Deciding what is ‘acceptable’ as we look at the psychological side of fencing with Rob Cawdron, Projects Officer & Pathways Development.
Allow me to begin with a quote from Shane Warne, the great Australian spin bowler with over 700 Test Match wickets and the second highest wicket taker in the history of cricket:
“I hate singles. I don’t mind going for runs. I’ve been hit for the most sixes in the history of the game. What I hated was singles.”
When examining our fencing, often we talk about what our best actions are, how we want to score our points and what our strengths are. How often do we take the time to look at it from the opposite perspective – what ways will we and won’t we accept being hit by our opponent? This exercise can be just as useful as analysing how we want to score because it recognises that we are facing a live opponent and they will score points against us.
No one goes through a competition winning 15-0, 15-0, 15-0. So when planning a fight, we need to be clear what points we will accept being scored against us and this decision should be informed by our plan for how we want to win the fight. Going back to Warne’s quote, he knows that if a batsman is hitting him for sixes, he’s taking a risk and at some point, his luck may run out. However, if a batsman is consistently scoring singles, he will be unable to build pressure on them, which in turn reduces his chances of getting them out.
How do we decide what an acceptable way to be scored upon is? A good rule of thumb is that if I have made my opponent work harder than me for a hit, this could be a good point for me in the long run. I coached sabre at Shakespeare’s Swords Fencing Club and one of our key tenets when defending was to make the opponent push you all the way to the end of the piste whenever they’re attacking. Make them have to build an attack that spans the entire length of the piste, rather than going for the last ditch counter-attack halfway down the piste. We knew that in sabre, the odds were against us in defence. Even before the 2016 timing change, a good day on defence was if the attacking fencer only landed 60% of their attacks. However, we believed that if our opponent had to push an attack to the end of the piste every single time, it made them more likely to try and rush the attack. In turn, this made them more likely to make a mistake and maybe over the course of a match we could begin to tilt those odds more in our favour.
By framing this as a question of mistakes that we as a club would and would not accept, it gave the athletes a framework to work within. They were free to experiment and find what worked for them, knowing that if they got hit, the question that followed was about what they were trying to do when they got hit, not about them getting hit in the first place.
The example above has talked specifically about defence in sabre but it is just as applicable to other areas of the game or either of the other weapons. Just as you would expect to know how you want to score points in a variety of situations, apply the same thinking to how you would and wouldn’t want points to be scored against you.
The benefits of this extend into the psychological side of the game too. We’ve all been in a position where an opponent gets on a bit of a roll and we can feel the panic building as they score point after point. “This isn’t going to plan.” However, if we’ve taken the time to think about how our opponent might score their points and what we’ll accept, we can evaluate an opponent’s points against us with a cool head – just as we would evaluate a point we scored ourselves. “They scored a point. Ok, how? Did I expect that I might lose a point in this way? Does losing this point suit my overall plan for how I’m hoping to score my own points and win this fight?” If the answer is yes to that final question it can keep us focused on our plan. If the answer is no, that’s useful too because now we can reflect on why not and what we need to do differently next time.
By thinking in this way you can begin to build a larger and more complete picture of how a fight will pan out. Good luck!
This article first appeared in The Sword, July 2020.
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