Sunday, June 28, 2020

Strangest Defensive Sabre Move

Among the questions my college students asked when I was fishing for topic inspiration was “what is the strangest defensive sabre move you know?” I guess the answer to the best defensive sabre move I know would be...attack more perfectly so you don't have to defend? I jest...sort of.

Over my time fencing I can think of a few amusing things I've encountered or used in sabre.

The coolest defensive sabre move is probably the jump parry-two. The Polish (or the sky-hook) is probably one of the cooler counter offensive movements, but the counter close out, or a resemblement pris-de-fer counter attack might be cooler.

For strange though...we have to dig deeper.

And honestly, even strange moves aren't super strange, they're just unusual, and usually impractical.

In college I was a fan of making a counter attack with a passata sotto followed by a parry five and riposte. Now you would make the same idea using what I like to call a “bunny hop” but what most people just call ducking...that crouching motion that you see in foil and epee sometimes. The passata sotto (ducking in a sort of reverse lunge with the off hand touching the floor for balance) was flashy and cool and esoteric in the minds of college kids I guess. You don't see it a lot now, it's probably one of those historical curiosities of fencing.

I once saw a coach, who claimed to be a former national coach, explaining to a group of kids that a passata sotto was the french term for an advance-lunge. The term is Italian, the Italian term for an advance-lunge is a patinando. It's been a few years, that coach seems to have since corrected his use of the terms.

I guess, again, this was a counter-offensive rather than a defensive action.

When I took my first lesson at Salle Palasz it was with Coach's best friend, Ramon Mathews. He was in his late seventies or early eighties and had an intense dramatic flair. He used to dress up as Zorro for the kids at Halloween. The lesson he gave me was on the use of the parry six in sabre.

Prior to this, I knew what a parry six was. Basically a backwards parry five with the hand brought to the other side of the face. When it was first shown to me by another fencer in college I thought he was making it up. By the time I received this lesson, I knew it was real but just something people didn't really do.

Ramon taught me that if I had made an attack in four, and was parried, if my opponent collapsed the distance with a riposte to the head, I could take the parry six more quickly than a five, and probably more effectively than a four at that distance, and then riposte by rotating the wrist and dropping my tip.

This is a pretty unlikely action in contemporary electric sabre, but it can work. It's definitely a hold over from non-electric sabre and is basically an infighting option. But there might be some scenarios where it could get used if you were against someone who managed to force fencing that close, or against a tactical distance-close on the parry to eliminate the parry-counter-riposte option.

Another weird moment was the use of a parry seven. The parry seven is a parry behind the back in sabre. Coaches talk about it as the parry you would use as someone was passing you on horseback. I don't know if that's real or not, but until the early nineties passing in sabre probably happened a lot because fleching happened a lot.

I was not fencing when the fleche was still allowed in sabre. But, a few years back I was doing a sabre bout with a student. The student was a left handed foilist, he has now switched over to being an epeeist and has moved away to be a professional fencing coach. I'm not sure why he was fencing sabre with me at the time. At one point his instincts kicked in and I guess he tried to attack when he saw me make a preparation, and he made a fleche. As he was going past tried to hit, so, I made a parry seven and extended behind myself to hit him as he ran past me.

Super unusual. I've seen one other fencer do this one time in a similar situation. But only that one other time.

My favorite though was probably this last one.

I was on a team with a foilist and an epeeist. We were in a three weapon team competition. So each team had one fencer from each weapon, and you fenced a relay to fifteen. I'm not sure how the bracketing worked, but we fenced a handful of teams and eventually won the competition. My high school students crushed a team from a local college, which I assumed would be the team to beat my team, and then my team crushed my high school students in the final.

Earlier in the day though we were against a team from another local club, and their head coach was doing sabre for their team. He was a lot of fun to fence and is a super nice guy. He made an attack with a very low line, or maybe he was going for a counter attack. He was left handed, and so he was closer than I expected and the distance was closing. So I switched from attacking to parrying but continued forward and took his blade in two and then bound the blade continuing from the second position in order to score the touch on his back while still holding his blade with mine.

It sounds a little ridiculous but can actually be done with some elegance. It's another example of sabre taking an action that is essentially in fighting.

So yeah, I don't know if any of those are the strangest...but they're the strange ones that come to mind. 

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Are All Ratings Created Equally?

         Several times over the last eight months a friend and I have ended up talking about perceptions of ratings. Most fencers and parents are aware that USA Fencing has a system of rating, A being the highest, E being the lowest, and U for anyone who has yet to earn a rating. For those unaware, our rating system is a purely USA Fencing thing. Internationally, and also domestically, there are multiple ranking lists whereon fencers achieve a numerical ranking through earning points based on placement in significant tournaments.
          For ratings, placement in a single tournament determines an earned rating. The tournament strength is decided by the number of people and the ratings of those people along with the number of rated people who place in the top eight. A rating lasts for four years. Any local event can give out a rating, even if its entirely attended by people of a single division, or even a single club, as long as the event is one of the appropriate age categories for giving the rating. Whether you earn it in a senior, a junior or a vet event, or if you earn it in a mixed, a men’s or a women’s event does not impact the rating. They’re all the same.
          Rankings are earned through points given based on placement in certain types of events. The number of points awarded may be determined by the nature of the event, or by the size of the event. Events which give out points are broken down between age groups, division, and gender. Your ranking only applies in the category where you earned points (Junior Men’s Foil, Division II [Senior] Women’s Epee, etc.). Your ranking will be the result of multiple performances, potentially, and points drop off after 12 months, or at the end of the season, depending upon the category.
          Because points reflect, potentially, multiple performances, are category specific, are earned in larger “more official” events, and exist for a shorter amount of time, many people feel rankings are a more meaningful system. It’s definitely the system which impacts more important stuff. But the rating system is more visible and is easier to comprehend, so it has an importance as well. Both systems can result in weird attainments. A fencer might have an unusually good day, or they might fence in an unusually easy tournament, or they might get a bizarrely lucky path through the DE table or an unfairly easy pool. In both systems random factors can impact performance so neither one is fool proof. The basic idea for both systems makes sense though, and both rankings and ratings can both be good determiners for an athlete’s ability to perform in a tournament setting.
          But are all ratings created equal? This is the question my friend has brought up after discussions with fellow competitors. Rankings get more specific, you’re given a particular place relative to everyone else. You earn that placement by performing in a regional or a national circuit event, which will often be pretty big, with – hopefully; national referees who know what they’re doing. You ranking is again for a specific category. So, when someone says “I’m in the top 50 Cadet Men’s Epeeists in the country,” it feels specific. You can guess how they qualified for that status. But when someone says “I’m a B,” are all Bs created equally?
          Some parents who don’t fence and some younger athletes take the view “Hey, if you earned it you are it, and it’s all the same.” They don’t consider whether you just had good luck, or opponents had bad luck, or if you got it in an easy event, or if the category of event makes it easier or harder. Those factors all exist though. So, yeah, sometimes a rating might get earned before a fencer is ready. Sometimes a fencer deserves a rating but keeps running into an unusually tough opponent in DEs, or the event strength drops mid-tournament due to upsets, or someone doesn’t show up or pulls out during pools and it just doesn’t hit the expected event rating. Again, it’s not fool proof.
          My friend, maybe questions his rating, he earned his B super-fast after earning his C, and that was pretty fast after his D. But, he spent two years training five to six days a week. In his case, he beat a B who was a former A and a former National Team member to earn his B. He did it in a large event with people from several divisions, and way more Div1 ratings than were needed for the event to have its strength. Half the referees had international referee ratings, including the one who refereed his pool, and the one who refereed most of his DEs. He was in a fairly strong pool as well. His rating was well earned. Conversely, I’ve seen people earn ratings in events where referees were throwing calls in their favor, or where it was all club mates, or events that were so mismanaged and so poorly refereed that many bouts finished in ways that defied logic. I’ve seen people earn ratings by being tall, skinny, and left-handed while fencing so awkwardly that they end up haphazardly getting past better opponents who just can’t adjust to hit them. It’s a mixed bag.
          In most cases though we can say a few things about ratings. Between an E and a D in foil and epee there usually won’t be a ton of difference. There is frequently a big jump between the D and the C in foil and sabre. In all three weapons there is, usually, a big jump from the C to the B, and from the B to the A.  
          Even with those trends…does that mean everyone with the same rating is comparably good? Obviously not. Some Cs routinely lose to some other Cs, some Bs routinely lose to some other Bs. The space for difference is real and unquestionable. Just because you’re on the weaker end of the Cs doesn’t mean you should be a D, or just being on the stronger end doesn’t mean you should be a B. There’s a fair shot your rating makes sense. Sometimes though, people are weaker or stronger than their rating suggests.
          The real thing you want to look for isn’t did you earn the rating, it’s what does your performance usually look like. After all, the rating is an exciting moment, it’s a great thing to celebrate, and it’s a great goal to motivate you – but your performance over time is the real thing you want to make good. So, you earn a C, are you routinely placing such that you would re-earn the C? If you’re in a larger event where re-earning is less likely – are you outplacing most of the Ds and below? Are you finishing amid the Cs? If you’re a C and you’re outplacing the bulk of the Bs routinely that can tell you something too. That’s what I look for. I’ll celebrate the win, but then I’ll look for the trend.
          If the trend isn’t immediate though don’t worry. You earned the rating, and if you did it in a meaningful context, it might just be a matter of getting your sea legs. The game changes a little. People will adjust the effort they put in because they expect you to be a harder opponent. Relative pool strength shifts, which should be an advantage but it can still weirdly adjust what your first DE bout is like. Adjust your training to your new context. Keep at it. Find the trend.
          For parents and team mates, when athletes get a rating they don’t expect and they doubt themselves, it might not be useful to just tell them that they earned it so it’s theirs. Point to the context, show them why it was deserved, and remind them they now have something to work towards fulfilling rather than to work towards earning. If they get too excited and their head swells up too much, remind them they need to be able to repeat it, and their access to tournaments is changing in a way to encourage that. All in all, celebrate the win, strive to prove the win through continued success and growth.

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