Thinking About Footwork…

As part of an article I was going to write about footwork, I had started to compile some┬ánotes on the subject. Then, I abandoned the piece half way through writing it. Footwork is a big subject, and the article was getting out of control. With too many wheels within wheels, I couldn’t find a way to comfortably anchor the piece. Perhaps I’ll break it up and publish smaller articles separately at some future point.

However, I still think the notes are useful, and wanted to write them down where I could refer to them again: Some of you may find them useful.

  1. Distance determines everything you will do as a fencer. Blade work is often secondary to distance, since distance drives blade work.
  2. Footwork is distance and distance is footwork.
  3. The distance between a fencer and their opponent is always changing, and the rate of that change is always changing, assuming that good fencing is occurring.
  4. Every opponent has a distance “bubble” around them. Outside of that bubble, they will not react to anything the fencer does–or at least, not react to it in an honest way. Inside of that bubble, the opponent’s reactions may be instinctive or planned, depending on the fencer, their training, and the action. As the fencer pushes at the edge of the distance bubble, they can–to some extent–manipulate and control the opponent. 1
  5. On the offense, the fencer must enter a critical distance to the the opponent at the moment of the attack. Breaking through to that distance and not immediately attacking has dire consequences, especially in epee and saber. On the defense, the fencer must deny the opponent distance to make the action that they want–always keeping the opponent at the distance that makes the attack the hardest for them.
  6. In the case of footwork and blade actions, I think about a situation in which one fencer is directly in front of another. Does any other blade action make sense besides making a simple direct attack? Admittedly, this is a reduction to the absurd. But I see many fencing teachers teach blade actions are completely separate from distance. They teach straight attack, beat attack, feint disengage, feint-1-2, all at the same distance! And all with no movement! I’m trying to justify to myself why anyone would do that, and I don’t have an answer.
  7. I won’t go so far as to say that there is one–and only one–blade action for a given distance, but there are classes of blade actions that fit together into distinct distance and tempo situations. Recognizing this makes fencing much less of a mess to understand.
  8. As humans, we spend a lot of time learning new skills for our hands, but many of us don’t learn any new skills with our feet (except perhaps for people who learn to drive manual transmission cars, or those brave souls that take up ball room dancing).
  9. Many coaches don’t teach footwork well. This is self-propagating. Fencers with bad footwork become coaches, and pass that bad footwork onto their fencers. I was watching a coach at another club lead a footwork line drill a few years ago. All of the footwork was too fast, and none of the students had single idea of what they were supposed to be doing except to cover as much ground (forwards or backwards) as possible. None of them actually fell over but…disaster.
  10. Many coaches don’t use footwork well in lessons–except as a way for the student to get to the target as quickly as possible. I’ve probably watched dozens of coaches give lessons over the years. I would say that only 25% of the coaches used footwork as an integral part of the lesson. 2 For the rest of the coaches it was <random motion up and down the strip> – lunge -<more random motion>
  11. Some fencers don’t understand the role of distance/(de)acceleration/footwork until it’s too late in their careers. Hitting an opponent with a footwork attack that changes rhythm is a pretty sophisticated action. This becomes a paradox: advanced fencers understand footwork and using footwork is the only way to be an advanced fencer. So either the fencer comes to this conclusion on their own, and works hard to develop footwork as a part of their game, or they are lucky enough to have a coach that isn’t ignorant.
  12. Why do so many people retreat so badly? They step back with the back foot and then roll the front foot off of the heal (lifting the toe of the front foot first). This ensures that the front foot always moves late in the retreat. Often when I teach fencers from other programs, it takes me a year to teach them to retreat by pushing with the entire foot instead of rolling back on their heel and dragging the front foot after them. It drives me crazy.
  13. I’m surprised by the number of posts on that start out with “…well, my opponent’s blade….” Without even mentioning something as simple as how far apart the fencers start.

  1. I like to tell a story about lion taming when I talk about this in class, but that story is too long to go into here
  2. Yes, the majority of those coaches WERE saber coaches.