One of the most important elements of tactical thinking in fencing is deciding what distances you want to use to frame your (and your opponent’s) actions.
It is never enough to say, “Now I will try parry-riposte,” or, “Next I will do a beat-attack.” Even if you rely almost exclusively on foreseen actions, distance and timing considerations are significantly more important than deciding what action to do next. Understanding how different distances affect a bout allows you to properly choose actions–as well as influencing the actions your opponent may choose.
A good way to help you to think tactically in terms of distance is to categorize your actions (including, even, preparatory actions) according to distance.
Take, for example, defensive actions in sabre*. Common defensive actions include parry-riposte, escaping, counter-attack, and attack-in-preparation. (Naturally, this list is not complete.)
You can categorize these four actions as being either short or long distance actions:
In other words, you have to be relatively close to your opponent if you want to execute parry-riposte or attack-in-preparation, and relatively far from your opponent if you want to escape to make his attack fall short, or counter-attack.
It’s important then to approach your control of the distance accordingly. If I wish to score with a parry-riposte or attack-in-preparation, I know that I will need to fence more closely to my opponent. By fencing closely, I can also expect my opponent to use more direct attacks with short explosive lunges.
Of course, if I’ve limited my opponent to using short distance attacks, my long distance defense is far more likely to be successful. Which is why you have to be controlling distance and not just keeping distance. You need to be actively changing the distance between you and your opponent. Changes in distance and rhythm are what allow you to surprise your opponent (surprise is the essence of timing in fencing).
You must also take into consideration what your own strengths are. Are you most successful with short-distance actions or long-distance actions? This will help determine how close you should generally be from your opponent. A fencer who fences extremely well in close distance should generally, even when fencing “far away”, be relatively close to his opponent.Rather than allowing the actions he wants to use determine the distance he fences in, he should have the distance he fences in determine the actions he uses.
By using your distance to limit your opponent’s choices, and by knowing your own strengths, you’ll be able to create a framework that allows you to control the bout. Once you create that framework, choosing your next action becomes much simpler, because you have significantly limited the possibilities.
If you find that certain actions aren’t working, rather than scrambling for another action to try, first reassess the distances you’re using and how you are changing them.
Start looking at all fencing–yours and your opponents’–as being comprised of distance frameworks and you’ll find your tactical understanding grow significantly.
*These concepts are applicable to all weapons (and, of course, to both offense and defense). I am only choosing sabre for simplicity and sex-appeal. This kind of distance-based tactical thinking is especially important in epee–though due to the nature of the weapon, it can be more complicated. Johan Harmenberg touches on the tactical use of distance in epee in his excellent (though ridiculously titled) book, Epee 2.0.