your feet the right distance apart, you could try starting with your feet placed right together in an “L” shape and then move your front foot forward one and a half times the length of your foot. Alternatively, you could stand normally with you feet shoulder width apart and turn your front foot 90 degrees to get your feet at right angles. I believe that this is the very minimum your feet should be apart.
A good fencer will remember that if your feet are too close together, you have no balance. If your knees are too straight it is quite impossible to take small steps. Small steps enable you to control the distance between you and your opponent. Remember, whoever controls that distance, controls the fight.
Very often fencers start in the right position. However, after scoring a hit and returning to their ‘en garde’ line, they forget to bend their knees. As a result, their footwork suffers. A small thing like reminding yourself to bend your knees each time you return to your ‘en garde’ line can have a massive impact on your fencing. Sitting low in the’ en garde’ position, bending your knees and taking little catlike steps is a winning formula for fencing. Enjoy scoring many hits from this stance!
‘Forewarned is forearmed’ – old proverb
‘To be prepared is half the victory’ – Cervantes
Reconnaissance is a military word, describing the process of gathering information about an enemy. So spying then! We have all seen the over eager fencer who starts the match by charging straight in and hopes for the best, using their favourite moves. This hasty approach can only ever bring them victory if they happen to be far superior to their opponent in terms of technique and athleticism (and even then, rushing in can still lead to disaster). But what if the two fencers are evenly matched? Studying your opponent, in order to gain a good idea of their likely tactical approach, can swing the bout in your favour. If you can spot patterns in their fencing, it is possible to anticipate what they will do next and you can have the answer ready to beat them with.
The man who taught me how to coach, Petru Kuki (who came 6th in the Moscow Olympics) kept a note book on all his likely opponents. Before a match, Kuki would look at his notes, detailing how his next opponent was likely to fence and he would devise a plan to beat them. In more recent times, you can find video footage of top fencers online on sites such as ‘Youtube’ and Olympic competitors will study footage and do video analysis of their expected opponents before they meet.
Young fencers at a tournament shouldn’t spend their time between poule matches, chatting with their friends or glued to their tablet, playing video games (you know who you are!). Instead, they should be watching their future opponents fence each other and try to note things such as:
-Are they left or right handed?
-In which situations do they attack most often?
-Do they have a favourite parry?
-In which line of target do their attacks normally finish?
-If taken by surprise, do they usually parry or counter-attack?
-How do they react to various movements such as a sudden attack or a beat on their blade?
-Does their posture change prior to an attack?
During the match, the fencer should start by continuing to gather information about their opponent (normally done by using false lunge attacks with a slightly shorter reach and remembering how their opponent reacts). But remember, as you are gathering information about your opponent, they are trying to do the same back to you. Therefore, the fencer must try to gain as much information about their adversary, whilst at the same time, feed their opponent as much false information about their own fencing style as possible. For example, every time my opponent does a false attack, I step back with a circular parry. When their real attack comes in, I instead, step forward with a lateral parry (surprising them with the choice of parry and the distance) before hitting them in close with the riposte. Watch your opponents, be prepared and enjoy scoring many hits by anticipating what they are going to do next.
#4. Spaghetti Arm’ and ‘Muhammad Ali’
Very often the fencing student who tries very hard and wants to get better, becomes extremely tense in practice and on the fencing strip. The first thing that I notice is that their weapon arm becomes rigid and their shoulder tenses up. All the fine motor control we have been developing suddenly deserts them and the simple motion of extending their arm (exactly as they would to reach out and pick something of a shelf), becomes a heavy punching action thrown from the shoulder. A punching action is useful only for producing power and is of no use at all to the fencer. In fencing, instead we need to generate both speed and accuracy.
There are two brilliant, effective solutions to this problem, amusingly named ‘Spaghetti Arm’ and ‘Muhammad Ali’. Muhammad Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of all time. He was so confident that he would often fight with his lead arm lowered, daring his opponent to attack him. By taking a ‘Muhammad Ali’ stance with their weapon arm lowered, a fencer can completely relax their arm. From this position the fencer can practice ‘Spaghetti Arm’, wiggling their arm between points and removing all the tension. A completely relaxed arm and shoulder enable the fencer to generate unbelievable speed and accuracy every time they extend their arm. Once the pupil has learned to completely relax their arm, one further tip is for the fencer to visualise their foil being ‘pulled from the tip’ towards their target rather than having to push it from their shoulder. Enjoy scoring many fast and accurate hits using these techniques.
* Thank you to Maitre Ziemek Wojciechowski for introducing me to these principles
#5. ‘Chase the Rabbit’ and ‘The Principle of two Waves’
There is a very common situation that often occurs during a fencing match where one of the fencers suddenly bolts backwards, retreating rapidly and opening the distance between the two participants. In these moments, the other fencer experiences a primal reaction we call ‘Chase the rabbit’, where they feel compelled to close the distance as soon as possible to avoid their opponent getting away.
This is a completely natural reaction. However, should the fencer rush after their adversary, often with big chasing steps, they are giving a gift to a counter attacking fencer. As they give reckless pursuit the retreating fencer can do a ducking stop hit or any number of other nasty surprise counter attacks, picking them off as they foolishly rush in. Remember, if you advance with controlled little steps you will be much less vulnerable to counter attack.
One answer to this problem is to use the ‘principle of two waves’. This idea concedes that the fencer will start by instinctively giving chase (the first wave). At this moment, the fencer should recognise the situation and consciously slow down, making their steps smaller and more controlled. The fencer can then advance in this way for as long as it takes, until they find the right distance to attack. At this moment, they accelerate as much as possible to score the hit. This protects the advancing fencer from counter attack as well as makes their final action extremely effective. Enjoy setting up many hits using two waves.
* Thank you to Maitre Ziemek Wojciechowski for introducing me to these principles
#6. Ideas to improve practice matches
A very common approach in fencing clubs is to either fence lots of practice bouts where the fencers keep track of the score and fence to a set number of hits, or to do ‘loose play’ where the children fence but don’t keep track of the hits. Excessively doing either of these two things at the club has drawbacks. For example, when keeping track of the score, both fencers will desperately want to win. To get the victory, they will tend to rely on only their best-known favourite strokes, which might end up becoming “reflex-compulsory” actions. They won’t try anything new out, for fear of losing. Unlike a competition, it really doesn’t matter who wins at the club, we just want them to leave better than when they came in.
Alternatively, when the children often fence without keeping the score, the young fencers begin to lower their concentration and lose eagerness and enthusiasm. To counter these problems, I want to present fifteen quick ideas that the children can use to work on specific aspects of their fencing during training bouts. I believe that by working on something in particular, rather than just ‘free fencing’, the children can accelerate their learning:
1. Both fencers take turns to advance. However, their advance can comprise of no more than three movements. Eventually, one fencer should feel that they have found the distance and should attack.
The other fencer should attempt to defend with distance (they are not allowed to parry this attack), and take over the attack with step lunge.
2. The fencers play ‘stone, paper, scissors’. The winner has the initiative with the footwork for ten seconds. The loser simply follows maintaining the exact starting distance. This exercise should be done at high intensity.
3. One fencer runs forwards and backwards. The other fencer tries to keep the same distance from them, only using fencing footwork.
4. The fencers begin at extension distance. One fencer has their arm continuously fully extended with the point fixed to their partner’s target. The fencer, who has been hit, moves forwards and backwards.
The fencer who has their arm fully extended aims to keep the distance and have their point continuously on the target.
5. The fencers conduct a match to five hits. However, each hit they score with must be from a different tactical category. For example, only one hit via parry riposte, only one hit via counter attack etc.
6. The fencers conduct a match to twenty five hits. The following rules apply: Any hit that occurs without the attacking fencer taking the blade, scores one point. Any hit that occurs after the fencer takes their opponent’s blade, before attacking direct, scores two points. Any hit that occurs after the fencer takes the blade, before attacking indirect, scores three points.
7. The fencers undertake a match where they lose a point for any off target hit landed in time.
8. The fencers are instructed to fence the match at close distance.
Neither fencer may step back, but they are allowed to make an additional step forwards in order to close the distance even further. First the fencer starts in the closed line of quarte and then he swaps starting positions with his partner.
9. The pupil fences a whole match on his back line.
10. The fencers do a match where counter attacks don’t score
11. The fencer does a match where they have to learn how to deal with their opponent’s fleche. The opponent should try to attack with fleche whenever possible. The fleche can be classical with the arm extending first, or beat, retract arm and then fleche.
12. The fencers do a match on a four meter long piste.
13. The fencers fight a three minute match. Whoever is winning when the time expires or whoever scores five touches in a row wins (whichever transpires first).
14.The fencers do a poule where ‘hits against’, count double.
15. The fencers do a poule where each match is only fenced to one hit.
* Thank you to Matthew Stahl for the Illustrations.
#7. Second Intention
I want all my fencers to be aware that there are two levels of fencing. The lower level of fencing is ‘reactive’. When fencing at this level, my opponent does something and simply I try my best to react to it. For example, my opponent suddenly lunges and I try my best to parry it. Fencing in this way is fine, if tactically unsophisticated, but my fencers must recognize that there is a higher level of fencing which is called ‘second intention’.
‘Second intention’ is employed by performing a false offensive or defensive movement to lure your opponent into a predicted reaction. To put it another way, you provoke your opponent in such a way, that you are ready for their answer and can seize upon it to score a hit against them. The Italian foilist
Valerio Aspromonte, was a master of this. He would slowly search for the other fencer’s blade (in a way that was easy to deceive), whilst exposing the target of his chest to his opponent. His adversary, seeing this ‘golden opportunity’ would be unable to resist the temptation to avoid his blade and go for the attack. The Italian would follow his slow first false parry with a second lightning parry, before flicking the riposte onto his opponent’s back. They fell into his trap, by foolishly believing that his first block was his real defence.
This is like a chess Grand Master, who is always thinking several moves ahead of his opponent. It’s perhaps a cliché, but fencing is physical chess. Elevate your fencing to a higher level and enjoy scoring many hits with second intention actions.
#8. Animal Instinct
As a coach, I find that using metaphors can capture the essence of a fencing principle in a way that descriptions cannot. The pictures that metaphors paint, are worth a thousand words, because the images stay with us long after descriptions have faded from our memory. Here are some of my favourite animal comparisons that I like use to explain fencing to children.
If you wanted to catch a fly, you should start by moving your hand very slowly towards it and then accelerate through the motion to catch it. The fly will not be able to judge the change in speed and will be caught. This principle can be applied to fencing. The golden rule is, if you move fast, your opponent will react fast. If you move slowly, your opponent will react slowly. If you start slowly and then accelerate, your opponent will be lulled by the slow start and will not be able to judge or react to your change in speed. For example, when doing a step lunge, the first step should be slow and controlled and the final action of the lunge should be lightning quick. Fencers who believe they need to move quickly all the time are making a mistake. It is far more effective to start slowly and finish fast. Or to put it another way…
When tigers hunt, they start slowly, so as not to startle their prey. They continue to sneak closer without their intended victim realising the danger they are in. Only when they get close enough do they pounce at full speed. When pressing forwards, fencers should do likewise, starting with a slow preparation and only upon finding the correct distance, accelerate for the final action of their attack. And about those steps forwards…
Most young fencers are far too heavy on their feet. Encouraging them to take little cat-like steps tends to make them lighter on their feet. And while they are at it…
Swans appear incredibly poised and elegant and seem to glide along effortlessly. However, we know that below the surface of the water, their legs are paddling like mad. It strikes me, that fencers need to be similar. Their torso should be bolt upright, their shoulders completely level and they should try to sit on their back leg as opposed to leaning. When they move forwards and backwards they must avoid bobbing up and down and should appear to glide along the piste. Like a swan, all the hard work is taken by their legs which should be bent and working like crazy.
Finally, most fencers hold the grip of their foil too tightly, which hinders the fine motor control of say doing a small, neat disengage. The fencer should hold the grip as though they are holding a bird. Not so tight as to crush the bird, but not so loose as to let it fly away.
#9. Warming up at Competitions
Over the Christmas holiday, I was privileged to work as part of the coaching team, overseeing a four day Talent camp with Britain’s top Junior and Cadet fencers at the Leon Paul centre in Hendon. All the Talent programme foilists are expected to use the following ‘5-5-5’ template for warming up before representing Great Britain at international fencing competitions. There are several advantages to using this system. For example, it encourages the fencers to move up and down a piste sized space, which is what they will have available to them at competitions. It also gives the fencer everything they need to be ready for action, without it being necessary for their personal coach being present (the coach can’t always be with them and that can’t stop them from producing their best performance). It replaces many of the fencers outdated routines that employ large amounts of ‘static stretching’, which are better suited to a warm-down after a competitor has finished their day. The ‘5-5-5’, of the title refers to how many minutes each section of the warm up lasts. However, it should be noted that this is a flexible template and a fencer who needs longer to warm up, is free to convert it into ’10-10-10’, to suit their requirements.
The first five-minute period, is comprised of jogging up and down the piste and running variations, including jogging by kicking their heels up behind them, jogging with knees up, ‘side jacks’ and skipping.
The second five-minute period consists of the fencer doing ‘dynamic’, stretches up and down the piste. Any fencers who were spotted sitting down to stretch were told by the coaches to get moving.
In the final five minutes, the fencer can do footwork and more dynamic stretching. However, there now needs to be explosive actions included and they need to test their limits, so that they are ready to fence immediately afterwards. For example, if in the second period of five minutes, the fencer did high knee lifts into a lunge, they should now jump in the air with their knee lift to get the full range of motion and make the action more explosive. A fencer doing footwork in this segment, should include some fast lunges and changes of tempo.
(Above) Sparring at the British Fencing Talent Camp
After doing the 5-5-5 warm up, the fencers should aim kit up completely within 5-minutes so as not to lose the benefit of their warm up. If there are other fencers from their club at the competition, they get into pairs. They practice simple blade-work with a partner to make sure they are hitting well and start the competition feeling really-good and confident in their fencing.
1. At extension distance, the fencers set themselves, making sure they are sitting low and that their en garde position is perfect. They hit with five direct extensions, then swap with their partner. They must take time between each hit, not rush and get the full range of movement in their extension.*More advanced fencers can finish to various lines. For example, low-line with supination, low-line with pronation etc.
2. The fencer does step-extension … recovers … does a stop-hit (with direct extension) followed by a quick step back. This sequence is repeated five times. They then switch with their partner and repeat.
3. The fencers do five direct lunges, then swap with their partner.
4. One fencer steps in with a direct extension. Their partner parries either circular sixte or quarte and ripostes direct with extension.* Advanced fencers can riposte with flicks, opposition or use other parries etc…
5. Starting just outside of lunge distance. One fencer steps forwards with a feint to the open inside high line. Their partner parries either circular sixte or quarte and they deceive it with a disengage or a counter-disengage lunge hit.*They can start by always doing lateral quarte followed by a few repetitions of circular sixte. Finally, they can alternate between the two parries as they see fit.
**Fencers should note that to be able to do 10-10-10, calibrate and then perhaps get an individual lesson with their coach, they should get to the competition at least an hour early.
Take your warm up more seriously and take the element of chance out of your early matches if you want to be consistently successful at competitions.
#10. The three best moments to attack
When fencing, you must always be proactive rather than reactive. Against a fast opponent, if you wait for them to do something, then try to react, it is normally too late, and you end up getting hit. For this reason, I would advise my fencers to follow the mantra “they react to you… you don’t react to them”.
Try to be an action ahead of your opponent. For example, when attacking, a foilist needs to be ahead, in order, to gain the ‘right of way’ and to be said to have ‘priority’. They need to start the attack first (not only in their own opinion, but more importantly, in the opinion of the referee). This idea of being ahead of an opponent, isn’t just about being physically faster than them, but also about thinking faster than them. Put another way, a fencer needs to be at least one thought ahead of their opponent.
The next important factor in setting up an attack, is the element of surprise. The more skilful the fencer is in exploiting the element of surprise, the less their opponent will be able to anticipate the timing, speed and type of the action being used against them. Finally, it is also important when setting up your attack, to gain the most inconvenient distance for your opponent in any given situation.
Once these ideas are understood, it is helpful to realize that there are three common situations that crop up frequently in every fencing match. If the pupil can recognize these three situations and exploit them by launching their attack at these exact moments, they can stack the odds of scoring heavily in their favour. Let’s look in detail at the three most favourable moments to attack:
1 -Attack in preparation
The fencers are just outside of ‘lunging distance’. One of the fencers tries to prepare their attack, by manoeuvring one step closer. At the very beginning of this movement, their opponent launches their own attack. This fencer aims to land the hit before their opponent’s front foot has hit the ground. That way, their opponent’s forward momentum is carrying them
The fencer on the left advances. The fencer on the right lunges and hits, using their opponent’s forward momentum against them.
2 -‘Get away and go’
The fencers are at ‘lunging distance’. One fencer launches an attack. His opponent doesn’t attempt to parry this attack, but simply steps backward making the attack fall short. Now as the fencer tries to recover and is off balance and ill prepared to defend themselves, the fencer who retreated launches their own attack. It is worth noting that even the top fencers, who have an excellent defence are not at their best defensively if you can catch them in this moment, which makes it a great time to attack.
a) The fencer on the left lunges. The fencer on the right ‘defends with distance’, stepping back to make their opponent’s attack fall short.
b) As the fencer on the left recovers from their lunge, the fencer on the right ‘takes over the attack’, and attacks their opponent whilst they are off balance.
3 – Attack from pressing
The fencers are just outside of ‘lunging distance’. One of the fencers tries to prepare their attack, by manoeuvring one step closer. Their opponent retreats. The pressing fencer should recognize that they are still out of lunging distance and refrain from attacking. The pressing fencer tries again by slowly stepping forward. This time their opponent doesn’t retreat. The pressing fencer accelerates and lunges the moment their back foot hits the floor. The most important things here are noticing when the distance is correct to attack and accelerating on the final attack.
a) The fencer on the left steps forward. The fencer on the right steps back. The fencer on the left senses that they are still out of attacking distance and refrains from lunging.
b) The fencer on the left steps forward. The fencer on the right stays. The fencer on the left senses that they are now at attacking distance, accelerates and lunges.
#11. ‘Looking Step’
After a pressing opponent stops or their attack falls short, there is a tendency for a fencer to rush straight away when changing from retreating to advancing. This rushed first step creates an opportunity for counter attack. The Italians have a concept they call a ‘looking step’, where your first step forwards after retreating is cautious, slow and controlled. Fencers should aim to train this habit in their footwork sessions.
#12. ‘Sit lower on the hit’
I believe that one of the primary purposes of the individual lesson is to instil good habits in the fencer. One good habit I would like to see, is that whenever a fencer delivers a riposte, they bend their knees a little more and sit a little lower in the en garde position. Whenever I have tried this, I have found that the point fixes on the target a little better.
#13. ‘Attitude at Competitions’
If a young fencer loses a group stage match, they mustn’t dwell on the defeat. The result of the last match is ‘water under the bridge’. The fencer must focus completely on their current match and approach it with belief that they can win. The fencer should aim to fence courageously, but with patience.
#14. ‘Timing of your Parry’
When using parries, the fencer needs to pay close attention to their timing. A beat parry done at the very first moment of your opponent’s attack can be highly effective. This type of parry is useful, as it prevents your opponent’s attack developing, stopping it in the first moment. It is also extremely fast. It shouldn’t be done as two actions (parry, hold, riposte), rather it should almost be one tempo (parry/riposte as one action). The key is that it is a very fast movement forward. For this reason, usually when performing a beat parry, the pupil shouldn’t move their guard, as that makes it a slow movement. If the pupil wants their beat parry to be fast, it must come from the point. Also, in terms of your opponent’s perception, they can see your guard move easily, however, they can’t see the point move very well.
Another extremely effective time to parry is at the last moment. A ‘last moment parry’, arrives at the very end of your opponent’s attack. Usually the pupil should aim to hold this type of parry (parry, hold and then riposte). The advantage of holding a parry is that it gives you time and options. You can watch your opponent as you hold the parry and for example, see if they are doing a body evasion. You can then think how and where you are going to deliver the riposte. This approach makes you more flexible and gives you time to change.
#15. Economy of movement
Wherever possible, the fencer should try to achieve economy of movement. Essentially performing any action as efficiently as possible to conserve energy. I like the analogy of a fuel-efficient car versus a gas guzzling four-wheel drive car. One of the hallmarks of the highly successful Russian School of fencing is the economy and efficiency of movement.
A good expression for young fencers to remember is “Your opponent reacts to you. You don’t react to them”. If you wait for your opponent to do something and then react, if it is, for example, a fast first intention attack, you may be too late to prevent it being successful. It is better to try to be ahead of your opponent and make them react to you (taking and dominating the initiative).
#17. Fencing a defensive opponent
If your opponent hardly ever attacks, but instead defends continuously and effectively, you should aim to draw out their attack. This can be accomplished by driving them towards the back of the piste, or by intentionally attacking short to encourage them to do an answering attack which you can step back and parry.
#18. Important hits
Whilst it would be great if a fencer could maintain maximum focus throughout an entire bout and really concentrate on every hit, this doesn’t happen, so perhaps the fencer should take extra care and attention on certain ‘key’, hits. I would like to stress the importance of the first hit of a match. Other hits that I believe are important is the first hit after the minute break in a direct elimination match. This hit sets the tone and if their coach gave them advice during the break, if they lose the first hit, they can start to doubt the coach’s words. Another important hit is when the fencer is leading around 8-3. It is easy in these moments to think that you have won the match and take your foot off the accelerator. In fact, it is quite possible for your opponent to come back from these positions. For this reason, it is important to really focus and work for these points, so you can see off the match.
Each individual fencer has a threshold for when they lose belief that they can come back from a deficit and they stop fully trying. Finally, the last hit of a match is important. Fencers should be encouraged to remember each hit of a bout, noting what worked against their opponent. Then when they get to the final hit (say 14-14), I believe that they should use something that has worked previously in the match, rather than improvising or trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’ at the most high-pressure moment of the bout.