I think a serious shift in thinking needs to take place in most clubs and with most coaches about how training is structured. It’s a shift that I see happening in a handful of clubs, but is still a rarity.
For the majority of clubs in the US, the foundation of a fencer’s training is the individual lesson. For many fencers, training at the club consists entirely of lessons and bouting. This structure is both extremely limited and outdated.
A far more potent–though under-appreciated–way to develop fencers is to build training around the foundation of the group lesson.
It’s important to recognize that I’m NOT talking about the common practice of introducing kids to the sport through group lessons in order for them to eventually shift to the individual lesson-centered paradigm. I’m talking about making group lessons the foundation of training for all levels of fencers, including (perhaps especially) the strongest competitors at a club.
The difference between an individual lesson-centered system and a group lesson-centered is, in fact, the difference between “fencing a little” and “training for fencing”.
There are many ways to do this. Here’s the way we do it in our club (this is the model for kids 10 and up; we use a different structure for adult beginners, and still a different one for under-10):
When a student that is, say, 12 years old first comes to the club, they are put into a class of other, often more experienced, students. That beginner, in fact, may be in the same class as the young lady who took 6th in CWS at Summer Nationals or the young lady who is one of the tyrants of Y14 WE.
The 12 year old stays for the first hour of class, during which they do assorted general and semi-specific fitness exercises as well as footwork exercises (for the first few classes, they spend time with one of the older, more capable students learning the basics of movement and holding a weapon, after which they are integrated more fully into the group).
After a minimum of 10 classes (it should be noted that the pricing structure is designed to encourage students to come multiple times a week and nearly all of them do from the moment they sign up*), the student takes a test to “graduate” to level-2–meaning he now stays for 90 minutes of class. The additional half-hour is composed of pair work and, occasionally, line-exercises (“exercises in cue”, for our friends across the pond–if you are unfamiliar with this form of training, I recommend reading Wojciechowski’s book).
After another minimum of 10 classes in level-2, the student takes another test (these are not pen-and-paper tests; they are practical tests–though I do ask them some questions to check their understanding as well) and, if he passes, becomes a level-3 fencer and stays for the entire 2-hours of class. The final half hour is comprised of assorted controlled bouting exercises, “free fencing”, etc. (Many of the more advanced students stay beyond the 2-hours for additional bouting, but this is not regulated by the level system.)
It is only once the student gets to level-4 that they begin taking lessons. There are 10 levels in total in our system (after level-4, the number of classes between each level increases significantly; at the highest levels, class number is no longer a determining factor for when a test is given).
The tests are actually quite difficult and it is not unusual for a student to fail a test the first time they take it (though I try to have the student wait to take a test if they seem like they’re unlikely to pass).
To illustrate the demands of these levels: the girl who placed 6th in CWS and 11th in JWS in Miami was only level-7 at the time.
What is being illustrated here is that the students come into the club and enter a program. They are not merely taking some lessons and bouting. The result is that they learn SIGNIFICANTLY more and the club develops group cohesion (in addition, as there is no sense of “finality” that comes with the conclusion of a one-month intro class, the attrition rate is extremely low–this, of course, also has a lot to do with the quality of the material).
The coach is able to do a lot more with the students when so much emphasis is placed on group training. (Of course, as the groups are of mixed level, the coach very often must create sub-groups–which necessitates excellent skills in group-management.) He can control the actual training of the student, not just the lesson.
A focus on group training is the most efficient way to develop fencers and when coaches and clubs begin to understand how to do this, they will notice a startling jump in the level of their students’ fencing.
*I don’t want this blog to get too “businessy”, but I might at some point have to include an entry about creating the proper frame when meeting potential new clients. In short: approaching perspective students with the “why don’t you try this out a little and see if you like it” (the basis for the “one-month intro class” found in so many clubs) attitude is a GREAT way to keep your membership from growing. Approaching them with a “this is great, you like it” frame will do a lot more to increase your membership.