Why Fencing Footwork Is like a Car Chase with Mike Tyson
by Geoffrey Loss
Every fencer has heard their coach use this familiar word. It’s one of the most critical skills in fencing, they’ll say. But what exactly does it mean? Most fencers would probably define it as something like how fast you’re going or your speed. And that’s not wrong, but it does paint an incomplete picture. One of the first things that comes to mind when I think about speed is driving. So let’s go for a drive, and unpack exactly what “tempo” means in terms of your fencing, and, in particular, your footwork.
GETTING ON THE HIGHWAY
Imagine you’re taking your car out on the highway for the first time. You drive up the on-ramp and see cars zooming by. You hit the gas to speed up and join the flow of traffic. But suddenly, at forty miles per hour, your car starts to sputter and your wheels wobble. Cars are now zipping around you and honking. This is not a good situation to be in.
No matter how good a driver you are, you need to be able to go fast enough to be safe on the highway. In fencing terms, this means you have to have a certain foundation of raw speed and power behind your footwork when you fence. It doesn’t matter if you have the world’s quickest parries if you can’t keep up with your opponent. But this is only the beginning.
SPEEDING ON THE HIGHWAY
After your first mishap, you take your car to the mechanic and get your engine fixed and your tires patched up. Ready for another go on the big bad highway, you hit the road again. This time, you get up to speed immediately and are cruising along. Nice! But all of a sudden you see a traffic jam ahead. You hit your brakes—but they’re a little sluggish. You aren’t slowing down quickly enough! Luckily, at the last second, traffic speeds up, and disaster is averted—but this was another close call.
As important as the gas pedal is, the brakes are in some ways even more important. As soon as you make the decision to change your speed, you need to be able to make that change immediately. It’s the same in fencing—you need to be able to change tempo smoothly and quickly. If you can’t speed up fast enough when you’re trying to get away from someone, or slow down soon enough against their counterattack, you’re in trouble.
For that matter, changing direction quickly is even more important—imagine if, instead of a traffic jam, you saw a car driving straight towards you and had to make a U-turn and drive the other way! If you couldn’t get out of there fast enough, it would really be a problem. In fencing, you need to be able to react correctly if your opponent suddenly steps into your attack, for example. And you want to make sure that they can’t provoke you to make a mistake by stepping in and closing the distance and then stepping out to open it again—but that you can change direction quickly enough that you can trick them with that very same action.
THE CAR CHASE BEGINS
So you go back to your mechanic and get your brakes fixed up, and you head back out for a last try. And everything seems to be going well at first! You’re speeding along at seventy miles an hour, which is pretty darn fast. You decide you want to pass the car in front of you, but it’s going pretty darn fast as well. So you speed up. But it speeds up too. You slow down a little, and so does it. Then you realize the problem—no matter how fast you’re going, the distance between your cars won’t change as long as you’re both going the same speed in the same direction.
Your own absolute speed, when you drive and when you fence, isn’t everything. It’s only part of the equation. What really matters is your relative speed with the other cars or with the other fencer—you have to factor in both your speed and their speed. It’s great to be able to go fast, and to accelerate or decelerate, but it always has to be with an eye on how that distance between you is changing.
WHAT'S MIKE TYSON DOING HERE?
Once again, you try to pass the car in front of you. This time, you’re able to start to close the distance. But as you get closer, you see something very strange—Mike Tyson is strapped to the side of the car. And he’s real mad; he’s swinging his fists like crazy! If you want to pass him, you’ll have to be careful. If Iron Mike gets in even one punch, that’ll be the end of you. The good news is that his arms aren’t that long—as long as you stay well behind, he can’t reach you. But obviously, by staying back, you also won’t be able to pass him. You’ll have to be sneaky. If you want to get past, you’ll have to trick him—you’ll have to make it look like you’re trying to pass to get Mike to try to strike, without actually coming close enough that you can get hit. Then, as he’s recovering from his swing and getting ready for a second try, you can accelerate into that closer distance and get past him.
This, as odd of a scenario as it might seem, is the closest to fencing we’ve seen so far. In this case, you have a goal: to pass the car in front of you, without getting hit by Mike Tyson. You have to use your own speed to trick Mike while staying just out of distance, then close the distance immediately as soon as his guard is down. In fencing, you have a similar goal: you want to hit your opponent under certain conditions: either without getting hit at all, or when you have right of way (in foil and sabre). The same principle applies: you want to use your footwork to try to trick your opponent while staying just out of distance, then close the distance and hit when they’re not ready. You can use a change of tempo to make them commit to an action, and go for your own action in that split second afterwards when they’re recovering. Or you can accelerate so quickly that they lose their balance trying to get away from you, and aren’t in a position to try a counterattack or a parry. However you use your footwork, an unexpected change of tempo (or direction!) can surprise your opponent and leave them unable to defend themselves.
Remember, even right of way doesn’t protect you completely from having to play this game! If you’re too close during your attack, they can counterattack or take your blade before you’re ready to finish. And no matter how fast your parry is, you’ll still get hit if you’re at the wrong distance when you’re defending.
THE BIG PICTURE
The reason it’s important to have good footwork, at the most fundamental level, is so that you are able to play these games with your opponent. As we’ve seen, even though there’s nothing wrong with going fast, your own tempo really only matters in relation to your opponent's tempo. You want to be the one controlling the tempo and in control of the distance so that you can hit when you choose. But, since your opponent is trying to do the same thing, you also need to be able to react when they try to do something you weren’t anticipating. And as you get better at controlling the tempo and the distance, you will get better at forcing your opponent to commit to an action when you want them to—by closing the distance, making them think they have an opportunity to score, and then opening the distance again (or parrying or doing some other action to beat them).
If you watch high level fencers, you will see they are playing this game all the time, constantly changing tempo and direction, opening and closing the distance, accelerating and decelerating, often subconsciously. They can speed up, slow down, and change direction smoothly and effortlessly—making it much harder to predict their next move until after they have already made it. Part of this, by the way, is simply by making their steps smaller—this helps ensure they have both feet on the ground and are ready to react more frequently. It’s hard to catch someone off guard in the middle of their step if their step is fairly short. Your own steps don’t need to be tiny, but keeping them on the smaller side is generally a safer bet.
In short, you need to both be able to control your own speed and be aware of your opponent’s speed. You want to make sure your opponent never gets comfortable with the distance, and you want to be able to react quickly and correctly when they do something you didn’t predict. It’s always important to be aware of your own tempo, but, remember, your tempo is just a piece of the bigger picture. The real key is knowing how the distance between you and your opponent is changing as you both try to catch each other in a trap.
HOW CAN I WORK ON THIS?
A lot of people practice footwork by doing advances or retreats up and down the strip several times, or doing five lunges, five advance lunges, and five double advance lunges. There’s nothing wrong with these sorts of drills; done consciously, they’re a great way to improve technique, or even just to get warmed up for more complex drills.
However, one of the best things you can do is distance drills with a partner to really fine tune this skill. Drills that force both partners to be alert are the best, because that’s the most like real fencing. You can have the leader attack on the follower’s signal, for example, or let the follower lunge whenever they want and force the leader to move back and pull them short.
Even if you don’t have a partner, it can be valuable to do footwork where you don’t have a set pattern. Do ten long attacks that all have different rhythms, or start out with the same preparation (fast double advance, for example) and then try to do as many different variations after it as you can (long attack changing tempo, slow double retreat, fast lunge, etc.). Or just move back and forward for a certain amount of time trying to change tempo as much as possible.
You can even record a voice memo on your phone of yourself giving various commands at different times (“slow… fast… change direction… advance lunge…”) and play it back while you’re doing footwork to help yourself work on reacting smoothly. At the end of the day, the more you work on changing direction and tempo, and practice correct reactions, the better it will be for your fencing.
What are some drills you use to work on your distance and tempo in your footwork?
*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE