I’m not too sure that many people understand these are two different things. But conceptualizing your fencing in terms of your “game” and your “game-plan” can help you get more value from your practices and formulate a better strategy in competition.
Even if they might succeed with a specific action or set of actions, far too many fencers (especially young juniors and cadets) have no real idea about why they are doing what they are doing. They take a lot of lessons which is great for instilling certain automatic responses to frequent situations, and they tend to have a concept about general strategy. For example, they might understand that they need to be patient or work to grab the opponent’s blade in a 6 bind to score a touch. However, because the fencer and/or the coach doesn’t conceptualize what they are doing in terms of synergy between their game and game-plan, it becomes that much harder for them to understand what’s really going on. As a result, when bout conditions change they are less effective at adapting their strategy than they could be.
Let me start by explaining what I mean by a “fencing game”.
When I talk about someone’s fencing game, I am referring to how they fence. Everyone approaches this part a little differently. Some coaches specialize in teaching a certain way of fencing to all of their students. Then (ideally) they adapt this approach to match their student’s strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Other times a coach will build a new game from scratch that works for each specific fencer depending on their abilities.
Each fencer develops a way of fencing over time with the help of their coach whether they think of it this way or not. But to really understand how they fence requires both the fencer and the coach to understand and articulate precisely why he executes his movements a certain way. What advantages and disadvantages are there to fencing this way? What are the mistakes that the fencer is most likely to make with this approach?
For example, a fencer may be most comfortable in a stance where he has most of his weight positioned over his front foot. This could certainly be an excellent technical approach so long as this positioning is chosen by design and the fencer and coach understand the strengths and weaknesses of fencing this way. By positioning the body weight disproportionately over the front foot, the fencer can push off of that leg faster than someone in a more balanced position for a fleche attack our counter tempo action. This positioning can facilitate faster smoother transitions from a preparation to the final fleche while also pulling the leg and foot target more safely under the fencer. However, this weight distribution makes it harder to shift direction and move backwards if the fencer finds himself out of distance (in all likelihood they will need to lean their weight backwards at some point which takes additional time). The positioning also primes the fencer to extend to more of a low-line target than they otherwise would and makes it a bit more difficult to close off the high-line target area. If the fencer feels most comfortable in this leaned over body position and understands these strengths and weaknesses, he might build a fencing game that he can apply to any bout that is predicated on setting up that moment where he transitions from preparation to finish. To compensate for the weaknesses of the stance, he might decide situations where he is surprised and has to retreat while giving him the time and space necessary to take advantage of opportunities to utilize his quick transitions.
So, now that a fencer has his game, how does he develop it into a game-plan?
By having a clear understanding of the fencing game, you are establishing a baseline that frames your game-plan in individual bouts. Whereas your fencing game is your overall style and approach you bring to every bout, your game-plan is the adaptable strategy you mold to fit individual bouts and situations. For example, say that the opponent makes a change and you are getting hit on the same action you were successfully using before. This could be because of any number of variables and there are just as many possible ways you could change your game plan in the bout to try and turn it around.
By thinking of the problem in terms of your fencing game, you distill the number of options you need to consider to only the changes that fit within your game. Instead of having to mentally process the hundreds or different tactical & technical adjustments you could potentially make (or randomly thinking through a small subset based only on what comes to mind in that moment), you can focus exclusively on adjustments that are optimal within your already established fencing game.
Thinking of your game plan within the context of your game ensures that you make changes that still play to your strengths. Consider a fencer like the one I was describing earlier. He struggles to close out in the high line because his body position is leaned forward over his front foot. If he’s getting hit in the shoulder when he starts his preparation, changing his game plan to focus on taking a more pronounced 6 parry puts him in an uncomfortable position and might not work for him given his strengths and weaknesses. Forcing the actions to take place at a bigger distance would instead give him the necessary space to force the opponent’s blade into the low line instead. Changing the game plan this way is a better strategic fit for the fencer’s game.