The Fencing Coach’s Guide to Team Relay Fencing (Part 1)
There are few forms of fencing more exciting to watch (or partake in) than a team relay match. From the collective team energy to the joy of seeing a team act as a homogeneous unit, team fencing is, in my opinion, the most fun fencing can get. While team tournaments are a rarity at the local level, USA Fencing has increased the number of NACs that hold team events—including an expansion to Y10 team fencing in the coming season (WHY WHY WHY?!?!??!?!?!).
Because of the growing number of team events within fencing, I felt compelled to create a two part strategy guide to address team tactics. The first part of this series will discuss the individual roles fencers play on teams, and the second part of this series will show how to use each of the pawns in the game to effectively move towards victory in various scenarios.
Part I: The Game Within the Game- Assigning the Fencer to the 1-2-3-A, 4-5-6-A Slots
The road to a victory in team fencing is won through the fencing itself, but knowing how to use your fencers and why is crucial, and an important strategic element of a team relay bout. Having some awareness of your team and their strengths/weaknesses against a given fencer is critical, as arbitrary assignment of fencers to a given slot can set the team up for failure. But first, let’s talk about the bout order. The team match will play out as follows:
Prior to each round, the bout committee will flip a coin to allow captains to choose the 1-2-3-A or 4-5-6-A slots. Picking either side has its own unique pros and cons, but the route a team chooses to go is based more on preference. Based on my experience, I have almost always opted for the 4-5-6-A slot for the simple reason that the Closer can make up touches after the first bout if things don’t start according to plan.
The Closer, the Brick Wall, the Jimmy, and the Alternate: Each fencer in a team match has a distinct tactical role to play on the “road to 45.” The most obvious assignment goes to your team’s closer—this is quite simply your team’s best fencer. The other roles and slots I will explain in more detail below.
Roles include: cheerleader, scorekeeper, “pinch-hitter,” bench rider, relief (should a member not be fencing favorably).
Will come in if: The Brick Wall or the Jimmy are fencing poorly (-4 touches or more after two rounds), a fencer gets injured, the captain/coach senses a favorable matchup, there is a significant point deficit. In almost all circumstances, the Alternate should not replace the Closer.
Though the alternate fencer can often ride the bench for the day, s/he can also serve a critical role in coming in if an unfavorable matchup is sensed. During the 2013 Maccabi Games, prior to our match for Silver with Germany, one of our fencers (We’ll call him “Grank,” for this story) was consistently beaten in practice by Dionas Bril (Germany), had lost to him in pools the day before, and was defeated decisively 15-8 in the elimination rounds during the individual competition. In other words, I wanted to avoid our guy having to square off against Bril again. Though we intended to use “Grank” as a starter, we anticipated Bril being assigned to the “2” slot; thus, we opted to sub our alternate in for the third bout (4-2) who we felt had a better chance against Bril. The strategy worked, and Weininger, our sub only lost to Bril 3-2.
The alternate also serves as a good insurance policy should one of the three starters get injured or not fence up to par. Even the best fencers have off days, even the less skilled fencers can look like Lebron James if the stars align correctly. If you’re captaining/coaching a team, know what fencer/s have the hot hand, and know when it’s time to use the alternate.
The Closer (3, 5 Slot)
Roles include: Making up for lost touches, typically being the strongest fencer on the team, protecting leads, remaining unflappable in high-pressure situations.
Will come in for: For 1-2-3 (Bouts 1, 5, and 9), for 4-5-6 (Bouts 2, 6, and 9)
The closer is the easiest slot to assign; after all, you want your best/hottest handed fencer to finish the bout (and start the bout if you’re in the 1-2-3 slot). In most circumstances (barring substantial lead), the closer should not be attempting to draw non-combativity, and should be actively fencing to score touches.
Skills aside, the ability to fence for “one touch at a time” is of the utmost importance as well for the closer. During the Virginia Beach NAC SME Team Event, Ligonier was down 40-34 entering the final matchup against Boston Fencing Club (a substantial lead in teams). Ligonier’s Dennis Kraft closed the bout gracefully, edging out his opponent 11-4 to overcome the deficit and win 45-44 in overtime. The closer must be unflappable and able to make up touches if called upon to do so. In the event the closer senses a weaker fencer on the opposing team, s/he should be the one who isn’t afraid to go HAM on them.
The Brick Wall (6 Slot, 2 Slot)
Roles include: Being a patient fencer, having a stronger defense, willingness to use non-combativity if needed, exuding high energy to set the tone in the opening bout.
Will come in for: For 1-2-3 (Bouts 3, 6, and 8), for 4-5-6 (Bouts 1, 4, and 8)
Besides the closer, the 6 slot has the most difficult role to play on the team. Their opening bout will always be against the closer, which can set the tone of the bout favorably, or result in being subjugated, in turn losing team morale. Because they are fencing the strongest fencer (in theory) to open a team match, the brick wall should be willing to utilize non-combativity and attempt to kill the clock or bait the closer to attack. The brick wall should ideally be a fencer with stronger defensive actions and the ability to score single lights through use of the blade (in other words, in most cases, not a French gripper). The brick wall will be the second to last bout of the match before the closer comes in (if 4-5-6); thus, you want a fencer who can maintain a lead through strong defense, or if needed, score a few decisive single lights in order to pave way for the closer.
The Jimmy (1 Slot, 4 Slot)
Roles include: using diversity of actions, being able to adjust to the bout depending on circumstances, being a more cerebral fencer.
Will come in for: For 1-2-3 (Bouts 2, 4, and 7), for 4-5-6 (Bouts 3, 5, and 7)
Why is this spot called the Jimmy? Well, because it sounds cool. “Put him in the Jimmy,” or “It’s Jimmytime,” or “JIMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!” The Jimmy can speak in the third person during a team match if s/he so pleases, but only if s/he refers to him/herself as Jimmy. The Jimmy is a versatile fencer, a chameleon, a jack of all trades. In short, the role of the Jimmy is to play whatever role is needed at any given time as their bouts fall somewhat towards the middle of the team match.
My teammate at DC Fencers Club, Isaac Erbele comes to mind as a perfect example of a “Jimmy.” During the Virginia Beach NAC, Isaac managed to: maintain the lead for our team in five bouts, make up the lead to bring back the match twice to our favor, and draw non-combativity three times throughout the day. Isaac’s performance was a perfect example of a “Jimmy” properly playing the role depending on the circumstances. Be sure to place a more tactically minded fencer in this slot!
Next submission, we’ll talk about specific team tactics and strategies in given scenarios!