1 + 1 Does Not Equal 2 in Fencing:  Incremental Improvement in FencingThe distance from 0 to 1 is not the same as the distance from 1 to 2. At least, not in fencing.

It’s something that we’ve noticed when new fencers come in and start learning fencing, then competing. Initially, there’s this explosive growth. A fencer comes in to joining in Y10 and they are gangbusters right from the beginning. They start out with zero fencing and within just a year they progress to being a one – to being a fencer! This jump from zero to one seemingly happens overnight.

Then things stall out. They slow down, they become still. Or do they? In truth, that level of progress doesn’t keep going after that first year where parents see this massive change, but that does not by any means mean that growth has really stopped. Why does it seem to slow down so dramatically though? Why is it that one plus one doesn’t equal two in fencing?

Logarithmic growth vs. linear growth

From newbie to some initial improvement is easy, but then every next step is difficult. It’s like the scale becomes logarithmic instead of linear.

In a linear scale, the value between the numbers is static. It’s how we all learned to count in kindergarten, identifying how many apples were in a basket or how many crayons lay on the table. It’s how we make sense of the world mathematically early on.  For instance think of a number line. The distance between the numbers 0 and 1 is one, and the distance between the numbers 10 and 11 is one, and the distance between 175 and 176 is also one. The difference in values is always the same – and that makes sense!

A logarithmic scale is something different. The value between points changes, and it changes in a distinct pattern – one that also makes sense! The log value is based on exponents, and there’s a lot of math that goes into that, but the basic idea is that with logarithmic growth, the curve goes up steeply rather than in a straight line. So the distance between 0 and 1 might have a value of 1, but the distance between 1 and 2 might be ten. Then the distance between 2 and 3 goes up steeply again, this time to one hundred.

(If you want to dig deeper into learning about this cool math, check out this link.)

Notice how the log curve jumps up sharply at the beginning, then it levels off over time. This is how learning to fence happens! You get this steep curve at the beginning, then that curve becomes much flatter and rises more slowly. Suddenly you aren’t getting the huge push that you got before.

It’s so important to note that this is not only true in fencing, but it is true in almost every area of life. When you begin to learn a new skill, at first you seem to make giant strides forward. And in fact you really are making giant strides because you are coming from absolute zero – from knowing totally nothing to knowing something. However you can never be at zero again. You can never go back to not knowing the thing again, so the curve of learning necessarily will never be so great again. Every incremental advance in knowledge is not as obvious as it once was. When you recognize this and when you help your young fencer recognize this, you’re building a positive foundation for a good growth mindset both on the strip and off the strip.

Why the fencing curve flattens

The space between the first year of learning to fence and all of the years following are quantitively different things. The level of investment, the level of effort is not the same over the long stretch of time that it takes to master fencing.

Think about when a fencer is not fencing at all to when they are. They start out never having held a sword, never having stepped on a strip. They don’t know the difference in a piste and a lame, between a parry and en guarde. They have never put on a mask or a uniform, never heard the buzzer sound for a point. The fencer is going from nothing to something. Children show this even more than adults because they soak up new things so quickly. They tend to immediately pick up on the basics, and if they have a good sense of focus in their learning and are enrolled in a program with a strong coach, they’ll show strong progress right out of the gate.

After that initial thrust of learning in fencing, there’s not as far to rise. You’re digging into much smaller changes from this fencing move to that fencing move. Let’s break this down a little more clearly.

  • Year one – Learn basic stances, get used to a fencing uniform, move forward and backwards on the strip. Yay! You didn’t look like a fencer before but now you look like a fencer (especially if you stand still!)
  • Year two – Adjust stances, improve form, get better focus during competition, become used to making changes that the coach ask you to. You look a little different than you did last year, mostly because you are so much more confident than you were before.
  • Year three – Continue to improve stances, your form is getting really sharp, you can listen to your coach effectively during competition, you move totally differently than you did when you started. When you stand for your fencing photos it’s possible for people to see how much more in control you are than you were last year.
  • Years four and beyond – You are constantly making small adjustments with the help of your coach. Most of these are so small that only other experienced fencers can tell that they’re happening – a change of wrist position or an improvement in your timing. Most of the changes are only visible during the action of fencing, they are moving changes that you can’t identify in pictures anymore.

See how, over the course of time, you’re still learning a lot about fencing and you’re still growing a great deal as a fencer.

How this translates to parenting a young fencer

As time passes those changes are harder to see, and they will continue to get harder to see. That’s especially true for parents who don’t have experience in fencing. A lay parent won’t necessarily be able to identify the growth that their fencer is making without that growth being pointed out to them.

Let’s walk through what growth looks like to a new fencing parent with a Y10 fencer.

“Hey mom! Today I got my fencing mask and my coach taught me how to lunge. Check this out!”

(Child pulls down the mask, holds up the sword, and looks super cool and like a fencer for the first time!)

“Oh wow! That looks incredible! I’ve never seen you fence before and you look so cool!”

(The parent can see a clear difference between their child who was not a fencer a month ago but who now looks like a real fencer!)

During those first few months, and even the first year or two, parents can very clearly see this jump in growth. It’s totally huge and right there! And it’s incredibly exciting at the beginning. For everyone. Here’s the thing – if you don’t see the growth really obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening! After a while in fencing, those changes are just not going to be as giant. Take this scenario of a Y14 fencer who has been fencing for several years and is learning some good tempo changes.

“Hey dad! My coach taught me this cool tempo change today! See - step, two steps” 

(Child demonstrates the tempo change, father cannot see any difference between the old way he used to do this, all he sees is the same 3 steps) 

“Wow, you really are improving! That’s great that your coach taught you that!” 

(Father has no idea what has just happened but is encouraging anyway)

They key here is that the parent still showed that big enthusiasm for their child’s progress in fencing, even though they couldn’t see it so clearly. That’s so important for your child! Keep that level of excitement up even when you don’t really get it. You want to show your young fencer that their growth is just as big for you now as it was then.

The truth is, those little changes in wrist position or tempo are just as hard won as the big changes you saw before. In fact, getting the tiny adjustments figured out is arguably more difficult than it was when to get the broader improvements at the beginning.

If you as a parent don’t feel like you’re seeing the progress that you want to see, then your best bet is always, always to talk to the coach and find out what kind of growth is happening. Don’t just sit back and wonder what’s going on with your fencer, getting frustrated at your child and at the fencing club. Ask what you should expect and create that open dialogue with the instructor!

What’s the bottom line here? In 1 year of fencing going from zero it was a huge advancement, but in that second year you might not see that huge dramatic improvement. In most cases you’re instead seeing more solid fencing, more solid footwork, but you will not be struck by the huge dramatic change. Say you still want to see some dramatic change, then you’ll have to work with your fencer and make a regimen change by adding private lessons, attending camps and clinics, attend many more competitions, or start competing nationally, etc. Then of course you might see a huge change. But in general if you  you continue doing the second year exactly what you did a year ago – the improvement would be incremental. In other words, 1+1 isn’t 2.