As we’ve said, fencing is not simply about overpowering or outpacing your opponent. There is much planning and strategy involved in considering not just your first attack, but every movement of your body and your weapon throughout your entire bout. Planning your tactics is an important part of your success.
The tactical wheel.
In fencing, the Tactical Wheel or Tactical Tree is a theory or philosophy that teaches that each tactic will defeat the one before it, and be defeated by the one following, if executed properly. Think of it as an endless game of Rock/Paper/Scissors – rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, and so on. By assuming your opponent’s attack while planning yours, you can make your choice as to what moves you will use in the bout.
In other words, by assuming your opponent will present scissors, you can choose rock. If you see that he or she chose scissors twice in a row, you can then assume they’ll chose something else for the next round, and so on.
This is how it works in fencing:
Simple Attack (an attack executed as one quick action) is defeated by:
Parry and Riposte (defending with the blade and/or distance, and then attacking), which is defeated by:
Compound Attack (an attack executed with multiple “feints” to close distance and draw out the final parry), which is defeated by:
Counter Attack/Attack on Preparation (a timed Simple Attack into the early, non-threatening phase of the Compound Attack), which is defeated by:
Counter Time (a feint or preparation used to draw the Counter Attack so the ATTACKER may then make Parry and Riposte), which is defeated by:
Feint in Tempo (a compound counter attack used to evade the Counter time), which is defeated by:
Simple Attack (the wheel has come full-circle).
Each of the above actions may also be executed with a specific, pre-determined follow-up action in mind – just like deciding to use “rock” when you suspect that your opponent will be choosing “scissors,” but better yet, your opponent thinks you’re choosing “paper” and is so baited into choosing “scissors.” This philosophy is also used in chess – deliberately setting up your opponent to position a certain piece of theirs into a trap so that you can then capture it. You are making your move to elicit a certain response from your opponent, not to simply score by that move alone.
In other words, you make the first move but plan for it to fail, so that you can follow up with your second move, or second intention.
To make the opponent do what you want him to do is to control the bout. The best and classic example is to initiate a short attack with no intention of landing the touch. The opponent predictably makes a parry followed by a riposte. That riposte is the setup action. It is parried and a counterattack counter riposte is launched, landing the touch.
These types of executions are called Second Intention Actions. Any action that is done specifically to elicit a predictable response from an opponent is second intention.
Fencing champions use distractions or other methods to hinder the opponent’s game, although you of course should never rely on these tactics over your skills with the blade or your footwork.
Some distractions might include changes in footwork tempo and cadence, conversation or absence of blade as opposed to the opponent’s demonstrated preferences, blade work and footwork combinations.
Using time between rounds in direct elimination bouts by interaction with a coach so that the opponent at least thinks that either a definite strategy is being discussed or that he is the subject of conversation can also have a demoralizing and distracting effect on an opponent.
It’s very important that you be ahead of your opponent when planning your blade work. You only have a fraction of a second to score your hit before your opponent.
It’s important to use the element of surprise when planning your moves. This way, your opponent will be caught off guard from not having anticipated your move or response, and therefore will be exploited by your tactic.
As you are trying to catch your opponent off guard or cause him to expose a vulnerable area for your attack, your opponent will be doing the same. Studying an opponent’s reactions and tactics is very important, but your opponent will be trying to read yours as well.
Having self-control and not allowing yourself to get off tempo, or telegraphing your moves and intentions, is vital. Undue nervousness or underestimating your opponent will no doubt give him or her the upper hand for your bout.
Spinning the wheel.
One of the most effective tactics one can use during fencing is to “spin the tactical wheel” and move to a different set of tactics than previously used. Your opponent is probably gauging the things you are doing well – or not so well – during a bout, and by changing your tactics you will then be able to stay one step ahead of him or her, and thereby control the bout – and ultimately have success!