While coaching, I see the same thing happening over and over in free bouting at the club: fencers doing what they feel that they are best at, and not branching out. When left to their own devices, most fencers want to score points as their overriding concern during free bouting, and their tactical choices reflect this. They will, by and large, chose whatever action that they feel that they are best at. Given that most fencers have a relatively good idea of their respective strengths and weaknesses, this means that they will hone their best actions quite a lot. Since they are already good at those actions, this means that they will only become incrementally better at what they do, and they will seldom find out something else that they might be good at (after some specialized training) on their own. If possible, their will avoid their weaknesses, rather than improve upon them. Without intervention, we then get fencers who get somewhat better at what they already know, and do not expand upon their field of expertise.

This is obviously not a good state of affairs – once they go up against an opponent whose skill set proves a bad match for their own, they are going to lose, often badly and they will not learn all that much from that loss. What to do, from a coach’s perspective?

One class of solutions is to force them to specifically train what they are bad at. There are several ways to do that, and I plan to return to various types of that in subsequent blog posts.

The simplest way is to make them do technical training, where they repeat the technique of the action that one wants them to becomes better at repeatedly, often in pair training. While that is necessary to get the basics of technique down, and must be repeated afterwards, it is not sufficient. My experience is that fencing students can perform those actions fairly well in pairs exercises, they will not perform them in free bouting unless pressured to do so in some way. That is in addition to the fact that pair training has the general disadvantage that at any one time, only half of the students are training what the exercise is all about – the other half of the students are mostly targets.

If you are coaching at a large club, one can make the fencing students free bout in pairs so that at least one fencer in each pair is facing an opponent that will force him out of his comfort zone, and thus widen his field of expertise. However, there are  some limitations to that approach:

  1. In small clubs, there is not a sufficiently wide selection of opponents. Fencers will thoroughly learn their clubmates predilections, and they will get too little training in analyzing opponents in real time and coming up with appropriate responses in the time constraints of a bout. This is aggravated by the fact that most fencer pairings will be of fencers of widely disparate skill.
  2. Even if fencer A in a bout pairing will learn a lot when faced by fencer B, the reverse is not necessarily so.
  3. If the coach wishes to globally optimize the total amount of learning by pairing up fencers so that as many fencers as possible learn as much as possible from their respective pairings, he has a computationally hard problem to deal with – a problem that must be solved in a short time frame, and for which he does not know many of the parameters.

There are several other approaches which circumvent the problems outlined above; I will describe some of them in following blog posts.

A final note: the observation that fencers keep doing what they feel that they are best at is not at all something that has not been written about before. Johan Harmenberg, in his excellent book Epee 2.5, goes over the concept at length. If you want to become better at epee and have not read that book, you should. Simple as that. One does not go from an also-ran as a junior to an Olympic Champion without an absolutely stellar tactical and strategic understanding of fencing.