Welcome to Week 13, the third week of Level 2. This Level focuses on timing in sabre.
In the previous two sessions, we introduced the idea of rhythm and change-in-rhythm – or cadence – in the 4m zone and on the March. In the 4m zone, we explored matching the opponent’s rhythm to predict when their action would occur, and thus reveal the moment to watch and react. On the March, we used rhythm changes to fake the attack and launch accelerated attacks to catch the defender by surprise.
This week we apply these ideas to the Defence.
Keep distance and match rhythm with the Attacker
Defence is difficult in sabre. Much of this is due to the priority rule: if both sabreurs hit at the same time (i.e. within 180ms) the Attacker wins. This has flow-on effects: the Attacker tends to take initiative on the March; the Defence tends to react.
Winning on Defence depends on the Defender:
- Positioning themselves, in time and space, such that they can react and counter the Attacker’s attack.
- Tricking the Attacker into reacting to them, rather than themselves reacting to the Attacker.
This class focuses on the first point, positioning, because it forms a safe foundation for all other defensive techniques.
To understand Defence positioning, first consider how an Attacker finishes their attack. They can finish with:
- A step or a lunge.
- An advance-lunge.
- Several advances, then finish with a step or lunge.
This is what your students practiced in the previous class. Recall that:
- A step or a lunge is a “1-count” or “1-step” move. It takes 1 period of fencing time to execute.
- An advance-lunge is a “3-count” or “3-step” move. It requires 3 periods – step, back-step, lunge – to execute.
- Several advances followed by a lunge can be thought of, and is more effective, when structured as a series of fake attacks on “4-count” – step, back-step, fake lunge, back-step to complete the double-advance – and a finishing advance-lunge on “3-count”.
For the Defender to succeed, they must first position themselves out of the Attacker’s lunge range. This doesn’t mean completely beyond where the Attacker can lunge to; it means far enough away that the Defender can parry it easily by reaction. This is what “keeping distance” on Defence means – staying just outside of lunge range. Any closer and the Attacker can lunge and hit with impunity. Much further, and the Attacker can simply advance safely until the Defender goes off the back line.
The second part is that the Defender should match the Attacker’s rhythm. This enables the Defender to predict when the attack will arrive, so they can parry it or make it miss, or counterattack before the attack. Being out of sync is dangerous; the Defender then has to guess or react to the moment of the attack, with success unlikely.
Use jump-back to match rhythm with the advance lunge
Matching rhythm intellectually is easy. The difficulty lies in matching rhythm physically.
Consider this situation: the Attacker advances on the March. The Defender retreats on Defence. The Defender keeps distance just outside of the Attacker’s lunge range, so the Attacker cannot just hit with a sudden lunge. They match rhythm: when the Attacker advances, the Defender retreats, at the same time, in the same rhythm, no delay.
This is a stable situation, at least until the Defender reaches the back line.
The Attacker decides to finish with an advance-lunge. The advance-lunge is a 3-count move: preparation step, back-step, lunge. The advance component is the same length as the Attacker’s prior advances, to avoid telegraphing the finish to the Defender. The lunge is long – powered by the momentum of the advance and able to reach the Defender even if the latter makes a (second) retreat at the same time.
The Defender sees the Attacker’s initial advance and retreats in the same rhythm, keeping distance. Then on the lunge – a 1-count move – the Defender begins their retreat – a 2-count move. But because they are rhythm-matched, the lunge arrives before the Defender can finish their retreat.
This poses two problems:
- the Defender is within lunge range; and,
- the Defender cannot parry effectively while half-way through a retreat (recall that parries are typically executed at the end of a retreat, to augment parry power with body-weight, and to minimise attack power with distance and movement backwards).
Somehow, the Defender has to:
- move backwards out of lunge range;
- do so on the count of ‘3’; and ideally,
- parry as they shift their bodyweight at the end of the retreat.
- Retreat out-of-sync: Defender delays their retreats relative to the Attacker, such at the Defender finishes their retreat as the Attacker finishes their advance-lunge. This either means the Defender has to extend their retreat duration to match the Attacker’s advance-lunge, or to start their retreat on the Attacker’s back-step, i.e. on ‘2’.
- Jump-back after the retreat: Defender matches their retreats to the Attacker’s advances. When the Attacker lunges, the Defender jumps back, landing with both feet in on-guard position, a 1-count action. Defender also parries as they land their jump.
Take your students through both sets of options, if you have time, but focus on the jump-back. The reason should be self-evident: it is much harder to retreat off-sync than it is to retreat in-sync and jump-back on the Attacker’s lunge.
It is more important that the jump-back occurs on the count of ‘3’ than its range or speed. A small jump-back that enables the Defender to parry with bodyweight on ‘3’ is crucial; delaying it so as to jump-back further – perhaps in hope that the Attacker’s lunge will fall short – is counterproductive.
Putting it together
I typically run this class in the “Wall Drill” zone between the start line, warning line and end line on one half of the piste. Put the Attacker on the start line facing their own back line; put the Defender on the warning line. This is the starting position for the following drills:
- (Warmup) Attacker: 1-3 accordion fakes, then finish with advance-lunge. Defender: retreat with sweeps, attempt to parry or fall-short in reaction to Attacker.
- Attacker: 1 accordion fake (i.e. prep-step, back-step, fake lunge, back-step; in rhythm 1–2-3-4, then finish with advance-lunge (1–2-3!). Defender: retreats (i.e. three retreats) matching Attacker’s rhythm, then jump-back on Attacker’s lunge to parry.
- Attacker: as above, with 1-3 fakes before finishing with advance-lunge. Defender: retreat with sweeps to match rhythm, then jump-back to parry.
This should set the foundation for timing in Defence. Next week we will strengthen the Attacker by revising the idea of their ‘preparation step’ and introducing the idea of technique backup with the advance-lunge / double-advance lunge combination finish.