Let Me Tell You a Story…

In the last few years there several web sites have appeared that tell you to “throw away your fencing journal”  and promise metrics on all of your bouts. These are very interesting sites (I’ve looked at myself on a few of them) but I they are missing the point. The bout score is, perhaps, the least useful piece of information to take away from a bout.

Past scores against an opponent document a result, and while it’s important to measure results, past results are not necessarily a predictors of future performances. 1 The end result does not  tell a fencer anything about the process that was used to earn that result. Without knowing how that particular opponent was beaten (or how they beat you), the score only confirms something that happened in the past. The one thing that is almost guaranteed to change in every bout is the resulting score at the end of it.

I think it’s best to start with the answers to simple questions about every opponent:2

Is the fencer an attacker, counter-attacker, or defensive fencer?
What actions do they prefer?
When do they prefer to do those actions (on your preparation, after your attack, and so forth)?
What distance do they like to fence at?
When you surprise them, what do they do?
What part of the strip are they comfortable in?
Is there a pattern to their choices of actions?

When Muriel Zagunis was preparing for the 2004 Olympics in Athens 3, she had a good idea of the fencers she would meet in the top 16 (since the seeding was done by FIE ranking). She told me that one of her assignments Before the Athens Games was to write a page about each fencer, and her plan for defeating them. This sort of analysis comes only from knowing what the opponent likes to do, when they like to do it, and where on the strip they like to do it. This information came from analysis of video of the opponent, as well as her own history of fencing them over the years previous to the Games.

Given the space in a fencing journal, I try to replicate the process Muriel used and tell a little story about each bout: “He constantly left the underside of his hand open on his preparation, and I worked that target, hitting it a number of times.I found some success with simple opposition to the body. He liked to fleche a lot from out of distance when he got behind in the bout. A couple of times I felt his foot was open, but I didn’t need to attempt that target”.

There is a lot of information in a few lines, and this narrative helps return me to the experience and visualize what worked and what to look forward if I fence this person again. 

For foil I might write: “I let her take the initiative too often. She hit me with long, marching attacks that finished in the low line. I won a few touches back by fighting for the middle of the strip and hitting her in preparation. No matter how many feints she makes, she likes to finish outside and low”.

I want to write what the fencer likes, and where I found success.

In saber the distance and pattern of actions is something I would want to know. So I might note: “Will mix flat out attacks to the head with short attacks to the forward target. When down more than a touch, will invariably try to make me short and take over with a strong feint to the head. Will often rush when the space is broken early.”

Scores are important, but it’s the stories about those scores that are even more important.


  1. Which you’ll see in every advertisement for an investment vehicle, just in case you wanted some free financial advice.
  2. These questions are not unique and are not intended to be exhaustive. They might be applicable in all three weapons, though of course, the focus will change for each weapon.
  3. It seems unnecessary to mention she won a gold medal there, but I’ll do it anyway.