On Covering, Part II: Teaching Students about Covering

[Part I, 2 June 2020, “On Covering, or, The Difficulty in Hitting and not Being Hit,” covered much of the background and context for the problem—I don’t wish to rehash that here, but reading it first will help: https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/06/02/on-covering-or-the-difficulty-in-hitting-and-not-being-hit/

One of the aspects of working with new people I most value is their fresh perspective—it’s all new to them, so they ask the questions we should all keep in mind but tend to forget. Fencers take a lot for granted. It’s one reason that even the most expert fencers should continue to drill basic, fundamental actions and study. While most everything is challenging at first, among one of the more difficult conceptual hurdles for many fencers—new and old—is how to keep oneself covered, not only in defense but also and more critically in offense. The artificial nature of what we do combined with cultural influences tend to cloud our reasoning about this. There have been a number of attempts to manage this problem, most famously perhaps the idea of “right of way” (ROW) in Olympic fencing, but no rule-set or explanation will do the job on its own. We need to cultivate an acutely conscious if artificial sense that the blunted weapons we use are sharp. If we do not, then we run the risk of failing to teach our students how not to be hit. 

What follows is a quick break-down of how I’m tackling this. Cultivating a sense of realism in practice is a topic I mention often, I know, but it’s because it’s something I struggle with like many instructors and it’s a problem I see at play in most clubs. I don’t have all the answers, but can share what I’ve found to work, and especially, the holistic approach I’m trying to implement. 

Start with the Weapon 

1973 Cavalry Sabre, Italy

From the outset I try to instill a sense of weapon-as-live in class. Normally, especially with kids, I have a period piece (unsharpened) on the first day to compare it to the modern versions. For sabre or foil, for example, seeing the blade profile of a period sabre, smallsword, or epee d’combat, and feeling the weight of each can do a lot to increase their appreciation of the difference in the tools we use versus what people used in the day. With adults or older children using historically inspired trainers this is easier because they are using weapons that better approximate those early tools. In both cases, however, I explain the parts of the blade that are sharp. For those that have held heavy blades, say the cheap overly ponderous facsimiles out of India or the HEMA-Bruh weight of a trooper sabre, the easy heft of a 650-800g sabre can seem unimpressive. Depending on audience I relate either contemporary, analogous examples or cite one of the recorded battles in which one of these “light” weapons proved just as nasty as anything twice its weight. 

The kitchen or hobby knife mishap is a suitable modern analogy for children. IF they ask about how dangerous this sabre or smallsword/foil was, I ask them if they’ve ever had a bad cut from some accident in the kitchen or in making crafts. Most have had some manner of accident or witnessed one. This makes the danger a little more immediate. For that one kid in Toughskins who plays it off as no big deal, I remind them that the slice we give ourselves in the kitchen or the toothpick that pokes into our hand as we make some craft, are accidents—with swords, the person threatening another with it intended to hurt that person. It makes a difference. I add that we of course do not want to hurt anyone, but that we need to remember that this is what swords were for, because if we forget then we take chances we shouldn’t. 

Reenforcing the Idea of Defense First 

Del Frate, 1868

Teaching affords us many opportunities to remind students about the nature of the weapon they are studying. Repetition of an idea as they repeat actions helps cement both thought and action in their minds. For example, when I teach them the guard position in sabre I have them in 2nd. This was typical of the Radaellian approach, but I also explain why it was the preferred guard. It directs the sharp point at target, and since the arm is somewhat extended this puts us a little farther behind the guard— as a compromise between presenting a threat and staying away from one ourselves it’s thus an ideal place from which to start. [1] When they make a direct thrust from 2nd, I explain that the dangerous bits, the point and edge, must move first and for the same reasons: it ensures that we are threatening the opponent and staying as far away as possible at the same time. If we fail to threaten them, they may counter attack. 

One of the places this is most difficult for students is in learning to parry and riposte. For example, in the last two classes I took them through this simple phrase

1. Fencer A: from 2nd, thrusts to inside line 

2. Fencer B: parries in first, then ripostes via molinello to the head 

3. Fencer A: parries 5th, makes molinello to left cheek 

4. Fencer B: parries in 6th, makes a molinello to the right cheek 

[*assuming two right-handers

This is a progressive drill, one we work up to over the course of the class, and instructive on several levels [2]. That third step, however, tends to go awry, because Fencer B in step 3 or 4 will sometimes remise rather than parry. [3] 

Parry of 5th against a cut to the head, Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

I stop them at this point and ask them to explain the action. When they get to step four, I ask who got hit and who got the touch. They should see that they were both hit… It can be a subtle point, because if A holds that parry too long or takes too long to riposte there is sometimes a tempo in which B might remise. However, once an attack has been parried the very first thought we should have is “my attack failed and my opponent is likely to riposte, so, I need to think defense first.”  

It’s not an accident that traditionally we don’t teach the remise week one. It’s a maneuver that requires the fencer to have sufficient understanding and an adequate sense of timing and measure to pull it off successfully. New students struggle to see where the blade is going in a direct thrust or cut, so it’s best to hold off teaching them attacks into tempo until they have a decent command of elementary attacks. Even explaining what went wrong in step 3/4, many students will scratch their heads and doubt. 

Two Dead Samurai 

What tends to hang students up in step 3-4 is that they know they “hit.” B, for example, will often counter “but I hit them.” This is another instance in which I remind them that if the blades were sharp then they would be both be hit, and that since the goal is not to be hit, that the better decision is to parry and riposte. In class with the kiddos I usually refer to this as “two dead samurai”—mixing metaphors here but the words of Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega in “Mark of Zorro” (1998) spring to mind, “Oh, yes, my friend, you would have fought very bravely, and died very quickly.” Because they’re masked, wearing jackets, and using blunt swords they feel safe; because the class they’re taking is voluntary and for fun they are excited instead of afraid; and, movies, books, and tv have cemented an impression of sword-fights that are great for stage but not necessarily accurate. Thus, it’s sometimes an uphill battle to keep the past-reality around the current one. If our goal is to mimic as best we can swordplay as it was/would be, then we must keep that earlier reality in mind. 

The entire question of who got the real hit explains why ROW, HEMA’s fetish for the after-blow, and other peculiarities within rule-sets have developed. We’re always trying to find a way to highlight, as accurately as we can, just who won an exchange. ROW emphasizes the priority of the attack where HEMA’s after-blow rules are meant to encourage one to cover. Both punish obvious mistakes; they just focus on different problems [4]. Neither, however, is perfect and interpretation not only over what the judges see, but also what a rule actually means are issues which can further complicate officiating. The inclusion of “off-target” in Olympic scoring and the lack of concern over who starts an attack in HEMA (it does matter) are good examples of where our various rule-sets fail us. 

The Logic of Sharp Things 

In simplest terms, and the way I explain this to younger fencers, is that we want to stay away from an opponent’s sharp point while at the same time threatening them with ours. If both opponents do this, then at least they start at a stand-off, each relatively safe, each facing the question of how to get to target without being hit themselves. We are safest behind the point, steel in front of us, and the moment we change that, even to attack, we increase the risk of being hit. 

Imagining the danger can be difficult, so depending on the age I change the threat. For example, with the current crop of intro students, all of whom are 11 or younger, I tell them that the point of the foil and the point/cutting edge of the sabre contain “Great Stink” and if they’re hit then they’re “skunked.” They laugh, but for this age group especially the threat of smelling bad is more approachable. It can also add to the fun. 

The goal with this is to help students learn to react and plan appropriately. With younger students, so many of whom are ready to wield a foil in two hands like a lightsaber, jumping into a fencing class is play, a chance to pretend, and even when we structure classes well and keep them busy with games and drills, they will still find ways to act out the famous battles they know from movies. As one example, in my last p&r class I had them repeat the same drill above, and when it opened up after those three initial actions one pair set-to blade banging against blade with no thought to making the touch. It’s an age group that requires constant corralling, and each time is an opportunity to ask them “would you do this if the other blade could hurt/skunk you? How open are you using that foil in two hands? You’re gunsta stink Hoss…” 

Why this Matters 

I’m all for fun and do my best to make classes enjoyable for the younger set, but at the same time I want them to learn to fence properly. All this early focus on the reality of the sharp point is critical—without this all we’re doing is playing tag. Ensuring that students learn this helps them understand why we do what we do, why technique developed as it did, and if we’re lucky serves as another connection point in retention of new information. At the same time, the sooner we set them on this path the less likely we may need to correct some of the common faults we see as they progress.  

Much of what and how we teach comes down to goals. It’s not my intention to disparage any one rule-set or fencing culture; people pursue what appeals to them and that’s fine. If tag is your thing, go for it. What I will say, however, is that for those of us ostensibly teaching historical fencing, a major goal is approaching everything as best we can as if the weapons were sharp, so we must pay some attention to inculcating an awareness of danger however artificial. It’s sort of, well, the point (pardon the pun) of what we’re doing. [5] 

NOTES: 

[1] The modern preference, and indeed historical preference in some sabre systems, is for what the Italians refer to as terza bassa, but which most people think of as third in Olympic. This version of third (outside guard for fans of English broadsword) derives from Hungarian practice. Both work, but they set up different expectations. A guard in second is at once defensive and offensive; Hungarian third is defensive: the guard and blade are held closer to the body, so parries are made closer to the body and set up speedy direct cuts well. Second, on the other hand, presents a sharp point from the outset to discourage someone from rushing in; parries are taken a little farther out and the hand moves less far in transitioning between second, first, and fifth, the first triangle of parries. 

[2] There are many types of drills and ways to structure them. Progressive builds like this one take an action and build upon it. For beginners I lay out each step—this makes it easier as they don’t have to read and decide what to do the same way as when unscripted, and yet still gives them good practice in watching and reacting with one set of appropriate responses. They develop confidence and feel like they are fencing, which given how complex coordinating all these movements is helps them continue working. Adding additional movements within the phrase, changing the actions, adding different footwork, and either limiting responses or adding unscripted portions are all ways to add complexity. With this particular drill, we’ve not moved beyond being in guard and lunging back and forth. Next, they will do this with movement back and forth, advancing and retreating; then I have them start from farther out, out of measure, and work the distance to complete the drill. 

[3] The remise is the renewal of an action/attack after it has been parried or while the defender is preparing to riposte. Some refer to this as a reprise, but this normally includes a return to guard (forward or backward) before repeating the action/attack. 

[4] Doubling, or the incontro, is one of the most common faults we make, and often it’s because we have a plan and follow it through without considering how facts change in the moment. Rule-sets can support this. Outside of epee, where a double penalizes both fencers, one need only make sure they land with priority, with ROW, to score—if they’re hit, it doesn’t matter, because they had right of way. In HEMA, which generally doesn’t consider who started an attack only who was hit, doubles are particularly thorny. Was it a double or an after-blow? This is cart before the horse. The first consideration should be who presented a credible threat first and how did the other fighter respond? If the defender chose to double or just reacted, they goofed up. Sure, the attacker should do all they can to cover, but that second fencer didn’t observe the don’t-get-hit rule, the primary rule, and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. 

[5] In HEMA competitions, for example, a lot of exchanges are deemed doubles that highlight this problem. In fairness to the fencers, the director has significant responsibility for seeing and interpreting what they’re doing, and the quality of directing varies considerably. To illustrate these reasons, we can examine—for the first—something as simple as how we extend the blade, and for the second the gulf we sometimes see between what we think we are doing in a bout and what we have actually done. In terms of technique, we see the reality of the sharp point in how we make a direct thrust: from 2nd in sabre or from tierce in smallsword, the hand is shoulder high and slightly outside the shoulder, because this helps close the line. Held directly in front, stiff-armed—which many students adopt at first—the arm is likely vulnerable. When I correct this, I remind them why we hold the hand the way we do, where we do. Regarding the second idea, that plan/execution don’t always match up, many fencers in bouts, be they practice or in competition, assume they’ve made the touch when in fact they haven’t or have doubled. It can be hard to see this—after all, they had a plan, they executed the plan, and thus are confident that they did what they were supposed to do. However, for anyone who has felt this way and then seen video footage of themselves… well, it becomes easier to see how intent and execution don’t always align perfectly or do but at the wrong time. 

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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