Novice comprises weeks 11 to 20 of the Sydney Sabre syllabus and covers the basic techniques in sabre with an emphasis on distance and blade control.
We start the course with a revision of the lunge – the fastest short-range attack move in sabre. Contrary to popular belief, the main purpose of the lunge is to enable you to hit your opponent as quickly as possible, once you are within range. It is the fundamental unit of attack in most schools of sabre and forms part of other, longer range attack moves such as the advance lunge.
In this class, we cover the three (3) main types of lunge, each with a different purpose. We start with your grandpa’s ‘traditional’ lunge which we use as a training lunge to check whether you are doing everything properly in terms of hit distance, back leg extension, and hit timing. Once those are settled, we move to the ‘regular’ lunge that you will actually use in bouts with some technique variations to stop your joints from blowing out due to impact forces.
For the adventurous, we also cover the extended variant of the regular lunge to increase hit range after launch – the move we like to call “the Gu Bon Gil Special”. We will also teach you a particular variant that we stole shamelessly from certain A-grade teams where you use the back leg as a spring to store linear kinetic energy for the recovery. Special requests only, and at your own risk!
Novice is open to everyone who has completed our 10-week Beginner Course, and is included with any daily session pass or annual membership.
When we’re not coining catchy nicknames for ill-fated rule changes, we operate a large sabre club in Sydney focused on teaching as much of sabre to adult beginners in as efficient and systematic a way as possible. At the core of this effort lies a syllabus known as the Sabre Codex.
There are 5 levels, each with 10 parts:
Beginner: Fundamental Rules and Movement in Sabre
Novice: Sabre Technique
Intermediate: The Attack Sequence
Advanced: The Defense Sequence
Competitive: Winning the 4m
There’s also a 10-part set of basic technical exercises shared by all levels: Footwork and Bladework. Taken together, the whole thing forms a 60-part class sequence, and we’re going to post a guide to each part of it right here.
Beginner 1: Basic Combo
Beginner comprises weeks 1 to 10 of the Sydney Sabre syllabus and is all about learning the fundamental rules and movements in sabre. In week 1, we tackle the first challenge you will face in a bout: What should you do at the start of the fight?
At the start of the bout, neither sabreur has an advantage. Your aim is to win priority or to hit your opponent before they can hit you. To help you do this, we’ll show you a simple but powerful tactical combination to trick your opponent into doing what you want, and defeat their action. We’re basically going to play rock-paper-scissors, but with swords.
Here’s how it works: you make an educated guess what your opponent is likely to do, and use the right move to beat them. There is no move in sabre that beats all other moves. Every action has a counteraction. And at the start of the fight, it all pretty much boils down to three moves which counteract each other just like rock-paper-scissors: 1) “Rock”: a short fast attack, e.g. advance lunge; 2) “Paper”: a fake attack followed by a quick retreat to get out of the way; and 3) “Scissors”: faking a short attack but actually finishing with a long one.
Rock beats Scissors, because short fast attacks defeats long holding ones. Paper beats Rock, because a short attack will miss if the other sabreur retreats. And Scissors beats Paper, when one sabreur retreats expecting a short attack but is caught by a long one.
This week, you’ll be learning how to make each of these three moves, how to predict what your opponent is likely to do from their habits, and how to fake moves to seal your opponent’s fate. We call this tactical combination the “Basic Combo”, but don’t let the name deceive you: some variation of this game is played at every level of the sport right up to World Championship finals. It is simple, it is elegant, and it is effective enough to win you most of your bouts.
Here it is being deployed in the wild by the World #1. Three moves, five hits, 55 seconds.
Beginner is open to everyone who has completed our Introductory Session, and is included with any of our daily session passes or memberships.
All of us practice bladework from on-guard. But at least half my hits are from the hip. Pretty much all my finishes from the march are from the hip to avoid counterattacks. Guys like Gu Bon Gil and Alexey Yakimenko hit from the hip even off the start lines.
So why don’t we practice hitting from the hip more, or at all?
The movement starts with the front foot. The toes are lifted and the front swings forward with an extension of the knee. The front heel advances, skimming the floor, as the rear leg pushes with a vigorous extension of the knee.”
-Istvan Lukovitch, “Fencing, The New International Style” (1958)
If you’ve had a technical fencing lesson with almost any coach in the world, I’m prepared to bet you’ve been taught something along these lines. It’s near-universally accepted as the correct way to do footwork, and hours upon hours are spent on drills to train lifting the toe and flicking the heel along the ground.
If you’re like me, you probably struggled with this, and found it counter-intuitive and kind of unnatural. If you’ve ever queried it, you may have heard explanations like “You have to pick up your toes, so you don’t trip over them.”
You may well have then got on with your fencing career without really thinking about it, only to occasionally be pulled up by an indignant coach and told off for doing it wrong. Or, if you’re made of sterner stuff, you may have drilled it and drilled it until it became your default action in footwork, the toes lifting cleanly and the foot bouncing off the heel in snappy staccato actions. Lovely.
In either case, you may look with some confusion at the frequent action shots coming out of A-grade tournaments, which show things like this:
This is a badass athletic pose, but what is the action? If you ask an experienced fencer or coach, you’ll probably hear something like “He’s running” or “He’s about to cross his feet, like he always does, the fast little bastard” (actual quote). It’s certainly nothing that fits in the lovely classical cannon of toe first, heel second.
It’s also the the way a human body is built to move. This is how you put power to the ground to accelerate forwards.
So how does this apply to fencing?
We were running some drills with Kevin Moore, our visiting biomechanics guy. The aim of the drill was to destabilise your centre of mass forwards and allow yourself to start to fall, and then have the legs naturally do what they needed to do to stop it. While this was going on, I was snapping a few photos.
There’s that badass pose again. Dr Chow looks like he’s about to run off, like the fast little bastard he is. But what’s the next part of the action?
Let’s clean that up a bit so he’s not actually in the process of falling over:
Could that really be what Mr Kim is doing in the first photo above? I pulled up literally the first slow-mo video I could find of him launching a lunge where the feet were visible for the whole process:
Now, John Chow is a scientist at heart who is very happy to try out crazy things if they might work. Kim Junghwan is well known in Serious Coaching Circles as a hideous abomination against all that is good and right in fencing. They’re doing it wrong because, I don’t know, it might make them go 1% faster or something, and they don’t care if they make nice fencers cry.
Let’s look at Mr Perfect Lunge himself, Gu Bongil. Surely he does things properly.
Ok, ok, calm down. The Koreans are weird. Everyone knows that. They’re doing some kind of nutball thing that goes along with the bouncing and front-splits and god knows what else it is they get up to.
I went to have a bit of a dig around.
Show me the data
At this point, it’s more efficient if I just let the footage speak for itself.
And I warn you. What is seen cannot be unseen.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you see.
They’re doing it wrong. But what is “wrong”?
Nobody, and I mean nobody, does the toe lift thing in a real fight. Nobody. I went through close to a hundred lunge samples in men’s sabre, and I couldn’t find it once, even in cases where the lunge is launched from a stationary position. Everyone lifts the heel first, even if it’s only a slight lift.
If you ask these guys what they’re doing when they lunge, they’ll mostly tell you what they’ve been taught: that they’re lifting the toe first and the heel last. They’ve been drilled in it, for thousands of hours in some cases. But their bodies are overriding their minds.
And that’s OK.
In any fight between your brain and your foot about movement, your foot is going to win.
– Kevin Moore
Fencing footwork should be based on natural human gait, and natural human gait involves lifting the heel first and the toe last.
I have never been presented with any kind of real argument for why lifting the toe first provides an advantage in terms of speed, power, energy efficiency, injury risk or indeed anything besides possibly a slightly better chance of adjusting distance mid-action, which I’ve always found a bit dubious in the heat of a fight.
It is, as far as I can work out, a convention based on what the biggest and most obvious part of the action is when viewed with the naked eye. I can see why people believe it: I believed it for years too. The flick up of the toe is what jumps out at you when you watch the action, particularly if you’re already been told to look for it.
But it has no basis in science.
What we’re seeing in the video, therefore, is not the messy pragmatism of combat. This isn’t people’s nice technique falling apart under stress. This is athletes listening to their bodies, even if totally subconsciously, and moving the way that is most effective.
What these guys are doing in bouts is more correct, in a pure technical sense, than what they’re doing in footwork drills. It’s a better movement.
So who the hell am I to tell you what’s correct?
I am acutely conscious that as an amateur fencer from a new club at the ends of the Earth, I don’t really have what you might call an established position to be throwing around claims that everyone is teaching footwork wrong. I am, however, a scientist by training, and unfortunately we get raised to believe that stuff like established position doesn’t mean squat in the face of data, even though that can get highly uncomfortable at times.
Luckily, this is not one of those times. We are by no means the first to make this observation.
The origins of this sport are in combat, real combat. The guys who were trying to kill each other weren’t going to mess around with arbitrary training conventions about toes unless there was at least some kind of observational evidence for an advantage. Surely this practical attitude fed into fencing as an Olympic sport?
The right toes leave the ground last, the right heel touches the ground first.
-Aldo Nadi, “On Fencing” (1943)
And there you have it. You can argue with me all you like (although I’ve got a lot of data to wave at you). But you want to argue with this guy?
So what? What should we all be doing?
If you dearly love bouncing along on your heel in beautiful sharp staccato actions, eh, it’s probably OK I guess. You’re a bit of a weirdo as far as I’m concerned, but whatever floats your boat, I’m not here to judge.
But if you’re like most people and you struggle with that kind of thing, the good news is it’s almost certainly pointless and you can throw it out the window without losing a single thing. This frees you to spend your training time and effort on stuff that’s actually going to be effective. Make your footwork light and soft and springy. While you’re at it, go check out the most adorable training video ever (noting the light, soft, springy footwork from Mr Nazlymov).
On a more serious note, there may very well be much more important implications to all of this. We will develop this further over the coming months, as we continue our collaboration with Reembody.
But for now, my advice is to let your legs move the way they want to move, and stop feeling guilty for not conforming to some arbitrary movement standard from 1958.
FC: Kevin, is this incontrovertible proof that the Korean sabre program has developed an anti-gravity device?
KM: Maybe not anti-grav, but certainly a method of getting pretty epic energy return.
What blows my mind the most about this is how the gait-like behaviour in the leading foot (the natural dorsi/plantar flexion cycle) is feeding entirely off the energy transfer of the the back leg. Not even tapping the floor with that right foot means that his abdominal wall and spinal column are absorbing enough functional reaction force to momentarily replace the acceleration of freaking gravity as the source of forward momentum.
The internal relationships are so clean, in fact, that on landing he even manages to load all his initial impact in that dominant glute, which is hard enough to do well when you run, much less when you’re fencing and can’t cross your feet.
So not so much magnets a series of coiling springs. Which, after all, is what the musculoskeletal system is.
Either that or the rumours are true, and we’ve just proved that Mr Gu is a space alien.
The vast majority of the people who are reading this are recreational fencers. We’re amateurs in the oldest sense of the word. We love sabre, but we also have jobs or school or kids. We definitely have other things we want/have to do in life. None of us are as young as we used to be – and it hits us much earlier than we expect.
So what can we do? In the spirit of this post by a hobbyist Jiu Jitsu practitioner, here are three of my personal observations on the on training as an older sabre fencer.
Every week, we get another hopeful kid sidling up to one of our instructors (sometimes accompanied by mom or dad) to shyly ask:
“How do I get really good at fencing?”
In the words of the venerable Mr. Lee Hyo Kun, head coach of the Korean Mens Sabre Team and childhood coach of world #1 Gu Bon Gil (and our very own Australian Champ Kim Dong Hwan):
“Practice. More Practice. No fun”.
Here’s a translated summary of the typical schedule for a young Korean aspiring pro fencer:
6am: Wake up. 6am-8am: Go for a run, preferably with hills and sprints. 8am-10am: Eat breakfast and have a nap. 10am-12:00pm: Footwork and bladework drills. 12:00pm-2pm: Lunch and another nap. 2pm-5pm: More drills and bouting. 5pm-8:00pm: Dinner and another nap. 8:00pm-10pm: In off-season, weight training alternating with rest days. In competition season, more bouting. 10pm: Bed. No video games.
That’s the schedule Monday to Saturday. Apparently they get Sundays off.
In later weeks we’ll cover the finer points of what the practice entails, and what more seasoned competitors like us with less time/youth/self-discipline can do to maximise their training outcomes.