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.
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.