180318 The 5 Minute Lesson

Do you want to be a better fencer?  This is not just a question for the sake of a question to start a blog post.  It is a core question about why you fence.  People fence for a variety of reasons: (a) for social contact with others, (b) for recreation, (c) for health and fitness, (d) for the perception of doing something elite and different, (e) to help with college acceptance, or (f) because they want to compete as athletes.  All of these are valid and perfectly acceptable reasons to fence.  Regardless of why, my experience over 53 years as a fencer is that independent of the reason you fence is a deeper question – do you actually want to get better?  This is a vital question for your trainer, for your Salle, and for you.  It is a serious question and deserves more than a glib answer or an answer that reveals you are deceiving yourself.

If you do not actually want to improve your physical condition, your technique, your tactics, and your strategy, then you are limited to choices (a), (b), and (d), and you can enjoy fencing, have a long life as a club fencer, and be a valued and respected member.  You will get some of choice (c), but nowhere near what the sport can contribute to your health.  And if you think you will be successful in (e) or (f) you are only condemning yourself to failure.

If you do want to maximize (c), (e), and (f), there are a range of things that you have to do, especially in (e) and (f).  Central to success is that you cannot rely on open fencing and group lessons to improve to the required standard.  The experience of approximately 800 years of fencing masters teaching and training athletes is that the individual lesson, frequent one-on-one intensive work with a credentialed trainer is critical to working at a level that pushes you forward toward your goals.

When Emil Beck’s Tauberbischofheim trained fencers were a dominant force in world fencing in the 1970s and 1980s, his fencers took five lessons a day.  This is obviously impractical for the typical Salle member, but there are things to be learned from what Beck was doing.

Key to Beck’s method was the Tauberbischofsheimer Fechtlektionen (the Tauberbischofheim Fencing Lesson).  Beck rethought much of the traditional fencing lesson, and developed a short lesson that was taught multiple times a day to every fencer in the club in the same way by each trainer.  The short part is important – more about how in a minute.  Beck took concepts from Fechtmeister Horst Held who developed the idea of the short lesson based on the amount of time an athlete can actually concentrate maximally in the lesson.  Originally a 15 minute lesson, even this length proved to tax the fencers’ ability to concentrate.

Fechtmeister Mike Bunke and other German Masters of the Akademie der Fechtkunst Deutschlands developed a 5 Minute Lesson from Held and Beck’s work, tailored to delivery in a typical fencing practice.  This lesson is distinguished by focus on one technique in one line with a maximal number of repetitions with a range of footwork.  The result is enough repetitions to start to make the transition into long term memory in a pure training (as opposed to teaching) lesson.  We teach this lesson to individual fencers on request during open fencing.

And this is something you should do because?  First, we know that repetitions of a skill are important to developing that skill so that it can be used in the bout, whether that bout is in the Salle for practice or recreation, or is in a North American Cup.  That is true of all sports skills, and most life skills as well.  You get to be competent by doing the thing time and time again, thousands of repetitions.

Second, we know that deliberate practice is a critical technique used by high level performers in activities as varied as sports, chess, music, and the list goes on …  Deliberate practice is a focus on skilled repetition to eliminate all errors in performance, using techniques such as part-whole, chunking, very slow execution, etc.  If you do not do deliberate practice, you simply cannot achieve mastery of technique.

Third, in a recent blog post in Better Fencer, Nicole Jomantas highlights the need to focus on a single action that you want to improve.  This means that you think about that action in conjunction with your footwork warm-up, work on it during drills, use it during bouting, and take individual lessons on it.  

So how can you use this lesson to your advantage in Open Fencing?

First, come to Open Fencing.  If you don’t show up on the floor you will not improve.  Not just once or twice a year, but every Sunday …

Second, come prepared with an issue that you want to work on.

Third, ask one of our AAI, IFCA, USFCA, CAA certified trainers for a 5 Minute Lesson.  They are professionals.  Professionals work for money to give you a superior training experience.

Fourth, concentrate on the technique, really concentrate – don’t waste your time by getting bored and doing something else because it is fun.  Don’t improvise – do the technique.  Breaking up what you are doing wastes the lesson.  If you need to work slowly work slowly; if you need to train fast work fast.  The fun comes when you win.

Fifth, when your 5 minutes is up, your lesson is up.  Working longer than 5 to 8 minutes at high intensity with complete concentration does not improve performance and increases the chance that fatigue will introduce error.

Sixth, if you took the lesson from one trainer early in open fencing, use the technique in bouts.  Winning a practice bout where you don’t try to employ what you have learned is an exercise in stupidity.  And then take the same lesson from another trainer toward the end of Open Fencing.

Seventh, pay for your lessons.  Your trainer has worked to the limit of his ability to push you to improve.  Americans value what we pay for; if you try to wheedle a free lesson out of us, you will not value what you learn or have any incentive to apply it.

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