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Pillars & Attributes: The Interplay of Fundamentals and Natural Skill

I’ve had a few conversations recently how different attributes interact with success in different areas of fencing and I thought it might be helpful for me to explain how they all fit together in some sort of actually thought-out piece instead of trying to remember each of them off the top of my head.  

Before we even get into attributes, let’s first take a look at what are widely considered to be the three pillars of fencing.  That is, at least for Italian fencing.

Measure  – This is perhaps the easiest one to describe.  Measure is merely the distance between two fencers.  Each fencer has their own offensive measure, from what distance they can successfully strike in a single tempo; as well as their own defensive measure, the distance at which they are in danger of getting hit in a single tempo.  These measures will vary depending on factors height, wingspan, flexibility, and length of sword.  As well there is both what we call narrow measure (misura stretta) which is when a strike can occur without the need of either of the feet moving, as well as wide measure (misura larga) which is where a strike can occur with the movement of a single foot, typically via a lunge.

Tempo – This one is a bit tricky.  On the surface tempo just translates to time.  That said, the masters who wrote our founding texts didn’t have smartwatches, so the way they perceived time is a bit different than our own.  So instead of thinking of things in terms of seconds as their base measurement, their idea of a tempo comes from Aristotle where he described it as the moment between two stillnesses.  Without diving too deep into it, we can think of a single action (an attack or a parry) as occurring in one tempo, whereas something like a parry-riposte would be considered two tempi. The goal in fencing is always to have your action take up a proportionally smaller tempo than your opponent’s.

Structure – This one gets hinted at a lot, but isn’t always explicitly mentioned by name.  Essentially this is just using proper blade and body mechanics to move your opponent’s sword out of the way so that you can strike.  For instance, by bringing your elbow in so that it’s in line with your hilt and your shoulder, you can suddenly deal with much greater forces than if you chicken-wing it out to the side every time you go to parry.  A lot of times this is just referred to as “technique”, but I’m going to shy away from that here as I firmly believe that proper technique is something that can describe all three of these pillars.

In essence, if you can control all three of these, any given fight is yours for the taking.  There is still of course strategy, making sure that your techniques string together in a fashion that gets you where to go as well as trickery, such as in feints and invitations.  That said, figuring out what strategy to start building gets a whole lot easier when you have strong, reliable pillars to build it off of.

Now that we have the groundwork established, what’s an attribute?  Essentially an attribute is essentially just bonus points you have walking in that exist outside of “here’s how to use your brain well”.  Lots of fencers spend their early careers relying primarily on these attributes to get them out of their pools and into later rounds.  Eventually this leads to either stalling out upon discovering that the ceiling for technique is exponentially higher than it is for pure attributes, or they learn to switch to a technique based game that then has a bit of attributes mixed in to add some extra oomph.

While I’m not especially interested in attempting to lay out every attribute applicable to fencing here, there are a few I’d like to focus in on.

Height – Height is the one thing on this list that is entirely a luck of the draw.  A small bit of it has to do with nutrition growing up, but even if your kid eats all their vegetables there’s still no guarantee of them growing up to be a 7ft tall point guard.  Whereas other martial sports more strongly reward size (see weight classes in boxing and wrestling), fencing in particular really rewards height/reach.  If your opponent is coming in on you and you have 10 inches on them, that buys you a good bit of time to think of a plan B.  It also means you get to launch a lot more of your attacks with impunity as there’s a whole swath of measure where your opponent is in danger and you’re not.  There’s a reason that the average worldwide height for for men is 5’6”, the average male Olympic fencer is 6ft tall.  For women we see the same thing with the worldwide average being 5’2” and the Olympic fencing average being 5’6”.

Speed – As it turns out, if you can get there faster than the other person, you tend to land more touches.  Part of this has to do with how familiar the actions are to your brain and another part has to do with intentionally building fast-twitch muscles.  That said, a ton of how fast you can make your lunge has to do with genetics.  A lot of it also has to do with age as after a certain point, we all start to physically slow down.  As a result, this is the attribute that tends to peter out the fastest.

Strength – Being stronger than the other fighter matters a lot less in fencing than it does in other martial sports, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a key difference.  If people two have their swords meet in a bind, all else being equal, the stronger fencer is going to prevail.  This means that you can get away with sloppier attacks and parries as the stronger you are, the more wiggle room you have.   As well, having more musculature also means that you can hold your sword out for longer, meaning that you’re going to be able to get in more reps per hour than the fencer next to you.  Out of the three attributes here, this one is the easiest to improve on.  That said, even with the right training, dedication, and nutrition; a lot of people just don’t have the genetics to be champion powerlifters.

None of these attributes guarantee you a victory, but they sure make things easier.  The spot I’ve seen them make the most difference, at least for me personally, has less to do with someone’s initial plan and more to do with when they suddenly need to bail out of a bad situation.  Suddenly having more space between you and your opponent’s sword, being able to move where you need to be, and the ability to push your opponent’s sword out of the way suddenly make a fairly sizeable difference.  That doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen people in their 70’s beat up people in their 20’s or that I haven’t seen people who were 5’4” take out people who were 6’10”, but those cases are outliers and not the norm.

Now what does this all have to do with the pillars I set out earlier?  Well, it turns out that each of these three attributes maps directly on to each one of our three pillars.  There is of course some amount of overlap, but this is a blog article and not a full length book (yet), so we’re only going to dive so deep today.

Height directly affects measure.  The taller you are, the more measure you have on your opponent.  This doesn’t mean you necessarily have any idea how to use it or a sense of where your measure is vs. your opponent’s, but it does mean you have a fair bit more time on your hands to figure out what to do before their tip comes and bops you in the nose.  Now, there are definitely strategies that shorter fencers can employ to take out larger ones, but assuming that each fighter has an equal sense of measure, the taller fighter is going to walk in with an advantage.  The only real benefit the shorter fencer has walking in is because fencing tends to attract taller people (because of the early success), they’re going to have to learn how to fight against tall people fairly quickly whereas taller people will likely have less time fighting against shorter folk.  

Speed has a clear impact on tempo.  In a match, you don’t necessarily need your sword to move at a higher velocity than your opponent’s, but you do want it to take less time on the clock to reach its objective.  So if you can move faster, that inherently means that you’re going to take less time to perform a given technique.  The issue here is the people who rely too heavily on their speed and never learn to tighten their motions.  As it turns out, the ceiling for making your actions more economical is far higher than the ceiling for how fast you can get your hands to move.  That said, if your motions can be simultaneously quick and tight, you’re going to start winning a lot more bouts.

As a slight aside, having a longer measure means that your opponent inherently needs to take a longer tempo in order to reach you.  Turns out, Einstein was right on that whole space = time thing.

Finally, strength buys you a lot of wiggle room with structure.  You put a top level wrestler up against a silverback gorilla and despite one having had years of intense technical training, my money is still going to be on the gorilla every single time.  And that’s not just because the gorilla won’t care about the rules.  Having proper structure, being able to understand how swords are just levers and that if you anle them right, they’ll do almost all the work for you is a wonderful thing.  That said, when I fence people twice my size I tend not to use a lot of blade contact as if they have even a basic understanding of structure, I’m going to have an incredibly hard time trying to push their sword around.

So what are the takeaways here?  First, it’s that in most cases there’s going to be a lot more room to grow when it comes to technique than when it comes to attributes.  You’re not going to get taller, you can get a little bit faster, and you can get a good deal stronger.  However, you can have a much better sense of measure, a far better sense of timing, and a much deeper conception of structure.

Second, we often pay more attention to those with early success as opposed to devoting ourselves as teachers equally to all those coming to us wanting to learn. If your only concern is churning out champions, that approach makes sense.  However, if your goal is to grow our community, heaping all of your praise on a bunch of tall, young dudes isn’t the way to go about it.  It can be really easy to take a look at who won the day’s novice tournament or to see someone in their first year and remark, “They have a lot of potential” when all it is is them walking in with better luck in the attribute department.  Instead, my suggestion is to spend some more time working with those folks who you know will be there week in and week out, regardless of how well they did at last week’s tournament.

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Published by Arik Mendelevitz

A martial artist since the age of 8, I picked up a rapier for the first time in March of 2008 and have never looked back since.

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