The Value of Timing in Tactics

by Zbigniew Czajkowski

"Fencing is a game of subtlety, and bluff can be met with counter-bluff"
Charles L. de Beaumont

The following could be considered among the most important aims of a tactical fight and the most salient aspects in fencing.

  1. Very generally one may say that the main purpose of a fencing action is to forestall or be ahead of the opponent. In epee this is literal. One has to forestall the opponent in time. A hit, to be valid has to be a fraction of a second earlier. In sabre and foil forestalling takes a more subtle form. A sabreur or foilist, when counter-attacing, must either close the line of the opponent's attack or be ahead in a period of fencing time. In offensive actions he fights to be ahead in gaining the right of way - he must be first to initiate the attack and that not only in his own but, above all, in the president's opinion. The conception of forestalling or keeping ahead of the opponent is expressed not only by the mere speed of movment but also, and perhaps above all, by the necessity for more selective and acute perception and by the necessity for faster translation of information. To put the idea colloquially the fencer has to be a thought ahead of his opponent.
  2. A factor of immense tactical importance is surprise - the ability to act in a way unpredictable for the opponent. The more skillful the fencer in exploiting this element of surprise, the less his opponent will be able to anticipate the time, speed type and intention of the action employed.
  3. A very important feature and aim of tactical combat is the ability to gain the appropriate distance in a situation most inconvenient for the opponent. For example, if, after manoeuvring, one gains lunging distance at a moment when the opponent is concentrated and waiting for an attack, it is not sufficient. It is far more valuable to gain the distance when the opponent is temporaily off balance, not concentrated or expectiong something quite different. Generally speaking, one may state that practically all fencing actions and the fotwork accompanying them aim, in a way, at gaining "nearness" while preserving combat initiative.
  4. Of equal importance in tactics is recognition and understanding of the opponent's actions and intentions, at the same time concealing one's own. and misleading him (confusion of display).
  5. Tactics in their application are connected with technique and other factors of training and fights. This point will be discussed below.
  6. The main task of tactical fencing activities are: a) to avoid beeing hit, b) to prepare an action and, c) to score a hit. These tasks are given here in a logical time sequense, but in preactice they are intermingeles.
Purposeful and efficient application of tactical principles on the strip depends upon the general physical fitness, tecnical skill and degree of psychological prepardness.

The ability to conduct a bout and use proper tactics is closley connected with the fencer's psychological state, his power of concentration and self control Undue nervousness, over exciatation, lack of confidence, overestimation of the opponent's strenght, apathy, insufficient warming up, prevalence of inhibitory processes - all these factors may hamper the fencer in conduction a tactical bout, realisation of tactical solutions and display of his tecnical abilities. Conversly, self control, adequate degree of excitation and consciousness of his own experience and tecnical and tactical abilities positivley influence the pyschological stat of the fencer, increasing his calm assurance, dexterity and courage in action.

Choice of time (l'a propos)
L'a propos est la faculte qui nous permet de choisir le moment le plus favourable a l'execution d'une action d'escrime"

Paul Pattesti and Louis Prost

For tactics to be successfull careful attention must be paid to choice of time. Every fencer, even one who has just begun to do loose play, has been told and realises from experience how important it is to choose the right time for attacking his opponent. Of course we realise that the expression "choice of time" is inadequate. There is also a question of distance, tactical situation and taking the opponet b surprise, all of which make a very complicated phenomenon nerly as difficult to describe as the conception of time or space.

It has been noticed long ago that certain situations are more conductive to scoring a hit. This has been called in English "timing" or "choice of time", in Italian "scelta di tempo", in french "L'a propos". The expression used by Polis fencers "zaskoczenia" (literal translation - "surprise") or "wyczucie zaskoczenia" (feeling of surprise) better depicts the situatuin than an expression which only consideres the element of time.

Most fencers textbooks, while stressing the element of "choice of time" delicatly side step the difficult problem of defining, describing and discussing it.

The well-known fencing masters Paul Battesti and Louis Prost simply call it the ability to choose the moment most favourable for the execution of a fencing action.

Kazimerz Laskowski, the director of the military scool of fencing before the war in Warsaw stated that "tempo or surprise is the moment of taking unawares an opponent who, at that particular moment, is hit most easily by an unexpected action".

Janos Kevey gives his conception of timing as follows: "by the expression Tempo we mean the moment which is the most favourable for the beginning and execution of fencing action... in such a moment the opponent is helpless and not capable of makeing a defensive moment".

The Hungarian author of a known textbook on sabre fencing Zoltan Ozoray Schenker wrote "a fencer must catch the moment when his opponent it totally or partially incapable of an action", and "such favorable moments occur when the opponent executes badly thought out purposeless blade movments or footwork, when his attention is distracted and his readiness for action is diminished. Such moments occur also when the opponet is, for example, preoccupied with planning the bout or is distressed by its unsuccessful course".

"L'a propos... c'est l'art de profiter des inattentions ou des fautes adverses a l'instant precis ou elles se produissent". Paul Clery.
Well known to British readers, Professor Leon Bertrand in his "Cut and Thrust" describes timing in sligtly more detail and in combination with other elements. He advises that, in construction of attacks the fencer should employ three essentials: "what the italias call 'scelta di tempo - choice of time, judgement of distance and speed. They are three further lodes in the main stratum. The first is by far the most important of the tree. Assuming the possession of the highest technique, the sabreur stands or falls by the presdence or lack of this vital sense. Choice of time means the selection of psycholociga moment to launch the offensive. It means executing the movment when your opponent is unprepared or least expects it. That is choice of time in broadest significance. The final definition of 'scelta di tempo' is the seizing of the precise fraction of a second to move at the slightest sign of mental irresolution on the part of your rival. He may be keyed up to the highest pitch of concentration yet that fractional measure of time must come when, by some movment of thought, that concentration wavers. This lapse must be reflected by some sign, infitesimal perhaps, but it is your "cue", your signal, and on this golden opportunity you must act immediateley. If we could imagine a higly sensitive machine registering a graph of your adversary's mental concentration, we should visulise an undulation line and we should attack with every downard turn of the pen, with the recording of each depression".

Generally it is accepted that when a fencer catches his opponent by surprise, when the opponent is off balance and not fully concentrated that the fencer has chosen the right "tempo". Everybody knows that it is extremly difficult to sustain the highest concentration of attention for a very long time and invariably lapses of attention occur in a bout; a fencer, concentration on his own attack, may forget about his defence; a competitor manouvering on the stip may expose himself dangerously to his opponent's action; a fencer executing blade movments may open certain lines of his target - such and similar situations may be taken advantage of for surprise action. The ability to take advantage of and instantly take advantage of such situations is usually inborn but it may be further developed by special exercises and constitutes the "sixth sense" of a fencer.
When describing the clever seizing of opportunity to score a hit and in the majority of definitions (see above) the expression of "movment" and "time" are commonly used. Even the names given to the "sixth sense" of the fencer by various fencing schools are closely connected with the conception of time. And yet it is very obvious that this is not a question of mere time. The opportune application of an action in a bout, taking the opponent unawares is closly connected with many factors of the tactical situation such as distance, movments of the two fencers, the opponent's state of attention etc. etc.

"Timing" or fencers "feeling for surprise" may be, perhaps, a little more exatly described as the choice of occasion, closley connected with the opponents activities and attitude with the general situation of a bout, most favourable for the successful execution of an action.
A fencer may take advantage of potentially suitable situations or he may himself create situations suitable to his purpose by careful preparatory action.

The above definition, like all attempts at simple definitions of complicated phenomena, is inadequate. In order to better understand the "scelta di tempo", so complex and difficult to define, and yet so important in fencing, we have to discuss it more fully on the base of personal experience as competitor and coach, observation of many tournaments, reflections and literature.

The right choice of time using the expression in English for as I know no better expression in English, means, in a very broad sense,: to surprise, to attack, to take by surprise etc.

Prof. Tadeusz Kotarbinski, one of the creators of praxeology, writing his general teory of conflict, when talking about surprise, stated: "We may assume that taking the opponent unaware derives its techical value from anticipation and from misleading the opponet or, at least, from taking advantage of the opponent's mistakes or lack of knowledge" (this last here meaning lack of information or inadequate appreciation of the situation).

Let us now analyse this element in a fencing fight. Since a tactical intention (task, resolution, solution) has changes of success only when it is executed in the right time (Greek "kairos", French "l'a propos" Russioan "moment") and is adequate to a given solution it is obvious that it is very important a) to be able to seize the opportunity to launch an attack or any other, b) to display psychological resitence in view of the opponent' sudden attack.

Every manifestion of "timing" ("fencing surprise") understood as an opportunity to score a hit, has two aspects:

  1. a situation - a complex of conditions - giving possibilities of reciving a hit (beeing caugth unawares, beeing attacked when one least expects it.). This might be called "negative time" or "negative surprise".
  2. a situation favourable to scoring a hit (catching the opponent by surprise, catching the opponet unawares). This might be called "positive time" or "positive surprise".
Neither positive nor negative time occurs separatley. In a fight they occur as two aspects of the same situation, comprising both external and psychological factors. What is "positive" for one fencer is "negative" for his opponent and vice versa.

The full an successful taking advantage of right timing - "positive surprise" - i.e. scoring a hit, may happen only with the occurence of adequate complex of various factors such as distance, speed, movments, attention etc.

The feeling for "fencing surprise" is inborn but, under the influence of training, it improves in that: a) the ability to recognise and take advantage of appropriate situationsincreases with practice and experience b) the resistamce to opponenent's surprise action is also increased.

"Negative surprise" often leads to temporary escape of technique, both in standard of execution and repertoire of strokes. A high degree of fencer's skill, good automatisation and variety of motor habit patterns and ease of application of technique are fundamental factors in increasing the fencer's psychological and technical resistance to "negative surprise". By developing in the course of training tecnical prowess, general fitness, accuracy of perception, speed of reaction and movments one and at the same time shapes "sense of fencing surprise", choice of time.

In an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the phenomen of "timing" let us try to classify it.

Thus a competition who "pics up" the initiative and begins a movment may crate a situation in which he falls into "negative time" and receives a hit or, to the contrary, a fencer who initates the development of a certan tectical situation creates for himself the advantage of "positive time" and so scores a hit.

Among the manifestations of "fencing surprise" are situations which: a) a competitor, usually when defending himself, takes advantage of the situation which has arisen mostly on the opponent's initative; b) the situation given rise to the "fencing surprise" is created by the fencer, mostly attacker, who imposes his movments and initiative.

We could further differentiate the ways in which a competitor percives and assesses the tactical situation (only after the assessment of a given situatuion its motor complemet in the form of a fencing action may follow) as: a) visual, b) tactile, c) kinesthetic or d) auditory. In assessing a situation not only one receptor is involved but several, to varying degrees, e.g. not only touch but touch and sigth and motor-muscular sense; not only sight but sight and hearing. For example, in the execution of parry-riposte a very important role is played by tactile sensation but under the control of sight; in timing the beginning of attack to the movement of the opponent's feet not only sightbut hearing the rhythm of steps plays a large part. Usually, howerver, one sense a role in the perception of a particular situation.

To give detalied examples of various manifestations of "fencing surprise" would be space consuming and not entirely necessary as any fencer will do this for himself, calling on the reservesof his rich experience. The most important factors concerning "fencing surprise" can be summarised in the following concise points:

  1. In our discussion on "fencing surprise" instead of time and Moment we have stressed the importance of a complex tactical situation comprising many various factors (which, like all material phenomena, takes place in time.
  2. "Fencing surprise" is an integral part of any bout and an essential factor in the result of the bout.
  3. "Feeling for timing" is inborn but should be cultivated in fencers by perfecting technique, reaction and tactics together.
  4. The concious strengthening of a fencer's resistance to unexpected situations requirea a very high automotisation of movment - a very high degree of acqusition of motor habit patterns. This facilitates the switch of attention from the execution of movments towards: choice of time, tactical situation and variety of action.
  5. The constant tempo and character of movements (rythm, direction, amplitude and speed) makes the correct assessments of situation and choice of counter-action comparatively easy. Every change in rythm, speed, strenght and amplitude of movments interferes with the correct assessment of the tactical situation. This caused the decisision to be either delayed or incorrect.
  6. The above is propably connected with various processes of inhibition and excitation in the brain cortex and requires further and detalied study by physiologists and psychologist.