There is Nothing Wrong with Perfection (II)

How does one judge what is correct or incorrect in fencing? While there are some who defend an aesthetic view of the sport, a competitor (and, naturally, his coach) must take a pragmatic view. “Correct” is that which earns the fencer touches and wins him bouts according to the rules and their current application. The more successful a particular technique is, the more correct it is. (Naturally, this allows for the possibility that two different techniques may be equally correct.)

For a coach to be able to properly assess what techniques and actions are “correct” in fencing, he must possess the following:

1. An up-to-date understanding of the rules and their application. He must know what the current trends are in refereeing (particularly in sabre and foil, obviously).

2. An understanding of biomechanics. Without understanding human movement, a coach cannot understand fencing technique. In order for technique to be efficient, it must be in accord with the natural movement of the human body.

3. Knowledge of current trends in bouting. He must know how modern competitors are succeeding–for purposes of both contradiction and emulation. (Knowledge of certain out-dated techniques can occasionally–though, in general, rarely–have some value as well.)

Once a coach understands what is “correct”, he must be able to convey that to the student.

The foundation of proper error-correction occurs before the student has even made a mistake. The coach must begin by teaching the student why a particular movement is correct. When the student understands the purpose of what he is doing, he will more readily understand any mistakes he has made.

If a student does not understand why a disengage should be made with the fingers rather than the shoulder, he will be more likely to a) make the mistake in the first place, and b) continue to make the mistake after his coach has made mention of it. The argument that a student should execute a certain technique in a particular way simply because his coach “says so”, is unconvincing and, methodologically, less effective.

The coach has several ways that he can convey understanding to his students, including verbal explanations and visual demonstrations.

(Many coaches argue that the process of conveying understanding of technique to students takes too long to be effective. This is, I find, generally either the result of inadequacies of the coach’s communication skills or of the coach attempting to teach a skill or technique for which the pupil is not yet ready.)

Once the coach has demonstrated a technique and the “why” behind it, the student will naturally make mistakes when first attempting to reproduce it. The coach should immediately correct any mistakes the student makes. These corrections should initially be verbal and, possibly, physical. It is very important that any physical correction of the student’s movement be extremely limited. The goal of all error-correction is to teach the student how to make a proper movement on his own. By physically correcting a student’s position or movement, the coach trains his fencer to rely on him for proper execution.

As early as possible, the coach should pass responsibility for error-correction of the newly learned movement on to the student. After only a few verbal or physical corrections, the coach should begin asking the student what should be corrected. (The use of mirrors here can be extremely helpful.)

If the student has a lot of difficulty with the coordination of a movement, the coach can ask him to repeat the movement several times until the student believes he has done it correctly. Further, the coach may use directed questions to help the student better learn how to coordinate his body (“What moved first, your arm or leg?” The student will, very likely, not know the answer to this question immediately. The coach should explain that it is all right not to know yet and that the student should focus on assessing his movements during the next executions). Asking the student to compare his own movement to that of a more capable classmate can also be helpful. Ideo-motor exercises are also very useful.

The goal, it is important to remember, is to help the student better understand a technique and better understand the movement of his own body. (Including an array of general and semi-specific exercises in the fencer’s training can further improve his understanding of his own movement.) As the fencer’s understanding of technique and his own movement improves, the coach’s emphasis on (guided) self-correction will result in very quick improvement in technique and the elimination of errors.

I highly recommend Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis as a resource for error-correction methodology.