Football, soccer, squash, table tennis- they all have tactics; plays, the game plan, strategy- something essential to all sports. Fencing, if there ever was one, is the epitome of tactical sports. One must outwit his opponent, not merely out-touch him. It is, after all, chess at a thousand miles an hour.
Generally speaking, fencing tactics are the why of our actions (technique being the what). With this simple definition, we can much more accurately establish what tactics are.
- The tactical wheel. The tactical wheel is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure of fencing strategy. The simple wheel has two spokes- offense and defense (or offense and counter-offense). After choosing a path (for example, offense), the fencer will try to figure out what the opponent's reaction is. If it is, for example, to parry, the attacking fencer should use compound attacks (those that attempt to avoid the parry) instead of simple attacks (those that attempt to hit on the first action). If the defender is also following the tactical wheel, after being hit with a compound attack, he will wisely switch to a counterattack in time (aka "stop hit"). This can continue back and forth until someone either makes a technical error or switches spokes. Additionally, more advanced fencers often rely on the complex tactical wheel, which has some additional parts called counter-time and feint-in-time.
- Intentions. Beginning fencers nearly always use the first intention, meaning that they wish to hit with the action that they are executing in the moment. More advanced fencers, however, will fence in the second or sometimes third intentions. This means that they are using their initial actions as preparation, something to set up their following movements. This is extremely difficult, however, because the preparatory actions must be committed enough for the opponent to believe it, but not so much that it is impossible to break off and do something different.
- Tempo. In fencing, tempo is a word that will take many meanings. It is the amount of time it takes one fencer to do one action, which is the definition used when determining right-of-way. It can also be used to describe the feeling of the bout, for example: fast, slow, even, etc. The Tempo (practiced by playing the "bladeless distance game") is something that takes many parts. There is the tempo of the bout as well as the tempo of the fencer's footwork. But what is nearly indescribable is what happens when a fencer attacks "with the tempo". The fencer is truly attacking into preparation- not the beginnings of a compound attack, but true preparation- catching the opponent off guard, too busy still planning or simply not doing anything at all. Furthermore, this form of attack is so smooth and unexpected, the opponent quite literally doesn't know what hit him.
- Critical distance. All fencers are constantly striving to reach their critical distance- and forbid the opponent from reaching theirs. Critical distance is the distance in which it is impossible to react in time. Many fencers on the receiving end of this describe it as if the attack is in slow motion, that they can see it coming but for some reason their hands and feet just aren't listening. Assuming all other things are planned well, achieving critical distance will ensure the touch - with one exception: don't let your opponent realize it first!
- Distance event triggers. Distance event triggers or ideal times to attack are designed to create an opportunity to act with critical distance. They are set up so that fencers can utilize either one or two tempo footwork (and could theoretically be modified to accommodate more than that) so that their attack is synchronized with the footwork of the opponent. These triggers use our main distances: short, medium, medium plus, and long; or extension, lunge, lunge plus, and advance lunge. The events will catch the opponent in transition, which is a perfect opportunity to hit them.
- Indication and objective. The indication is physical action that the fencer is demonstrating; the body language that he is allowing the opponent to read. The two indications are pushing and pulling. Quite simply, pushing is driving the opponent toward his or her end line, and pulling is brining them towards yours. Objective is the intent of the fencer once they get to that desired location. Defend and attack are the two objectives. For example, pushing to defend is to force the fencer as far back as he or she will go, and then pressure the fencer into attacking into the waiting parry and riposte.
- Preparation and Probes. Preparation begins as soon as you want it to. Perhaps it was the moment you walked into your first fencing class. Or when you began to seriously train for a large competition; it could be when you walked into that competition (though possibly without exuberantly announcing, "Everyone! I am here!"), or onto that strip, or came on guard for that touch. Whenever your preparation starts, it is vitally important. Preparation during the bout can also be dangerous. If you are left in the state for too long, your opponent is likely to catch you and score a touch. However, when done in the proper distance (hint: as far away from your opponent as feasibly possible), it will allow for your touches to happen. Ideally, the majority of preparation, where all things tactics are considered, specifically in their ability to function against the particular opponent, occurs in between touches, when the director is making his decision. Probes, though part of preparation, must be done during the fencing. Their function is to test out the opponent's defenses and to see where their strengths and weaknesses are. Probes can also be used to scope out the opponents hard ground which is the location on the strip from which they are unwilling to retreat any further. This is particularly useful information if one were to want to use pushing to defend. Make sure to be in a safe distance while performing these studies or a particularly strong attack may be revealed.
In a particularly tough DE bout in senior open foil today, after my opponent had made an 8 point run, I changed tactics. I decided to fence electrical foil. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me correctly. The dreaded "e" word. Yes, I ran up the strip trying to hit, and then I ran back down trying to parry. And in those five minutes, I discovered something significant. Something that has explained much of the insanity of the past 9 months. Electrical foil has no tactics.
Don't get me wrong, I am still confident that there is a method to the madness, but none of what I just described seems to be present in modern foil fencing. [In this country. In this division.] With the possible exceptions of critical distance and probes, none of the stuff that I've spent the past three years learning about, experimenting with, and debating over -things that people the world over have written books about; things that I know are essential to fencing- is necessary (and hardly useful) to fencing electrical foil.
Perhaps the most devastating of the bunch is the absence of the tactical wheel. In a chicken and egg situation, the rearranging of right-of-way has nearly eliminated attacks into tempo. Doing so has created a three-sided tactical wheel. And for anyone who knows the least bit about anything knows that a three-sided wheel won't turn. Taking away an essential portion of foil fencing leaves us with only one option- to add things that aren't based in fencing. Most of my "electrical foil" experience in my DE bout today was not fencing, at least not as I know it. I was instead relying on natural instincts (to run away from an angry girl waving a sword at me) and athleticism (to be able to quickly switch to directions from running away from to running towards that sword bearing girl).
It no longer comes as a surprise to me that modern fencers fence only one weapon seriously. It is not due to equipment costs or differences in technique; it's the tactics. The three weapons have become so different from each other, it would be nearly impossible to master all three.