In The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi writes, “In battle, if you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.” This idea is at the heart of tactics in fencing. In order to control an opponent and properly frame the bout, fencers have to be able to do more than just respond to their opponents’ choices. They must force their opponents to react.
Many people often think of creating a reaction as an idea that only applies to feints or second-intention actions. In fact, the majority of what we do in a bout should be designed to elicit responses from our opponent. The way we maneuver, the movements of our blade, what distance we fence in, our body language, even how we choose to leave the en garde line when the referee says, “fence,” all present opportunities for us to draw a reaction from our opponent. That reaction might be something quite obvious (such as in the examples of effective feints or second-intention actions) or it might be far more subtle. Affecting how assertively the opponent fences or what part of the strip he uses, for example, can be much more devastating than drawing a parry with an effective feint–partly because those kinds of reactions are more likely to go unrecognized for what they are, but also because they affect the rest of our opponent’s choices (eg. a fencer who has backed up to the end of the strip is not going to make the same choices as one who is in the middle).
Understanding the likely reactions to the situation he’s created (based on an understanding of common responses as well as knowledge of an individual opponent’s preferences) coupled with good technical-tactical skills, allows a fencer to be a moment ahead of his opponent. If, for example, a fencer uses sharp changes in distance (including half-steps, small hops, etc.) to make his opponent nervous while he prepares his attack, it will be much easier to parry the attack than if the fencer were to simply back up and wait for the action to come, hoping his parry will be at the right time and place.
Fencing, like all combat sports (as well as team games), relies heavily on motor responses while under time pressure. The goal in creating a reaction is to take advantage of that fact. The opponent does not have time to consider and compare various responses–this is one of many ways that the analogy to chess is so ill-fitted to fencing. In order to best control the opponent, a fencer wants to create situations that the opponent responds to immediately and without thinking. In a sense, you want to make your opponent flinch.
Here’s a simple exercise you can do to improve your tactical understanding and ability to create reactions:
Write down profiles of some of the fencers you routinely encounter–these can be teammates from your club as well competitors you regularly see in competitions. While you should, of course, include their favorite actions, the profile should have far more depth. What part(s) of the strip do they generally fence on? What do they do when they are there? How do they react when they get nervous? What sorts of things generally make them nervous? How do they react to a fencer who is very aggressive? How do they react to a fencer who is less aggressive? You want to create a profile that examines more than just whether or not an opponent likes parries or generally hits to a particular line.
Once you’ve made your profiles, develop different plans that make use of that information. (“I know she gets a little frantic when someone suddenly accelerates into short distance. I’ll do that and finish with a strong beat-attack or feint to take advantage of the loss of control.”) For competitions, it’s best if your plans focus on your own strengths (in practice, of course, you needn’t be so limited). Then, go test your plans out. Through experimenting, you’ll get greater insight into your opponents, allowing you to make even better plans. Even more importantly, your ability to analyze the opponent and the situation will improve significantly, which is essential if you are to effectively control the other fencer.
Remember, as Musashi also said, “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you.”