Interview with Clément Schrepfer, author of How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic 4 Method, the best selling fencing book in France in 2015.
Readers will no doubt recall that Will was the winner of the ‘Fencing Travel Story Competition’ (‘The Sword’, January 2016, p29) and his ‘Medal Kiss of Death…’ piece (which appeared in ‘The Sword’, July 2016, pp21-25) – Editor
Will Miller (WM): Congratulations on writing such an accessible fencing book. It’s like a summary of best practice in epee, with the fourpart structure making it easy to keep the key points in mind when on the piste.
I’ve already found it useful: I didn’t win my last ompetition with The Fantastic 4, but I understand why I was knocked out, and what I have to work on. (My hand!) Is that how the four-part structure evolved?
You keeping in mind the main priorities for your own fencing? Is there a particular example of how it helped you?
Clément Schrepfer (CS): First of all, thank you for your feedback. I really appreciate that even advanced fencers can still learn and improve themselves through the eye of The Fantastic 4 Method. You got it: as I wrote in my book, this “Fantastic 4 vision” is a summary of my own understanding of epee fencing, after more than twenty years of practice.
This vision started when, following the advice of an older fencer, I tried to analyse my instincts during the days I had good results on the piste. I wrote a list of details that made me feel better on the piste and after years of gathering my analyses and improvements, my list reduced from dozen to four: The Fantastic 4! These four points summarise the most effective way of fencing epee, from beginner to a high-level practice.
At every level of understanding, they allow you to focus on good points and help to analyse your mistakes or those of the opponent. And by understanding mistakes, little by little, you can reduce them and even eliminate them in a methodical way. I still use the Fantastic 4 during my practice and almost every day rediscover how effective they are!
During a bout I can start on a wrong tactic, and then calmly change my approach to take advantage of my opponent. It is not always easy, of course, but it is enjoyable, and I finish almost every match, no matter the final score, with a clear vision of the solution that needed to be applied.
WM: One of the key thrusts of the book is conserving energy while letting your opponent use his, and thereby making it harder for your opponent to focus and react. On the other hand, I saw that one of the reminders you had for yourself when fencing was to “keep moving”. Excellent advice, yet it is a balance: you have to keep moving, but at the same time, performing unnecessary feints or high-energy actions will wear you out faster than your opponent.
Where do you stand on footwork: pure bouncing, half-bounce-half classical or, proper classical footwork? And how intense?
CS: The key is to know yourself. Knowing your physical limits and being conscious of your focus level will allow you to put rhythm variation into practice and keep it under control.
Variations are about “actions in the distance of warning zone” and “relaxing out of this distance”, that’s how you maintain a decent level of energy and focus. “Keep moving” is mostly during phases of actions within the warning zone, to be ready to move in or out of distance at any time, and to surprise the opponent with the explosiveness of your attack. If you are not moving, every step forward or backward will be more easily noticed by your opponent and you will be less able to surprise him or her.
For my own practice on the piste, I don’t take into account whether I am bouncing or halfbouncing or anything else; rather, it is more about the principles of being dynamic and to not get stuck on your legs by surprise.
WM: Patience, one of the Fantastic Four in your book, was always a virtue in epee. In the old days an epeeist might wait half an hour to make a hit.
Things have changed and with the passivity rules, if a fencer is behind on points, the patience game can be turned on its head, where you have little time left – literally seconds. Usually, too, the harder you try to catch up, the weaker your game.
You do talk about being more daring when behind, but should there be a different Fantastic 4 for the last 15 seconds? One perhaps suited better to the attacking game of foilists?
CS: It’s true that the passivity rule has changed the game. We see nowadays, shorter and shorter bouts and tactical moves turning into more physical struggles. But there still is enough time for being “Patient”. Patience in the Fantastic 4 does not mean “waiting a minute for something to happen”; it is more like managing to catch the right moment, even provoking it, by “doing everything with a conscious intention”.
Patience is also about providing the space for the opponent to make a mistake so as to benefit from it. And finally, it is about managing a positive tension between seeing, anticipating and taking opportunities, and not always falling for the first “ouverture” which could be a well-laid trap.
When you have a little time to act, strengthen your provocations and use other types “pressure”, like pressure of the end of the piste, or becoming more menacing with your point, or being less risk averse when seizing on an opponent’s mistakes.
WM: Discussing distance, Harmenberg, in Epee 2.0, wrote that the fencer who prefers the shortest distance dictates the distance. As you say in your book, distance is of course a tactical decision.
For some opponents a shorter distance will make them feint to keep you back, which can give you the blade. Other opponents will simply make an effective direct hit if you push too close. Then we have close quarters, where one fencer might provoke close quarters simply because he or she has the better game at that distance.
I thought an important message in the book was that it is important to continually vary the distance: is this to hinder an opponent planning a response, or more to disguise the distance you eventually plan to use?
CS: To my mind, both of these are valid. It is important to vary distance and to know how to fence in different distances. While distance varies according to the size of your (and your opponent’s) attack, it cannot be fixed and always the same.
For sure, controlling the distance variations between you and your opponent will disrupt his perception of the game. And by moving in and out of the direct touch distance, you are trying to hide your intentions and complicate the execution of your opponent’s tactics. Varying the distance will hinder the opponent’s ability to plan his actions and make him fence in a more “reactive mode”.
The more dynamic you are in managing the distance, the less time you give him to think about planning. He will probably try to get into his preferred distance for launching his actions but if you are controlling the distance, you can plan further than just “being at the best distance” and choose a solution to counter his intention.
The point is again to know yourself first, the size of your attacks, your ability to move out, or react to opponent’s attacks … and then adapt, as always.
WM: The section where you cover Intentions in the Fantastic 4 is filled with gems, and so many in fact that I thought there was a fair bit of crossover between the sub-section “Make Act” and “Make React”.
If the first is preparation and the second is reconnoitre – I imagine that can change very rapidly if an opening presents itself. Say if, under Make Act, the opponent does something unexpected and you simply step back and think “what was that?” In both scenarios, “open eyed” fencing comes into play: the ability to instantaneously assess and respond to a situation.
In the acknowledgement section, I noted the long list of excellent coaches you have had: has “open eyed” training been an integral part of your own training? How integral do you see this ability? (For example, Harmenberg admitted he wasn’t so good at it and simply used disruptive parries for anything that didn’t fit into his tactical framework.)
CS: Indeed, some of my fencing masters were “open-eyed” training oriented. This meant that individual lessons seemed almost like real matches, and focused on progressive variations in actions and reactions with the coach, beginning say from a single half lunge preparation.
You are right that “Make act” and “Make react” are close concepts, as I say in the book, but the difference is in the mental attitude you have in your preparation. When trying to Make Act, you are focusing on making the opponent launch his attack, and so more aware of the “tactical distance” of the game. When trying to Make React, the focus is to analyse his reactions to your threats (does he try to parry, to go backwards or forward…) and so use these reactions in your next decisive attack.
In any case, the Rule #1 of this “fantastic” is to keep this open-eyed attitude by always remembering to do no forward action without intention. You cannot “move forward” for the sake of moving, it is too risky to enter the danger zone without having a plan in your mind.
WM: There is quite a bit of psychological training referred to in the book: visualisation, recreating your state of mind when you have been most successful, and controlling emotions after a hit is made or lost, for example. Where you discuss the explicit need to win, I thought it might only apply to certain sort of fencers.
There is a fair bit of research suggesting that pressure to win can be counter productive – even when put on oneself. In fact, athletes who go out the night before and, on the day, think, “I’ve got no chance, I’ll just compete for fun”, often suffer no loss in performance, due to the lower level of stress.
On the other hand, Czajkowski (in Understanding Fencing) notes that champion fencers can deal with a lot more pressure to win than lower level competitors, and a few even perform better with pressure; beginners, however, function best when quite calm. Of course, we are there to win, but is the need to win you describe in the book, different to the correct level of arousal for different fencers?
CS: Of course, each fencer will have a different sensibility for the pressure of a competition. Some will be excited, others maybe be paralyzed, mentally exhausted, or calm. Some fencers (including me) have tendencies to search for perfection and some kind of “beauty” in their actions, which can make them lose focus on the ultimate goal during the competition: to win.
For everybody the point is to be able to give their best on D-Day. But giving your best does not always mean putting yourself under pressure to “win”. Instead, give conscientiously your best and put yourself in the “possible mindset for winning”, touch by touch collecting “mini-wins”. Build your match and competition step-by-step; but there is no need for a “heavy winning pressure” at every moment of the event. For sure, during a bout, when the opponent changes the fight into an “aggressive” one, you may need a “winning” mindset to not be overwhelmed.
It is also important to stay focussed on your winning motivations during “decisive phases”, when there are only 2 points left to score (e.g. at 3 or 13 points) for you and/or your opponent. It is often the key difference at 14-14; the winner is the one who was more determined to win.
WM: Since writing the book, I imagine you’ve been thinking about the Fantastic 4 paradigm and had feedback from many fencers. If you were to write a second edition of the book would you make any further adjustments? Would there be, for example, a Fantastic 5?
CS: Indeed, many readers asked me about a second book. This has made me think about another passionate topic in fencing that I may put into words in 2017.
About a other Fantastic 4 second edition, if I was to introduce new material, I would try to highlight the things I consider really important by adding more examples, and probably some testimonials. I would also try to explain further some notions, and maybe create a new tool for keeping in mind the Fantastic 4 on the piste.
I would not change the paradigm into 5 elements because it took me 10 years to reduce and condense my list from 20 to 4, but I am still open for new ideas and other fencers point of view.
WM: Thank you Clément, it was a great pleasure to hear more about your approach.
CS: It is always a pleasure to exchange views about ways of epee fencing and I had great time answering your questions. May this interview spike the curiosity of fencers from all levels!
To learn more about the Fantastic 4 Method see www.howtofenceepee.com and watch the Hugues Obry interview. An English version of the book is available from the above link and online retailers.
Will Miller is a co-author of Epee Fencing: A Step-By-Step Guide to Achieving Olympic Gold with No Guarantee You’ll Get Anywhere Near it, and a fencing researcher.
January 2017 THE SWORD
Here is the Interview, extract from pages 26-27 of The Sword from January 2017 !
See the complete magazine : “The Sword – January 2017“