There is Nothing Wrong with Perfection (I)

When I first came back to the US after spending 4 years in Poland, I ended up in the Midwest looking into a coaching offer from a club which has since dissolved. They asked me to give some of their students individual lessons as an “audition”.

Afterwards, we had this exchange:

Owner, Staff: Your lessons were good, but there were a lot of corrections.
Jason: Okay.
Owner, Staff: We’d really prefer that you didn’t make so many corrections. Look, none of these kids are going to be World Champion. Just make them feel good. (Those last two sentences are a direct quote from the owner.)

The next day I thanked them for the offer and told them I wouldn’t be able to work there.

I think a lot of what was motivating their response was the pride of the staff and the wallet of the owner, but it demonstrates a kind of thinking that is too common among fencing coaches in the US.

Error-correction is an extremely important part of a coach’s job. An error that isn’t initially corrected becomes significantly more difficult to correct later on. Further, the more ingrained an error has become, the more likely it is–even if it appears to have been corrected–to reappear in times of stress (such as during a competition).

Excellent technique, excellent footwork, do not happen by accident. They are the result of the combined efforts of the teacher and student. One of the responsibilities of the coach is to correct errors.

It is extremely important that a fencer feels good about his sport. It is also extremely important that a fencer is confident in his abilities. However, if a coach is trying to develop these feelings in his student through deception (leading a fencer to believe that he is doing an action perfectly when, in fact, he certainly is not), it will only result in the fencer feeling far worse about himself when he finds himself beaten by better trained opponents.

A common response from such a fencer is negative thinking and self-talk, such as “I guess I’m just no good.” Notice that the fencer is not thinking, “I need to improve my rhythm change” or “I need to improve my feeling of the blade”. He is thinking “I am no good.” Because the coach has not trained the fencer to view his fencing critically, he is left blaming some imaginary, uncontrollable element of himself. This kind of thinking is disastrously disempowering.

Part of proper error-correction is teaching a student to turn defeat into an empowering (not just motivating) experience. When a student (and, naturally, coach) understands error-correction, he will be able to learn from mistakes–in training and in competition–and improve far more rapidly. He will also be far better prepared psychologically for competition.

In order to properly correct errors, a coach must be able to rightly identify the type of error that is occurring.

Categories of Errors (as defined by Z. Czajkowski):

1. Errors in part of a movement vs. errors in the entire movement
2. Local error (isolated mistake) vs. chain error (one mistake that causes other mistakes)
3. Non-fixed error vs. fixed error (an error that has become habit)
4. Unimportant errors vs. important errors
5. Typical errors vs. atypical errors
6. Errors due to pupil vs. errors due to coach
7. Mistakes during practice vs. mistakes during competition
8. Errors of execution vs. errors of perception vs. errors of choice of action (these three can, of course, all happen simultaneously)

In part two, I will go over some methods a coach can use to constructively correct errors.