Daryl Homer's 14-14 Parry and the Importance of Taking Smart Risks
by Geoffrey Loss
US fencing fans had another exciting night Wednesday as they watched Daryl Homer bring home silver in the men’s sabre event. He made the final by defeating Iran’s Mojtaba Abedini in a tight 15-14 bout that—unlike fellow US silver medalist Alex Massialas’s epic comeback bout with Avola in the men’s foil—went back and forth, touch for touch from the very start to the very end.
The video that has been shared over and over on the internet is his last touch, at 14-14—a gutsy parry riposte in the middle to win the bout.
TAKING SMART RISKS
But while the parry riposte on its own was certainly a bold action to go for, when we step back and look at the rest of the bout we can see that, although it was a risk, it was a very calculated one.
No touches exist in a vacuum. Every touch that you fence is informed—or should be!—by all the other touches that have happened so far. You can even make smart decisions on the first touch if you’ve fenced your opponent at a previous tournament, or gotten a chance to watch them fence somebody else.
HOW DID HE KNOW?
Before he got to 14-14, Daryl had tried to parry Abedini the exact same way in the middle three times already. He parried him first at 2-2, and found out that that action could work for him. He did it again at 7-6, to take them into the break. He tried it a third time at 11-8, and, although he lost the touch that time, it was a technical mistake rather than a tactical one. He didn’t quite execute the parry correctly, but Abedini cut to the same place at the same time as Daryl had anticipated. He might have lost the touch but, as Daryl’s lifelong coach and five-time Olympic coach Yury Gelman would say, he had “won the idea.”
So when the score evened at 14-14, he could be confident that if Abedini attacked him fast in the middle, he could score with a parry five—it had already worked twice, and would have worked a third time with a little bit more luck. And Abedini still had not figured out that he needed to change his attack.
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The other thing he had going for him was that he knew how people often behave under pressure, and especially at 14-14. Most people revert to a few “favorite” actions under pressure, and at 14-14 almost everybody will try to attack at least a few times. Attacking is fairly safe and generally very successful in sabre, and it’s not uncommon to see sabre fencers go for up to five or ten simultaneous attacks at 14-14 before someone is brave enough to try a different tactic.
When Abedini evened the score at 14-14, then, Daryl knew two things: the Iranian would most likely attack, and he would most likely attack in the same way that he had for the rest of the bout. It wasn’t impossible that he could go back, or go for a different action, or cut to a different line. But there are no guarantees in fencing, no hundred-percent solutions. Whatever Daryl chose to do would be a risk. But, because he had been paying attention and had learned Abedini’s preferences, he was able to make the smartest choice and go for the highest-probability action he could. And in this case, it paid off—with an Olympic medal.
The lesson to be learned here is not just to go for any risky action. Certainly, when you do make a choice, it is important to commit to it all the way. The wrong choice done well is often better than the right choice done poorly. But the real lesson from Daryl’s last touch—which is easy to miss if you watch it in isolation—is the importance of paying attention during the whole bout, and learning what does and does not work.
HOW CAN I GET BETTER AT THIS?
If you often find yourself struggling with this, you can try fencing a five touch bout with someone and writing down every touch that happened afterwards. This will help you improve your “bout memory,” and you’ll quickly find yourself able to remember touches more easily, even when you’re not specifically doing this exercise. Another good way to build this skill is to watch other bouts—especially high level ones—and write down each touch as it happens. You might be surprised at how often similar touches occur throughout the bout!
What are some of the ways you practice taking smart risks?