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Compound Footwork: The Next Step


Footwork is what gets you to the right place to make a touch. Being able to perform multiple footwork actions in a sequence is important both technically and tactically. Should an advance-lunge be two separate actions or one compound action? Read on.

The difficulty of teaching preparations is that they involve compound footwork and a complex combination of technique and tactics. By technique I mean the correct execution of a series of physical actions, for example a balestra which lands balanced or an advance-lunge which flows smoothly and accelerates. By tactics I mean a series of actions which, interacting with the opponent, bring about the ultimate in fencing, namely a one-tempo situation.

Footwork can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Maneuvering – setting a pattern or feeling out the opponent’s rhythm
  2. Closing – actively attempting to reach one-tempo distance
  3. Finishing – lunge or fleche once in one-tempo distance

The discussion of compound footwork here refers to closing and/or finishing footwork.

Initially we teach beginners to jump, then lunge. Advance, then lunge. Jump, then advance, then lunge. Nearly all beginners have the problem that if you tell them to jump-lunge, they will start the lunge before they finish the jump and end up with a mess of feet going random places. Beginners must learn simple footwork motions separately at first in order to get them right.

Advanced beginners are taught to do advance-lunge, jump-lunge, and so forth as units (compound units, but still single “chunked” actions). This is both good and bad. Clearly they must be taught to do a smooth advance-lunge or jump-lunge, because if they do the first part as a preparation and get to the right distance, then pause before they lunge, the opportunity is missed. However, if they always treat an advance-lunge or a jump-lunge as a unit action to be conceived of in advance, they will end up in a situation where they decide that they’re at perfect advance-lunge distance, they do a perfect advance-lunge, but the opponent takes an extra retreat so they lunge into empty space.

The answer to this problem is that except for maneuvering footwork, a piece of compound footwork is solely a technical exercise with no tactical nature.

If I do a jump forward as a preparation (possibly with some blade action to invite a response, though the line problem is subsidiary), I do not know in advance what my opponent’s reaction is going to be. If they crush distance, I may have to retreat. If they don’t retreat in time, I can lunge and hit. If they retreat in time, I must make a further preparation and the problem continues.

Thus I must not conceive in advance of doing a jump-lunge, for example, because the result of the jump may not make the lunge appropriate.

If I jump, then pause to see what the opponent does, then almost by definition their retreat will be in time and an opportunity is lost. So I make the decision of what’s to come after a simple unit of preparation while the preparation is still in progress.

If they don’t retreat in time, the jump becomes the first half of a smoothly connected jump-lunge.

From the outside it looks like I planned to do a jump-lunge from the outset, but in fact only the developing situation turned that jump into a jump-lunge. This develops further as the distance problem stretches into longer and longer combinations of footwork. It may be that I manipulate the distance continuously over a series of several pieces of footwork, stealing an eighth of an inch here, a tenth of a second there, until finally I’ve broken the distance and I get to hit.

From the outside it all flows smoothly together without pause, but nobody should believe that I intended from the very start to do a retreat-jump-advance-fastadvance-longretreat-halfretreat-advance-lunge in order to hit my opponent.

To sum up in a suitably Zen fashion, from a technical standpoint, footwork actions should flow together into a continuous stream without pause, demarcation, or imbalance (unless a pause is itself used as an element to break tempo). But from a tactical and intentional standpoint, each footwork motion stands independent of all others, with no knowledge of what came before or what is yet to come.

What is yet to come only becomes apparent while the current action is progressing.

Copyright © 1998 by Gregory A. Jones
This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and this copyright notice is included.

The Importance of Seeding

The Importance of Seeding, or Why Can’t I Win Any DE Bouts?


When I had only been fencing about a year, I started to become a regular competitor. I went to all the tournaments I could find. I did OK (not great) at the novice and E-and-under types of tournaments, but it seemed like I couldn’t win a direct elimination bout at any major local tournament. I always seemed to get somebody for my first DE whom I couldn’t beat.

As I gained more competition experience (as well as fencing experience and skill, enabling me to place higher in tournaments), I began to realize some of the reasons for why this happened. This article addresses one of those reasons, namely the seeding into the direct elimination. It’s directed mainly at intermediate fencers and beginning serious competitors, who have the ability to place in the middle of the field with the right approach.

Note: I do not discuss repechage in this article, mainly because by the time you get to repechage, you are probably in a field of very strong fencers and the probabilities about whom you’ll fence aren’t very useful anymore.

What is the purpose of a tournament, and a tournament format?

The ultimate goal of any tournament event is to rank all the participants in order of how good they are. If all the participants could be ranked discretely into best, second best, third best, and so on, then a successful tournament format would always place the participants in the final results in that order.

So, one easy answer to why a beginner can’t seem to win his first DE bout is to look honestly at his ability on the tournament day (i.e., take into account whether he’s having a good day or not) relative to the rest of the field. If more than half of the fencers in the tournament are fencing better than fencer X that day, then fencer X should finish in the bottom half of the tournament. All the fencers whose ability on that day is below the median (assuming no byes in this case) should lose their first DE bout.

What’s with the weird assignment of bouts in the DE table, anyway?

At first glance, the pairing of numbers in a direct elimination table may seem random. In fact, it’s structured very carefully.

Assuming no repechage, every direct elimination bout eliminates one fencer from the competition. Each round of direct elimination eliminates half the participants (less in the first round if there were any byes). Those eliminated fencers earn places in the bottom half of the size of that round. For example, in a DE of 32, those who lose their first round bout place 17-32. Those who lose their second bout place 9-16, and so forth. Ranking of fencers within those ranges is based on their initial seeds into the table. For example, in a DE of 32, the only difference between the 17th and 32nd finishers is how they did in the pools – 17th place goes to the highest seed who lost in that round, while 32nd goes to the lowest.

Clearly the best and second best fencers should be kept apart as long as possible, ideally until the final bout (round of 2). If they met in the round of 32, for example, then one of them would have to be eliminated and would place 17th, while other fencers who are not as good would place higher. Similarly, the top four fencers should be kept from fencing each other until the round of four, to ensure that they’re not forced out too early, and so on.

To accomplish this, in each round the top seed fences the last seed, the second fences the second from last, and so on. And from this, we can determine that the initial seeding into the table is very important in determining whom you will fence. This is the real purpose of the round(s) of pools before the DE – to get an accurate seeding so that the top fencers will be kept apart as long as possible and will hopefully survive to the late rounds.


How your initial seed affects whom you’ll fence

Consider a fencer whose ability is exactly at the median of the field of the event – half the fencers in the tournament are better than he is, the other half aren’t. If ratings are distributed evenly through the field, perhaps he’s a C. Assume the field is 32 fencers, so there will be 5 rounds of DE bouts.

Suppose this fencer performs very poorly in the pool and ends up seeded last – 32nd. His first DE bout will be against the top seed. Even if our fencer was just slacking in the pool and can really fence at an ability level of about the median of the field, the top seed is likely to be a much better fencer – say an A. Our fencer’s prospects are somewhat bleak.

Suppose our fencer performs at his expected level in the pool and ends up seeded in the middle – say 16th. His first DE bout will be against the 17th seed, who had a similar performance in his pool and consequently is probably of similar ability. This bout is a toss-up – either might win, but neither is likely to get stomped. However, whoever wins this bout will face the top seed in the second round. If our fencer can defeat his first opponent (who is of similar ability), he will most likely get eliminated by his second opponent and finish 16th.

Suppose our fencer performs well in the pool and ends up seeded fairly high – say 5th. His first DE bout will be against the 28th seed, who is probably far below his ability level and should be easy to beat. His next bout will be against the 12th seed (or the fencer who upset the 12th seed). Since our fencer’s ability level is about equal to the 16th seed, the 12th is not likely to be a vastly better fencer. Our hero may be able to beat this opponent on a good day, and presumably he’s having a good day if he did that well in the pool. Only in the third round will he meet someone such as the 4th seed, who is probably much better. Still, in this case he would finish around 5th.


Get the best seed you can

What conclusion to draw from all this? Although (or perhaps because) DE bouts can be more difficult to win than pool bouts, you should do everything possible to make it as easy as possible. One way to do this is to get the highest seed you can. The higher your seed, the lower the seeds of the opponents you will face. This means that with a much higher seed, you have a good chance of surviving one or two rounds longer before you end up against someone whom you have little chance of beating.

In the pool, everything contributes to your seed. Victories are of course the most important thing. The first criterion for ranking fencers based on pool performance is the ratio of victories to bouts fenced. If you win all your pool bouts, you will seed among the top fencers in the tournament; your worst possible seed is equal to the number of pools. Conversely, by losing all your pool bouts, you guarantee a seed near the bottom of the field.

However, even each touch can have some effect on your seed, because it’s likely that you will be ranked against other fencers in the tournament who have the same ratio of victories to bouts fenced. The next criterion is the “indicator” – hits scored minus hits received. Every touch that you can score on an opponent (even an opponent who eventually beats you) and every touch that you can prevent an opponent scoring on you (even an opponent whom you beat) will improve your indicator. This is especially important if not all of the fencers will be promoted from this round of pools. I have made it to the second round of a tournament based solely on indicators, making the cut by only a couple of touches.

So, in general you should try to get every victory and even every touch that you can. Never assume that an opponent is unbeatable. Particularly in the first round of pools, some of the top fencers may not be fencing their best, either because they don’t feel the need to warm up as much as the devoted intermediate or because they’re saving their energy for the finals; or, you just might have a quirk which they can’t seem to deal with in the space of 5 touches.

It’s equally important to fight for every touch against beginners. If I’m fencing in a tournament that I want to do well in, and I have a pool bout against a ten-year-old who’s been fencing for a month, I will beat him 5-0 if I can. I probably will not fence any more aggressively than necessary to accomplish this (i.e., I probably won’t fleche on every touch and leave adidas treadmarks up the front of his jacket) but I will not let my own seed suffer out of sympathy for an opponent, lest my final placement suffer gravely.



I was presented with a good example of this theory at the 1997 Leon Auriol Open in Seattle. The names of the protagonists have been eliminated for genericity, but they know who they are!

In the men’s épée event, there were 33 fencers. I, a C97, did fairly well in my pool, and I ended up seeded about 5th. My first DE was against a relative beginner, whom I beat fairly easily. My second DE was against an experienced but not very mobile fencer, who is comparable to my own level – I can beat him if I’m having a good day, but he can beat me if he’s having a good day. As it happened, I was having a good day that day and he wasn’t, so I won that one. My third round bout was against one of the several A’s in the field, and he trounced me. I finished 6th.

One fencer whom I fence against often, comparable to my level or a little better (also C97), complained to me afterward about his relatively poor performance – placing 15th. It turned out he was eliminated in the second round of the DE by his coach (a very experienced B fencer). I asked him what had happened in his pool. He said that in one bout against a junior fencer of significantly lesser ability (but definitely no doormat!), he decided to play around and try to get toe touches. He tried them about three times and got hit each time. Because he gave up those touches and was perhaps a bit overconfident, he lost that bout.

He committed a minor sin by giving away touches for no real reason. He committed a major sin by losing a bout which he should have won. The result was a lousy seed, and in the second round he encountered a fencer whom he had little chance of beating and got eliminated. Because I managed to do fairly well in my pool, I made it to the third round before encountering somebody I couldn’t beat, so I placed much higher.


Exceptions and caveats

Obviously this is not a 100% perfect assessment of the problem, only a reduction of one specific aspect of it. There are several factors which can throw these things awry.

A higher seed does not necessarily always beat a lower seed.

If that were guaranteed, there would be no point in running the DE table at all. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that your chances of beating the lowest seed in the tournament are probably a whole lot better than your chances of beating the top seed, and the longer you can avoid fencing one of the top few seeds, the better.

DE bouts are more difficult to win than pool bouts.

Because they last longer, they require greater mental and physical endurance. Also, they tend to require a larger repertoire of techniques and tactics. A trick that can get five touches on the average opponent can win a pool bout, but only gets you one-third of the way through a DE bout. If that’s the only trick in your book, you just might lose 15-5. Still, the strength of your opponent is an important factor.

The above assessment assumes each fencer is a fencing machine who can perform exactly at a particular skill level indefinitely.

Of course, fencers are people who have endurance limits, mental patterns, and so on. If winning all your pool bouts completely exhausts you, that top seed may not do you much good – you might be too tired to win more than one or two DE bouts, whereas if you conserve your strength you might last longer. Or, perhaps you don’t stay warmed up and focused if your first DE bout is too easy. In that case, being the top seed might be counterproductive.

It’s not necessarily a mortal sin to sacrifice a touch if you have a good reason and you are capable of dealing with the consequences.

For example, if you can sacrifice a touch in a pool bout to gain valuable reconnaissance information which will enable you to win the bout, that may be a valid strategy for you. However, if you can gain the same information without sacrificing a touch, that’s better.

In a DE, the final score doesn’t matter, all that matters is who wins.

If you win 15-14, you still face the same opponent in the next round whom you’d face if you had won 15-0. Still, giving away touches in a DE bout can be a bad idea. A run of three or four touches where you’re just playing around might be enough to weaken your concentration and give your opponent a morale boost, and turn the tide.


Always fence with intent to win the tournament. Afterwards over dinner, you can discuss your final placing with your coach and decide whether it was a good result or not.

Barring any strategy to the contrary, always fence for every bout and every touch. Never throw away touches for no reason, and never ever throw away victories for no reason. It’s better to lose 5-4 than 5-0. It’s better to win 5-0 than 5-4.

Yes, some of the seeding into the DE is luck. If the 14th seed is somebody you’ve always been able to beat easily but the 15th is somebody you’ve never been able to figure out, you have to hope that your seed doesn’t end up being one that faces the 15th at some point – which one of the two you’re likely to face eventually is not something you have a lot of control over. Nevertheless, encountering an A fencer for your first DE has very little to do with luck. Putting forth your best effort in the pool can often postpone that meeting for one or two more rounds, and you’ll finish a lot higher because of it.


Copyright © 1998 by Gregory A. Jones
This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and this copyright notice is included.

The Importance of Preparation


In 1997, when I had been fencing about two years, one of my coaches asked a group the (rhetorical?) question, “Why do you people fall into your lunges at the end of a preparation even though you can’t hit your opponent? Why aren’t you learning this stuff in the lessons?”, I started trying to mentally collate a bunch of the information I’d received from lessons and especially a recent competitors’ seminar by Maestro Ed Richards, and see if I could come up with an answer to that question that I could understand myself. This article attempts to explain what I came up with in reasonable detail.


When can I hit my opponent?

The goal of fencing is to hit your opponent without getting hit yourself. Obviously, there are some times when you can hit your opponent without any possibility that he can defend himself. Equally obviously, there are other times when you have no chance of hitting your opponent before he can defend himself. So to figure out what you need to do in order to hit, you first have to be able to distinguish between situations where you can hit, and situations where you can’t.

I’ve heard this called one-tempo distance. However, this can be confusing or misleading, because there’s actually a lot more to it than distance. For example, the physical distance between you and your opponent may be one that you could cover in a lunge, but there can be a world of difference introduced by simply considering which direction you or he is moving, or where his blade is. Therefore, I’ll use the term one-tempo situation instead.

The definition of a one-tempo situation is a time when all relevant conditions indicate that you can hit your opponent with a simple (one-tempo) action, before he can successfully evade, defend, or counterattack. There are several components which contribute to this:

  • The physical distance between the fencers
  • Which direction and how quickly each fencer is moving, if they are moving at all
  • How quickly each fencer could start a new footwork motion – this encompasses such maxims as “Try to attack when your opponent is in the middle of advancing”
  • Where each fencer’s blade is and which direction it is moving – this encompasses such maxims as “Feint into an open line, attack an opening line”
  • How far the attacker can reach and/or lunge; defender’s reach is also important in epee and sabre
  • Expectations of the defender’s probable behavior, e.g. previous reconnaissance shows that his parry four is big and early
  • Probably many other factors, maybe not all definable

Note that most or all of these are changing constantly and rapidly. Moments when they all combine to produce a one-tempo situation are relatively rare, and usually fleeting.



The Four Golden Rules of Preparation

There are four things you need to be able to do in order to be able to launch an attack properly and have it hit.

1. Execute preparation properly

Obviously you’re going to have problems if you can’t put two footwork motions together without falling on your face, or if your feints are weak and your opponent never believes them. You don’t necessarily need a huge vocabulary of preparation techniques, but you need to be able to execute the ones you know reasonably well.

2. Recognize a one-tempo situation

Launching an attack in a one-tempo situation gets a touch. Launching an attack outside of a one-tempo situation doesn’t get you a touch (in fact, you probably get hit yourself). So clearly it’s important to be able to quickly assess all the factors that contribute to the situation and come up with a reasonably accurate answer to the question, “Do I have a one-tempo situation right now?” If you can’t do this, you’re essentially attacking at random times, and you’ll get random results. Since one-tempo situations are rarer than non-one-tempo situations, you’ll probably get mostly bad results.

Incidentally, though outside the scope of this article, which is targeted at the attacker’s viewpoint, it’s equally important to be able to judge whether the current situation is one-tempo for your opponent, and avoid such situations.

3. Launch as soon as you have a one-tempo situation

One-tempo situations don’t last very long. Once you detect one, you have to be able to launch immediately, before it’s gone. You also need to execute the launch properly (hand before feet, good lunge, etc.).

4. Don’t launch if you don’t have a one-tempo situation

If your opponent doesn’t cooperate with your preparation, then when you finish a preparation sequence you don’t have a one-tempo situation. Therefore you need the ability to not launch an attack if you detect that you don’t have a one-tempo situation. The ability to not attack when the time is not right is probably even more important than the ability to attack when the time is right.



Why don’t drills and lessons teach this?

Actually, lessons often do teach this if you know what to look for. The coach may not beat you over the head with it as much as necessary, though.

Class drills don’t seem to teach this much, possibly because they’re trying to train fencers for points 1 and 3 above, not point 4. This can be a drawback because there is no incentive not to just launch the attack immediately on finishing the preparation.

An example is the last drill which we did in Maestro Richards’ seminar. The preparation sequence was double-advance, double-retreat, advance, half inverse advance, press. When we practiced possible finishes after this preparation, the options for the defender’s response were:

  • Do nothing. Attacker hits.
  • Press back. Attacker disengages and hits.
  • Circular parry. Attacker counter-disengages and hits.
  • Retreat and present the blade. Attacker takes the blade and hits.

From these four exercises, except for the need to hesitate a bit to see what the opponent will do, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to just go ahead and lunge. But an additional response which was presented in the demonstration but not practiced, was:

  • Bail out backwards and take away the blade. Attacker must start over with preparation.

Additional possibilities such as defender retreating but not changing the attitude of the blade are conceivable. In a way, these “negative” responses are among the most important to practice, because they show the pupil how important it is to not attack if a one-tempo situation has not been established. Without practicing these situations, the pupil is not shown why they must remain balanced at the end of their preparation and not immediately fall into a lunge. The coach can tell them this, but for driving a point home, explanation isn’t nearly as good a teacher as getting hung out to dry in a lunge that falls short.



Consider launching an attack to be like launching the space shuttle. When getting ready for a mission, NASA performs countless internal preparations – the astronauts, the shuttle itself, ground control systems, fuel supplies, and on and on. But when the shuttle itself is ready to go, they don’t immediately press the launch button. They also have to consider all the external factors. Is it the right time of day, so that their orbit will intersect the satellite they’re supposed to repair? Is the weather too cold or too stormy? Are there owls nesting in the air intakes? All sorts of things like this also have to be considered, and only when internal and external factors together say that it’s a good situation for a shuttle launch, does the launch take place. Actually, once NASA did get impatient and launch Challenger without considering all the external factors and their implications. To continue our analogy, Mother Nature took one extra retreat and put out a point in line, and Challenger ran straight onto it.



Clearly I’ve only scratched the surface of one small area of fencing; there are many other topics such as defense, attacks on preparation, etc. which are not covered at all here. Still, proper preparation is certainly important if you don’t intend to try and get all your touches on ripostes.

As a fencer, learn to dissect the drills and lessons you receive, and understand that you’re being taught a preparation which is designed to evoke a response. If you do the preparation properly and it evokes the right response, you get to launch your one-tempo attack. It’s not just a matter of “Oh, so if I do a feint-deceive like this, I’ll get the touch every time?”. Also, try to practice all four of the “golden rules”.

As a coach, try to teach cases where the preparation fails (even if it’s done correctly by the pupil) as well as cases where it succeeds. If the pupil still launches attacks when their preparation hasn’t evoked the right response, there’s a problem. Responses which merely require an additional preparation are good, as well as responses which leave the pupil nothing to do but restart their preparations completely.

And, as the obliging target in a partner drill, don’t help your partner practice mistakes. If that feint doesn’t look like a threat, don’t parry it. On the other hand, really try to defend yourself, so that the attack won’t succeed if it comes after the one-tempo situation is gone. And equally importantly, practice cases where you make a response that prevents the one-tempo situation from coming about in the first place, and make sure the attacker can hold back and continue preparation.

Copyright © 1998 by Gregory A. Jones

This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and this copyright notice is included.