The trend of teaching tactics for fencing is relatively new in the history of the sport. Through the 1960s most coaching focused on the proper execution of technique, and fencers were expected to learn how to apply the techniques through fencing bouts. However, in the last two decades, there has been increased emphasis on teaching how to apply tactics to the bout situation. The following thoughts may help in thinking about how to make tactics work for you.
First, know your own capabilities. Understand how your speed, accuracy, ability to use footwork to control distance, offensive skills, defensive skills, and tactical abilities compare with your opponents’.
Second, be able to assess your opponent’s capabilities. This starts with history. How has the opponent fenced you in previous competitions? It is a good idea to quickly make book (take notes) on opponent performance after every bout. Then it continues with watching the opponent on the strip in other bouts. You can pick up a lot about movement skills, distance control, technical repertoire, and tactical choices while watching. Finally you should constantly assess what the opponent is doing against you on the strip–is he or she fighting a different game than in the bouts? Have they gotten faster, or are they fatigued and getting slower?
Third, understand what is happening. This is a three part problem. First you have to be able to look at the action from your perspective as a fencer and assess what just happened. This requires a certain level of honesty and the ability to take a cold, hard look at what you just did in the heat of combat. For example, the odds are that, if you attacked into the opponent’s compound attack when you saw it developing, your stop hit was too late.
The second part of understanding is being able to interpret what the referee just called. Know the hand signals, and be able to read them. More than that, you need to understand how the referee categorizes the variety of possible actions into the more limited number of signals or accepted descriptions of actions.
And then is the all-important third part-being able to compare what you think happened to what the referee called. This is critical. If the referee calls a well established point in line, that deceives the attempt to beat it out of the way and lands as a hit, as a counterattack not in time, you had best not do any more points in line. If the referee calls a sabre cut that lands on the bell a beat attack, you probably cannot rely on parrying attacks. If there is a difference between what you think and what the referee thinks, you had best adjust your tactical choices to meet the referee’s interpretation of reality.
With this background you are in a position to apply tactics. One approach to this is to use the OODA loop process. Originally designed as a way to think about air to air combat, this loop has been used in applying tactics in the martial arts. The capabilities and understanding you have developed up to this point and your current observations of the opponent provide Observation, the first step of the loop. The fencer then Orients to filter observations and the referee’s inputs as the basis of a Decision on the correct tactical course of action. That decision is then translated into Action. Superior tacticians can use this process more rapidly than their opponents, getting inside the other fencer’s decision loop and constantly forcing the opponent to react, rather than fence his or her own tactical plan.
There are many possible models for tactical decision making. This is only one possible approach. However, if you can think tactically (and do so rapidly) and your opponent does not do this well, you have a significant advantage.