Week 11: Watching in the 4m Zone

Dear Instructor:

Welcome to Level 2. This Level is all about Timing in sabre.

Timing is often vaguely described by fencing coaches: a case of “I’ll know [good timing] when I see it”. This is at best unhelpful for your students; we’re going to spend this level breaking down timing in sabre into its specific components: rhythm (or tempo), cadence, moment, and period.

  • Rhythm / Tempo: the frequency of actions within a period of time. E.g. 3 steps per second.
  • Cadence: the change in rhythm of a move, typically at the end: e.g. accelerating an advance-lunge, with the initial step at rhythm 5Hz to backstep-lunge at rhythm 10Hz.
  • Moment: the point-in-time of an action, e.g. lunge at 1 second after the referee says “fence”.
  • Period: the duration of an action, e.g. parry requires 0.25 seconds to execute.

Note we use the terms:

  • action” to mean a single physical movement, e.g. a lunge.
  • move” to mean a sequence of actions which are deployed together in a bout, e.g. advance-lunge.
  • technique” to mean the group of variations of a move for a given situation, e.g. feint-cutover with advance-lunge, to belly/flank/shoulder/off-side.

Timing is a crucial but oft-overlooked aspect of every action, move, and technique in sabre.

Novice sabreurs often always operate at their maximum rhythm, with no deliberate rhythm changes, and little concern for the moment or period of their actions. They just go as fast as they can.

This is a mistake. We will go through the reasons and mitigations through this level, but at the simplest level, always going at the max means you’re predictable and will get tired. An experienced opponent can exploit this; it often enables sabreurs with inferior physical and technical ability to defeat otherwise superior sabreurs.

We introduce these timing concepts with a simple, common scenario: watching in the 4m zone.

Watchers are the most common and simple archetype of sabreur

Watchers watch what their opponent does, infers what the opponent is about to do, and reacts with the appropriate countermove. No tricks, no hunches; just pure muscle-twitch reactions.

It is an effective and simple strategy.

Provided the Watcher has shorter reaction times and is sufficiently fast and technically capable to react in time, they can competently counter any move by their opponent. These physical attributes are typically good in younger, and male, sabreurs and improve naturally with age until around age 25.

Training Watchers is simple: lots of repetitions to build muscle memory. Fighting as a Watcher is simple: you only need react; you need not take any risks. Most child, cadet and junior sabreurs fight as Watchers.

We will be training students as Watchers for most of this Course from Level 1 to Level 4. Watcher training is intuitive and enables us to cover a large number of moves in the limited time we have in this Course. It forms the foundation for introducing other archetypes in Level 5.

Match your Opponent’s preparation

Watching effectively depends on three things:

  • When: the moment to watch and make a decision on how to react, contrasted with all the other moments where watching is counterproductive.
  • What: accurately ascertaining the opponent’s action or move.
  • How: techniques to filter out noise to make quick, accurate decisions

First: know when to watch.

Recall that at the start of each exchange, both sabreurs make a preparation, then execute their action. The Sabreur should watch for the action at the end of the preparation.

Watching at other times is ineffective. Watching during the preparation is counterproductive: there’s either nothing to see or, worse, there is only noise or a feint. Watching too long after the preparation is dangerous: the opponent has already executed their action and may have already hit the Sabreur.

You can predict when you need to watch by matching your opponent’s preparation. E.g. if they make an advance, you should make an advance of the same duration in the same rhythm.

The most important part is to finish your preparation at the same moment as your opponent’s preparation. E.g. if they make an advance-step preparation, you can still match it with just an advance preparation, but your advance must have the same duration as their advance-step.

Distance, speed, and acceleration may telegraph your Opponent’s action

To quickly recognise what your opponent’s action will be, look for telegraphing factors such as:

  • Distance: An opponent who makes a small preparation, e.g. entering the 4m zone for only a few centimetres, is likely preparing to defend. Conversely, an opponent who makes a big preparation into the 4m zone is likely preparing to launch an immediate attack or chase.
  • Speed: Fast preparations typically precede an attack; slower preparations precede defence or chase.
  • Acceleration: Accelerating preparations typically precedes an attack; a decelerating action precedes defence, and a constant speed (no acceleration) precedes a chase.

Not every opponent will give off all these telegraphing factors. Experienced opponents may spoof these factors. But most sabreurs will mistakenly telegraph at least one of these factors.

Recognise these in your opponent. Remember the actions they use. Identify their preceding preparations.

Simplify your choices to improve your reaction time

In theory, you can simply watch the beginning of your Opponent’s action, identify it, then react with the correct countermove.

In practice, your ability to do this is limited by your reaction time. This reaction time is the sum of your base reaction time and the additional reaction time to make your countermove.

You can’t improve your base reaction time. The delay between seeing something and reacting to it is ~200ms for the young and twitchy and worsens as you age and mellow. This limit is hardwired: it is the time for light to hit your retina, convert into an electrical signal, conduct via your optical nerves to your brain, translate into instructions, travel down your central and peripheral nerves, then induce your muscles to contract to your desires.

Getting to 200ms is incredibly difficult. Human reaction times, in practice, are closer to 300-700ms. Even these times assumes that the person is ready to receive a signal, knows what to look for, and how they are going to respond. If they don’t, reaction delays can be very long indeed; deer-in-headlights long.

Improving reaction times is therefore to improve the ability to recognise the correct action and react with the correct counter. It is not to reduce the base reaction time.

There are three main sources for the extra delays in your reaction pathway:

  • the time it takes for your brain to identify what you have just seen;
  • the time it takes to for your brain to select the correct counter reaction; and,
  • the time your muscles need to effect the reaction.

For this class, we will focus on the first source of delay: identifying what you’ve seen.

This is simple to train: cut down your choices.

Like Barry Schwartz’s “Paradox of Choice”: give someone three choices for ice cream, and they’ll pick one (and be happy) in a few seconds; give the same person thirty choices and they will stand there for ages.

The fewer choices you have, the faster you can make your decision.

Deciding between three choices takes longer than deciding between two; deciding between four choices takes longer than deciding between three, and so on. Each time you add a choice, you have to fit what you see into it before moving onto the next choice. Your brain asks: is what I am seeing A? Or is it B? Or is it C? Which of them, A, B, or C, is the closest fit?

In sabre, your opponent can execute an almost countless variety of actions at the start of the exchange. What a Watcher does is to group those actions into as few categories as possible.

At its simplest, there are only two categories:

  • the opponent moves forwards;
  • the opponent doesn’t move forwards.

If they move forwards, they are attacking or chasing. If they don’t, they are defending. In each of these categories, your opponent could be doing any one of hundreds of specific actions:

  • If they move forwards, they could be making a short attack, or a long attack, or a chase, or a setup before the defence.
  • If they move backwards, they could be defending with any one of a dozen parries, or variations of fall-short, or those things plus accessories like stop cuts and jumps.

You don’t need know these details immediately. You just have to know whether they are attacking or defending. Then you can break these choices further into a decision tree.

Each fork of the tree has, ideally, only two branches. This enables the Watcher to quickly make a series of decisions, narrowing down their reactions with each decision until they positively identify what the Opponent is doing and how to respond. For example:

  1. Initial Question: Is the opponent moving forwards or not?
    • Answer: Forwards.
    • Initial Reaction: Start moving back.
  2. Sub-Question: If they are moving forwards, are they chasing or attacking?
    • Answer: Attacking.
    • Interim Reaction: Prepare to pull away.
  3. Sub-Question: If they are attacking, are they attacking to the left or the right?
    • Answer: Left.
    • Interim Reaction: Start moving your blade left into a guard position.
  4. Sub-Question: Is the attack high or low?
    • Answer: Low.
    • Final Reaction: Ok, we make a guard parry to 4.

Use peripheral vision to filter out noise

The next part is to make the identification process itself as fast as possible.

Most of the information entering your eyes is irrelevant to the practice of sabre combat. You don’t care about the colour of their shoes, or the brand of their mask, or exactly how they are holding their sabre, or how nice their special Olympic-edition Omega is. None of those details matter. They just take up cognitive effort.

The only things you really care about are the closing speed of your opponent, how far away they are from you, the location of any open targets on their body, and where their sabre is.

A former Chief Instructor, Professor David Kirby, taught his students to use peripheral rather than regular focused vision when fencing, especially in the 4m zone. Peripheral vision uses rod cells: low resolution, high sensitivity light receptors that respond faster but with less information than the cone cells that cluster near the centre of your retina for focused vision. Rod cells strip out the details from what you see, leaving only the things you care about in a sabre bout: black-and-white imagery, motion, gross shapes, and depth perception.

To use peripheral vision, don’t focus on your opponent or anything else.

David preferred to blankly stare forwards. Lee HyoKun, head coach for the world-conquering 2016 Korean Men’s Sabre team, recommended looking at the opponent’s sabre guard. But not the blade; the opponent’s blade moves around too much and too quickly to track, and can hypnotise you into a dumb trance. The same goes for anything else that might snap your attention back to focused vision, like the opponent’s face or hand.

When I use peripheral vision in a bout, my opponent looks like a blurry silhouette; a fuzzy off-grey blob with a harder edge where their sabre is. Then I track the blob. Blob closes distance, opponent may be attacking. Blob stays still, opponent may be defending. Blob comes forward with a flash of an edge, opponent must be about to hit.

You can simplify the view even further. After a few exchanges with an opponent, you can get a sense of how fast they can move when they attack and when they defend, and how much distance they cover.

Then you can set up mental tripwires along the piste, to trigger a response if the opponent crosses them at specific times. E.g. If the blob crosses this tripwire at T+ 200ms, trigger a short attack. If the blob doesn’t, trigger a chase.

Tweak the tripwire locations as you learn more about the opponent over the course of a bout.

Advance-step: a balanced preparation

We introduce advance-step as the 4m preparation in this session and will be preferentially using it for most of the Course until Level 5.

(Some students may prefer to stick with advance as their preparation; this is fine, but they should know how advance-step works and how to counter it.)

Advance-step is a 3-action move, consisting of front step, back step, then front step to finish in a wide stance. The rhythm typically accelerates: 1–2-3 with the final front step on ‘3’. We introduce the nomenclature of rhythm here:

  • 1– is a slow step, e.g. it takes 1 second to complete.
  • 2- is a short step, e.g. it takes 0.5s to complete.
  • 3 is the end of the move.

The final step, 3, occurs at the moment to watch.

The advance-step should have the same duration as the Opponent’s preparation. If the Opponent is also using advance-step, the Sabreur should also match rhythm. If the Opponent is using advance (e.g. rhythm: 1-2), the Sabreur should shorten their advance-step to match.

A major advantage of the advance-step preparation is that it is balanced. It ends with minimum momentum. All subsequent actions can be launched equally well, whether this is a jump back parry riposte or advance-lunge or chase or attack-on-preparation etc.

(This is not the case, for example, for advance preparation, which ends with forward momentum and thus biases towards attack and chase, and against defence).

Putting it all together

This session occurs entirely within the 4m zone.

The core idea is for your students to improve their reaction times at the start of each exchange. I suggest the following drills, all done in threes (two sabreurs and a referee), rotating students between groups frequently, in the 4m zone:

  • Match preparations / rhythm using advance-step preparation
  • As above, but cycling through attack-chase-defence. Stop each exchange once a point is scored or priority gained.
  • As above, with one sabreur using advance-step and the other advance.
  • As above, introducing telegraphing factors.
  • As above, introducing peripheral vision.
  • 5-point bouts.

There’s a lot of conceptual information in this session so don’t be worried if your students don’t all get it (or get it all). We will build on these skills every week for the remainder of the Course.

Next week, we will focus on timing in terms of acceleration using fakes and finishes to form the accordion during the March.

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