Fencing theory: stability and instability

A motionless fencer in a balanced guard position, covered in a line and with a clear mind and a plan for the match is in a stable condition. All directions and speeds of movement are possible. Attack and defense are equally available. The fencer can choose to take the initiative or wait and react to an opponent’s action. However, fencing is a sport of movement, constant change, active attack and defense, and psychological warfare between fencers. All of this creates an instability that can be used effectively if we understand its elements.

As an initial prompt for thought, I suggest that instability creates the potential to have to stop or correct a situation or action before you can take effective action that results in a successful outcome. On the other hand, controlled instability is clearly necessary for successful attacks. The following key areas can create fringe instability:

Movement. When both shooters move at the same speed over the same distance, the condition is essentially stable. Variations of this in speed, distance, movement mechanics, and especially timing create instability in favor of one or the other of the shooters. Attacking when the opponent has a moving foot closing the distance (the opponent’s negative instability) or from the front foot in the marching step when an opening appears (his positive instability of him) are examples.

body position. Changes in body position affect balance, create openings where there were none before, and introduce inefficiencies into movement. Unbalanced with an opening not made and unable to move quickly to deal with the opponent’s attack, counter or response is a highly vulnerable state.

Blade movement. The stable blade can move as fast as the fencer’s reaction time, movement time, and physical conditioning allow. The moving blade has to be stopped and then redirected at a cost in time and in interruption of the fencer’s ongoing tactical actions.

The plan. It seems obvious that a fencer should go into the match with a plan and then constantly modify and refine that plan based on the performance of both the fencer and the opponent. Continuing with a plan that no longer addresses combat conditions creates instability in that the fencer’s tactical actions do not match the changing situation.

The psychological state of the shooter. Frustration, negative thoughts and self-talk, focusing on negative external factors, and even excessive arousal erode the positive mindset required for high performance. They can drive poor decision-making and faltering performance, and have a tendency to increasingly reinforce themselves in a negative way, leading to increasingly poor outcomes.

As a fencer, your goal may be to introduce as much instability into your opponent’s game as possible. Similarly, his goal may be to reduce instability in his own. Not all instability is bad: successful attacks are always unstable. Not all stability is good: a static fencer who doesn’t move when attacked is simply a target. The key is to find the right balance, using stability when it’s to your advantage (eg by not reacting to obvious feints) and instability when appropriate.