To truly comprehend fencing—if at all possible, given the breadth of its field— is no small feat. Regardless, it is important to continue to strive toward this goal. The reading of fencing treatises and literature may be of help. In fact, both ancient and modern treatises, provide us with a framework to understand the complexity of fencing with the authors’ attempt to explain this topic. A daunting task indeed, because fencing (and the conditions in which it is practiced) have changed dramatically over time and all indications are that this will continue. Nevertheless, the underlying fundamental elements of fencing have remained unchanged. Years ago, I read for the first time the treatise Il Fioretto (in English, The Foil) published in the 1960s. At that time, this treatise was of seminal importance because it synthesized the conceptual evolution of Italian foil fencing, from the times of Masaniello Parise to the modern times of the 1960s. I recall, as if it were yesterday, being struck by the following words in Chapter VII, page 98 of the Treatise: “To meet its objectives, fencing is based on three fundamental elements: Tempo, Speed (also called Velocity) and Measure (aka distance). I had expected this resounding statement to be dissected over the next several pages but, much to my chagrin, there was nothing more than half a page devoted to it in the entire book! For this reason, over the years I have given significant thought and research to this topic and written much on it. I refer to the links below for two key articles I wrote on Measure and Tempo, published in 2007 and 2009, respectively.
Still missing was an article on Speed (velocity), the third fundamental element. Not surprisingly the most neglected of the three given that the even aforementioned Treatise downplays it by describing it less important than Tempo and Measure -although recognizing its role in completing the fencer’s power.
The term, Speed (velocity), just like Tempo and Measure, have been give different meanings in the fencing context. So, it is important to define it properly.
We know from physics that speed is displacement (distance) over time. In fencing things are a bit more complicated. We can consider the speed of the fencer’s body as a whole to cover the space that separates him from the opponent; this results from the push from his legs, if the distance (measure in fencing jargon) requires it. It is the fencing arm that delivers the hit to the target. Therefore, we must also consider the speed and velocity of the fencing arm in executing the action. The fencing arm during the same complex action, can perform additional movements, using the hand and fingers in what is often called swiftness, another term not well defined.
Fencing arm and legs must cooperate, and this is not restricted to direct actions like the straight trust. It is often necessary to use feints to elude the opponent’s defense and, hence, hand-arm-leg coordination is essential. It is useless to have powerful and very fast legs if their movement is not perfectly coordinated with that of the fencing arm. Besides, even footwork requires considerable coordination; for example, think of an advance and lunge.
In addition to the complexity of hand and foot coordination, the fencer must factor in the speed of the opponent’s action: for example, a double-feint attack must elude two parries. To complicate matters even further, the peculiar characteristics of each weapon and the flexibility of the blade come also into play; in fact, the opponent moves his feet in addition to his blade. All these factors determine the real distance, which is different from the apparent one, because it is determined by the total movements of both fencers.
It is important to distinguish the concept of relative speed which is (a) the sum of the speeds of the two fencers with respect to the fencing strip when they move toward each other or (b) the difference of their speeds if both fencers move in the same direction. This is a key distinction with important implications. Let‘s examine the double touch and the stop hit. If you execute a stop hit moving forward against the opponent, it is easier to score a double touch because you add both speeds. If you execute the stop hit while retreating on the opponent’s attack, then a one-light touch will be the most likely outcome even with a slight advantage of distance and choice of target. But if both fencers move at the same speed (one retreating and one advancing) but for the fact that the strip has a fixed length, the pursuing fencer will never reach the retreating fencer.
Intensity (dynamic fencing)
When viewing a fencing bout, we may perceive it as being slow or dynamic, or it could be judged by the duration of the total action, the variety and speed of all movements as well as back and forth changes in directions by the fencers. Perhaps the best way to characterize a bout is by its intensity or rhythm. Just compare a bout between elite saber fencers with one between elite épée fencers. The intensity of the bout may vary or increase depending on the time remaining on the clock. Accordingly, the bout’s rhythm may intensify toward the end of the bout or when a fencer is pushed to the end of the fencing strip. It may also depend on the advantage to adopt an aggressive offensive, a defensive or counteroffensive stance. For example, attacking in saber is essential and most actions take place at the center of the strip. Each fencer rushes to establish priority to beat the other fencer to the punch. This is reason that saber bouts end quickly.
We must now consider speed that is just scalar (a number). This has more to do with the functioning of our mind—an even more complex matter. That is, the speed it takes the mind to perceive a stimulus and react to it (called reaction time).
The reaction time is limited by the speed of nerve conduction (slightly different from one individual to the next) as well as by the ability to focus and concentrate, which depends on other factors.
This can be defined as a state of alertness, an emotional condition whose reaction time can be assessed and measured. It can vary from half a tenth of a second to two tenths of a second in connection with visual stimuli. The level of attention, which is hard to maintain at a constant level, is responsible for this variance. These preliminary considerations make it clear that the classification of the fundamental elements in three distinct categories is purely academic because Time, Speed and Measure are inseparable. Their current separate classification is just an artifice dictated by our mind, which seems best capable of understanding them intuitively than as one whole. Only by trying to analyze each one we can arrive to an understanding of the whole.
What to do?
We must now answer two questions. The first: how to improve speed? The second: is it always necessary to use the maximum speed? With respect to the first question, it goes without saying that the importance of a comprehensive physical fitness program tailored to fencing is indispensable. In fact, there are many experts and specialists who can help with maximizing the muscular power to improve speed of action. Of greater interest, in my opinion are the other aspects of speed/velocity, which need further development.
Beware of telegraphing your intentions!
The top priority for each fencer is to avoid revealing his intentions to the opponent. In other words, it is important to avoid premonitory movements that would allow the opponent to anticipate the course of action. To that end, it is essential for the fencer to be able to relax (fencers must train themselves to do so) and avoid inadvertent muscle contractions. Indeed, the ability to execute relaxed movements is essential to the execution of effective feints. Let’s not forget though that the opponent is also attempting to “read” behavior and that the fencer can turn the table on him by simulating premonitory movements intentionally to deceive him. My second observation pertains to the ability of being able to quickly recognize the opponent’s premonitory movements. With regard to the ability of anticipating the opponent, I wrote an article on the choice of tempo as well as another one on what to focus our vision on during the bout, which can be found at the link immediately below.
It is important to note that fencing actions are acyclic with each one having its own rhythm. Therefore, even with regard to the choice of tempo the fencer must be able to quickly recognize the start of the sequence of the opponent’s movements; this to be able to intervene in the right tempo. This brings us back full circle to the utmost importance for the fencer to focus his attention by controlling his breathing, relaxing, concentrating on the task at hand and free his mind from distractions and counterproductive thoughts. So, any time spent by the fencer learning these techniques will be well-invested.
The next key question is whether the fencer must always act at maximum speed. The ability to perform at high speed is useful when done at the right moment but it is not always needed, especially when the fencer tries to harmonize his movements with those of the opponent. Besides, the unanticipated reaction of the opponent combined with the distance that keeps changing may require the fencer to accelerate to be able to continue the action, which would be difficult to do if maximum velocity had just been reached during the preceding movement.
Changes in speed/velocity
In fencing, changes in speed/velocity whether positive (acceleration) or negative (deceleration) are more important than maximum velocity. The first part of a bout typically requires a study of the opponent, to assimilate his rhythms; this to be able to have a precise control of the distance. Variations in velocity make control of the distance more difficult for the opponent. Constant high speed—besides being a waste of energy—is more easily controlled than speed that changes abruptly. Therefore, for the fencer It is particularly useful to train to change the speed (slow to fast and vice versa) as well as the direction of the movement; in short, to change the rhythm.
Sudden changes in speed in conventional weapons must take into account their impact on the referee’s perception and determination in establishing the priority (ROW). This is a complex matter, aggravated by an outdated set of rules often subject to too many personal judgments and ever-changing interpretations.
In conclusion, just a few words on the benefit of teaching the beginner to move slow in the lesson. The individual lesson prepares the fencer for the dynamics of the bout. But fencers must first learn new movements including non-congenial ones such as manipulative/deceiving movements of the hand and blade. Although some fencers may learn faster than others, it is best to have the students learn all movements (footwork, hand and hand/feet coordination) slowly so that they can execute them successfully. As the saying goes “he who goes slowly goes surely.” Building the proper foundation is the best recipe for success.