Footwork, Footwork, Footwork.
Regardless of which weapon you fence or what level of competition you compete at, there is one element of fencing that simply cannot be ignored: footwork. Footwork lays for the foundation for how you control distance, set up actions, and literally remain one step ahead of your opponent. If there was one thing I would tell an aspiring fencer to focus on, it would be footwork.
Unfortunately, the importance of this skill seems to fall by the wayside as soon as young fencers become preoccupied with blade work and hitting. This becomes a long-term problem for developing fencers if they let their focus on footwork slip, and can cause multiple bad habits like bringing feet close together and becoming easily off balance.
While a portion of practice time is often dedicated to mastering footwork, the fencers who make time outside of practice to concentrate on their footwork will more likely see accelerated improvement in their fencing performance. Working independently can be daunting for younger fencers who lack experience. For advice on what specifically to focus, speak to your personal coach. In addition, here are some key elements to help you focus along the way.
Form: Your en garde position is the first component to check. Ensure that you are balanced, feet spaced appropriately apart, and include hand position in your scrutiny of your form. If I had a penny for every time I say “bend your knees” I’m sure I’d have more than couple dollars by now. Bent knees are crucial to maintain balance and changing direction. How low a fencer needs to bend his or her knees varies depending on their body type and style, but you want to ensure that you are supplying yourself with the ability to produce power from the legs as needed. You should always feel your leg muscles engaged in your en garde stance.
Intensity: Whether you are working on your footwork on your own, within a drill, or bouting, it’s important that you perform your steps with the intensity you would want to use in competition. This includes putting precise attention on your use of step size and tempo change. What you practice is what your memory stores are going to repeat when in a tournament. If your feet are sluggish in practice, you’ll be sluggish in competition. If you practice with intensity, you’ll be able to bring that intensity into a competition with ease. Take note: intensity doesn’t just mean power and speed, but also refers to the sharpness and accuracy of your steps.
Realism: Help yourself stay focused during footwork by thinking of how you would use your steps to set up an action. Imagine what is happening when performing your double advance lunge, and add hand movements (such a parry with retreat, or feint disengage on attack) to coincide with the steps you’re taking. This will help you connect your footwork exercises with your strategy on-strip. In addition, performing imagery while practicing your footwork will also help you become more familiar with the timing needed.
With persistent training, you can eventually develop a feel to your footwork that requires less thinking and becomes more instinctual. Make mastery of your footwork a priority in your training and it will improve your overall fencing performance.