Drills play an important part in teaching fencing and in training fencers for competition. The acquisition of any physical skill requires repetition, and the smooth execution combined with speed and accuracy required for fencing demands extended repetition. In addition, developing athletes perfect their technique best in a situation which allows experimentation and individual discovery. The exchange drill allows both repetition and perfection of technique.
The exchange drill has four significant advantages. It maximizes the number of repetitions of one or more skills by a pair of fencers, while requiring the fencers to constantly change from attack to defense and vice versa. It allows fencers to discover how best to perform a skill and encourages self-reliance. It introduces the feeling of combat in that every exchange is a fencing phrase. And it is relatively simple to conduct, with the fencers managing their own activity. The exchange drill model is simple, and is based on the exchange of roles between two fencers immediately after each phrase:
(1) The coach specifies the conditions with an initiator executing a set action and a responder responding to that action. For a very simple example, the initiating fencer could execute a lunge with straight thrust into 4th, with the responding fencer parrying 4th and riposting with a straight thrust to hit. In general, the phrase of the drill should consist of no more than three actions (a maximum of initiator, responder, initiator).
(2) The fencers execute the drill, switching roles after every phrase. The initiator becomes the responder and the responder the initiator. The fencers must stay with their assigned role and the assigned actions.
(3) The two fencers continue to work together until a halt is called, for example based on 5 touches for each fencer or a specific time limit. New pairs are identified, usually by rotation, and the drill continued as appropriate.
In its simplest form the exchange drill can be done from lunging distance as an essentially static drill. However, the addition of footwork increases training value and realism. As a practical matter, footwork specified should be limited to that needed to launch an attack without a prolonged chase; conceptually this is two preparation steps and an advance-lunge. The use of footwork feints and distance stealing footwork should be incorporated as soon as the fencer’s performance of the skill is at an acceptable level. Defenders can be instructed to match the footwork of the attacker, to attempt to maintain distance, or to manipulate the distance to enhance the defense, the riposte, or the counteroffensive action.
Timing is also an important consideration. Fencers will tend to fall into a rhythm and maintain that during the drill. That is not necessarily bad, and being able to match the rhythm of the opponent is a useful skill. However, the fencers should be encouraged to vary tempo, speed up or slow down from the rhythm, or employ broken time.
The coach supervising the drill should make minimal corrections to technique, intervening only when a fencer is clearly lost. However, coaches should be alert to fencers who fail to maintain realistic distance; beginners and recreational intermediates may collapse the distance to reduce the level of work, working inside lunge to short distance. Attention also should be paid to the rhythm of actions. Finally, the tendency of some fencers to convert the drill into a bout or to do additional actions after the specified exchange in order to try to score a hit needs to be suppressed instantly if the drill is not to spiral downward out of control. This means that the coach must stay alert to the action of all of the pairs of fencers during the drill.
The exchange drill has become a standard drill used by many fencing coaches. If you are not using it, I encourage you to try an exchange drill in your next practice. If you are using exchange drills, I encourage you to introduce varied footwork, require changes in timing, or otherwise modify the drill for your more advanced fencers to maintain the challenge and to provide better training.