Train like an Olympian with better fencing drills

Olympic fencers Jason Pryor and Eli Dershwitz

By Will Spear

If you are practicing regularly, then there is no doubt that fencing drills are something that goes in your daily routine. However, it’s always good to spice up your game with new drills (and if you haven’t already, check out our article on fencing exercises for speed, strength and flexibility). This week at Better Fencer, we give you the favorite drills of Olympic fencers Eli Dershwitz (sabre) and Jason Pryor (épée). The two drills we get into are much more mental than physical and should give you ideas of your own on how to diversify your practice and train like the best.

The end of the strip drill

Best for foil and sabre fencers.

Many fencers find it difficult to put forward their best fencing when they are cornered at the end of the strip. It creates a certain type of pressure which can lead to a lack of patience or unnecessary technical errors. However one of Eli’s favorite drills helps fencers practice dealing with this very situation so that they can develop the necessary patience to pick and execute the right action.

Who is this drill for?

This drill is for you if you find yourself often “giving up” on defense towards the end of the strip. This might mean you are leaning back and are off-balance, or your hand is haphazardly twitching between parries 3 and 4 (or 6 and 4 if you’re a folist). Conversely, it’s also incredibly useful if you find you have trouble “finishing” your opponent once you push them back all the way to the end of the strip. Use this drill to figure out how to use their limited distance to your advantage and to score the touch.

This drill is useful for both honing your defense when your back is against a wall, and for making sure you can secure the touch when you’ve already done the work to put your opponent in a disadvantaged situation. It’s equally important not to give up when you’re down and also to make sure you can finish an opponent off after you’ve limited their options by pushing them to the end of the strip.

The Basics

The drill requires two fencers, one we’ll refer to as the “defender” and the other as the “attacker.”

The defender

The defender should stand with their back foot on the end line. Once the drill begins, the defender has the ability to use any defensive action, but cannot go off the strip (or else a point is scored for the attacker, just like a normal bout). This requires the fencer to pay extra attention to making the best use of the small amount of distance that is left before the end of the strip.

The attacker

The attacker starts behind the warning line and can choose any offensive action he or she wants.

Rules of the drill

The drill begins when the attacker begins the action, on their own time. Thus, the defender reacts when the attacker starts moving. It is expected that the attacker will be more successful than the defender (as the defender is in a very disadvantaged position). If the attacker does not score 4 out of 5 attacks, they have to try again. After the round is over, the attacker and defenders switch sides and repeat the drill.

The advantage drill

Best for épée fencers, but also good for foil and sabre fencers.

There’s nothing more exciting than watching a fencer comeback from a huge deficit to win the match. However, these are few and far between because the reality is that it’s really really difficult to do. It requires a certain type of mental focus and fortitude to get oneself out of tricky situations. However, Jason Pryor practices for this very situation with a drill that helps get more accustomed to coming from behind.

Who is this drill for?

This drill is for you if you struggle with comebacks. While it would be great to always be up, it’s frankly not that realistic. If you find yourself often struggling when you’re in this position, this drill can be a great help to practice stringing points together.

It is particularly helpful for épée fencers who must overcome a different kind of burden when they are down. Not only must they pick the right action and score, but they must also avoid double touches which does not help them overcome their deficit.

However, it also useful to for sabre and foil fencers because it can help practice a certain type of mentality when coming from behind.

The basics

The drill requires two fencers, however, a touch can only be scored by the fencer who has the “advantage.”

Rules of the drill (épée)

Neither fencer has the “advantage” when the drill begins.

The “advantage” is earned by the first fencer to score a touch. Then, once this fencer has the “advantage” they are able to score a touch which is added to their score.

However, if the opponent who does not have the “advantage” scores a point, they steal back the advantage, thus allowing them to get a point on the next touch.

A double touch resets the drill so no one has "advantage".

For example, if one fencer scored the first three touches (single) in the match they would have both the advantage and a point total of two (one touch earns the advantage and the other count towards their score). But then, if a double touch was scored, neither fencer would have the advantage, and thus neither could score on the next action. But then if the other fencer scored two touches in a row, then that fencer would have the advantage and a point total of one (one touch earning the advantage and one counting towards their score).

This drill forces you to score multiple touches in a row to score points and get to five. It also rewards long strings of touches - 4 points consecutively in this drill is worth more than 4 points in two or more separate instances.

The first fencer with five points wins.

Saber/Foil Variation:

The drill remains the same, however, a simultaneous action resets advantage (instead of a double touch).

Summary

As a quick note here: we didn’t ask Eli and Jason to give us their favorite “mental” or “situational” drills. We asked them to give us their favorite drills, period. They both picked drills that focus on getting you out of a disadvantaged position. In Eli’s drill, a defender must be able to stay strong and perform a defense even at the end of the strip. Jason’s drill encourages getting multiple points in a row, which helps immeasurably for comebacks.

It is clear that both fencers love the challenge of putting themselves at a disadvantage and seeing how they can get out of it. This constant challenging of themselves drives them to become better. It speaks to the mindset of them as fencers and competitors. It offers the statement: if you want to be truly good at something, ensure that you’re not only training for when things are good, but also prepare for when things start going south.

Bonus: Foot speed drills

Here’s a bonus series of drills that Jason Pryor does to improve his foot speed. Each drill should be done for 20 seconds, and your goal is to move your feet as quickly as possible without breaking good technique. Then take a 10 second break between exercises.

Shuffle:

  • One foot in front of the en garde line, one foot behind (both feet should pointed forward)
  • Switch their positions by moving one foot at a time (rather than by hopping)
  • You should feel like you are stepping forwards and backwards over the line
  • Repeat 3 sets

Jumps:

  • Feet together behind the en garde line
  • Jump forward and back over the line
  • Repeat 3 sets

Jumps (lateral):

  • Feet together on side of en garde line
  • Jump side to side across the line
  • Repeat 3 sets

Jump single leg:

  • Foot behind en garde line
  • Jump forward and back over the line on one leg
  • Do 1 set for each leg

Jump single leg (lateral):

  • Foot to side of en garde line
  • Jump side to side across the line
  • Do 1 set each leg

We hope you enjoyed learning about the favorite drills of a few Olympic fencers. The key take away here is to focus on fencing from disadvantaged positions as well as free fencing or working on technique. What are your favorite drills? Let us know in the comments!