Are you obsessed with fencing?

Photo on 2010-12-04 at 08.49

I annoy my wife, more then I ever intend to. Lucky for me, she is a wonderful and forgiving soul. I hope your so lucky.

It seems I have this habit, well lets limit the field of inquiry a bit, I get lost in thought thinking about fencing. The manifestations of this are many, I suspect she could list them faster then I can disengage your parry. One outwardly thing I do, is unconsciously, I do counter parries, disengagement and the like at inappropriate moments. I will be sitting next to my wife, say watching TV or listening to my mother in law and my hand is doing all this fencing stuff. For some reason she thinks I’m not listening, go figure! Yes, sometimes I practice fencing the cat ( I only use my finger, using an epee would be unfair). I also forget things, things I’m supposed to do. Like now for instance, I’m supposed to be cooking dinner, I remembered because of the burning smell coming from the kitchen. For the record, I want to try and finish this post first, I’ll deal with that issue later.

I am not the only one suffering with fencing obsessions. I work with kindly coach Dan, he will gladly spend his rent money on fencing equipment. I have a student that confessed to trying to flèsche, in her sleep. Another friend who must miss hours of work each week so he can attend to “more important fencing related things”.

The list goes on, my wife and I are looking at buying a new home, she looks at bathrooms and bedrooms and crown moulding. I figure out how many strips I can fit in the basement (or living room). I personally own three FIE left handed epee, I’m right handed, but just in case I loose an arm, I’m all set! In my car I typically have 20 epee, 20 jackets, 12 masks, three fencing machines and reels for each, a fencing dummy, an electric target, jump ropes and other assorted training stuff. You never know when this stuff will come in handy. It’s a crazy obsession I know.

What can I say? I love the sport and I hope I’m not alone. If you're thinking of fencing strategies in the shower, you’re with me. If your dream of fencing or If, for your birthday you ask for more German tips, you’re with me. If your, ….. oops!
I smell smoke …. got’s to go!

coach Geoff

Fencing's "death grip" revisited

Austraian Womens Rapier team 1888

Your grip can effect your fencing in more ways then you suspect.

How we hold our epee can dictate our actions and even our tactics! A bold statement, I surely have some explaining to do. Let me start with the dread death grip, not the secret way to extinguish our foes, rather a way we unintentionally limit our own fencing options.

Holding the grip in the typical white knuckle
manner reduces both our feel for the blade but also limits the use of the fingers (manipulators) to control fine actions such as the disengagement of the blade. Such a forced grip requires us to use the wrist and arm for these actions. This in turn creates larger, more sweeping and powerful hand and wrist actions. Larger hand/wrist actions tend to open target areas on the hand , wrist and arm. It also can negatively effect our point control, making attacks to our opponents hand, wrist and arm a riskier target.

The net results of these factors, instigated by our use of the death grip, must be compensated in some fashion if we hope to obtain any results. To overcome exposure of our hand as a target, we need to shorten the fencing distance. This need for a shorter distance is compounded by our need to reach a deeper target, due to reduced effective point control and the difficulty in hitting the hand. Fencing at a constantly short distance can have many unintended consequences. One consequence may be how it opens us up to one action attacks against us. I would add that this reduced fencing distance, limits our ability to use tempo, timing and even second intention actions can be more confined.

Fencers habitually using the death grip may well decide to quickly close distance in an effort to reduce the opponents ability to press the advantage at longer distance. The fencer may use of the flèsche, with our without action of the blade is to minimize his exposure. Infighting is also expected and in some instances welcomed by the death grip fencer.

A relaxed grip on your epee will allow for manipulation of the blade without loss of speed or point control. This allow us to control the momentum of the blade better. The result is we can change blade direction faster, as well as respond to our opponents actions faster. We can reserve our stronger grip for those times were it’s benefits dictate its use in specific actions. The proper use of our fingers, and proper grip, facilitate the disengage, and better control of parries and riposte’s will result as well.

I’m going to suggest that when selecting a grip, it is advisable to use a smaller one then you may otherwise be inclined to select. My observation is that the popular pistol grips, if to large, can hinder a relaxed hand position. In effect, they lock the hand into one position, promoting the death grip. Certainly not everyone will agree with the opinions expressed in this post. I do however, stand by it based on long observation of students with this unfortunate habit. From across the room I often can tell, by their fencing style and tactics, that they are holding the epee to tight.

Relax my friends,

coach Geoff

Fencing equipment repair and maintenance


Frustration, distraction and lost points, even disqualification all await us if our fencing gear is not up to requirements listed in the rule book. Even safety is compromised.

Some of us are intimidated by all those screws and wires. The idea of gluing a wire is perceived to be akin to putting a man on the moon. Why bother, you can alway ask your coach, mom, dad, wife, husband, friend to fix it for you,
when they have the time. Just remember to be nice when the equipment fails inspection, or fails to arrive on time. Hey, you get what you pay for.

Do it yourself! Wow, what an idea!

To build up a foil,
epee or sabre from nothing but parts is not hard, all you need it a few tools, and a systematic approach. A plethora of how to videos abound to. In case you failed to notice, I have links all over this paragraph, to really help you learn everything you possibly need to know on the subject. All you really need to be is willing to try. Trouble with body cords? Let this link guide you guide you. Lots of repairs can be avoided with, what in the army we called, preventative checks and maintenance. Check for loose screws after ever bout. Tighten any connections or loose grips. Insure that the barrel is tight. Anything that you can’t repair on the spot should be marked, I use tape, and include what the issue is if possible. This will be a big help later when you're trying to remember what failed the test. Always check everything every time you fly with your equipment. Assume any equipment lent out will be returned in unusable condition, check it out as well.

You need a tool kit!
it can be simple or more complete (as noted in the drawing an empty tool kit is annoying but not as annoying as someone that constantly borrows tools). A repair kit needs spare parts too. Screws and springs and extra tips at a minimum.

Not ever issue can be repaired. It is my opinion, if the wire mesh on your mask is compromised (dented, mesh wire broken or loose) it should not be repaired. You can have your mask tested at any major competition, or test it yourself if you have the needed equipment. When in doubt, toss it out. It is not worth the risk. While small holes in gloves can be repaired, the repair never last to long, if my experience is a guide. I prefer to replace worn out gloves. Jackets and knickers usually fail at a seam and can be repaired with strong thread. Do a neat clean job of it, otherwise the repair will snag when hit with the point?

Always follow washing instructions, stretch material does not like bleach! Also be advised that the straps on knickers and jackets can get hung up inside a washing machine. Secure those straps or hand wash. Also avoid high heat with the dryer. Sweaty jackets an epee blades don’t like each other. Separate them, you can put the damp clothes in a bag or use PVC pipe to protect the blades. Hang up your stuff and let it air as soon as possible. Even fencing shoes deserve to be aired out, please!

from your gear guy,
coach Geoff

One action wonder-kin?


We have all seen it, many of us have been guilty of it at some time.

Some novice, and even some not so novice fencers, OK, regrettably a few veteran fencers as well, perceive fencing success as just finding the right fencing
actions or move. I refer to One Action Wonders (OAW) (fencers that rely one or two fencing actions, to answer any and all fencing situations they happen to encounter). They almost universally, are stuck at their current level, trapped, trying harder and harder to improve their standings, only to find frustration. Laking a certain depth in their game, no matter how skilled their action may be, they are venerable to defeat once an opponent figures it out.

It is my opinion that a fencer well practiced in the basics, a student that understands distance, timing, tempo, that has developed excellent point control and excels at parries and such, will have a foundation capable of enhancement by means of tactics and strategy. It is the use of tactics and strategy, that in the end often spell doom for our OAW. It is sometimes forgotten that we should fence different fencers in different ways, never more so then by our OAW. In short, gimmicks and shortcuts will in the longterm fail to achieve the kind of consistent results we desire.

The proper use of
second intention can often draw out or OAW. Really, if we know what the OAW is going to do, and know when it will happen, we can use this knowledge to our favor. We can also deny our OAW the prerequisites needed to perform their action. The OAW’s prerequisites can include but certainly are not limited to distance, tempo, blade position, preferred parries or counter attacks, even our offensive or defensive tendencies.

It is seldom advisable, nor very efficient use of your time, to allow the OAW to do his or her thing without preparation. After all this is their specialty, their area of strength. We should however, all keep in mind that
every action has a counter action. This last sentence alone should be enough to suggest that being a “one action wonder” is bound to fail. Don’t be a OAW!

coach Geoff

What is the correct distance in epee?


“He who controls the spice controls the universe” Dune1984

For epee, lets
replace the word spice, with distance. I suspect every coach you ever had, complained about your distance at some point. You may have been perplexed, because it appeared that no matter what distance you maintained, your coach kept calling out “distance” and shaking his head in sorrow.
One way to calculate distance is
c55948e0fcfa94340a848daf23cafadb ………well, it’s not my cup of tea.

What is the correct distance in epee? We have several ways to look at it. However we look at it, the answer is situational. My distance will generally be different with a 6ft 8 inch fencer compared to the 5ft 2 inch fencer. You see the distance my opponent can successfully hit me with one fencing action is important. I consider this the danger area, as I may be hit faster then I can respond, and I just hate that. This attack could be a simple lunge or even a flèche, but unless I have a reason to be in my opponents danger area, it may be better to avoid it. We will address how and why we need to step into this hornets nest in a moment.

Another factor that effects proper distance is our own ability to deliver a hit on our opponent within one action. Often the danger area of my opponent is not the same as our own. If our ability to deliver an attack in one fencing action is greater then our opponents, well happy days, stay outside of the opponents danger area and try to keep them in yours! So what to do if this situation is reversed? You’re going to need to keep out of your opponents distance, but how will you score if you can’t get past the giant opponents long reach?

Using distance as a dynamic tool, rather then a static fixed distance, is the answer my friends. As we fence, keeping in mind our danger areas, we both push the distance and pull the distance with our opponent, to create moments of opportunity that allow for successful actions to be made or to deny our opponents actions. This constant changing of our distance between fencers is alway dynamic and changing. It is best done with purpose and intent, as mindless moving around is, well it sure’s not a good thing. An important point to observe, is when our opponent changes direction, to be more precise, when our opponent commits to the action, particularly changing from retreat to advance. This is a classic moment in time and space that we can exploit, to quickly close the distance. We can anticipate our opponents change in direction, if we set up the situation correctly. We can establish a pattern of behavior, that offers our opponent an “opportunity” to wrongfully predict our actions, all the while we really are setting up our opponents response. Sneaky isn’t it!

We have many options available to deceive our opponent and gain an advantage with distance.
Changes in tempo, using cadence or changing the length of our actions or even using our opponents actions for our advantage, is vital. Little tricks, used outside of tempo or with tempo can help obscure the perceived distance of our opponent, and can include but are not limited to, absence of blade, compound footwork, body language, feints, the list is endless. Second intention is widely used to close distance for or final attack. Second intention is, I grant, a topic of greater scope then just controlling distance but never less is an effective tool by all accounts.

The bottom line is that distance and timing are closely related. Any action done at the wrong distance, will more often then not fail. Controlling distance, judging distance, exploring your opponents distance is how we set up offense as well as defense.
The correct fencing distance must be a factor of my intentions and my opponents predicted response. Pass the melange please ;)

Let’s talk again soon.
coach Geoff

Fencing footwork basics, changing direction

As a life long philosophy, when things go poorly, as they are want to do, I find returning to the basics, at the most fundamental level of any endeavor, quickly exposes weaknesses, and suggests the solution to whatever problems that I happen to face.

I think it is in our nature to over complicate things. To apply clever solutions, to apply repairs on top of repairs, that may, give short term fixes to be sure. At some point however, the underlying issues will reemerge. To this point, lets review the basics of our sport. In this instance lets review the most basic of footwork skills, the advance and retreat.

The ability to control the distance to our opponent, in both a controlled and dynamic fashion, for the purpose of both defense and offensive purposes. To accomplish this we need to control both speed and momentum. In the flèche, we combine both speed and momentum, however often these so forces conflict with each other. The need to change direction quickly and preferably faster then your opponent is a vital skill in controlling the distance and timing needed to attack your opponent and defend yourself. Controlling momentum and at the same time moving quickly is a matter of balance, or better put, weight distribution, and the use of high cadence footwork, consisting in this case of small steps. In my experience fencers that rely on longer steps often have related issue with controlling distance. Those with poor weight distribution will manifest two distinct faults in my opinion. Every time they change direction they lose a tempo or more to an otherwise equal opponent. Further, upon a hasty retreat you often see a fencers hips retreat faster then their legs, by this I mean to say that the back leg will end up forward go the hip, with a resulting loss of balance and control. If the attacker somehow fails to deliver a hit, our out of balance fencer will still be in a poor position to press a counter attack.

Proper footwork should alway be associated with a good on guard position. The forward toe should point towards the opponent. The knee should be in alignment with the toe. This alignment continues, an imaginary line can be drawn, if we look into a mirror, that intersects the nose, knee and foot. The arm should be in a proper sixth position with the tip in line with the center line I just described. The torso should be upright and balanced. Shoulders relaxed and level, in fact everything above the waist should be relaxed.

I have found that
the answer to both a quick retreat and changing direction from retreat to advance is more efficient, if we reach back with the rear leg on each retreat to an almost to full extension. This allows our hips to stay forward of the back foot. When changing direction, extending the rear leg allows us to plant the rear foot firmly, in opposition with the forces of momentum yet maintaining balance , while at the same time lifting the front foot, allowing gravity to assist use in fighting momentum and changing direction it, to a proper position to defend ourselves or advance if need be. We can keep our torso from leaning forward as well, thus minimizing the effects of a body flailing away like a crash test dummy. The weight shifts slightly to the front foot allowing us to use our powerful quad muscles to full effect, the back foot reaching back and acting somewhat as a rudder. When practicing footwork we should always be mindful of weight distribution and how it relates to controlling momentum. As we move our weight may shift slightly. This should be done with leg position and hips, not by leaning the torso forward, doing so makes it harder and slower to recover or change direction. The goal is a balanced, fluid and dynamic control of distance.

Practice footwork, should include advancing and retreating, with focus on the changes in direction, being made as efficiently as possible. Footwork drills should also include working on distance. A drill that has shown results for me, is to pair your students, preferably by size. At a normal fencing distance, one side advances trying to catch the retreating opponent. The coach will randomly call change, at such time roles reverse, the retreater becomes the chaser. This is repeated as long as good form is maintained. It will quickly show those that need to work on how they change direction!

Further analyses of half steps, cross overs and related footwork, should also relate to the principles that we have discussed, balance and control of our selves and the distance to our opponent.
Other ways to improve footwork

One step at a time,

coach Geoff