A week ago, I was coaching two students with a large differential in experience. Not only that, the less experienced one does not have any other aspects in which he has the upper hand.

At first, I made them fence epee with handicapping rule changes, in order to level the playing field.That did not work out as well as I had hoped – the experience differential was just too great. No lessons learned there.

So, what to do? I decided to try something else – sabre. This was the first time ever the beginner fencer had ever tried out sabre, or even been taught about it. However, the less inexperienced fencer had only fenced sabre one or two times overall, and those times were more than a year ago. So, if you think about it, the experience differential was not as stark in sabre as it was in epee.

I briefly told them of the sabre-specific rules, and pointed out that sabre is a weapon of attack. I then let them have at it. The beginner fencer at first was stuck in an epee mindset, which did him no favors. The somewhat more experienced fencer quickly racked up a 6-1 lead, and the bout appeared to be headed to another blowout. Then everything changed. The beginner fencer actually went into offensive mode, and he attacked before the counterattack of his opponent. Then it clicked in his head that offense was the way to go, and he kept on doing that for the rest of the bout. However, the big initial lead was too great to overcome, but a final 15-8 result shows that the beginner improved his game by quite a lot once he got the hang on one single simple rule.

We still had a little time, so they fenced one last 5-point sabre bout. By now, the beginner had started to believe that he actually could do something, so he got off to a 2-0 lead. The more experienced fencer rallied, and used his superior overall fencing experience to equalize to 3-3. Quick straight attack from the beginner so as to not letting his opponent grab the initiative – 4-3 lead. Tension in the room. Bang, quick straight attack from the beginner, but this time the more experienced fencer had adapted, and parried.

At that point, most rookies would have crumbled and let the riposte happen. Not this time. Our beginner instantly made a counterparry, taking back the priority and riposted right away. The more experienced fencer counterattacked once the riposte was underway, which earned him a colored light, but nothing else.

5-3. The beginner had prevailed against this particular opponent, for the first time ever. Once he took of his mask, the whole demeanour of the beginner had changed – a whole lot. Shortly thereafter, the respective parents came to pick up their sons, and the father of the beginner got to hear everything from me while his son was standing beside, beaming with pride.

So what lessons can be learned from this?

  1. For beginner students: In sabre, attacking is crucial. (duh)
  2. For coaches: do not let fencers get stuck in a rut of failure. For many fencers, that does not harden them – it just makes them used to failure.
  3. For coaches: Once students “get it” and feel as if they have succeeded by figuring something out on their own, their entire mindset will change for the better, dramatically. It is the job of the coach to facilitate such occurrences.
  4. For coaches: Once students are in the right mindset – they feel that they actually can accomplish stuff – they will accomplish stuff that is much more advanced than they thought themselves capable mere minutes before.

None of these four points are in any way new by any means. Still, good points bear repeating.

Let me repeat: A beginner with only weeks of epee fencing under his belt, and no prior sabre experience whatsoever, managed to figure out the concept of a sabre counterparry, and execute it, in the heat of the battle when the whole match was at stake. That is not peanuts, folks.

I have been posting far too seldomly for quite some time. Once the fall semester ends and the holidays begin, I hope that I will be able to rectify that when I do not have time-critical stuff to do with helping a family member with her activities.