Color Commentary


How to Stimulate the Brains of Those Advanced Fencers

Baronessa Dona Nataliia Anastasiia Evgenova Sviatoslavina vnuchka
Don Alexandre Lerot d'Avigne

The following announcement was posted across Rapiernet just prior to Pennsic XXX.

 You've seen or maybe even participated in the Critique Sessions at your
 local Rapier Academies, and seen them providing incisive commentary and
 witty badinage.  Now, at Pennsic,  Don Alexandre Lerot d'Avignon and Dona
 Nataliia Anastasiia Evgenova Sviatoslavina vnuchka take fencing
 spectatorship to the next level by providing color commentary for the
 MidRealm Dice Tournament taking place on Monday, August13, 2001 from 2:00
 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

 In the time-honoured style of sports commentators, Don Alexandre and Dona
 Nataliia will set themselves up near the field and provide pithy analysis of
 bouts in the tournament.

 For the non-fencer, it's a chance to bask in the witty repartee of reknowned
 interkingdom wits and wags.  For the fencer, it's a chance to check out the
 competition and have a practicum in bout analysis, an important skill that
 is all too often neglected in training.

 The color commentary is an outgrowth of the Critique Sessions, which have
 been provided at Rapier Academies as a tool for advanced fencers to improve
 awareness and to teach them how to analyze a match and what to do with the
 information. It has been useful for teachers looking for an alternative
 method of teaching.

 Don Alexandre and Dona Nataliia will analyze the bout as it progresses,
 pointing out interesting features, heightening awareness of stylistic
 strengths, discussing choices made in distances, schools of fence used and
 fashion.  With a little luck, there will also be interesting trivia tidbits
 and career highlights of some of the entrants.

 Whether you are in the tournament or not, come on down to see what the new
 millenium, the 17th century has to bring!

Alexandre had the inspiration for the Color Commentary while watching the British Open golf tournament when it occurred to him that there was useful information to be obtained by simply watching and analyzing the players as they swung. Earlier he and Nataliia had run critique sessions where they observed fencers in their native habitat at the fencers' own request and then commented on what they had observed. That skill, analysis and observation, is often neglected in training and can be a valuable tool in its own right. A quick email to Nataliia later, and the idea for the Color Commentary was in place.

The basic format was straightforward; we would watch whatever matches were occurring near us and analyze them out loud to anyone within earshot. (We did warn those in the tournament what we were doing so that those who didn't wish to be under the microscope could fence further off.) At least one group placed their bouts in front of us because we were doing the analysis.

All humour aside the intent was to observe the bouts and see if we could discover the reasons behind what the fencers were doing. It allowed the commentators to sharpen their observational skills and the less experienced fencers to see inside their minds and perhaps understand the usefullness of the skill. Too often, perhaps, fencers focus on their own game to the exclusion of all else. It is important to remember that there is another person out there as well, and understanding their game is also critical if victory is to be gained.

Interestingly enough, we saw several examples of of extremely common behaviour. The two most pandemic errors we saw were:

  1. Fencers fighting too close. Often fencers were setting up too close, within range of the other fencer. Other times they would immediately move in to a distance which was too close. Note that this is not the same thing as closing in and infighting, rather this is simply an imperfect understanding of the range game. The result of this proximity tends to be hard hits as well as sloppy fighting with excessive cuts since the fencers can't bring their points into the target.
  2. There was a great amount of what we called tip drift or helium tip. Tips were rarely pointed directly at an opponent, and mostly pointed toward the sky. The less experienced the fighter, the higher the drift up. When an opponent changed to an off hand, the tip also drifted. Our feeling is that the fencers tended to go with a window washer parry with the tip up as confidence or experience lessened. In addition, as the tip drifted up, the fencer tended to want to close in, as in point number 1. Alexandre's theory is that without the blade as a ruler, they are less able to accurately judge their distance. Note again that this drift is not always a bad thing. It is a trade of offensive ability for defensive ability, and if it is a conscious choice it may be valid.

    That's an important point, so let's repeat it: If it is a conscious choice it may be valid. That can be said of almost anything in fencing. The danger lies in the unconscious. Several times we did after match interviews and asked fencers why they had done something, and often the answer was "I don't know." We suggest that this is not a good answer.

    Sometimes, however, the interviewer had their reasons, and more often than not, they jibed with what we had suspected. For example, we observed one fencer who was very active, jumping up and down pre-fight, throwing his cloak around and strutting about. The fencer was, in our estimation and observation, playing a great mental game of "It is my field." When we called the fencer over and asked what he was thinking about before beginning each match, he described how he was a fairly short fencer, and that he would strut around to relax himself, set his mind and then claim the field for his and that no one was going to take it from him. This observation greatly enlightened the observers about how to handle someone of this type in the future and how to also "claim the field" for themselves.

    We also had a very active audience. The members of our audience ranged from those who have seen the technique of critique that we used a number of times, to those who have never seen it in practice. We had fencers as well as spectatators in the mix. Soon, the crowd was making observations on their own of more common behaviour and asking questions about things they observed but didn't understand. There was even drive-by spectators who would inform us of interesting activities going on downfield.

    It didn't seem to matter whether or not the audience knew the names or reputations of the fencers in the list that we were watching. It was more entertaining to know names in order to identify the players, but the analysis did not seem to be affected by the information. The person's style, abilities and techniques were quickly obvious without benefit of knowing a name. Once started, the audience was able to pick out the more experienced fencers from the less experienced fencers, which would be of great assistance for bouts in the future. Coming up against an unknown opponent and being able to tell things about them in the first couple of seconds of the bout is a useful skill that can be honed by this type of exercise.

    Setting up a commentary situation is relatively easy as long as certain rules are followed. The combatants being commented on should be agreeable to the exercise. This type of analysis is not for the faint of heart and takes some getting used to. There should be no more than two commentators for any bout. While many in the audience can comment to the main commentators in the clutch, when the combatant or combatants being analyzed are spoken to at the end of the bouting, no more than two should be involved. There are a couple of reasons for this. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Just as when teaching, you only give the student one or two things to work on at any given time, too many in-depth analyses can be overwhelming.

    The situation can be either with random partners or with assigned partners, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.

    When it is random, such as a tourney, there is less pressure to try and show "correct behavior," or rather there is more pressure to do what one is best and most comfortable doing in order to place well in the tourney. This makes it easier to identify habitual behaviors because the fencer's main focus is on the tourney, not on the fact of their analysis. The disadvantage of this method is that many bouts in tourneys will be lopsided, and combatants are less likely to stretch themselves in terms weapon choice, although even a lopsided match can be instructive to watch and analyze.

    With preselected partners, you trade control over the skill levels and weapon choice for a heightened awareness of being observed, which tends to result in fencers editing their own behaviour in order to correct what they think are the faults that are likely to be observed. With nothing at risk, such as advancement in a tourney, the fencers are free to split their concentration more and worry about what the observers are seeing. However, seeing how fencers react under stress and pressure is an interesting exercise in and of itself, so this method should not be discounted, nor do we mean to imply that fencers suddenly fight entirely differently when they are aware they are being watched.

    Both versions of this technique, the individual critique and the tourney- centric colour commentary have proved to be useful tools. Fresh eyes, eyes which do not see the fencer every week at practice, can often see the forest rather than merely the trees. Giving those eyes the freedom to comment on what they see by explicitly setting up a commentary situation allows the fencer to be made aware of habits they may now know they have and increases their awareness of what they are doing and why. We have found that fencers who have had the analysis done often come back for more.

    Copyright 2001, Jeff Berry and M.C. Toscano