Fencing is often called “physical chess” or “chess with swords” to highlight the importance of one’s mental game in the sport.
When you start fencing, the focus is going to be on learning various techniques for footwork, blade-work, how to control your lines, and, in the case of foil and epee, tip control. There are many ways to learn those skills following different schools that originated mainly in Europe. But the essence of fencing, like in any martial art, is in how you manage distance and timing – and this is where knowing the techniques is not enough and you need to learn how to play a mental game with your opponent.
This mental game requires first that you learn how to observe and identify the signals your opponent is unknowingly giving you. At the highest level, the mental game also will allow you to control the signals you are sending to your opponent to make her or him react in the way you would like them to. It becomes, then, a very intense process to always stay ahead.
In a 15-point bout, the momentum is likely to shift from one fencers to the other several times back and forth. The fencer who recognizes that soon enough and is able to make small changes, such as changing the area of the strip where they are fencing, will have a much higher chance of winning.
Teaching this is not easy, but it should be taught from the beginning. We, as coaches, often commit the mistake of telling the fencers exactly the action they need to do as if we would be fencing ourselves with a remote control. Instead, we need to ask the right questions so that the fencer learns to observe and understand what is going on in the bout.
Simple things like asking your fencer where he or she is receiving the touches both as a target area or the strip zone are very useful for the fencer to quickly figure out what is going on. Another great question is to simply whether the fencer or the opponent is scoring more on the attack, counter-attack, or defense.
While fencers may not see the winning results they want in the short term, they will be stronger in the long run – both in the sport and in life.