A recent question from another coach:
I hope you might have the time to indulge in a question I’ve had about saber lessons for a long time. I have been posing this to some other coaches via email (since I’m not traveling much for Covid) and most of the established coaches I have asked just look at me like I’m crazy, or they shrug and tell me “I don’t understand saber”. You two have a very fresh approach and I was curious to get your take on this question, IF you have the time and the inclination.
In a lot of saber lessons, the coach is at double-advance lunge distance, drops the blade to initiate the start of the student’s attack (say to the head). The student makes the footwork and hits the coach in the head, even though the coach has PLENTY of time to close the line and defend their target.
I’ve seen this in a ton of lessons, including a private video shared with me of Christian Bauer doing the same thing. Admittedly the kid was quick, but not so quick that Bauer couldn’t have made a head parry when he want/needed to.
Occasionally, of course, the coach will close the line forcing the student to make an indirect cut, but that doesn’t happen as often as logic (to me) dictates it should.
Why is this practice done in saber lessons? You don’t see it in foil or epee.
Confession: I use this exercise too, despite my previously stated dislike of training my students to hit head in sabre.
I don’t know why guys like Bauer or Szabo or Lee use this exercise. And I’m not qualified to answer for foil or epee, though I suspect they have variations on the same theme.
But for me, in sabre, this exercise is part of a march drill for training new students and calibrating experienced ones.
Let’s work backwards.
The full version of this drill aims to train a student to hit on the march with priority. The student is the attacker. The coach acts as the defender. This drill has the student facing the coach at what you describe as double-advance lunge distance. Or as I think of it, at a distance just outside the range where a defender can beat the attacker’s blade – the ideal separation distance for the marching attacker.
In the full drill, the student-attacker advances while the coach-defender retreats, roughly maintaining distance. The coach-defender sweeps the area in front of them with their blade, to form a barrier, while moving mostly backwards with the occasional dart forwards – just as a real defender would. The student-attacker is meant to stay just outside of this distance, skittering backwards if needed.
When the coach-defender wants the student-attacker to attack, the coach-defender opens a target, e.g. by dropping their blade and presenting their head. The student-attacker should finish to this target with an advance-lunge or – if the coach-defender retreats – a double-advance lunge.
Complexity. If the coach-defender parries early, the student-attacker should disengage to another open target. If the coach-defender parries on time, the student-attacker should counter-parry riposte.
The coach-defender may also choose to counter-attack, either after they’ve opened a target or before. The student-attacker should finish to an open target and hit before the coach can block with opposition.
I find this drill immensely useful. But it is only suitable for experienced students. It is too difficult for even those with a year or two experience to execute consistently.
To build up to this, the coach simplifies. Instead of sweeping their blade front of them to form a barrier, the coach holds their blade stationary in the way, and moves it to open a target, e.g. down to expose head. Instead of retreating, the coach stands still. Instead of presenting any one of several targets – flank, chest, shoulder etc. – the coach presents their head.
As the student’s skills improve, the coach adds difficulty by increasing the complexity and speed of their movements. As the difficulty increases, the coach checks different aspects of the student’s technique.
For example: in the most basic version of the drill you describe – stationary with head target – the coach checks that the student has a good preparation step, responds rapidly to the cue, accelerates quickly to attack, and hits with proper technique to the correct target.
By opening up other targets, initially forewarned to the student, then not, the coach tests that the student can attack into all possible openings. By attempting to parry, the coach tests the student’s open-eyes disengage skills. By succeeding, the coach tests the student’s counter-parries.
I use this drill progression to warm up even my most experienced students at the start of lessons and before competitions. How far we go, and how quickly we move through the progression, depends on their condition on the day. For a perfect student, we will only do each progression once, and the whole drill is done in 5 minutes – including the coach-defender occasionally counter-attacking or putting up line or faking parries to different positions. Attacking in sabre is about doing things perfectly, and 90% of it is having well-calibrated reflexes.
I use this drill to teach students how to defend. Defence in sabre is about trickery, and so I find that a good way to teach students to be tricky is to have them act as the coach-defender, using the same cues, except to perform the correct defensive action at the correct time.
For example: a defender can start at double-advance lunge distance away from the attacker, then drop their blade down to present their head as a target, and finally parry riposte at the exact moment when the attack comes.
This is essentially a defender’s version of an attacker’s countertime. Even this basic version works disturbingly well in real bouts, at least the first time. More sophisticated versions work better.
Got a question for me? Send it to email@example.com and I’ll see if I can help.