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.


  1. Maitre Crown -

    Do the four combat strategies come into play in your technical & tactical lessons or are they restricted to the strategy/combat lessons?



  2. A very good question.
    All three elements -- technique, tactics and strategy -- are always present, expressly or implied, in every lesson. The difference is in emphasis.
    I've found it generally works better for the student to have some tactical sense first and then see how those tactics apply in the various strategic positions.
    But sometimes strategy asserts itself early on. For example, a person of very small stature will quite frequently be the shorter fighter, and even early technical lessons will take this into account. Likewise, a very tall person with a long reach will frequently be in the longer position and that will influence technique and tactics.


  3. Thank you, Maitre.

    So, you say the fencing master must be able to simulate all possible opponents, and that the student must be taught to fight effectively from each of these strategic positions...

    Does this mean that the master must be able to "be" longer than his longest student, stronger than his strongest student, weaker than his weakest student, and shorter than his shortest student, using whatever specialized skillsets, tools, and artifice of his trade?

  4. Maitre,
    Are the 5 strategies to be taught or trained in a particular order?

  5. That will depend.
    Each student is a unique individual and no one approach will be best for everyone. But in a very general way I can offer some observations.

    The necessity of developing a solid technical foundation results in the "tactical fight" being the first position taught, intentionally or otherwise -- and for too many it's the only one.

    The next position is usually the one student might most often occupy on the longer/shorter scale. (The shorter fighter must learn to get inside, the longer fighter must learn to stay outside.)
    But the student of "average" stature must be more flexible, being as likely to be shorter or longer.

    Stronger(faster) or Weaker(slower) is harder to predict as this position is a combination of physical strength and technical skill and can thus be influenced by training and conditioning, unlike the positions based on distance.

    In a general way, I think the natural course of things is to introduce first that position that the student will need most, that is, the one the student is most naturally suited for, and then study the opposing position by compare/contrast. In the end, the student not only knows what to do in his/her own position, but also what a well-trained opponent is most likely to do to be effective from his/her position, too.

    As always, the better you know your student, the better you will be able to make sound choices. At some point you change from teaching fighting to teaching a fighter.



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