Saturday, April 30, 2011

Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 2

I distinguish five types of lessons, three of them fundamental, the other two supplementary.

The Technical Lesson
The Tactical Lesson
The Strategy or Combat Lesson
The Warm-up Lesson
The Maintenance Lesson

I shall address the last two variations first.


The warm-up or pre-event lesson is more of a warm-up than a lesson. The purpose of this type of lesson is to stimulate the nerves and muscles that will be involved in performance, and to bolster the confidence and to arouse the student to the optimum state of relaxed alertness. For most fencers this will probably more often be to ease arousal than to heighten it. Nothing new takes place in a warm-up; just old, familiar "bread and butter" actions the fencer enjoys and does well.


The maintenance lesson is intended to preserve fencing skills during a lay-off or the "off-season," which, for most fencers, would be the summertime.  But there are many reasons why a person might benefit from an occasional lay-off. Sometimes "life" gets hectic and makes demands on your fencing time. Sometimes you just need to take a break, clear your mind, & refresh your body by doing something ELSE.

My own inclination is to advise "active rest" in the off-season, preferably utilizing some complementary activity such as aikido, kendo, boxing or karate along with conditioning.

What little skill is "lost" during a rest period can be quickly re-honed when the student comes back "hungry" after not fencing for a while. Over-training is a more serious error than under-training, since it usually requires a long period of recuperation.


Each of the three main types of lessons has a different emphasis and therefore, a slightly different structure. But you should always remember that technique, tactics and strategy are so closely related as to be inseparable, and all of these elements are always evident in some form, to some degree, in every lesson, even if only on a very rudimentary level. The isolation of one element or another is a purely artificial pedagogical device, and I believe after focusing on some particular point, it is a good idea to integrate it into a more "holistic" context as soon as the student is capable of doing so. Nevertheless, let there be no question that I consider technical precision to be the sine qua non of fencing excellence. Strategy and tactics are important, of course. But it is not possible to employ any strategy if you are not capable of selecting the right tactics at the right time, and you cannot possibly choose a tactic that you do not have the technical ability to execute.

I have met any number of fencers whose "coaches" pushed them into tactics and strategy, or simpy into bouting- if it could be called that- long before they were ready for it and as a result created such a technical cripple that I had an almost irrepressible urge to seek that "teacher" out and introduce them to the sting of a horsewhip. (Such "coaches" are evidence, I suppose, that prostitution is not the only trade that has been ruined by amateurs.) A person who can overcome "bad habits" developed in the beginning is as remarkable as he or she is rare. A Master who patiently cultivates technical precision in the student from the very beginning, makes his own later labor- and the student's- both easier and more fruitful ever after.

Attentional mode, or attentional focus, are terms to describe the direction and scope of the student's concentration and awareness. The direction may be internal (focused on the self) or external (focused on other-than-self). Scope may be either narrow (specifically focused) or broad (generally focused). (SEE: Nideffer. The Inner Athlete. 1979)

The introduction of each new skill requires a progression from narrow internal, to broad internal, to narrow external and finally to broad external focus as it is integrated into the fencer's repertoire of actions. This integration takes a variable amount of time depending on the skill and the level of the student. An advanced fencer may be able to do a new action after only a few tries, but a beginner needs a fair amount of time- weeks or months- before the transition is made. And herein lies the folly of the aforementioned "coaches" on my hit list. They fail to understand this process and interrupt its natural progression by demanding external focus (bouting) before the internal focus has been adequately broadened. This is why we see beginning fencers who can parry well enough under controlled circumstances, flail around wildly in a bout. They have not had sufficient time to incorporate (in the truest sense of the word) their skills.


The principle purpose of the technical lesson is to develop the student's mechanical precision in a given action, almost as if that action were occurring in a vacuum, and without any particular consideration of when to apply the tchnique in question. This admittedly artificial approach assumes that there is one "right" way to do the action and the student's goal is to replicate this "ideal" as closely as possible.

Again, some may claim that the technique lesson is a poor exercise with limited utility, because all fencing technique must be executed within a tactical framework.

I emphatically disagree.

As I have noted, the question of tactical choice can never be wholly absent. If nothing else, the student must be able to determine when, during the lesson, to perform the technique and when not to do so. This decision requires the recognition of a prescribed CUE from the master, and an appropriate response. Thus it provides a foundation for tactical thinking. But the main purpose of the technical lesson is to emphasize mechanical precision.

Aside from mechanical perfection, the technical lesson develops a process-oriented disposition, instead of a product-oriented one, an attitude that is invaluable when facing an opponent. "Fence one touch at a time," is a facile bit of coaching cliche- but just when does the student learn to do this? In the technical lesson.

Technical exercises need not be a drudgery. It is the master's job to make them challenging, enjoyable and satisfying. They are to the swordsman what scales are to the concert pianist. Even "just" playing scales is still making music, and "just" practicing the disengage is still swordsmanship. The best musicians I have ever known enjoyed playing scales, and the best fencers I have ever known also enjoyed playing their scales. Teach your students to enjoy their scales, too.

Always remember that one man's "scales" is another man's "concert" and so, of course, technical exercises must be suited to the expertise of the student. What might be an entire lesson for a beginner would be just a warm-up for an advanced fencer.


The tactical lesson emphasizes decision-making on a simple recognition-response level in which the student must disintinguish between various cues and execute the appropriate response. While this kind of eye-hand thinking begins in the technical lesson, it is fully cultivated in the tactical lesson. If the technical lesson answers the question of "how," the tactical lesson deals with the question of "when."

Although I have referred to tactical "thinking," the soul of the tactical lesson is actually teaching your student NOT to think, at least not the kind of reflective, cognitive, intellectual thinking "about" something that we're used to.  Tactics is about bodythinking, ie psychomotor "thinking." The eye sees, the hand feels and the blade dances, all with as little conscious thought as you use in blinking or breathing.


The strategy, or combat lesson, emphasizes problem-solving on a broad scale. In the combat lesson, the master simulates a hypothetical opponent for the student and the student must determine what strategy to employ and which tactics to use to carry it off, and, of course, execute the techniques to do so flawlessly. It is the most like actually bouting with your student.

I subscribe to the positional theory of combat strategy, and teach the four strategies: longer/stronger, longer/weaker, shorter/stronger, shorter/weaker. In the case of a fifth possibility- being exactly equal in reach and strength- the fight becomes a tactical one. You must teach your student how to fight effectively from each of these different strategic positions.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Muggsy & the Gators

There's a huge lesson here.
Do you know what it is?

Posted in honor of Boo.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 1

We'll be putting up a "Structure of the Individual Lesson" in several parts.
I wrote it originally for the half-dozen apprentices I had at that time. If you're teaching fencing, or want to teach fencing, something in it may prove useful.
Note the use of the masculine pronoun. I don't mean to imply that the field is exclusively the domain of males, and if any should accuse me of "sexism" I'll stand on my record of having taught sabre to women long before it was officially permitted.
Yes, language structures thought, and perhaps we can devise something better. Yet, on a scale of 1-10, I think we have much more serious problems to address -- at least I'm not aware of any mechanism whereby the use of the masculine pronoun will destroy the environment, cause millions of deaths of innocent women and children, or create a global corporate-slave state. Good to see things in perspective.

The direct passing on of knowledge and skill from teacher to student is a strong link in the chain of tradition that has kept fencing alive and vital for so long. The swordmaster's apprentice, it is to be hoped, will learn not only the master's technical skills, but will also absorb the master’s manner,  composure, integrity, dignity, courage, and joi de vivre. The student will then, one day, pay the teacher the highest possible compliment- by exceeding the master's stature.
The individual lesson is a large part of the fencing master's stock in trade, and it has been so for many generations. The intimacy and intensity of the individual lesson far surpass that of the group lesson. The master can give the student his undivided attention concentrating on perfecting even the most minute imperfection, not allowing even the slightest error to slip by unnoted. This makes the individual lesson as potentially demanding -- and satisfying -- for the master as for the student, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.
Group training is no substitute for individual lessons. Progress requires continual evaluation and adjustment and there simply isn't enough individual attention possible in a group, even if of no more than 3-7 students -- and even then, it's inferior to the attention possible in an individual lesson. Group training is most useful for absolute beginners who all need to get an introduction to the basic, very broadest strokes and general concepts.  If the master wishes to introduce as many people as possible to the sword, then he can do so far more efficiently with classes than with individual lessons. There's no point in telling one person at a time to "turn out, bend your knees, close your sixte..." for half an hour when you can deliver the same essential directions to 25 people at the same time -- and at a lower cost to each of them.
Group training can also be useful for a homogenous group of very skillful fencers who are capable of self-evaluating and self-correcting.  
But everyone can benefit from individual lessons and greater progress can be made in a much shorter period of time than with group training. Ideally, there should be a balance between individual lessons and group practice, but the balance should be heavily weighted toward individual instruction
The demanding nature of giving good lessons (and why give any other kind?) limits the number one can give per day or per week. Given that limitation,  I generally give priority for individual lessons to "serious" students who have made a commitment to excellence and have earned them by dedication and hard work. Sometimes I will work individually with a student who has a special, extraordinary need for it. But I don't simply market my sword to anyone who has enough money; I may be available for rent, but I'm not for sale.  A lesson is an investment of my time. I'm happy to invest it, but I’m very disinclined to waste it.
It is not at all uncommon that a "champion" fencer may be an abysmal teacher, while someone whose own fencing is merely competent might become a brilliant teacher. This is because giving a lesson requires absolute command of a repertoire of technical skills, closely related to, but distinct from fencing itself.
Fencing, and the teaching of fencing each comprise specific skill-sets that are quite different from each other.
To be a good fencing teacher requires at least as much skill practice as it does to be a good fencer- and probably a good deal more. In addition to knowing how to use your tools- posture, voice, blade, gestures, etc. - you must possess a thorough understanding of the theory of combat, the principles of tactics and strategy, and the psychology and physiology involved in training for and participating in the fight.
Since it is part of the master's task to simulate for his student every possible opponent as well as to encourage and inspire, the master must be comfortable giving lessons with either hand.
Aristotle once noted, "Men acquire a particular trait by constantly acting in a particular way." Some other anonymous philosopher observed "Practice is the art of learning, improving or refining while fidgeting, sweating or swearing."
Any way you put it, there is only one way to acquire skill: regular, repetitive, focused practice.
(Remember: mastery requires at least 10,000 hours.)
            REGULAR means more than once a week, to be sure. 
            Daily practice is best.
            REPETITIVE means doing the same technique over and over again 
            until it is as perfect as possible.
            FOCUSED means mental acuity and attention to detail. 
            Practice does not make perfect- PERFECT PRACTICE makes perfect.
Skill cannot really be TAUGHT, it must be LEARNED. There is nothing the master can do that will compensate for what the student does NOT do. Just as this applies to the fencing student, so it also applies to the fencing master's apprentice. If you wish to excel at giving lessons, you must give many of them, every day, and continuously reflect, evaluate and strive to improve.

Friday, April 8, 2011

That Was Zen, This is Now

In Zen, a koan is a kind of riddle. It’s a question so nonsensical or paradoxical that it can’t really be answered. But the process of grappling with it jars the student into enlightenment. Or at least that’s what it said on the fortune cookie.

Here’s my version of a koan.
There’s an extremely good fencing lesson in it --- maybe more than one.
See if you can figure out what it is:

A fellow gets in line at the grocery store right behind another guy who’s just buying a couple of sixpacks – even though he’s already obviously three sheets to the wind.
The drunk watches studiously as the fellow places the following items on the conveyer belt for check-out: a quart of milk, a dozen eggs, 2 cans of dog food and 3 TV dinners.
The drunk nods sagely and says to the gent, “You’re not married, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” the gent replies, amazed. “How did you know?”
The drunk shrugs. “’Cause you’re freakin’ ugly.”

Meditate on it, Grasshopper.
If you reach enlightenment, let me know.
No charge.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

War and Peace

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; Let the brow o’erwhelm
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height!
                   -William Shakespeare (1564-1616),
                     "King Henry V", Act 3 scene 1
Sometimes a student or prospective student expresses a desire to “just fence" with me.
I decline the pleasure.
I never “fence” with my students.
No good can come of it.
Here’s why.
When I take you on as a student, I’m making a commitment to do the very best for you that I’m capable of doing – in order to bring out the best that you’re capable of doing. 
The better I know you, the better I’m able to do my job.
I’ll know what moves you, what motivates you.
I’ll know what you love.
I’ll know what you fear.
I have to know, so I can help you find a way to deal with it.
You’ll reveal – whether you intend to or not -- everything about yourself, your every strength, your every flaw.
And I will reveal to you aspects of myself that I do not reveal to anyone else.
It’s an intimate relationship.
It requires trust.
I would not recommend you reveal your secret soul to just anyone, and you shouldn’t reveal it to me, either -- not unless you can completely trust me never to use it against you. Over time, I’ll earn your trust, I’ll prove to you that I always have your best interest uppermost at all times – even at times when it doesn’t seem like it to you.
(Like Mick says, I may not always give you what you want, but I’ll stop at nothing to give you what you need.)
It takes long time to build trust, and only one thoughtless second to completely destroy it.
I don’t take on many students because, if I do a good job, it’s both physically and emotionally exhausting.
During the course of training a student, I may sometimes give a “combat lesson.”  This may have the appearance of “fencing,” but it isn’t.  In a combat lesson, I feed my student various tactical opportunities, without prior warning, and their job is to recognize and respond appropriately. I increase the pressure both physically and psychologically. As always, when they act correctly, I reward them by allow them to touch.

The relationship I have with a student is the diametrical opposite of the relationship I have with an “opponent,” and the two are mutually exclusive.
I don’t fight for “recreation” or “fun.”
For me, it isn’t “play,’ unless you consider a cat’s antics with a doomed mouse to be “play.”
And when I fight; I do not posture.
When I fight, I fight.
Fighting requires a different mindset than teaching.
Teaching is about giving.
Fighting is about taking.
Teaching, I’m there for you.
Fighting, I’m there for me.
Teaching, my purpose is to build you up in every way: mentally, physically, emotionally, even spiritually.
Fighting, my purpose is to utterly and completely destroy you.
The more I know about you, the easier it is for me to do that.
And if you’re my student, I know you very well.
Can you see what a conflict of interests this would create for me?
If I were to fence with a student, I would undo everything I’ve tried to accomplish for that student.
If I tried to drive with my foot on the brake to avoid destroying the student, then I’m not really fighting, am I? 
And if I’m not really fighting, why pretend?
Better to be honest about it and stick with giving a “combat lesson.”
If my opponent should defeat me, I don't want his/her victory to be blemished by any doubts about whether I had fought my best fight.
As the Bard noted, a war requires an altogether different state of being than does peace.
I think it’s a good idea to know which one is which and conduct yourself accordingly.