At the start of the latest training session, the first match was two quite unevenly matched fencers. As is my usual habit, I spent most of the coaching effort on the less proficient fencer. The reason for that is that I want the comparatively less proficient fencers to become better, so that they can be more difficult opponents to the better fencers later on and thus force those to sharpen their game. If I instead would focus on the better fencers, then those become better, yes, but the difference in proficiency would get bigger, not lesser. Once it becomes too big, then neither fencer learns anything from a mismatched matchup, stalling overall learning within the club.

Back to that first match of the evening. The fencer on the right is older, taller, stronger, has longer reach, and more experience. In contrast, the fencer on the left has only one advantage – he is better at quickly bending down and counterattacking his opponents while their original attack goes above his now-displaced weapon-arm shoulder. I coached him much more in this matchup, so I will for the rest of this blog post refer to him as the student, and his opponent as the opponent.

I did not impose any special rules in order to make things more equal, and the matched went as one could have feared. The student was overwhelmed by the task, and mentally did not much more than hunker down in front of the oncoming onslaught. The memory of quite a few losses probably did not help him. Meanwhile, the opponent advanced at a steady pace, and once he was within sufficiently close range, started to beat my student´s blade from above, until the student started dropping the blade – and then went in for the hit. Rinse&repeat, until the match was over – 5-0 win to the opponent.

Before the next match between those two fencers, I told my student that he had several significant obstacles to overcome, and that if he let himself be too static then there would be no hope to turn things around. He could not get a longer reach or become stronger in the very short term, so he must prevent his opponent from getting the chance to do those incessant beat-downs in the first place. (It is always better to prevent a problem thant to solve it.) In order to achieve that, he must keep moving all the time, and go for it. It will still be a difficult thing to win over that opponent, but at least it would go from impossible to difficult.

So, they got going at it. My student hopped around like anything. The technical polish left a bit to be desired, but no one could say that he was not trying his absolutely best. The opponent seemed at first a little bit befuddled at the new style, but then attacked – and got the distance off, just a little bit. My student managed to extend and squirm away at the exactly the right time, and thus managed to pull off a counterattack. 1-0 to my student, already better than the latest match. The opponent responded with better timing, evening out the score. However, my student kept going with the hopping, not letting the opponent zero in on a static target. At times he would start to lose steam, but he caught himself slacking off and powered through. I kept thinking that the opponent would change his strategy to counter this, but that did not happen and my student kept piling up the points. The score reached 4-3 in favor of my student, but then the opponent got his timing right and did manage an attack on the blade immediately followed by a fast attack, evening out to 4-4. At that time, I worried that my student would let bad thoughts get to him, but he proved me wrong. The opponent attacked from a distance, and my student did the same type of counterattack as the first point in the match. 5-4 to the student! That was the second time ever he managed to win over that particular opponent.

In his next match, my student applied the other advice that I had given to him against a somewhat easier opponent, and managed to pull off a consecutive win, this time with a healthy margin. That against an opponent that he usually finds quite the match. My student has never before come close to anything similar to that performance – winning back-to-back matches against those two guys.

Take-home lessons for my student:

  1. Keep moving – do not let yourself become a static target.
  2. Power though fatigue – there will be plenty of time to rest after the match.
  3. Follow the advice from the coach  – he has a whole lot more experience in analysing matches

After that match, I got the guys to listen to me, and broke down the matches into the respective tactical and strategic parts. That included telling everyone the advice I had given my student. I then told them to use this information during the subsequent matches.

Next up was a rematch between my student and his most difficult opponent. It turned out that the opponent not only had been listening, he had also thought things through and figured out a counterstrategy. The opponent let my student hop, correctly surmising that my student would tire. That happened, and when my student stopped hopping, the opponent went in for the attack. Score 5-2 for the opponent, but it still went a whole lot better for the student than in the first match, when he did nothing to prevent the attacks from the opponent from starting. My student still managed to eke out a win against the other opponent, though.

During the next tactics&strategy break, I told them my student that I saw that he seemed to be running out of gas. I told him that it might seem natural to try to conserve energy when that happens, but that is the wrong thing to do. His opponent will notice that, and do his best to prevent any rest from happening. Thus, if you think that you are more tired than your opponent, do not let him wear you down to the point where you have nothing left – go for it now and try to end the match while you still have some energy in you.

He did his best to apply that in the last round of matches, but by then it was a case of matter over mind.

In short: The underdog applies what he has been told, and pulls off quite the upset. Then the more experienced fencer analyses what went on during the match and takes coach lessons into account, and comes up with an effective counterstrategy. Both fencers become better in a ratchet fashion, and the coach gets to see them improve significantly during the span of one lesson. Onwards and upwards!