Left?

The masked man in the picture is me, testing a theory about my unusual motor skills.

When I picked up a foil for the first time in my teens, I used my right hand, as that’s side I use for most activities. Through high school and college I continued fencing as a righty, and when I returned to the sport after a three-decade absence I defaulted to my right again.

However… I’m not completely right-handed. When I eat or brush my teeth, I’ve always used my left hand. It wasn’t until I met my ever-observant wife that I understood this oddity. “Your gross motor skill — hand and arm dexterity — is on your right side,” she explained, “while your fine motor skill, finger dexterity, is on your left.” Makes sense to me, and sounds a lot better than you’re a freak.

Soon after resuming my fencing career, my coach saw me writing with my left hand, and made a suggestion: “You should fence as a lefty.” I always parried her suggestion with the fact I am entirely right-footed. Roll a ball towards me, and I’ll always kick it with my right foot — that’s the gross motor skill at work. And with balance being an important component of fencing, I considered leading with my right leg of paramount importance.

Thing is, finger coordination in fencing is important for point control. The disengage, in which you drop your blade under an opponent’s attempted parry, is most effective when executed with the fingers, rather than wrist or arm.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided there was nothing to lose by trying. Borrowing a glove and foil from the club, I started fencing as a lefty.

The feeling was as awkward as I expected.

At times I found myself advancing by moving my right foot first, which when fencing as a lefty is behind your body — the motion made me lurch forward, like pushing a wheelbarrow with its front tire stuck in the mud. Each lunge was an argument with my body, an attempt to convince dormant muscles that it was perfectly all right to stretch.

Yet despite these discomforts, I felt my sense of distance to my opponent was somewhat enhanced, which I had not expected as I am right-eye dominant. I also had a better awareness of the tip of my blade — the heightened finger dexterity did seem to make a difference.

At this point, I fence far better with my right hand, and I’m not thrilled by the prospect of buying an almost entire new set of equipment. (If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see a covered zipper channel on the left side of my lame, the gray covering for my torso used for electronic scoring. For safety reasons, fencing regulations require jackets and lames to be zippered either in the back or on the fencer’s non-weapon arm. I can continue using my current gear for practice, but should I enter competitions as a lefty, I’ll need appropriate gear.) But I’m intrigued enough by what I’ve observed these last two weeks to continue this experiment.

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Castle

Like most martial arts, fencing is a mano a mano contest — the sport does have team events, but they are composed of a series of individual bouts. Group competitions are rare, but every few months at the club, we have a good game of Castle.

It’s kind of like dodge ball, with weapons. Two teams gather at opposite ends of the floor, each behind a line designating their castle boundary. Fencers can stay inside the safety of their castle, or go outside to battle their foe, but can’t cross the other team’s boundary. Foil target area is in effect, with a catch — if your arm or leg is struck, that off-target blow renders that limb useless. If your weapon arm’s hit, you fence with the other arm; if a leg is hit, you can’t move it. An on-target hit, or losing both arms or both legs, knocks you out. It’s a game of timing, awareness, and teamwork; too much aggression can leave you open to a blindside attack, while an overly cautious approach can imperil your teammates and leave you the sole survivor against three opponents.

The holidays, when schools are on break and workplaces have all but shut down, are a good time to break from the routine of drills and practice at the fencing club. This past Monday we played a half-dozen or so games of Castle, and I felt like a kid in recess. Highlight of the evening for me came when I was left with one teammate, with two remaining on the other side. My teammate traded parries with one of our foes, as I eased into position on her flank. As the other opponent closed in, I reacted instinctively, striking the first and then pivoting to parry the attack of the second, and landing the riposte to end the battle. Bada-bing, baby!

A lot of men my age take up golf to challenge themselves. I choose to get my kicks by stabbing people. I’d be worried, if I weren’t having such a good time.

One Touch

I’d look up the last time I wrote about fencing, but I don’t have room in my life for any more regret. So I’ll just go ahead and talk about a recent night at the club, an unusually successful evening, during which, for the first and quite possibly the last time, I defeated my coach.

We played a game of one-touch, which, as the name suggests, involves a running series of matches to a single score. There were a half-dozen fencers that evening, all adults (the kids will come back when schools come back in session). Our bouts began with the score tied at 14 (elimination bouts in tournaments go to 15 touches), and since we had some fencers with competition ratings, competitors were deducted a point for each level they had attained; an unrated fencer in a bout against a fencer with the next highest rating, E, would begin with a 14-13 advantage.

I drew the opening bout of our competition, and faced our coach, who also happens to be our club’s best competitor. With her D rating, I had a 14-12 advantage, meaning I needed to get her once before she scored her third. A difficult task, but hardly impossible; in our competitive bouts, I’ve earned one touch for ever four or five surrendered. But this was a different game, and coach always plays to win (as do I, but at a much lower rate of success). I’d have to catch her making a mistake, and when she made it I’d have to score, because there wouldn’t be another opportunity.

Our bout began, and I retreated on her approach, stepping forward a few times to break up her rhythm. She needs three, and all I need is one. I lunged out of distance, to see if she’d overextend herself on the riposte, but she was too good of a competitor to take the bait. Just one. I retreated, letting her advance…

And then it was there. My brain didn’t register the thought, but my vision combined with instinct and experience recognized that she had come in too close and left an opening on her right.  I pounced, disengaging under her blade, extending my arm wide, and leading the point of my blade to her right shoulder, on the edge of her target area. It was an action based not on any decision on strategy, not something I thought about, but more accurately something I felt.

The scoring machine to my right buzzed, but I didn’t know if I had landed on target (green light), or off (white light). I looked over — green light.

Some fencers claim that yelling or celebrating on strip is inappropriate. I don’t agree with that opinion, but still feel compelled to apologize after showing my excitement over a successful attack, especially during practice. But to knock out my coach, on the first bout, the first touch, of the competition, and win without relying on my handicap: YEEEEEEAAAAAAAAH!

I would lose my next bout to an unrated fencer, and over the course of that evening I probably lost more bouts than I won. But I did defeat every other competitor at least once that evening, defeating another D and an E. When the competition came to its end, we all agreed that the event was not only a load of fun but also an effective simulation of a close tournament bout. And for me, it was a rare opportunity to celebrate success. I’m not going to beat coach very often; I faced her three other times that evening, and never came close to scoring against her again. But for one evening, I could honestly say I beat everyone. Winning isn’t everything, but it certainly is a lot more fun than losing, and I had enough fun that evening to carry me through a lot of tough bouts to come.

Competing

Been five months since my last post about fencing. Going to practice consistently, once or twice a week; being at the club, surrounded by people who have the same passion for the sport as I do — very invigorating. Haven’t been competing or refereeing in tournaments since that post in September, which is not entirely surprising since organized competitions aren’t the reason I got back into this sport. Thoroughly enjoy competing and officiating at the club; still trying to find my comfort zone at tournaments.

Asked my coach the other day about goals for the coming year, and she replied that my mental approach to the game needs to catch up with my physical abilities. I know what I’m supposed to do on strip, and I’ve accomplished enough to know I can be competitive — finding that comfort zone has been my biggest challenge. To be as relaxed and focused during fencing as I am when bowling — they’re two very different sports (nobody’s coming at you with a weapon when you’re bowling), but there’s a serenity that can be found in each.

Best

Another fencing tournament today, with a twist — competed in two events, foil and saber. Results were equivalent (one victory in each of the pools, followed by a swift exit in the DEs), but I scored many more touches in saber, losing a couple pool bouts by one. Most of my foil pool bouts were a hot mess, one miss after another; attack-no counter-yes, attack is parried riposte is no remise touche. Half of my misses hit, might have one another bout or two, improved my seeding in the DE.

Wife asked how it went when I got home. About the same, I replied in my best sardonic tone. “Well, did you do your best?” Told her that was a hard question to answer, not just today but any day. It’s difficult to know what your best looks like, not easy to separate desire and ambition from reasonable expectation. All those whiffs — yeah, shouldn’t have been so many of those. Effort was there, so was the strategy, but the execution was lacking. Guess I didn’t do my best, come to think of it; need to work on that point control when practicing at the club.

“Did you have fun?” Now that was much easier to answer. Hell yes. Feeling the life energy of competition coursing through every cell of my body, a euphoria of passion; I doubt any other activity could provide me with such thrills.

Bronze

img_0005Another fencing tournament today, and a first — I “won” a bronze medal in saber. The award comes with quotation marks as there were only three competitors, so from a different perspective I came in last. But at the end of the day they handed me a bronze, and it would have been inhospitable of me to refuse. Need to write a poem about this, on some day where I have a bit more energy.

Thoughtless

“Why don’t you ref foil in the morning, then fence sabre in the afternoon?”

Coach made that suggestion this week for today’s D and under. Tournaments lately have been frustrating experiences, and I’d already decided not to compete in today’s foil event. Officiating, on the other hand, is a great opportunity to be involved with the sport without feeling the pressure of one’s own expectations. Sabre? Been playing around with the weapon at practice for a while, even bought the electronics; competing at some point was in the plan, and coach’s suggestion this week was the motivation to take the next step.

And why not? With so little experience in the weapon, there was little reason to be frustrated, whatever the outcome. If I got shut out entirely, well, that should happen when facing opponents with far more experience. Hook in and let it fly; have some fun doing what you can, and let the results worry about themselves.

And those results, not surprisingly, were pretty positive. Reffing the foil went smoothly, with only a few calls made with more confidence in my voice than my eyes. And competing in sabre was a blast — scored the initial touch in my first pool bout, and actually won my second bout on a shutout (nailed this kid with an undercut to his hand for the first touch, and he never recovered). Decided after that victory to take a more strategic approach in the rest of my pool bout, and after three quick loses realized the folly of that approach. Compared to the other two weapons in fencing, sabre is notably faster, and success in the weapon is all about instinct and reaction — when you start thinking in a sabre bout, you’re in trouble. And by the time the pool bouts were over, I was tired of being in trouble.

Started the DEs against the guy who’d shut me out in my last pool bout. Let it fly, and see what happens. Suddenly I start scoring touches with no real idea what I’m doing, and at the break I’m up 8-6. Bout’s close the rest of the way, and at 14-all I catch a parry but can’t connect on the riposte, losing on the remise.

It was a wonderful afternoon of thoughtless fun. Resulting with the strong suspicion that, after several years of middling results and enduring frustration with foil, I may have finally found my weapon with sabre.

Fun

Been a while since the last update on my fencing career, and while I could take the easy way out and blame my other blogging commitments and otherwise busy schedule — truth is, I’ve been avoiding the topic, because there hasn’t been much progress to report.

Entered two more tournnaments, both E events, since that last update in March. And while I’m well aware of my current ability level, and sensed I had caught some breaks in the March tournament that resulted in a finish above my level, I still expected to continue improving, to come away from the next two events with that same feeling of accomplishment.

Didn’t happen. If anything, felt like I took a step back, losing every pool bout (not scoring any touches in several), and scoring just a single DE victory between the tournaments. My attacks were desperate and spasmodic (think Daffy Duck with a sword), never gained control over distance or tempo; blade work was probably ineffective as well, but the reality was that the touches I surrendered were lost in the engagement before blade action came into effect. In March, felt like I knew what I was trying to do even when I didn’t execute well; since then, I’ve been fencing without a clue, searching rather than competing.

But I’ve got no thought of walking away from the sport this time. It’s hard to have fun when you’re facing another DFL finish, but I’m wondering now if not having fun is the cause, rather than the end result, of these disappointing results. Find it absurd to consider that I’m putting too much pressure on myself, but the reality is that I could feel the tension in my body from the moment of registration at those tournaments, never could get myself to relax. Lost sight of the reason I got back into fencing after a thirty-year absence, how when I’m on strip and trading steel with a competitor who’s trying to stab me with a pointy weapon, how in those moments I feel completely alive, how energy courses through every cell of my being like an energized grid. Not once, even during my lone victory, did I experience that sensation over those last two tournaments, and if that were to continue then I would consider it time to walk away.

So the plan going forward, is to reconnect with that spirit of excitement and energy, so that I’m registering for my next tournament in order to feed that hunger rather than to meet some arbitrary performance goal. 

Track Backing

Returning today to “A Lunge in the Dark,” the irregular but ongoing journal of my competitive fencing career. I’m not a rated fencer and am intending to write for a general audience, so veteran fencers may not find this very engaging, especially the parenthetical italicized explanations.

Had some success at a tournament last week. Focusing on wins and losses can be a frustrating trap for novice fencers like myself, but when viewed as a barometer of one’s skills, results can be a motivating factor.

This tournament was scheduled to be an E and Under, but due to last-minute cancellations and additions evolved into a D and Under. (Fencers earn ratings based on their performance in tournaments; everyone starts with a U, essentially meaning Unrated, and the first real rating is an E. The ratings then work up the alphabet all the way to A. Many tournaments are restricted based on rating; an D and Under tournament is limited to U, E, and D rated fencers.) Nineteen fencers total, six in my pool. As usual I started slow, getting shut out by my coach (a D) and scoring just a single touch in my next bout (pool bouts are over when one fencer scores five touches). Then my energy and focus picked up, and the competition eased — my first two pool opponents would end up in the top five, while my next two finished at the bottom. Got my first victory (always feels good to have the monkey jump off my back), and got to three touches in my next — more on that bout in a minute. Last pool bout was a fencer very similar to myself in age, experience, and skill; this was a bout I really wanted, and it pleased me to fence my best bout of the day, winning 5-3.

Two wins, three loses, with an indicator in the single digits. (The indicator is the difference between the number of touches a fencer scores and the number of touches scored against that fencer; with 14 touches in my favor and 20 against, that made my indicator -6. After the pool bouts, fencers are ranked based on their winning percentage, with the indicator breaking tied percentages, of which there will be many). I was pleased at my results, but not satisfied — that third loss should have been mine. On at least three occasions in that bout, I gave up a touch despite having priority — “Attack left is no, counter-attack right is yes.” (In foil fencing, the fencer who initiates an attack has right of way, or priority, over the other fencer; the other fencer must either parry, i.e. block, or avoid the initial attack in order to take priority before starting their own attack. A fencer who counter-attacks without priority is at risk of being touched, even if the counter-attack lands first). Each time, I saw what was happening — here I go, there he goes, it’s my touch — and each time, I whiffed. Did I start my attacks too close and have my point sail past the target? Did I flinch on seeing the counter-attack? Probably a little of both.

Had I executed properly on just two of those actions, I’d have turned a 5-3 loss into a win by the same score. Three wins, two losses, -2 indicator, and the ninth seed out of pools instead of thirteenth; lost my only direct elimination bout, or DE, to a fencer who earned his E that day (DE bouts go to fifteen touches). Coulda woulda shoulda . . . but at least I know what I did wrong, and was able to identify a skill I need to develop.

Ironically, this was nearly the same tournament I had competed in almost exactly a year before, with slightly better results (same number of wins and loses, but a better indicator). I remember feeling just as good then as I do now, with the same amount of enthusiasm for future tournaments. But a lot happened almost immediately after last year’s tournament — an injury, my mother’s death, managing her estate. Fencing at the club each week helped me get through those times, but competition simply wasn’t going to happen. Didn’t feel like I could breathe without effort until the beginning of this year, and with last week’s results, it feels like my fencing is finally back on the track I had been following a year ago. Of course, life could once again insert itself into that track; just hope whatever does show up is something I can overcome.

Ref

Started my 2016 fencing season yesterday by officiating a D and under tournament hosted at my club. (Fencers earn ratings based on their tournament results. Novices start with a U for unrated; the first earned rating is an E, and then proceed up the alphabet to A. Yesterday’s tournament was limited to D, E, and U fencers.) My calls weren’t all perfect, but my performance was more than competent.