Articoli di Giancarlo Toràn, La Frase Schermistica

Notes about strategy, attention, time, fencing measure, velocity, tactics and feints

I reread this passage from my epee booklets, published more than twenty years ago and then recently resumed in the Notebooks of the Coni School of Sport. I rarely reread my writings from past years.

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that text, to make it more usable and autonomous: it was born as a complement to Mangiarotti’s text, and as an attempt to connect with the foil and saber texts (Pignotti and Pessina), which had become a little too ‘ancient’ compared to the evolution of modern fencing.

While waiting to resume the work in its entirety, I thought it might be useful to re-propose some pieces, perhaps even in other languages. I begin with this, which my friend Lara Ortolani was very kindly available to translate into English: I would like to thank her very much. I also thank M° Elena Merlin for the cover of the article.

The topics covered are many, you can read them in the title. My idea is that it is no longer possible to limit oneself to ‘seeing’ fencing only under the technical-mechanical aspect.

The mental aspects are the most significant and important and mark the difference to be valued, compared to other sports, to make fencing always attractive and fascinating.


Strategy is the rational planning of one’s actions, depending on the situation, to achieve a pre-established goal, possibly at the minimum cost.

While preparing or elaborating a strategy, we have to possess or obtain the necessary information on the existing situation (circumstances, knowledge of one’s own means and of the opponent). We will have to take into account the variability of the situation, trying to modify it in our favour, and modifying the strategy as circumstances change: strategic or planning activity continues, as much as possible, in parallel with motor activity.


The purpose of the strategy is subordinated to the goals of fencing: to defend and offend and, therefore, the simulation, the investigation, the preparation subordinated to all of them. A strategy can be defined as a program, which contains various subroutines. Among the subordinate programs, one of the most important is the programming of the opponent’s actions: tactics.

The opponent’s programming takes place by intervening on his data processing method: firstly, by providing him with false information, through feints and by hiding and limiting the true ones; secondly, placing him in the position of having to decide in the presence of insufficient or false information and in conditions of high space-time pressure; thirdly, by exploiting the limits of his attention span.

Let’s begin with this last factor.

Attention is, first of all, a filter that selects the objects or events on which the senses are focused. The advanced athlete is able, much more than the inexperienced one, to select the significant stimuli, ignoring the others: in this way he is able to limit the costs (time taken, number of errors, load of the processing system) of his mental work. In the learning of the technique, and even more of the tactics, it is therefore important to help soon the student to recognize and reproduce or hide these stimuli. Secondly, attention has a limited capacity, both in the sense of the quantity of events that it can simultaneously deal with, and in the intensity of its activation. One can remain very attentive only for brief moments, and these are inevitably followed by short periods in which the attention relaxes. Hence the importance of being able to provoke moments of tension, to take advantage of subsequent moments of relaxation, in which reflexes appear to be very slowed down. From these data we can also understand the importance of an active rather than a passive role: those who are active, and therefore provoke, choose the moments of maximum attention, because they know their real intentions. Who is passive, except in cases of evident technical tactical disparity, is forced to a greater expenditure of mental energy, because he does not know whether the provocation will be followed by the blow, and will have to activate more, for longer time. Reacting, or predicting and therefore anticipating, are therefore two different ways, which involve costs, and therefore different expenditure of mental and physical energy. In fencing, fundamental importance has always been attributed to the time factor, and then to the choice of time, which require particular attention.

The processing of information leads to the choice of a motor act, and requires time and information. In fencing, the time available to decide is very limited, and the information is, in large part, deliberately distorted. The risk of error is therefore high, and strongly increases with decreasing, even minimal, of the available time. Below a certain limit, the processing system must give way to automatisms, because it is no longer able to produce decisions except with unacceptable delays, in the face of the velocity of action to be countered.

Now let’s see what the transition from one to the other modality depends on, and the relationships between time and measure.

Reaction time and choice of time are two extremely important factors in fencing, and it is necessary to fully understand the difference between the two. Given an unexpected stimulus, and only one reaction (or response) required at the appearance of the stimulus (simple reaction time), there is a time between the first (the stimulus) and the second (the reaction) that cannot go beyond a certain physiological limit: let’s say, as an order of magnitude, around a tenth and a half of a second, one hundred and fifty milliseconds. The variability of this time is due to many factors, including the sensory channel chosen (visual, tactile, acoustic stimulus, etc.) and the intensity of attention (data of extreme importance, for the reasons set out above). With the increase in the number of stimuli and possible responses, time also greatly increases and the accuracy of the response decreases. Only in one way it is possible to go beyond the physiological threshold of the reaction time: knowing in advance, and therefore predicting, the moment in which the expected stimulus will occur. In this case it will be possible to reduce even to zero, or even to negative numbers, the delay between stimulus and response.

In this case we will talk about the choice of time. We will find abundant possibilities of examples in all cyclic events, which have their own rhythm (games with the rope, with the ball, etc.). The rhythms of fencing are less evident, but equally identifiable and exploitable. Choosing the time in fencing therefore means identifying and predicting the exact moment of the beginning of one’s motor response, which in turn involves a not negligible execution time. It is therefore also necessary to synchronize one’s motor response with the rhythm of the other, to ensure that the two motor acts interact in the desired way. And since motion occurs in a space, which in fencing we call measure, we will now deal with this factor, which is essential in the study of all fencing actions.


The distance, or measure, established between the opponents at the beginning of an assault, when the offensive strategies are still not well defined, is wide enough to allow everyone to react (reaction time) to an unexpected initiative of the other, retreating. However, this distance is limited by the need to carry out effective investigative action, which must be conducted closely. Therefore, during the elaboration phase, the distance from the opponent (control measure) is, as a rule, just greater than that necessary for effective action (action measure). The preparation phase tends to reduce to a minimum the difference between the two distances, determining a passage measure between the two, which we can define as a critical point. Beyond this point (larger measure) it is possible to control the movements of the other, exploiting the mechanisms of the reaction time (first the stimulus, then the response). Beyond the critical point (smaller measure), the reaction time is too high: whoever has foreseen, acts in time; who has not foreseen, reacts resorting to automatisms, which are the fastest answers among those available and suspending the processing system. When the critical point is reached, there are two possibilities to choose from in the shortest time possible: going back or launching the resolving action. The first is chosen when the conditions found are not those expected and when the voluntary programming activity of the other is in progress. On the other hand, the second is chosen when the conditions found are those required. The shortness of the passage time for the critical point therefore requires for it to be reached having foreseen it: the choice of time is required in advance in predicting the occurrence of the favourable measurement condition. The assault begins in large measure conditions: for an offensive action to be possible, at least one of the two must take the initiative to shorten it. The following cases can occur:

  • Fencer A wants to shorten the measure, B doesn’t want that to happen. A can succeed thanks to a greater acceleration, or by taking advantage of the (casual or induced) inattention of the other, or by pushing him to the bottom of the platform, or by taking advantage of B’s need to recover, in the pauses of A’s initiative, the lost ground. B, on the other hand, can succeed in the intent, but for limited periods, moving back; placing the other in an unexpected situation (weapon’s placements, counter-initiative) every time he reaches the critical point. This is the typical situation of actions of concealment for contaiment, against the attack initiative. A tries to overcome the control of B’s measure, which in turn tries to nullify the conditions required and prepared by A to launch the decisive action.
  • A and B want to shorten the measure, each of them on his own terms (measure, time, and weapon’s placements). In this case, perhaps the most common, initiative and counter-initiative are balanced, alternating, until at least one of the two fails.
  • A and B want to tighten the measure, under the same conditions of time and placement. In this case, the shorter measure is accepted because both are convinced that they have identified the right opposition, or that they have successfully programmed the opponent. Upon entry in fencing measure, both planned actions start and compare.

In every case, the resolving action can end in a failure of both: then generally automated actions follow  (replacement and second hits, or counter-parries) and unforeseen actions, up to the referee halt, or to the signaling of the hit, or when returning to a larger measure.

Velocity has always been considered one of the fundamentals of fencing along with the measure and the choice of time. We can now better define its meaning. Controlling the opponent and preventing him from controlling us are two fundamental operations of the fencer: for an action to be successful, both are necessary. The control follows the stimulus-response mechanism: from a starting situation (long measure), the attempt to reduce the measure follows (because there is time to do so, given the measure) the choice to lengthen it again, or to accept the exchange. In this second case, the continuation of the action, from the shortest measure, is in time: the two motor programs confront each other automatically and the better one wins.

The one who has the initiative and the one who suffers it, they both control, until one of the two manages to overcome the control of the other, preventing it from being able to maintain the desired measure and preventing synchronization. Synchronizing with the other, only mentally or even from a motor point of view, is an effective way to get to the actions performed in time, always preceded by a control phase, in which the movement follows, and therefore does not accompany that of the other. Think, for example, of an attack while marching, countered by an effective parry and response: already in the preparation movement one can observe a certain synchronization of the movements of the two opponents, which becomes perfect at the moment of the parry, in which the two blades meet just in time for the attack to be deflected. To be successful, the attacker must avoid the success of this synchronization process. The main means of achieving the goal is the variation of the rythm of action.

Varying the rythm means varying the speed (increasing it, or even less frequently, decreasing it) of the forward or backward movement (due to the legs), or of the only armed arm, or both.

Maximum speed has a high cost and cannot be sustained for long; moreover, it makes it more difficult to coordinate the movement of the arms with that of the legs and leads in a short time to a decline in accuracy. In fencing it is more appropriate and exact to speak of acceleration, which gives the measure of the passage from one speed to another different: the change of rythm. A high basic rythm causes a considerable waste of energy and favors those with greater resistance. A slow rythm makes greater accelerations possible and favors the more technical and more thoughtful fencer. Finally, the sudden accelerations are suitable to induce alarm the other, overloading his attention capacity; slowdowns, on the other hand, lend themselves to loosening the vigilance of the other, in particular immediately after an overload phase.


Tactics is the study and application of actions that aim to program the opponent’s actions, so that they are predictable and are to our advantage. It is not possible to obtain such a result at a reasonably limited cost without an involuntary collaboration of the opponent, who will provide it only if deceived; or, without benefiting from a considerable technical and physical advantage, over an opponent rather inexperienced on a tactical level.

The main actions that are used in order to deceive the other and provide him with false information are the feints, simulations of actions that require precise time and measurement conditions to be effective: they must be performed when passing through the critical point.

The feints are of two types: technical feints and tactical feints.

The technical feints include simulations of blows and provocations, but immediately precede the conclusive action of offense (eg: feint direct and disengagment, feint by parry and arrest) or defense (eg: feint by arrest and parry; feint by search of the blade and parry). They are called technical feints because they are performed when the expected reaction, of an automatic type, is highly probable (observation, previous programming), while the technique used as the opposite includes the feint and the final offensive action.

The tactical feints are precisely those that aim at the acquisition of information (probing actions), and not at concluding with the offensive action; and to the opponent’s programming, through a double mechanism: clear and repeated feints, to obtain that the other prepares a specific action, chosen from those he prefers or is able to perform (actions of concealments for preparation); unclear and varied feints, to disturb and prevent the programming of the other (actions of concealments for contaiment). In this type of feint, even the variations in size lend themselves to being simulated, together with variations in body attitude that have the specific purpose of affecting the opponent’s attention skills.

by Giancarlo Toràn

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