31 comments on “There Is No Such Thing as Perfect Technique in Fencing

  1. Excellent post. I was a collegiate rowing coach for many years and I believe rowing is every bit as technically challenging a sport as fencing. I would strive to teach each athlete the fundamentals during their freshman year and then give them to the varsity coachs to develop. The goal of rowing is to get your boat to the finish line first. Nothing more, nothing less. I have raced against very many boats that looked picture perfect on the water but had little success during races. Some of my fastest crews were some of my “ugliest looking” crews.

  2. Excellent post. I was a collegiate rowing coach for many years and I believe rowing is every bit as technically challenging a sport as fencing. I would strive to teach each athlete the fundamentals during their freshman year and then give them to the varsity coaches to develop. The goal of rowing is to get your boat to the finish line first. Nothing more, nothing less. I have raced against very many boats that looked picture perfect on the water but had little success during races. Some of my fastest crews were some of my “ugliest looking” crews.

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  4. Agreed up until “you’ll never get the same touch twice.” You can absolutely get the same touch twice. Four times, even:

    Otherwise, great post! My father always told me about boxing: “it’s not a beauty contest” – and the same is true of fencing.

    • Thanks for reading!
      My counter argument would be that what you’re looking at is not necessarily exactly the same touch. It all depends on how broadly you are defining what “the same” is though I suppose. Sure you can score several times with a beat attack to a certain line of target in the same bout, but the exact execution will tend to be slightly different each time (hence the suggestion that it is futile to focus on technical “perfection”). Maybe the positioning on the strip is different. Maybe reaching the target requires a little more of a reach. Heck, since each touch influences every other touch in a bout to some degree, that fact that you scored on the last touch changes the mental environment as well which will affect a similar action’s execution.

      • The rub is the element of sameness. On the one hand no touch is exactly the same. On the other hand we know what we do well and what has to fall in line to make it work. I want to create very similar conditions with different fencers to lead them into my strongest action.

        The paths may start from different places, but my goal is to take them to the same destination. They all converge at some point, some sooner and some later, the last steps for a favorite action may be nearly identical.

  5. I’ll agrees on the “ugly” touch angle. When I was competing in foil, my best action was a parry 2, riposte.

    It wasn’t pretty by ANY standard…big sweeping motion, my elbow came up, and the parry itself swung way out (I think I hit Peter Bouchard once while he was directing me at PCCs), but I managed to land it more often than not.

    “Do what works” is always a good idea to follow.

    There IS a place for well executed technique (aside from the beginners still figuring out which end of the weapon to hold) — A sabeur waltzing forward with his weapon arm cocked so his blade is pointing into his 4 and is horizontal is BEGGING for a hit to his forearm — but in general, I agree with the post.

    • Thanks for reading! In response I would argue that good technique is only as useful as the underlying strategy it is enabling you to execute. For example, I would argue that the waltzing saberist is displaying great technique if the underlying strategy is to bait the opponent into extending to reach that forearm target and then using that opportunity to beat the blade and take over right of way. I believe that thinking of ‘good technique’ as something unchanging and standard in fencing is what is outdated. Let me know what you think.

  6. “When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void” (Musashi, 1645). The secret of Void is this… there is no perfect technique… I’m glad of reading this article because I was thinking on the same fact about fencing (and other martial arts, Eastern and Western the same), success isn’t just made by training physically a lot (it is necessary, but it isn’t the only framework in fencing), but even more by studying new possibilities and new escenaries in a fencing bout; even if there are essential rules in fencing, there are huge possibilities of making techniques as better as our combat style and our own body may adopt at the moment. Some coaches are also obsessed with making their students practicing against their own “duel cosmovision,” making them being stuck at the moment of confronting their adversaries, possibly the root of the problem with “perfect techniques” is there, in coach-student relationship. Of course, coaches help their students to shape their techniques, but students sometimes need to “play” with flexible strategies and tactics in a bout, even by their own. That will make students’ experiences grow up in a balanced way.

  7. This posting is very true. I knew a fencer who developed the most effective counter-six parry I’ve ever seen, either domestically or internationally. While many fencers can do rapid counter-sixes, the problem is what happens when they eventually make contact with the opponent’s blade. If their momentum carries the parry too far, this either causes the riposte to be delayed too long or allows the opponent to slip off the parry. The fencer that I knew, though, developed the ability to make each circle a distinct action and so was able to come off the parry as soon as he made contact with the opponent’s blade. It was very effective. He worked on this parry until it became a reflex whenever anyone attacked in the high-line. It became the only high-line parry that he practiced. Then, at an important international competition, he met a Russian fencer who had perfected the disengage. I was told that the bout was almost comical. As soon as the referee said “allez” the Russian ran at the American while doing disengages. The American’s parries were just fractionally slower and he’d get hit. His coach and teammates on the sidelines kept shouting “parry four” but the American had made the six parry so reflexive and hadn’t done a four parry for so long that he couldn’t and the bout was over with almost no time elapsed on the clock.

    When I practiced I always spent time working on actions that I did NOT do well. I tried to make them more effective or find situations where they were more effective. It’s important to remember that it’s called practice because you’re suppose to practice then, not try to win. That’s when you should be working on strategies and tactics that you’ll need to win bouts in competition. If I found that there was an action that was particularly effective in practice, I would deemphasize practicing it. If there’s an action that you’re scoring touches on 50% of the time and you figure out ways to make it work 75% of the time you do it, that’s more beneficial than taking an action that you already find successful 75% of the time and work to bring it up to 77%.

    It’s important to realize that no offensive action and no defensive action in fencing can be made 100% effective. For every fencing action, there are at least two counter actions that can be used against it. So you have to work on strategy and tactics so that you know alternate actions that you can do, which of those alternate actions will likely be most successful, and when to switch to them.

  8. Great article. I’m headed out to practice now (sabre) and will use this basic idea. There is a time to use some ‘canned’ moves just to see what’s up with your opponent, but then one needs to make note of things about your opponent that lead to some strategic moves, no matter if you’ve practiced them a lot or not. For me, I notice it takes a bit of courage to do that (“maybe I’ll look clumsy”), but as George Masin said above, practice the things you’re not good at (and after some practice, you won’t look clumsy).

  9. I have to agree that perfect techniques can be rather limiting. Fencing, by its very nature, is a creative and free-flowing sport with a lot of variables and a lot of possibilities. I’ve seen some fencers who are technically very beautiful; their lunges come out to the same point every time, their parries follow the exact same path and angle and leave the point in the most precise and perfect spot, and everything they did was clean, smooth, and gorgeous to see.

    They also were some of the easiest people to fence against, because often they had very little deception worked into their game. After they do their parry or their lunge or their fleche even once, you can figure out their preferred distance, speed, and angle of attack and know that it will almost always be the same every single time. The most difficult fencers I’ve bouted against were not the people who had smooth and clean technique, but were the people who so muddled their actions and struck from so many different and odd angles that you simply couldn’t even begin to predict their next move.

    While perfecting a technique may seem like an admiral goal, I think that it kills the most important creative element in fencing that allows people to adapt in unconventional and off-the-wall ways. It may not be pretty, but it can be pretty darn confusing for your opponent!

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