As a trainer, one of the most frustrating events is to ask a fencer “what do you need to work on,” only to receive a shrug, a “I don’t know,” or a “what do you think I should work on?” I obviously have a very good idea of what I think my students need to address in improving their performance. However, it is very concerning when they either do not know, lack confidence in their own self-assessment, or (in only a few cases) don’t care about what they need to do to become more effective fencers.
Let’s exclude the one or two do-not-cares from the discussion. If, as either a competitive or a recreational fencer, you do not want to continually improve your performance, having a trainer ask you what you need to do only (1) annoys you and (2) wastes the trainer’s time. Instead, let’s concentrate on the don’t-know or no-confidence-in-the-answer fencers.
The first step in knowing what you need to work on is to understand that fencing training is a no-ego activity. Applying an unsubstantiated positive value to your technique, tactics, mental preparation, and physical conditioning is delusional, and prevents any real progress. You pay our trainers to help you be more effective on the strip – they are going to criticize your performance, pointing out the problems you need to solve and the areas of good performance that you need to further development into true excellence. More than that, however, are your training partners. Whether they are competitors or recreational fencers, they have a vested interest in your continual progress. You can rely on them for feedback – the feedback of hard work in the training bout and of comments when they see something that needs work or that you do well.
And even the practice bouts in our class pools and open fencing are part of this feedback. Concentrating on winning or on your score because you don’t like to lose is your ego taking over your training. We track every bout as a measure of effort and as a predictor of readiness for the next competition. What you do in the bout is your tool for practicing specific techniques, tactical decision making, time management, strip management, etc. Winning these bouts is unimportant – what is important is going into them with something to work on. If my goal is to successfully execute attack X, and I lose 5-1, but the 1 is my last touch, and the first success where everything came together to make X score, it is a very successful bout. If I win 5-0 and get a great ego boost, but do not learn anything, I have had a disastrous defeat.
You will notice that I have been talking about feedback from trainers, your teammates, and from the bouts themselves. These should clearly identify:
(1) how you are being hit by opponents – you need to fix the holes in your defense or counteroffense.
(2) how you are hitting your opponents – you need to work to make these techniques even better.
(3) how your opponents are failing to hit you – you need to work to make these techniques even better.
(4) how you are failing to hit your opponents – you need to either abandon these techniques or fix them so that they work.
(5) what you do not understand – if you don’t understand how you are being hit either you do not understand the rules and how the referee is applying them or you cannot recognize the timing, distance, or technique that the opponent is using. Read the rules. Fence more bouts, especially against training partners who are faster or who have a much wider range of technique.
(6) what feels clunky and mechanical – fencing is a sport that relies on flowing movement. If you start and stop on every step, hesitate before riposting, can feel clearly the execution of each part your lunge as separate activity, etc., you need to fix your flow.
(7) your sequencing of actions and timing are off – go back to doing the technique painfully slowly until each part falls into place automatically.
(8) you distance is wrong, either making attacks fail or allowing the opponent to hit – practice with every training partner you can find until you can instinctively assess when the distance for you … and wrong as well.
This extends into competition. Competition is a great learning laboratory because now you are working against competitors who have one goal, to beat you, as quickly as possible, with the best indicators possible, and to leave you with no hope that you will beat them this year or next or ever. Every bout against better opponents is an opportunity to identify things in your game that need work and to sharpen your mental game and build mental strength. Not fencing stronger, faster, more highly rated opponents when they really want to beat you is a sure way not to progress.