Monday, May 30, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, Part 5: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

I've been tossing around the terms beginner, intermediate and advanced quite freely, without really defining the criteria distinguishing one from the other. Perhaps now is a good time to do that.

What makes a beginner a beginner?
In the beginner stage, the student must learn many new movement patterns. He will try to draw upon previously learned patterns that can be used to help learn the new ones. This presents a challenge in fencing because most of the fundamental movements are dissimilar- antithetical, in fact- to most of those previously learned patterns.

Swinging a bat, or throwing a ball, javelin, shot-put, discus or a punch are all very similar movements They are movements for generating power by "cracking the whip." For example, throwing a straight right punch begins with the left toe digging in, the rotation through the hips, transmitting power to the final thrust of the right fist.
The thrust and lunge, on the other hand, is an exact opposite type of movement, a "railroad train" type of movement, i.e., the engine (point) is followed by the first car (arm) followed by the second car (foot) followed by the third car (body).

I have found that "non-athletes" who have not spent a lot of time honing the skills of basketball, baseball or football, often learn fencing skills more quickly and easily than "athletes" since they do not experience interference from old, inappropriate movement patterns.

In the beginner stage, the student's attentional focus is narrow and internal as he tries to recall and integrate a seemingly endless list of seemingly unrelated details. Eventually, the student memorizes the list and gradually links together the numerous details into a single coherent pattern, and a shift in attentional focus to broad internal occurs.  "On guard," for example, ceases to be "heels in line, space between the feet, front knee & toe forward, knees bent, body erect, etc., etc..." and becomes instead simply on guard, a whole comprising many parts assembled in a coherent way, and not merely a collection of individual elements.

Learning new movement patterns requires frequent, repetitive practice and that takes time. The process cannot be rushed. Students must be allowed to progress at their own individual pace.
With the shift to broad internal focus the student begins to be capable of self-correcting.  I consider the capacity for self-correction to be the distinguishing feature of an intermediate student.

The Intermediate Level
In the intermediate phase, students begin to get a real "feel" for the moves and are able to evaluate progressively finer elements of their own performance and correct errors by comparing what they just did to the memory of the feeling of doing it “right.” 
It is during the early intermediate stage that the student’s rising expectations can leave them vulnerable to what I call "the frustration gap," the distance between intellectually knowing what to do and your body's ability to do it. Those with the quickest wits are more vulnerable than others since they may well comprehend the theory of a movement long before their body has had time to memorize the pattern of it. The Master must be prepared to counsel patience and to provide extra support and encouragement when this happens.

Gradually, their actions become more accurate and more consistent. The moves become "easier" as the body becomes more efficient, using less energy in executing the new pattern. They will be able to perform at increasingly greater speed, pace and intensity, without sacrificing anything in precision. Sometimes they will find themselves performing "automatically," without thinking about it, almost as if the movement happened all by itself. They will also begin to focus more externally as they learn to recognize and respond to diverse and sundry cues.

Advanced Students
The distinguishing characteristic of the  advanced student is the ability to maintain the integrity of his/her own movement – balance, line, focus and distance – while externally focused. At the advanced level, the student becomes more active and less re-active. He is increasingly able to anticipate or "read" the opponent and predict the flow of the action. Performance becomes highly instinctive, requiring no conscious thought – in fact, “thinking” only gets in the way. The student has high levels of technical competence, confidence, control and commitment. Advanced fencers spend more and more time in external broad attentional focus, performing by feeling the flow and flowing with the feel of the fight. At the same time, they begin to strive for an even greater degree of perfection, measuring their performance against an abstract ideal and not by whether they won or lost. The advanced phase is not the end at all.  Rather, it's a whole new beginning.

Each time the student learns a new skill, the student will go through these three stages of development with regard to that skill.  The process make take a month. Or it may take a minute. The more experience the student has had with making the transition from beginner to advanced, the faster and easier it will be. The student hasn’t just learned. The student has learned how to learn.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Comparison of Lesson Types

Element                      Technical Lesson                    Tactical Lesson                    Strategy Lesson
Goal                            mechanical precision                recognition & response           problem solving
Cues                           single, simple & specific           2 or more as specified             random & unspecified
Speed                         slow                                        slow to fast                             combat  speed
Pace                           slow                                        moderate to fast                      fast
Rest                            long, frequent                         short, frequent                         short, infrequent
Complexity                  low                                          moderate                                high
Intensity                      low                                          moderate                                high
Duration                      moderate-long                         moderate                                moderate-short
Attentional Mode         narrow internal                         narrow external                       broad external
Beginner                      98%                                        1%                                        1%
Intermediate                25%                                         50%                                      25%
Advanced                   5%                                         25%                                       70%

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 4: Lesson Profiles

In this installment, I submit for your consideration, profiles of the three principle lesson types. Keep in mind that there is no "purely" technical, tactical or strategy lesson, but that all three elements exist to varying degrees in every lesson. For example, in the simplest exercise, "On my opening, straight thrust," the student must recognize the cue (distinguish between cue and not-cue) and respond with the correct action for that cue. That's tactics.  Within the the lesson it's quite common to introduce a technique, then place it in a tactical context, and then explore how it may be utilized in various strategic positions.

The Technical Lesson Profile

THE TECHNICAL LESSON is characterized by simple cues requiring simple responses, the cue being stated as a command "On my X, you will X1." For example: "On my opening, thrust in 6te," or "On my pressure, disengage." The cue is specifically defined, and there is only ONE acceptable response.

The SPEED of the lesson is low and the PACE is slow. This is necessary to ensure that the student and the master can both pay careful attention to each rep. The goal of the lesson is to create a neuro-muscular pattern, or "muscle memory" of the action so that it will always be the preferred response to the cue, requiring no cognitive "thinking" to perform.

The student's attentional mode is predominantly narrow internal, flicking briefly to narrow external for the cue.

The master must allow the student ample rest intervals to avoid fatigue until the mechanics have been adequately absorbed and the technique can be performed correctly at least 90% of the time on command. Fatigue will produce gross, imprecise movements when razor sharp acuity is desired, and must be avoided.

BEGINNERS will require 99% technical lessons- and I say that only because of the 1% inherent tactical element. But any time a new technique is introduced, even to an advanced student, employ the Technical Lesson format.

The Tactical Lesson Profile

THE TACTICAL LESSON is characterized by two or more conditional commands, i.e., IF-THEN statements. For example: "If I open the line, thrust in 6te; if I close the line, disengage and thrust in 4te."

The goal of this type of lesson is to teach the student to distinguish between differing cues requiring differing responses. This lesson cultivates both physical and mental agility. There must be AT LEAST two options, with no upper limit for advanced students. However, cues are still specifically defined, and each has its "correct" response.

SPEED and PACE are generally moderate, but may vary considerably depending on the ability of the student. NEVER accelerate either one beyond precision. Neither proceed at a rate the student will not find challenging.

COMPLEXITY can reach appreciable proportions, but as complexity increases, speed and pace generally must decrease.

The attentional mode is predominantly narrow external, shifting to narrow internal on the response.

The tactical lesson is for the intermediate fencer, from 50% technique and 50% tactics to 90% tactics.

The Strategy Lesson Profile

In the strategy or "combat" lesson, the master simulates a hypothetical opponent against whom the student must devise an appropriate PLAN or STRATEGY and then choose tactics and execute techniques in order to carry out that battle plan. The master may present a tactical problem, for example, an opponent who systematically counter-attacks, or closes distance, or opens distance, or uses fine point control, or is left-handed, etc. Or the master may merely assume one of the STRATEGIC POSITIONS (longer/stronger, longer/weaker, shorter/stronger, shorter/weaker) and play it out with tactical variety.

The emphasis of the combat lesson is PROBLEM-SOLVING. The student must immediately apply what he has learned, analyze the situations (from the actions of the opponent), determine the strategy most likely to succeed and then employ appropriate tactics.

The master facilitates this process by asking questions, obliging the student to find the answers with as little assistance as possible from the teacher.

The combat lesson may assume all the speed, pace and complexity of an actual bout, and resemble it in all possible ways. No specific cues or responses are stated (that has been done in preceding technical and tactical lessons).

The combat lesson is for advanced students whose predominant attentional mode is broad external, shifting to narrow external.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 3: Elements of the Lesson

In this installment of The Structure of the Individual Lesson, I want to provide you with some definitions as a starting place for discussing the specific profiles of each type of lesson, which will come in Part IV.

Elements of the Lesson

The lesson is made up of a number of elements used in infinitely variable ways.


Each lesson will have a particular THEME or focus, comprising a series of exercises with a common purpose or objective. For example, a lesson might focus on the beat, on the counter-time, on the coupe, on distance, point control, etc.

Each lesson will also comprise three specific phases: the warm-up, the body of the lesson and the cool-down.

The warm-up phase includes simple actions that the student knows well to stimulate the fingers, hand, eye and legs, preparing the student mentally and physically for more demanding effort.

The body of the lesson includes the focus of the lesson, interspersing periods of work and rest, alternating attack and defense, with peaks and valleys, gradually building in intensity.

The cool-down is a brief anti-climax comprising a very simple action that the student can do well, the purpose being to relax the student and leave him in a positive frame of mind, ie., with an enhanced self-concept and a feeling of competence, confidence, control and committment that leaves him looking forward enthusiastically to the next lesson.

Variable Components of the Lesson


The specific signal used by the master to elicit a specific response from the student is a CUE. Every cue should have ONE SPECIFIC PREFERRED RESPONSE and simulate the context of combat as closely as possible. This recognition/respose is the very foundation of the lesson.


An execution of a given action, ie., a cue and a response done one time.


A given number of reps completed without a rest interval between them.


A brief recovery period which may be inactive (the student relaxes, stretches, takes a couple of deep breaths) or active (the student does a low-intensity set of parry-riposte while recovering from a high-intensity set of balestra-lunges).


The total time of the lessons. On the average, a lesson should be of 20-30 minutes' duration. Remember that there is an inverse relationship between duration and intensity. You can work hard or you can work long, but you cannot work hard AND long. (If you wish, you may test this for yourself by determining your best speed in the 100 yard dash, and then running at that pace for 30 minutes. Good luck.)


The real time required or allowed for the student to perform one repetition of the action.


The rate at which successive reps and sets follow the previous one, relative to the intervening rest.


The level of difficulty created by the number of different cues that the student must recognize and the number and nature of movements involved in the execution of the response.


The relationship between the energy demand and the period of time in which it is expended. The same work done in less time indicates a higher intensity, likewise, more work done in the same period of time. Simply, how "hard" the student is working. Intensity is the sum total of complexity, speed, pace and duration.


Feedback refers to the nature an amount of reinforcement the master provides to the student. Although most people in general respond similarly to similar kinds of feedback, specific individuals may respond well or poorly to specific kinds of feedback. To know what specific words, phrases, images etc to use, you must know your student very well.

One form of feedback is tactile: the touch. When the student performs correctly, he is rewarded by making a touch. Poor performance must result in failure to make the touch, or in receiving a touch from the master.

Reinforcement must also be provided verbally, with either affirmation, correction  or both.  I believe in using 99.99% positive feedback- rarely, if ever, negative feedback, and then only for a bloody good reason. No one likes to be scolded and few respond to it well. I don't. Use humor, if you like, but never ridicule. You must support, encourage and nurture your student as you would an infant learing to walk. Demand a high level of precision, but demand it gently. You must remember the power you have as a teacher and never abuse it.

About the only time I use negative feedback is when I find a student suffering "brain-lock. Something sharp and sudden will frequently be successful in helping the student "re-set" and return to the flow of the lesson.
It's important to remember that 90% of communication is NON-VERBAL and includes such para-verbal elements as volume, pitch, tone and inflection as well as body language and expression. All these communication elements must be employed judiciously for effective feedback.

Further, you must determine that the student has understood the message you sent as you intended it.
Sometimes what a student thought he heard is not what you thought you said.

Likewise, use positive corrections. They get better results than negative ones. For example, it is better to say "Good; now, more opposition," than to say "No, you didn't give enough opposition," or "extend your arm," rather than "don't bend your arm."

Basically, don't say "don't" - correct with advice on what to DO, rather than what NOT to do.

Horsemen sometimes talk about "rewarding the try."  This is the practice of providing positive reinforcement for even the slightest change of behavior in the right direction.
It's very effective in "shaping" behavior and I strongly recommend it.