…not switchblades, that’s a different thing.
“I think you will be a better épée fencer than you were sabre fencer.”My coach in Doha has said this a few times now in recent weeks. The first time he said it, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. There was the pleasure in the compliment, a rare thing among fencing coaches, a kind of latent regret that I was leaving my ‘favourite’ weapon behind, and finally a concern that if I had fenced épée to begin with, I might have progressed to the level I so desperately wanted to reach when I was younger.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that while me now might have the “potential to one day be a decent épéeist,” (as I said, compliments are hard earned) my younger self would have been (and on the few occasions I was forced to try, was) a terrible terrible terrible epee fencer.
I guess, at this stage, I should look at the various differences between the two blades (and ignore foil completely because I know absolutely nothing about it).
The various weapons come with distinct rules and techniques but also very definite mentalities that make someone suited to it or otherwise.
Sabre – my original choice – is the fastest weapon with a target area of anything above the waist. It is slashy (technical term) as well as pokey (also a technical term) although the point is rarely used. It is so quick that instead of three sections of three minutes during a fight to 15 with a one minute break after each bit, you just stop for a minute after someone reaches eight points as it would be unusual for a fight to last more than three minutes anyway.
Because of its speed, you pretty much have to decide what you are doing between hits and then just go for it. If you mess up the next few seconds are run on instinct until one or other of you lands a hit. You have to adapt quickly and there isn’t a lot of thinking time.
This last bit is why sabre was good for me as a teenager and into my early 20s. One of the reasons I crapped out of competitions is that I had a tendency to over-think everything to the point where I was basically a ball of stress with a sword.
At the same time my concentration span was such that my brain would wander off in search of entertainment elsewhere after (at most) half an hour of thinking about the same thing. It is why I would regularly get y ass kicked playing chess, even if I had been ahead for the first half hour, my mind would give up and I would do stupid stuff and get slain for it.
So the need to think fast in sustained bursts and the fact that there was little room to think the rest of the time, made sabre the perfect weapon.
In épée, I discovered, being impatient to attack, or dropping concentration, is rapidly punished by a far more focussed opponent.
Epee, by the way, is the slowest of the weapons. It is exclusively pokey and the target area is anywhere on the body. When I first made the switch I was pretty awful and getting my ass handed to me by people who had been fencing a matter of months.
Muscle memory meant that successful parries were followed by cut cheek (not a hit), when I got tired my blade drifted into a sabre en guarde position (very bad times), I forgot to think about my legs which were suddenly target area and my distance was all out of whack (which it had always been, but in épée I had no idea how to compensate.)
It was awful and added in to that was the fact that I was still too impatient. If someone didn’t attack for a few seconds I got bored and lunged in, not planning, not thinking, just going, and would be effortlessly hit for my trouble. My concentration would drop after ten seconds and suddenly the box would be beeping merrily, reminding me I just got beaten yet again.
I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t use fencing as I had previously before the stress took over, as a way to relax, because when I relaxed my muscles were hard wired to do the wrong thing. It seemed to me then that the best thing would just be to stop, jack in the sport that I can’t really remember not doing and start something new.
Then, however, came to a new realisation. No one expected anything of me in this club. I wasn’t going to be expected to compete, or do well or be outstanding. I could just have fun fencing for the first time in possibly a decade.
With this turning point I started to relax. As I got used to everything and started to improve on the basics (one clue was when Christophe stopped having to yell “use your point” every few minutes) I started getting lessons again and slowly, slowly, I am starting to feel like maybe, one day, I could possibly be a half decent epee fencer.
Learning to be patient on the piste, to think while I am fencing, not to be distracted by the yells and gamesmanship, all that is still some way away, but I feel like it is reachable.
A fair while ago, while I was dealing with moving jobs, enforced unemployment, and a figurative landslide of paper work, I blogged about how I had rediscovered fencing at exactly the right time and how I had hated it by the time I quit in the UK.
Something I hadn’t considered before, but that my very wise coach suggested might be the case, was that switching blades was one of the reasons fencing became enjoyable again.
It is like a new sport without any of the baggage left over from the sabre years.