Imitation and Innovation

Most coaches are fairly dedicated imitators, copying their entire skill-set from other coaches they’ve seen or worked with.* The process of imitation gives a coach an opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge and experience of others and, for many coaches (particularly in a country like the US, where there is very little formalized coaching training), serves as the primary means of learning how to teach fencing.

More knowledgeable and experienced coaches also gain from imitation as it allows them to continue to explore different perspectives and can act as the foundation of creativity.

It is problematic, however, when a coach’s work is entirely the product of imitation, or when a coach imitates the work of others uncritically. Imitation, by itself, makes for poor coaching because a coach who only copies others and does so blindly doesn’t understand the value of what he is doing and the theory behind it. He will be unable to adapt training to the individual needs of his students or of the group. Perhaps the stupidest thing a coach (or fencer, for that matter) can say is, “I do this because this is what I was taught by my coach.” A coach must understand why he does something and why it is preferable (at least in his opinion) to doing something else.

To be superior, a coach must be constantly looking to develop his methods and abilities. He must be looking to improve his skill set and expand what is possible. It is not enough to say, “That famous and successful coach does this, so I will do this too.” To achieve more from training, a coach must be critical of what other coaches do–even the most successful ones–and look to improve on it.

That does not mean that everything a coach does must be novel. Change for its own sake is not necessarily beneficial. A coach must be simultaneously engaged in both innovation and imitation. There will be cases where a coach may not be able to improve on someone else’s practices. If his goal is to perfect his art (and it should be), then what matters is that the coach is doing whatever works best. If someone else’s innovation is superior to his own, imitation is both worthwhile and necessary.

An excellent way to explore the relationship between imitation and innovation is to take a fencing exercise** and consider what it is being used to achieve. What skills and abilities are being learned or developed? (The better a coach’s understanding of theory, the easier this is to do–however the very practice of doing this will improve a coach’s grasp of theory and its application.) Then look to change the exercise in a way that better addresses some of those goals. The process of doing this may, in fact, result in a completely new exercise that is far superior to the original one (it may not even resemble the original). Naturally, if your exercise is not an improvement over the original, you should scrap it and try again (if need be, starting with a different initial exercise).

Once a coach sees his work as the play between imitation and innovation, he can start to explore some very exciting possibilities in his training.

*I know some coaches who, when speaking to their students, will even imitate the accent of other coaches. This, it should be remembered, is completely retarded.

**It should be noted that the use of imitation and innovation extends beyond just fencing exercises. Everything from the way practice is run to the way a coach communicates with his students should be approached from this perspective.