This is a topic we have addressed before, in fact several times, in the Salle Blog. But it is an important enough topic that it needs to be addressed every 6 to 9 months because in that amount of time it is easy to forget that there is only one person responsible for your success – you. Your Maitre d’Armes, or Classical Fencing Master, or best friend, or teddy bear is not responsible for your success. We can tell you (the Masters and other trainers) what you need to fix and how to fix it, but at least 50% of the time you will nod your head “yes”, but either not believe us or will not care. Your best friend, an A classified, experienced international tells you “Dude, you footwork sucks, bend your legs.” What does he know? And your teddy bear, well good old Teddy is a loyal companion and just is not willing to tell you anything bad, much less that you need to fix your game.
All of us can help, some more than others, but you have to be able to identify what needs to be fixed, want to fix it, be willing to work hard to fix it, and do so. If you don’t, no amount of someone telling you what to do will make the smallest amount of difference. Success in life is hard, and anyone can fail to be successful in anything they try to do. Failure takes no intelligence, no ability to listen to the truth, no dedication, no willingness to sacrifice, and no sweat, no bruises, no tears. To succeed, you have to want it.
So let’s assume that you want to be successful as a fencer. What does that mean? It can mean many things – working to achieve as perfect a performance of physical skills as your body will allow; working to build a healthy body and a sharp, disciplined mind; working to be an excellent training partner; working to have the courage to fence any opponent, no matter the skill differential, and give them the fight of their life; working to score one more touch in the practice pool … You will notice that I haven’t said “be the champion of …” Success is not only medals and trophies and classifications. Success can come fencing recreationally in the Salle or competitively in international events, or anywhere in between. Success is being better than you think you can be.
So how do we get there? If you have made the commitment to be successful you have to (1) identify what you are doing right that will result in long term better performance and (2) identify what is not working. Remember that what is not working includes all the things that work in the Salle but that will not work against better fencers (and there is always a better opponent) – if you continue against professional advice to do these things you are signing your own score sheet for failure.
The things that you are doing right needed to be further developed, maintained, and reinforced. You need those to continue to work. However, successful people in any form of effort spend much more time attacking the things that do not work. How do we know it does not work?
(1) Every time you want to try it, you can’t make it happen – your timing is off, your balance is off, your decision making is off, or you lack the courage. This is the worst of the worst cases. You can’t do it well enough to be a failure at it.
(2) Every time you try it, it does not work, and you get hit. This is the worst case. You try to attack – the opponent parries and ripostes, pulls distance and you fall short as he takes over the attack, or she stop thrusts – and you get hit.
(3) Every time you try it, it does not work. This is the second worst case. You are getting part of the job done, you are doing it well enough to not get hit in the process, but you are not completing it successfully. Falling short continually in the attack because you can’t get your distance right, or never scoring after you parry because you are not executing the riposte correctly or at all, or missing because you cannot control your point are all examples.
(4) Sometimes it works, but at least as often it does not. This is the mediocre case. Every technique or tactic will fail sometimes on the strip – the opponent gets lucky, your execution is sound but a tiny bit off, the opponent is faster on the day, etc., etc. This is more than that – it is unpredictable and may well fail when you need it most.
(5) It works against opponents in the Salle, but fails when you use it in competition. This is the delusional case. You would rather practice beating your fellow club mates when nothing is at stake, and take your ego boost from being able to beat less accomplished fencers, than actually develop the ability to beat the E, D, C, B, and/or A above you.
(6) Your trainers or your clubmates tell you there is a fault or that what you are doing is wrong or counterproductive, and you ignore them. In the real world this is what will get you fired from your job or badly injured in an accident or killed in combat. Unfortunately, to borrow an old military phrase, “it is hard to fix stupid.”
If we can identify that something is going wrong, how do we fix it? The key is to identify the core problem and attack that. You can fix cosmetics, but if the core problem remains, the cosmetics will restore your confidence briefly, but you will continue to fail. It is important to diagnose and attack the problem in a disciplined way.
(1) Is the problem psychological? Do you lack confidence? Are you afraid to try this? Are you afraid of winning? Are you even more afraid of losing or failing? If so, there are a variety of ways to address this issue. But you have to be willing to believe that they will make a difference, and be willing to work hard, every time you fence, to make them work.
(2) Is the problem a case of unsound technique or of technique that you are unprepared to do correctly at this point in your development? This is a major issue with fencers who see an elite fencer executing a technique that is flashy and unusual and then attempt to copy it. Elite fencers can do unusual actions because they have practiced core traditional fencing technique for lesson after lesson, for hours at a time, and for tens and hundreds of thousands of repetitions. And then they have done the same thing with their unusual skill. You have to first have near perfect point control and excellent ability to execute actions with your fingers. Trying without the basic core skills only makes fixing the problem much, much harder later when it explodes on you 0-5.
(3) Is the problem technical? First, understand exactly how the technique should be executed. Is your execution of the technique correct and smooth – if not fix the error and practice to make the technique flow. Is there a synchronization issue – are you feet and blade moving at the correct times relative to each other? If not, do the technique slowly with an emphasis on making everything happen at the right time. Do you have a point control issue – work on accuracy drills for thousands of repetitions. Is your footwork clunky – bend your legs, and then do footwork until you can’t do it anymore. If you don’t bend your legs, don’t waste your time – just accept that you will never be successful and take up card games or knitting.
(4) Is the problem tactical? Tactics are the combination of blade and footwork with the control of distance, correct timing and exploitation of tempo differences, the seizing of the initiative, speed of execution, understanding the opponent’s intent and movement, the choice of the psychological moment, and mental toughness. Tactics are predicated upon analysis and rational, or even instinctive, decision making, facilitated by opponent analysis, bout planning, and use of tactical drills for between halt and fence and for specific bout situations. A failure in any of these components can lead to failure of the action. Unfortunately, fixing tactical problems are often a process of chipping away by addressing each element in the mix one at a time. And, by the way, are you managing hydration and nutrition for maximum available energy in the bout, pool, and direct elimination?
(5) Is the problem strategic? Strategic problems may be the root cause of tactical, technical, and psychological problems. Do you have a plan that you have worked with your trainer to develop for the season? For the duration of your age group? For the quadrennium? Have you identified the competitions that are critical competitions? Are you following a periodized plan for the mesocycle? Are you training with enough frequency and intensity to develop success? Are you developing physical strength and endurance and mental skills, as well as just fencing? Are you fencing in enough competitions for practice to prepare you for the critical events? For recreational fencers, the competitions are not a factor, but having a training plan and objectives for the fencing year are every bit as important.
Identifying and fixing problems in your performance is a critical life skill in everything you do in life – and it is in fencing. So work at it. Set a goal of fixing today’s problem in a month (it will take that at least that long to fix it with a fix that will stick). Find the right solution, and work at it relentlessly. Use all of the tools – practice, 5 minute lessons, individual lessons, group practices, practice bouts, visualization, competitions, more practice, more practice …