For my students going to competitions after an unusual year

It’s been a rough year. Now, as year closes, the competition circuit is waking up. Some of you are going to the clutch of competitions being crammed into the next few weeks various federations, to salvage what’s left of this season.

There’s no way for me to coach all of you at these comps, especially as some of you are dispersed around the world. Nor have I been able to coach most of you, in recent weeks, at our little outdoor piste – the temporary lodgings of Sydney Sabre between our old site closing in September, and our new one opening sometime mid-2022. So here’s the next best thing: my usual pre-comp rant, written down.

First: be confident.

You’ve done the work. This little break of three months won’t change that. You might be a little bit rusty. But your underlying skill structure is sound. What you could do then, you can do now. Remember this.

Perhaps you feel a little unsure. Perhaps you feel a little apprehensive. That’s okay. Happens all the time.

Accept your circumstances. Stick to your routine. Don’t fall into the cram trap. Just as for academic exams, last minute revisions won’t help you. The worst thing you can do is to stress about your perceived loss of skills and lose sleep over it. You’ve done the work. Your skills are still there.

You still need to prepare. Your preparation should focus on polishing your skills, reassuring yourself of their presence, rather than attempting to revise everything you’ve ever been able to do, or have hypnotised yourself into thinking you could do. You definitely shouldn’t be trying to learn any new skills on the off-chance you might need them in this competition. You won’t. You can’t.

Let’s say you’ve got a week before your comp. Get some rest. Maybe you’ve only been training once a week during this time. Maybe you’ve only been able to fight one or two other people, rather than the great diversity of opponents that you’d normally try to fight for calibration before a competition. Maybe you haven’t been able to fence much at all. This is fine. Whatever your routine is, stick to it.

All the skills and calibration in the world won’t help you if you’re tired and frazzled on the day. Exhaustion makes cowards of us all. Show up fresh, feel the joy of sabre. From joy comes the best and most consistent performances.

For a bout is, at its core, a physical performance. You are a performer. Much has been written about the similarities between fencing and dancing. Within that conceit lies a kernel of truth: you should prepare like a dancer. In the lead-up to the competition, warm up. Do this when you practice in the days before the competition. Do this on the day of the competition.

Give yourself time to warm up. It doesn’t matter what you do to warm up, so long as it makes you feel strong and supple. If in doubt, keep it simple: jog, or better, warm up the way you’ve drilled a thousand times before, such as the German warmup. This will take an hour, by the time you’ve fussed over your equipment and had a chat to your friends and checked your pool draw and double-checked the competitor list. Give yourself the time to warm up luxuriously.

Should you talk to other people while warming up? Should you listen to music? Should you meditate? Should you have a coffee, eat breakfast, or fast or carbo-load or so such?

Stick to your routine. Do whatever you normally do. It’s not your first competition. Maybe what you’re doing is not the best method, or the one that this famous fencer told you to do, or that legendary master wrote about. Doesn’t matter. It is your routine. It will be as good as any other. It will certainly be better than one that you adopt or dream up on the day.

Once you’re warm and your jitters have subsided comes rehearsal time. You’re a performer. You have moves to perform. You should rehearse them.

Unless you’ve already memorised your moveset – and even if you have, given the brain-blanking effects of competition pressures – you should have the list of your favourite moves jotted on a piece of paper tucked into your back pocket. Write your moves in shorthand code if you want.

Use paper. Don’t use your phone. Leaving aside the embarrassment of being disqualified for having a phone fall out of your pocket in a bout, browsing on your phone also risks yanking you into distraction.

Then rehearse your moves. Find a partner. Ideally a team-mate, but if one is not available, any random will do. Fence a mock bout with them. Work your way down your list. Once you’ve executed a move once or twice, move on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be enough so you remember how to do it.

Just rehearse the pure physical performance of your moves. Don’t count points. Don’t care about whether your move succeeded or not. Don’t get stuck refining one move to the detriment of all others.

This whole sequence should have taken about an hour and a half to complete at a leisurely intensity. Given you should have arrived at the competition two hours before your start time, you should have another 15-20 minutes to put the final polish on your performance before you fight.

A bout is a performance. More accurately, pair of performances: yours and your opponent’s. Partner dance, not a solo. So you can’t just rehearse what how you’re going to move. You also need to rehearse how to move in response to your opponent.

In your remaining minutes before you take a breather before your pool round, find some more people to fence with, the more the better. 5 points, 10 points, etc. Again, don’t worry about the score. You’re not doing this to win. You’re doing this to practice reading opponents.

But how?

Keep it simple. Focus on the basics: your opponent’s characteristics that have the greatest effect on the bout, are easy to read, and difficult for them to hide or change.

Paramount is timing: the rhythm or tempo of your opponent’s actions. Of all their actions, the most important are their preparations: the actions they execute at the start of the touch.

Every single exchange starts with a preparation. A preparation can be an advance, or a double-advance, or an advance-step, or a hop, or whatever. There will always be a preparation, and it will always have a characteristic rhythm, or tempo. You can literally listen to their tempo beat on the piste from the sound of your opponent’s feet. It’s not subtle.

Listen to your opponent’s tempo. Match it with your own. Now you can be sure you’ve got it.

Now you know the timing of their preparation. You know exactly when they will make their next action, or exactly when they might hesitate to give you an opening to attack.

For most fencers, this is about as much as they ever need to read their opponent. But for only a little more cognitive effort, you can read much more information.

In sabre, the vast majority of exchanges end almost as soon as they start, the outcome determined by the fencers’ opening moves. These are the next things to read. What does your opponent like to do for their opening moves? Do they like to attack? Do they like to defend? Do they like to charge forwards? Do they like to hesitate, for a moment, to see what you will do first, then respond? What’s their bias?

Keep track of what your opponent likes to do. Have a think about what they want to see, when they do these moves. Then give it to them.

Say they like to attack. Great! Give them something to attack. Maybe they are looking for an opening. Make it look like you’ve blundered forward with an undefended target where they like to hit. Maybe they like to attack into your attack. Give them a desultory attack for them to blast into.

Keep up the deception until the last moment. Then reveal your true intention: to parry, or to pull away so their attack falls short.

What if the opponent doesn’t want to do anything in particular? What if they just stop and wait?

That’s still a bias. It’s just that their bias is to watch for your move first, then react. They will still be biased to looking for some actions from you, over others. They will be biased to making particular actions, over others, in response.

Maybe they’ve stopped to watch for your attack, so they can jump back and parry. Maybe they’ve stopped to watch for you to defend, so they can chase. Maybe they’ve stopped to watch for you to hesitate, so they can advance and take over priority.

Whatever it is that they are watching for, give it to them. Give them what they are looking for. Fake an attack, then chase. Fake a parry, then attack-on-preparation. Fake a charge, then parry along the way.

While you’re at it, take note of how far your opponent enters the 4m zone when they make their preparation and how far they reach when they attack. These are easy to see – use the piste markings as a guide – and useful: opponents often telegraph their intentions by how far they enter the zone.

This is probably as far as you want to take it. Sure it’s nice to read your opponent so comprehensively that you can predict their next two moves, or to know which feint will evoke which exact action, or to anticipate exactly which target they will aim for on your body (overwhelming odds here for head and under-flank, followed by big through-cut to chest).

But this level of detail is unnecessary. Attempting to get to this level is counter-productive. Individual actions, such as these details, are easy for an opponent to change. Underlying tempo and biases built up by their coaches over many years? Not so much.

By the time you get to pools, you’re warm, you’re rehearsed, and you’re comfortable reading opponents to some degree. Congratulations! You have now reached the minimum standard required for combat since Sun Tzu wrote some pithy phrases about knowing thyself and your opponent.

Onto the competition itself.

In the pool rounds, you’re here to win every point and lose none. You’re not here to scrape through. You’re not here to warm up. You’re not here to “get a feel for the opposition”. Don’t fall into the trap of not trying so as to save your energy for later rounds or to save face later over your cups afterwards by saying you had a bad draw.

Pools are great because they reward having solid basics. You don’t need sophisticated tactical chains or magical moves to win pools. You just have to do the basics right. Pick an opening move. Match your opponent’s tempo. Give them what they want. Take points when you can.

A disturbingly large proportion of sabre fencers wander into pools with plan that are no more sophisticated than advance-lunge to win simultaneous actions, punctuated with the occasional fall-short, or a little fast preparation followed by whichever of attack-on-preparation, takeover, or parry-riposte they see an opening for. Give them even a hint of what they want to see, deal with the likely response, and you’ll be done with them before they can adapt.

Now is a good time to remember to take each opponent afresh, and each bout one point at a time. Think of each opponent as a new person to read, even if you’re fencing someone you’ve trained against your entire life. Assume nothing about what your opponent can do based on what you’ve seen them do before, whether that was last week or last minute.

Sure, if it turns out that they haven’t changed, great! You’re ready for it. But this is not always the case. Many a fencer has fallen prey to the trap of fighting what my grand-coach called the “idea of a person” rather than the actual person before you.

Fencing in direct elimination bout is much the same as fighting in pools, but dragging out the point count to 15 and giving their coach ample opportunities to yell from the sidelines brings one big complication: they’ll probably change their tactics during the bout. This means you must be ready to change too.

Scenario: maybe you have great success with a particular feint or combo at the start of the bout. But then it stops working. Sometimes the fix is minor: hit to their chest instead of flank, or open up for a parry 4 instead of a parry 3.

But what if the minor fix doesn’t work? Take a moment to think: fix a shoelace, clean your shoe on your sock, walk slowly back to the start line. Ask yourself: what did your opponent just do? What would it take to make them do it again?

You have three options: shock them, trick them, or adapt.

Shock is the simplest option, but usually not the most effective. Remember that list of moves you have in your back pocket? Pick a spectacular one you haven’t done yet.

One of my more flamboyant students used to blitz an attack straight to his opponent’s face in these situations, followed by a counter-parry 4. One of my coaches favoured putting up a point-in-line at the start, then taking over priority when his opponent stopped, bewildered. Plenty of A-grade fencers use both tactics, along with the classic peacock play: jump parry 2.

None of these are all that likely to succeed, especially when executed without consideration of circumstance or setup. But it might be enough to give your opponent pause in the next few points – what will this coconut try next? – and thus give you an opportunity to make your conventional game work.

The second option is to change the tricks you were attempting on your opponent. Tweaking it. Perhaps your feint isn’t tricking your opponent into parrying. What if your feint was slower? What if your feint was bigger? What about a different feint?

Option three is to give up on trying to shock or trick your opponent, and just work with whatever your opponent is doing in response to your trick.

Ask yourself: what trick did you just attempt? How did your opponent respond? Make the same trick as before. Change your subsequent action.

This takes some courage and cognitive effort. You might need to wait until the halfway break to make this work. Worse case: try to do it in your next point. Pick a trick, and remember what you picked. After the exchange, recall your opponent’s response. Then repeat, with a different action, next exchange.

This is a good way to break out of the dreaded simultaneous actions grind that often happens near the end of a DE bout. Say you’ve traded advance-lunges with your opponent for a few exchanges, at 13-13. Neither of you wants to risk conceding priority to the other. Neither of you wants to attack particularly fast or short in case you miss. What should you do?

First, the basics: match your opponent’s tempo, and if possible, their distance.

Second: remember how you’re making these advance-lunges, as if you were being choreographed.

Third: recall where your opponent hit you in the last few exchanges.

Fourth: pick a parry that will cover all of those targets – e.g. a circle-3 if they were hitting you in the head and flank, a circle-2 if they favoured hitting from below.

Finally – go for it! Make the same simultaneous advance-lunge you did before, attach your parry at the last possible moment – which you’ll know, because you matched their tempo. And hope.

Afterwards, win or lose, be content. You fought well. Remember that you can only control your own performance. You can’t control your opponent’s performance, or your referee’s performance, or any of the dozens of factors that divide defeat from victory. Remind yourself that you made the best decision you could at the time, each time. Be happy! And tell me all about it when you see me next.

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