Children can be cruel.
A student came for his lesson a few weeks ago. He looked deflated. It was a distinct down from his usual chirpy comportment.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. Then, a few minutes later: “So. Can you teach me to attack faster?”
Backstory. The kid was fencing at the local state shark tank, a bi-weekly gathering of all the wannabe tween fencing champions vying for a slot on the representative team conveyor belt that would – if they jumped through all the hoops – grant them the privilege to participate in one of the marquee international competitions – a coveted CV stamp for their future university applications.
Puberty being fickle, these gatherings gathered kids of similar age but wildly different physicalities: pitting 13 year-old boys standing 5 foot nothing against schoolmates breaking the 6′ 3″ barrier. Add a smear of insecurity, a tincture of testosterone, plus an ephemeral presence of teenage girls and you’ve got a classic conflict.
Story went, one of the latest aspiring alphas was asserting his dominance by deliberately conceding priority in bouts, so he could dazzle his admirers – real or imagined – by counterattacking his less physically able opponents. His favourites were flashy: draw cuts and fade-aways and the occasional duck-squat-stab. He was so tall and fast that even when he frequently failed, he’d be able to pull away for another potshot. And another. And another.
My student was stuck: unable to finish his attacks in time, or in range, to hit; stymied by flurries of counterattacks into stalling, until he’d eventually succumb to a cut or give away priority in a panic.
Question: how could a smaller slower sabreur defeat a taller faster counterattacker?
Answer: negate the counterattacker’s advantage: their ability to strike first with impunity.
First, a survey of commonly cited solutions to this problem that most sabreurs try and eventually abandon because they don’t work.
The standard solution is to “finish with the counter-attack”. When the attacker sees the counter-attack come, they should finish their attack to the closest target. This is usually the head or under the arm.
Some coaches advocate finishing to advance targets, such as wrist or arm. This gets debated a lot in fencing forums: arms can be pulled back, leaving the attacker swiping at the void left behind.
Problem is, the attacker has to be ‘almost’ as fast and tall as the counterattacker to finish the attack in time. Exactly what ‘almost’ is depends on the lock-out time. Back in the 125ms era, ‘almost’ was small. In the older 350ms era, and in the current 180ms era, ‘almost’ is bigger; hence why the 180ms timing change was quietly welcomed by 30+ year-olds tired of being teabagged by up-and-coming juniors.
Thing is, kids typically get taller and faster. Teaching kids to finish against counterattacks is simple. Hence why this technique remains a staple of sabre training everywhere: even if it doesn’t work for the kid now, it will probably work within a couple of years, for most of them. Plus, it’s an easy lesson to give: start the student marching, back away, then throw in a counterattack for the student to lunge into.
But this is so stupid.
Leaving aside the kamikaze vibe, it is an unsustainable technique: what should the student do if they never get as tall or fast as the top guys in their cohort? What should they do if and when they eventually stop growing, or continue to fence into their twilight years?
The traditional response is countertime.
‘Countertime’ is a general term for a class of attacker’s tactics: when a defender makes a defensive action at the wrong time or distance, defeat it. Then hit the defender.
In the context of defeating counterattacks, countertime means that the attacker parries the counterattack just before finishing their attack. A common example is for the attacker to march forwards, wait for the defender to counterattack, then parry forwards – typically in 4 – while advancing. This brings the attacker into range to finish their attack. Shorter sabreurs often substitute parry 5; taller ones – when fighting faster opponents – use parry 2, which has an aesthetic advantage and covers a lot of space.
Ever seen that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Vader toys with Luke during their duel? That’s countertime, specifically when a coach uses it to school an inattentive student with a bad attitude and too much telegraphing during a counterattack lesson.
Another analogy from my Belarusian grandcoach Nikolai: countertime is like reactive armour on a battletank. It negates the first hit from a defender, long enough for the battletank to shoot back.
I like this analogy. I think it’s apt, especially because it also describes when countertime fails.
Like reactive armour, countertime actions only work if they react fast enough, are strong enough, and come at the correct angle. They don’t work if the counterattack is too fast to see, or is too powerful to block, or if it comes at an odd angle – some anti-tank missiles deflect their path to strike battletanks from above, where there’s no reactive armour.
Countertime also doesn’t work against multiple counterattacks in quick succession. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a stop-cut attack-in-preparation ambush can attest to this.
So what does work?
Crafty countertimers goad the defender into counterattacking at the wrong time and distance. Pozdnyakov was famous for this in his prime, usually by pretending to parry forwards in the wrong line, early, to draw the defender’s opportunistic counterattack to a target that he would then slam closed.
Nikolai liked to bare his chest – figuratively – then circle parry 4. Hyokun Lee favoured leaning forward, blade down, head thrust forwards, then parry 5 bunderoll. In their finest forms, these countertime actions were not reactive, but anticipatory: the attacker would charge into attack range, and at the precise distance where the defender must counterattack or be forced to parry at close quarters, the attacker would countertime.
Anticipatory actions such as these are my suggested solutions for defeating counterattackers.
I think of these in terms of area denial. I wrote about these a lot in my book, so I won’t repeat here, but in short the attacker should estimate where and when the defender must counterattack, then sweep that area clear just before finishing their attack.
There are many sweep options. I like binds and beats more than parries. The specifics depend on a few factors: where and when this opponent likes to counterattack, and what this attacker is able to do.
For my student, a little left-handed boy, I advocated binds from low-line to guard 3, and from guard 3 to high 4. The former works well against stop-cut fade-aways to the outside wrist and against draw cuts; the latter against attack-in-preparations to the face. These counterattacks were favoured by his tormentor, and these binds gave my student the leverage and time he needed to get within attack range.
A couple of weeks later, I asked my student how he’d went.
“I didn’t win,” he replied. But then, a small smile.
“He didn’t land any counterattacks on me, either.”