Keeping your fencing distance

Keeping the distance in epee; what does that mean? Why do we never seem to get it right?

The above photo shows the length some coaches need to go to in an attempt to maintain distance.

Every coach can be heard yelling “distance”! We hear it in practice, at competitions and just about any time more than two fencers gather. I confess that I have told parents to occasionally tell their kids this when I’m unable to attend a competition. It can be good advice. But, what are we really talking about?

Good distance in fencing is variable, and dependent on many factors. Let us start with a useful distance needed to control the actions and timing of our opponent. If we fully lunge to our opponents nearest target, and then recover and retreat a half step, we are by definition two actions away from our opponent. This distance provides a buffer zone, time to react to our opponent actions. This distance will however not necessarily accurately describe our opponents distance! Opponents come in different sizes and abilities. We must adjust our distance according to our opponent’s abilities and physical characteristics, be aware of any such differences and adjust our tactics accordingly, to include our opponents relative speed and reaction time, Also, fencers are seldom in a static position. Momentum can also play an important role. Having discovered our optimal distance, we can then attempt to use this to our advantage, moving into and out of this distance to attempt to control the timing of our attacks and perhaps more importantly, the attacks of our opponents.

One common fault I often see is a fencer who, starting with a good distance, allows the distance to uncontrollably collapse. In epee, failed attacks often end in a quick remise or reprise. It is my suggestion to maintain proper distance, even as our attack fails, thereby preserving our ability to offer counter attacks and still avoid fencing at a distance that provides no advantage over our opponent. This is best done by practicing your remise and reprise actions (or 'secondary targets') with considerations of distance as part of your regular training. People do miss and attacks can fail. Too many lessons end with a perfect hit on the coach and we stop. This does not, however, reflect the reality of competition.

Alternatively, we can completely collapse the distance into an infighting situation, if we do so with intention and have the abilities that will offer us an advantage. Avoid the distance where we are vulnerable and have no distinct advantage, such as a distance where both fencers fall into a jabbing contest. Even in infighting we should control the distance!

I hope you can now understand how a coach is almost never wrong in yelling “distance”. Is this advice useful? Much of the time this is not. As an alternative, I try to teach my fencers to see proper distance, specific to actions on the strip, using visual cues or pictures. Think of a video camera zooming in and out - we set our visual cues or pictures to the distances required. When our picture (distance) is correct for the action and any prerequisites pertaining to our opponent are obtained, our decision is made and our success rate will be greatly advanced. Consider, too, that our ability to process pictures is far faster than our ability to process verbally. Thus we improve our response time.

It is indeed hard to speak of distance without context. I will offer this brief and perhaps incomplete attempt. Good distance facilitates and gives advantage to your ability to control the strip under all situations.

It is my intention, as always, to start a conversations rather then provide definitive answers here. Understanding how to use fencing distance effectively is a complex issue. Enjoy the journey.

Thanks for your time,
coach Geoff