Everybody has been in this situation before... You are called up for your bout, you get yourself ready, you wander out on to the field, the various litanies are read, the marshal then calls you to on guard, and then "Allez!" You stand there looking at your opponent thinking "What do I do now?" This is the first place where reading the opponent becomes a practical thing, of course, if we are smart we observe our opponents off the field as well. This blog will be focussed on those aspects of reading the opponent which occur on the field. It is not designed to tell you how to deal with every opponent, just how to get the information so you have some ideas about how to deal with your opponents.
The first question that is asked is why is reading the opponent important? There are various reasons that answer this particular question. The first and most practical one is that so we do not launch into an attack and skewer ourselves on the opponent's point in the process. This can be avoided through reading of the opponent and knowing how he will react. This leads on to another aspect, that of predicting what the opponent can or cannot do. The ability to predict what the opponent can or cannot do is dependent on reading the opponent, and if we can see what the opponent can or cannot do we can plan for those things that they might do. The element of prediction comes from reading the opponent both stationary and in action, each one of these elements will tell us something about the opponent.
There are two main senses which are of greatest use to the fencer in reading the opponent and one which is less useful. The two which are the most useful are sight and touch, the one which is least useful is hearing. Hearing is limited due to the head protection which is worn when fencing, this muffles the ability to hear and reduces the effectiveness of this particular sense. Sight is the most obvious one as we are looking at our opponent and seeing what they do or do not do. The sense of touch is also important as we can also feel where the opponent may move and how they move through contact through the weapons. Each one of these two most useful senses will be addressed in turn, giving some ideas about how they can be used to read the opponent.
The first sense that will be discussed is sight. This is more than just looking at your opponent, it is observing them. In this it is important to look at details but also at the whole picture as well. The details assist with building a complete picture of the opponent.
We will start from the ground and work upwards. You can tell things from the position of the feet of your opponent. Is their front foot pointed at you? Is their back foot in line with their front foot? Are they standing flat-footed, or are they more on the balls of their feet? Each one of these elements will tell you something about the opponent. If their front foot is not pointed at you then their facing may be different. This can also affect the accuracy of their thrust. If their feet are in line with one another the opponent may have a tendancy to use more linear footwork. If they are standing flat-footed they will move slower than if they are on the balls of their feet. Needless to say the primary information you will get from looking at the feet will be about movement. Similar information is gained from looking at the legs. Are the opponent's knees bent? Are they bent deeply? This will give you some indication about how well the opponent will move and also some indication of how quickly.
The next element to look at is the body. This is the primary body mass that the opponent carries during fencing. This should also partially consider the head of the opponent, but staying with the body, questions can be asked. Is the body upright or bent? Is the opponent slouching or hunched? Where is their body mass located? The location of the body mass will determine which foot, if either the weight is placed, this will give some idea as to wether the opponent is more likely to move forward or backward. The bending of the body can indicate some of this direction, this can also give you some idea about what they are trying to protect the most. A slouching or hunched opponent may be tired or scared, this will affect their fencing ability. Moving on to the head, the position of the head will tell you much of what has also been discovered by the position of the body due to its weight. If you can see your opponent's face you can see what sort of expression they have and this will tell you about the opponent and their feelings about the bout.
Hands and arms are important. They are a direct connection between the body and the weapon of the opponent. These limbs will determine where the weapon is and is not able to be placed. How is the opponent holding the weapon? This can give some indication about what they are likely to do. Where are the arms placed in the on guard position? How does the opponent move them? Each one of these will tell you where the next movement may be. Is the hand and arm extended from the body, or withdrawn? Are they in an advanced position or more refused? This may give you some indication about what sort of blade engagement, if any, you will get out of your opponent.
The next part of the observation is assembling all of the information that you have gained by observation in order to get some idea of your opponent. Each piece of information will fill something in about the opponent and how they may move. Their position will tell you which direction is easiest for them to move to and where they are likely to go to. This relates to their ward and contra postura, which will be discussed in more detail further on. The overall picture is important, but it must take into account the different elements and details in order to complete the picture. Nothing at this point in time has been said about movement, but the observation process should continue when the opponent is moving. The idea of activity versus inactivity will be something that will be discussed later on.
While it can sometimes be misleading, information about the opponent can also be gained from examining the equipment that they are using. How well does the mask or helm fit? What about the fit of the jacket? Does it look like the equipment belongs to them or is just borrowed? What sort of state of repair is the equipment in? Each one of these elements can tell you something about the opponent. If the equipment is borrowed and does not fit as well as it could, this could result in some restrictions on the opponent. It could also indicate that the opponent is only new to fencing. If the equipment is not in a particularly good state of repair this can tell you things about the opponent and their attitude to what they are doing. All of these elements can tell you something about your opponent.
Touch is the other sense that does us most good in fencing. This is primarily achieved through the use of senso di ferro, or sentiment du fer, or tacto. The idea of feeling through the blade is an important one and a skill that every fencer should seek to develop as it can tell us a great deal about our opponent. Both prolonged and incidental contact between the blades can tell us something about the opponent. This skill, if well developed, can act like an extra sense and can help us predict what our opponent may do, or is likely to do. Simple things such as the blade quivering can tell us that the opponent may be afraid, nervous, tired or be overly excited. Is the contact between the blades weak or strong? This can tell us whether the opponent may attempt to use force against the blade in order to open a line. It is important that how the blades contact is important as well as where they contact. The movements of the blades against one another is also important. All of this information is gained through the use of senso di ferro.
Contra postura is an idea which was expounded by Salvator Fabris and is a most useful concept. In order to use it properly we have to understand its underlying principles. The main idea of contra postura is to place yourself in a position which both actively and passively resists the position of the opponent. The principles behind contra postura is that your blade should be on-line while the opponent's blade is forced off-line by the simple position of the weapon and the body of the fencer. In essence in a correct contra postura you should be able to make a simple unhindered attack against the opponent. If they were to attack at the same time their attack should pass you by because you have closed the line. This is all about examining the ward of the opponent and placing yourself in a position to resist this. The whole idea is reliant on the accurate observation of the opponent.
The greatest effect of contra postura is that you place yourself in a position where you can attack the opponent safely while guarding yourself against the attack of the opponent. This is the primary purpose of the use of contra postura. The only way for the opponent to attack you is to change their position and this results in an action which involves the opponent using a fencing tempo in order to achieve this. Depending on the particular position will determine where the opponent will have to move to in order to perform this action, resulting in an element of prediction, which you can then use in order to counter them. This leads on to the concept of second intention also as you are making the opponent perform an action which you can then counter with a following action, thus the first action sets up for the following one. Contra postura is a most useful tool, if it is used properly, and can lead to a great advantage over the opponent.
The idea of movement has been briefly discussed in various parts above. It is now time to examine what activity and inactivity can tell us about the opponent. If you perform an action and the opponent does not respond this can tell us something about them, as well as if they actually respond to the action can tell us something about them. What the opponent does and how they do it are simultaneously important as this can allude to the skill level of the opponent and how they move. This will assist us in telling us what they are and are not likely to do, and how they may or may not respond to an action. If you perform an action in order to elicit a response from the opponent in order to perform a following action, and the opponent does not respond, this tells us something about the opponent and how we should respond in future. Thus it is important that both action and inaction can tell us something about the opponent.
The question that needs to be asked once all of this information has been assimilated is where does all of this lead? There needs to be a point behind spending so much time in reading the opponent. The first thing that reading the opponent does is it allows us to feel out the opponent. To find out where they are strong and where they are weak. The smart tactician will then attack where the opponent is weak and avoid where they are strong. It is sometimes necessary to feel out the opponent by performing actions, these actions should be designed to see how the opponent will respond and thus gain information about them. This can lead on to further actions which can result in a plan being formed as to how to defeat the opponent. The information gained through reading the opponent can allow us to form attacks and defences against the opponent. Further to this, with the full facility of reading the opponent in action and the correct responses elicited, it is then possible to move on to second intention and other advanced ideas.
Reading the opponent is an essential skill that every fencer will eventually have to develop if they want to become more successful. Each time we face an opponent we should be observing the opponent, finding out their strengths and weaknesses. The reading of the opponent on the other side can also tell us things about ourselves and where we need to improve. This can be a great asset to us as it allows us to improve everytime that we face an opponent. It should always be a learning experience for us everytime we face an opponent. Each one of the elements is important in telling us how to deal with our opponents. Each one must be taken into account in order that we have the most complete picture of the opponent. Only with this information to hand are we able to make intelligent decisions as to how to deal with our various opponents.