The essence and importance of timing (sense of surprise) in fencing
Academy of Physical Education, Katowice, Poland
The sense of tempo is the most essential of the speed abilities. It is one of the most valuable assets, and virtually nothing can compensate the lack of it. But a sense of tempo can compensate for inadequate physical speed to a considerable extent
The author begins his article with a description of branches of sport in which the most visible and salient features are physical effort and motor activity. Then he concentrates on fencing as an example of sport in which the most important elements are tactics and psychomotor abilities. He stresses the fact that in fencing - like in other combat sports and games - energy abilities, co-ordination and technique are “subordinated” to tactics and psychomotor abilities, like perception, speed and accuracy of reaction, various qualities of attention and very specific ability: timing, the sense of surprise. The main part of the article is devoted to discussing and describing the essence, importance and value of sense of surprise He stresses the point that in fencing - and all combat sports and games - it is extremely important and vital not only how to execute a certain action (technique, sensory motor skills), but what and when to apply it. Strangely enough, although the sense of surprise (timing) is so very important in other combat sports and racquet and team games, it is only discussed in fencing text-books
Key words: Different branches of sport - Tactics and psychomotor abilities – Sense of timing (sense of surprise) in fencing.
The most important indication of fencing talent is the ability of lightning-speed assessment of a situation; either someone possesses this ability or does not
The most „typical” branches of sport may be divided into three main groups
1) Sports of artistic expression (artistic gymnastics, figure skating etc), characterized by: numerous closed (intrinsic) sensory-motor skills (motor habit patterns), big importance of motor educability and motor control, no direct opponent, the mere execution of planned, foreseen movements is important and assessed by the judges.
2) Branches of sport based on high level of specific energy abilities (field and truck events, weight lifting, swimming, cycling etc.) There is only one closed (intrinsic) sensory-motor skill of motor type and technique serves to achieve better result - faster, further, higher. There is no direct opponent, no change of situation.
3) Branches of sport in which most important are tactics and psychomotor abilities (combat sports, games). In these sports energy abilities, co-ordination, technique are subordinated to tactics. There are numerous open (extrinsic) sensory-motor skills of cognitive-motor type. The very important psychomotor abilities are: speed and accuracy of perception, speed and accuracy of sensory-motor responses, various qualities of attention (level of attention, range, selectivity, divisibility, shifting of attention). Of great importance are technical-tactical capabilities (based on sensory-motor reactions in unforeseen actions), tactical capabilities (based on observation, perception, preparatory actions in foreseen, premeditated actions) and sense of surprise (sense of timing).
It is (it ought to be) obvious that teaching, coaching and applying in competition of sensory motor skills in these branches of sport is very different.
Fencing, of course - like other combat sports and games - belong to the third group of sports. Fencing, however, differs from other groups of combat sports:
a) there are no weight categories,
b) sheer, “brutal” force is not necessary and not important
c) the time of bout is not so important; if the time of the bout elapse, then the winner is the fencer who scored more hits,
d) one, even most spectacular action, does not finish the bout; victory is described by the score of hits.
Apart from these differences, there are however many common and similar traits in fencing and other combat sports, among other very important is value of tactics, tactical capabilities and sense of surprise (sense of timing) - the main subject of this article.
The famous words of the Fencing Master in Moliere’s “Citizen turned gentleman” (“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, 1670) define the essence of fencing as giving hits without receiving them. Thus fencing may be defined briefly as the art of holding weapons with the intention of touching the opponent by cut or thrust while avoiding being hit oneself.
The following could be considered among the most important aims of a tactical fight and one the most salient aspects of fencing:
1. Very generally, one may say that the main purpose of a fencing action is to forestall, or be ahead, of the opponent. In epee, this is literal. One has to forestall the opponent in time. A hit, to be valid, has to be a fraction of a second earlier. In sabre and foil, forestalling takes a more subtle form. A sabreur or foilist, when counter-attacking, must either close the line of the opponent’s attack or be ahead by a period of fencing time. In offensive actions, he fights to be ahead in gaining the right of way: he must be first to initiate the attack (not only in his own but, above all, in the referee’s opinion). The conception of forestalling or keeping ahead of the opponent is expressed, not only by the mere speed of movement, but also, and perhaps above all, by the necessity for more selective and acute perception, and by the necessity for faster transformation of information (to understand, at once, what one sees, feels, and hears). To put the idea colloquially, the fencer has to be a thought ahead of his opponent.
2. A factor of immense tactical importance is surprise—the ability to act in a way unpredicted by the opponent. The more skilful the fencer is in exploiting the element of surprise, the less his opponent will be able to anticipate the time, speed, type, and intention of the action employed.
3. A very important feature and aim of tactical combat is the ability to gain the appropriate distance in a situation most inconvenient for the opponent. For example, if, after manoeuvring, one gains lunging distance at a moment when the opponent is concentrated and waiting for an attack, it is not sufficient. It is far more valuable to gain the distance when the opponent is temporarily off balance, not concentrated, or expecting something quite different. Generally speaking, one may state that practically all fencing actions, and the footwork accompanying them, aim, in a way, at gaining “nearness” while preserving combat initiative.
4. Of equal importance in tactics is recognition and understanding of the opponent’s actions and intentions-at the same time, misleading him by concealing one’s own (confusion of display).
5. In their application, tactics are connected with technique and other factors of training and fights. This point will be discussed below.
6. The main tasks of tactical fencing activities are: a) to avoid being hit, b) to prepare an action, and c) to score a hit. These tasks are given here in a logical time sequence, but in practice they are intermingled.
Purposeful and efficient application of technical-tactical and tactical capabilities on the strip depends upon the specific energy and co-ordination abilities, technical skill and level of psychological preparedness.
The ability to conduct a bout and use proper tactics is closely connected with the fencer’s psychological state, his power of concentration, and self control. Undue nervousness, over-excitation, lack of confidence, overestimation of the opponent’s strength, apathy, insufficient warming up, prevalence of inhibitory processes - all these factors may hamper the fencer in conducting a tactical bout, realisation of tactical solutions, and display of his technical abilities. Conversely, self-control, optimal level of arousal, consciousness of his own experience, and technical and tactical capabilities, positively influence the psychological state of the fencer, increasing his calm assurance, dexterity and courage in action.
Sense of surprise (scelta di tempo, l’á propos)
A sense of surprise is the ability which allows us to choose the moment most favourable for the execution of a fencing action.
Paul Pattesti and Louis Prost
In tactics, a very important role is played by the sense of surprise—often called choice of time (scelta di tempo, l’à propos). Every fencer—even one who has just begun to do loose play—has been told, and realises from experience, how important it is to choose the right time for attacking his opponent. Of course, we realise that the expression “choice of time” or “timing” is inadequate. There is also a question of distance, tactical situation, and taking the opponent by surprise—all of which make a very complicated phenomenon nearly as difficult to describe as the conception of time or space.
It was noticed long ago that certain situations are more conducive to scoring a hit. This has been called, in English, “timing” or “choice of time”, in Italian, “scelta di tempo”, in French, “l’a propos”. The expression used by Polish fencers, “zaskoczenie” (literal translation: “surprise”) or “wyczucie zaskoczenia” (“sense of surprise”), better depicts the situation than an expression which only considers the element of time.
The expression “tempo” (literally, “time” in Italian) originates from the XVI century Italian rapier play. When a fencer made a preliminary movement to cut to head, and his opponent executed a very fast cut to flank, they called it “tempo” (of course, it is stop-hit). If somebody attempted to execute a stop-hit—“tempo”—and his opponent counter-acted it by a stop-hit with opposition, it was called “tempo contra tempo”—the origin of contemporary counter-time, understood as an action against a counter-attack. In later years, the expression “tempo” lost its meaning as stop-hit, and began to be used to describe a sense of surprise (stop-hit was called “colpo de’arresto” and stop-hit with opposition was called “colpo di tempo” - time-hit, nowadays called stop-hit with opposition). Since then, the expression, “to attack in good tempo,” has come to mean to attack, taking one’s opponent by surprise. It is not a very fortunate description as everything we do occurs in time, and the success of an attack depends on lightning-like speed assessment of the situation and surprising the opponent by immediate action.
Most fencing textbooks, while stressing the element of “choice of time” delicately side-step the difficult problem of defining, describing, and discussing it.
The well-known fencing masters, Paul Battesti and Louis Prost  simply call it the ability to choose the moment most favourable for the execution of a fencing action.
Kazimierz Laskowski , the director of the military school of fencing in Warsaw before the war, stated that “tempo, or surprise, is the moment of taking unawares an opponent who, in that particular situation, is hit most easily by an unexpected action.”
Janos Kevey  gave his conception of timing as follows: “by the expression tempo, we mean the moment which is the most favourable for the beginning and execution of a fencing action. . . in such a moment the opponent is helpless and not capable of making a defensive movement.”
The Hungarian author of a well-known textbook on sabre fencing, Zoltan Ozoray Schenker , wrote, “a fencer must catch the moment when his opponent is totally or partially incapable of action,” and “such favourable moments occur when the opponent executes badly thought-out or purposeless blade movements or footwork, when his attention is distracted and his readiness for action is diminished. Such moments occur also when the opponent is, for example, preoccupied with planning the bout, or is distressed by its unsuccessful course.”
Paul Clery  stated, “L'á propos. . . c'est l'art de profiler des inattentions ou des fautes adverses a l'instant precis ou elles se produissent.” (“Sense of timing is the art of taking advantage of inattention or the opponent’s mistakes at the precise moment when they occur.”)
Professor Leon Bertrand , in his Cut and Thrust, describes timing in slightly more detail, and in combination with other elements. He advises that, in construction of attacks the fencer should employ three essentials: “what the Italians call ‘scelta di tempo’—choice of time, judgement of distance and speed. They are three further lodes in the main stratum. The first is by far the most important of the three. Assuming the possession of the highest technique, the sabreur stands or falls by the presence or lack of this vital sense. Choice of time means the selection of the psychological moment to launch the offensive, it means executing the movement when your opponent is unprepared or least expects it. That is choice of time in its broadest significance. The final definition of ‘scelta di tempo’ is the seizing of the precise fraction of a second to move at the slightest sign of mental irresolution on the part of your rival. He may be keyed up to the highest pitch of concentration yet that fractional measure of time must come when, by some movement or thought, that concentration wavers. This lapse must be reflected by some sign, infinitesimal perhaps, but it is your ‘cue’, your signal, and on this golden opportunity you must act immediately. If we could imagine a highly sensitive machine registering a graph of your adversary’s mental concentration, we should visualise an undulating line and we should attack with every downward turn of the pen, with the recording of each depression.”
Generally it is accepted that when a fencer catches his opponent by surprise, when the opponent is off balance and not fully concentrated, that fencer has chosen the right “tempo”. Everybody knows that it is extremely difficult to sustain the highest concentration of attention for a very long time, and invariably lapses of attention occur in a bout: a fencer, concentrating on his own attack, may forget about his defence; a competitor, manoeuvring on the strip, may expose himself dangerously to his opponent’s action; a fencer, executing blade movements, may open certain lines of his target—such and similar situations may be taken advantage of for surprise action. The ability to recognise, and instantly take advantage of, such situations is usually inborn, but it may be further developed by special exercises, and constitutes the “sixth sense” of a fencer.
When describing the clever seizing of an opportunity to score a hit, and in the majority of definitions (see above), the expressions “moment” and “time” are commonly used. Even the names given to the “sixth sense” of a fencer, by various fencing schools, are closely connected with the conception of time. And yet it is very obvious that this is not a question of mere time. The opportune application of an action in a bout, taking the opponent unawares, is closely connected with many factors of the tactical situation, such as distance, the movements of the two fencers, the opponent’s state of attention, quality of perception etc.
“Timing” or a fencer’s “sense for surprise” may be, perhaps, a little more exactly described as perceiving, based on lightning-speed assessment of the situation, the opportunity to score a hit (convenient distance, careless movements by the opponent, signs of the opponent’s inattention or that he is preparing to launch an attack, etc.) and taking immediate advantage of it.
A fencer may take advantage of potentially suitable situations or he may, himself, create situations suitable to his purpose by the use of carefully chosen and executed preparatory actions.
My suggested definition above, like all attempts at simple definitions of complicated phenomena, is inadequate. In order to better understand “scelta di tempo”—so complex and difficult to define and yet so important in fencing—we have to discuss it more fully, on the base of personal experience as competitor and coach, observation of many tournaments, reflections, and literature.
The right choice of time – sense of timing - using the expression in the accepted English (as I know no better expression in English), means, in a very broad sense: to surprise, to attack the opponent unaware, to make a surprise action, to take by surprise, etc.
Professor Tadeusz Kotarbinski , one of the creators of praxeology, in his general theory of conflict, when discussing surprise, states, “We may assume that taking the opponent unaware derives its technical value from anticipation and from misleading the opponent or, at least, from taking advantage of the opponent’s mistakes or lack of knowledge,” (this last here meaning lack of information or inadequate appreciation of the situation).
Let us now analyse this element in a fencing fight. Since a tactical intention (task, resolution, solution) has chances of success only when it is executed in the right time (Greek, “kairos”; French, “l’à propos”; Russian, “moment”) and is adequate to a given situation, it is obvious that it is very important a) to be able to seize the opportunity to launch an attack or any other action, b) to display psychological resistance in view of the opponent’s sudden attack.
Every manifestation of “sense of surprise” (“timing”, “sense of tempo”), understood as an opportunity to score a hit, has two aspects:
1. A situation—a complex of conditions—giving possibilities of receiving a hit (being caught unawares, being taken by surprise, being attacked when one least expects it). This might be called “negative timing” or “negative surprise”.
2. A situation favourable to scoring a hit (catching the opponent by surprise, catching the opponent unawares). This might be called “positive timing” or “positive surprise”.
Neither positive nor negative timing occurs separately. In a fight they occur as two aspects of the same situation, comprising both external and psychological factors. What is “positive” for one fencer is “negative” for his opponent, and vice versa.
Full and successful application of the right timing (“positive surprise”; taking the opponent unawares)—i.e., scoring a hit—may happen only with the occurrence of an adequate complex of various factors such as attention, distance, speed, accurate and fast perception, quick decision, appropriate choice of action and it efficacious execution, etc.
The sense for “fencing surprise” is inborn but, under the influence of training, it improves in that: a) the ability to recognise and take advantage of appropriate situations increases with practice and experience, b) resistance to the opponent’s surprise actions is also increased.
“Negative surprise” often leads to a temporary loss of technique, both in standard of execution and repertoire of strokes. A high degree of fencing skill, good automatisation and variety of sensory-motor skills (motor habit patterns), and ease of application of technique, are fundamental factors in increasing fencer's psychological and technical resistance to “negative surprise”. By developing, in the course of training, technical prowess, technical-tactical abilities, specific fitness and co-ordination, accuracy of perception, speed of reaction and movements, one at the same time shapes “sense of fencing surprise”—choice of time.
In an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the phenomenon of “timing” let us try to classify it.
A competitor who “picks up” the initiative and begins a movement may create a situation in which he falls into “negative time” and receives a hit or, to the contrary, a fencer who initiates the development of a certain tactical situation creates for himself the advantage of “positive time”, and so scores a hit.
Among the manifestations of “fencing surprise” are situations in which: a) a competitor, usually when defending himself, takes advantage of a situation which has arisen, mostly on the opponent’s initiative; b) the situation giving rise to the “fencing surprise” is created by the fencer (mostly attacker), who imposes his movements and initiative.
We could further differentiate (only after the assessment of a given situation may its motor complement, in the form of a fencing action, follow) the ways in which a competitor perceives and assesses the tactical situation as: a) visual, b) tactile, c) kinesthetic, or d) auditory. In assessing a situation, not only one receptor is involved, but several, to varying degrees (e.g., not only touch, but touch and sight and kinesthetic sense; not only sight, but sight and hearing). For example, in the execution of parry-riposte a very important role is played by tactile sensation, but under the control of sight; when timing the beginning of an attack to the movement of the opponent’s feet, not only sight, but hearing the rhythm of steps plays a large part. Usually, however, one sense plays a dominant role in the perception of a particular situation.
Luigi Barabasetti  - the famous Italian master at the turn of XIX and XX century who produced hundreds of fencing masters and influenced European fencing very much - differentiated two kinds of sense of surprise: “physical tempo” and “psychological tempo”. Physical tempo means extremely fast assessment of the situation, based on watching the external situation (e.g., the opponent’s movements, distance, and his weapon movements). Psychological tempo, however, is based on noticing the signs that reflect the opponent’s state of mind—signs of: a temporary lowering of attention, hesitation, concentration on preparing an attack, etc. Barbasetti thought that psychological tempo was inborn and cannot be changed, and that physical tempo could be improved by various exercises. In my opinion, “psychological tempo”—although very difficult to develop—may be, and very often is—like various kinds of motor response—improved by carefully and intelligently chosen exercises. There are some fencers who practically can “read” the opponent’s mind and assess his state of concentration. This helps the fencer very much in taking the opponent by surprise.
Final conclusions and advice to coaches and athletes
Fencing is as much a mind game as a physical test. Even though you face one another through the mesh in the mask, your confrontation with opponent is eyeball to eyeball with all the mental pressure this entails.
The most important factors concerning “sense of surprise” can be summarised in the following concise points:
1. In our discussion on “sense of surprise”, instead of time and moment, we have stressed the importance of a complex tactical situation, comprising many various factors (which, like all material phenomena, takes place in time).
2. “Sense of surprise” is an integral part of any bout, and an essential factor influencing result of the bout.
3. “Sense of surprise”, “sense of timing”, is inborn but should be cultivated in fencers, by perfecting technique, motor responses, and tactics together.
4. The conscious strengthening of a fencer’s resistance to unexpected and dangerous situations, requires a high automatisation of movement—a very high degree of acquisition of sensory-motor skills. Thanks to this, a fencer need not concentrate his attention on how to execute a given movement or set of movements, but rather on which movement or set of movements to choose in a given situation.
5. The constant tempo and character of movements (the same rhythm, direction, amplitude, and speed) makes the correct assessment of the situation, and choice of counter-action, comparatively easy. Every change of rhythm, speed, strength, and amplitude of movements, interferes with the correct assessment of the tactical situation. This causes the decision to be either delayed or incorrect. The most important factor in taking an opponent by surprise is change of rhythm and speed. This is why—although it may sound paradoxical—good reaction to a moving object is a sign of a fencer’s talent and good form.
6. The above is probably connected with various processes of inhibition and excitation in the brain cortex and requires further and detailed study by physiologists and psychologists.
7. The coach - and the athlete - must remember that even perfect execution of various fencing actions does not guarantee success in a bout. From the first stage of training a lot of attention and effort must be paid to successful application of various actions (sensory-motor skills) in a constantly changing tactical situation and with a counteracting opponent. In competition - and thus in training - the most important are technical-tactical (based on different sensory motor responses) and tactical abilities (foreseen, premeditated action) as well as different psychological processes connected strongly with motor activities: speed and accuracy of perception, speed and accuracy of motor responses (various kinds of reaction), optimal level of arousal (different for different athletes), appropriate variety of achievement motivation (optimal level of motive of success and low level of motive of avoiding failure, level, range, selectivity, lability of attention etc.
8.For improving the perception - which in turn helps to improve - the sense of surprise - very important is knowledge of terminology, classification of fencing actions and the way of their application in a bout. I very often say to my pupils and students: To look is not the same as to see, and to see is not the same as to perceive. We perceive really - on a high, conceptual-motor level - only what we know well, understand and can give a name to. Many hundreds years ago the famous Chinese sage Confucius aptly remarked: The ability to give a proper name to thing is a first step towards wisdom.
9.So in the first stage of training already the coach must teach not only how to execute a given fencing action, but when and how to apply in a bout - he must develop in pupil sense of surprise, speed and accuracy of perception, speed of reaction and various qualities of attention.
10. To teach and constantly improve pupil’s qualities of attention, perception and sense of timing. The coach must conduct various exercises based on different kinds of sensory-motor responses: simple reaction, choice reaction, differential reaction, reaction to a moving object (switch over reaction), change of decision while executing foreseen action, reaction to a pre-signal, intuitive reaction.
* * *
If sense of surprise (sense of timing) is so important in tactics of fencing, racquet games and team games, it is only logical and sensible to donate an adequate amount of time, energy and thoughts to practice of it. As I often say, the obvious things are often most difficult to be noticed and perceived. This is why, I suppose, many coaches in combat sports do not fully appreciate the value and importance of timing, perception, speed of reaction, sensory-motor thinking and tactical thinking. This article I have written taking advantage partly from literature, but mostly from my own experience, observations and various tests (I have been and I am still involved in fencing activities - competitor, coach, researcher, author. This article is only very short and concise presentation of the subject. To readers which are interested in tactics and sense of surprise I may recommend some of my books on this subject (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15).
The paper might be concluded with very wise, in my opinion, words said by famous fencing master Michel Alaux :
Once a fencer has learned the mechanism of basic movements, the activity losses its primary, total physical requirements and becomes more of a mental exercise. Concentration, self-control, and a quick decision command muscles and reflexes for successful scoring.
1. Battesti, P., Prost, L.: Traite d'Escrime - Fleuret. INS, Paris 1963
2. Laskowski, K.; Sportowa szermierka na bagnety. GKKF, Warszawa 1951,
3. Kevey, J.: Szermierka na szable. GKKF, Warszawa 1951.
4. Ozoray-Szenker, Z.: Szermierka na szable. Sport i Turystyka, Warszawa 1952,
5. Clery, R.: L'Escrimeaux trois Armes. Amphora, Paris 1965
6. Bertrand, L.; Cut and Thrust. Athletic Publications, London 1927,
7. Kotarbiński, T.: "Z zagadnień ogólnej teorii walki," in: Haslo dobrej roboty. Wiedza Powszechna, Warszawa 1968, p. 54
8. Barbasetti, L.: Das Stossfechten, Wilhelm Breumuller: Wien und Leipzig, 1900