Fencing Like Pele

The children of Montevideo, Uruguay, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, had been trying to deal with the fundamental problem of heavily crowded cities–a lack of space–when, in the 1930s, they each created something that would change the world of sports forever.

Though they may have lacked fields, the children of Montevideo and Sao Paulo didn’t lack a love of soccer. Taking advantage of what little space they did have, they invented a variation of the game, which would come to be known asfutsal. Futsal is similar to soccer, but played in a smaller area, with fewer people, using a smaller, heavier ball that bounces much less than a traditional soccer ball.

The game became a huge hit in Brazil. It was cheaper and easier to organize than soccer, and available for anyone, poor or rich, to play. It wasn’t long before it became arguably the most practiced game in the country (though, of course, never replacing soccer in the hearts of Brazilians).

Then something really exciting happened. The kids who had been playing futsal–often with little or no opportunity to get soccer training or play much formal soccer at all–discovered as they got older that they had gotten good at soccer. Really good. Twenty years after futsal was invented, Brazil won the first of its record five World Cup titles. The kids who were playing their tiny version of soccer, grew up to become sports giants. Brazilian soccer superstars from Pele to Ronaldinho were playing futsal as children. According to Pele, “Futsal was important in helping to develop my ball control, quick thinking, passing.”

Futsal, with its smaller field resulting in faster play and demanding faster reactions, and its smaller teams resulting in more time with the ball for each player, creates conditions that offer exceptional training for young players–and that’s in spite of having little or no direction from a coach.* In fact, one of the greatest benefits of futsal is that, since it is played as a kind of “street ball” in Brazil, it allows for the kind of experimentation and learning that comes from free play.

Brazilian futsal, in many ways, parallels a model of sports education proposed by David Bunker and Rod Thorpe in 1982, called Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). Bunker and Thorpe argued in favor of focusing on developing an understanding of how the game is played right in the beginning of sports instruction, rather than starting with technical exercises divorced from the context of the sport. This process can–and often should–involve playing modified versions of the sport (such as playing futsal instead of soccer). Children first begin to learn how the game is played and can then refine and expand the techniques necessary to accomplish the tasks involved. The advantages of this model include richer tactical development, more enjoyment, and a greater investment by students in learning technique as they will already understand its purpose.

A similar approach can be taken in fencing. By creating exercises that focus on improving understanding of the sport, students can learn more quickly and be more engaged in the process.

Fencing without any blade contact allowed, for example, is a great way to help kids learn the most fundamental aspect of the game–controlling distance–and has far more impact on the improvement of footwork than mechanically practicingadvances and retreats on the coach’s command. Fencing in a smaller area can have a huge impact on a student’s understanding of fencing in short distance, not to mention his reaction time. Coaching legend David Tyshler would sometimes have his students fence bouts starting much closer than usual, with their back foot on the en garde line. Zbigniew Czajkowski would require one student to stay within the two-meter warning area while trying to win the touch against the oncoming opponent.

While there is certainly room for a coach’s feedback in these kinds of exercises, the students will learn a great deal just by playing the game. It should be obvious, then, that it is in the coach’s (and students’) interest to create these kinds of exercises. This, in fact, is what the coach’s real role is: not to provide the right fencing “answers”, but to optimize the conditions for learning and discovery. The coach can even create similar “games” as part of his individual lessons. Students will learn more quickly and more thoroughly in these games than through the artificial conditions so popular in “traditional” training. They will also learn to be more inventive and creative on the strip.

Fencers and coaches who are serious about success need to move away from thinking in terms of which specific “moves” to teach and more in terms of which conditions to create in practice.

And, of course, never forget the words of Pele: “Everything is practice.”

*Dan Coyle writes elaborately on futsal’s impact on Brazilian soccer in his book, The Talent Code.