In the top ranks of competitive fencing, the distinction between the best and the greatest is slight. Often the highest rated fencing bouts are determined by two or fewer points and a small change in momentum can make all the difference. At these high levels, the role of your fencing coach during your bouts can be vital. Of course, if you’re competing at this level, you probably already understand the majority of the points in this post. On the other hand, if you’re not yet coming home with high stakes medals, this post is intended to help you understand the true purpose of strip coaching and to manage your expectations. We will follow up with a second post on maximizing the impact of strip coaching in your bouts.
If you’re new to this subject, “strip coaching” is when a fencing coach provides input or direction during the idle time in your bout (idle means between “halt” and “fence”), during the one-minute breaks, or in-between bouts. The breaks in your bout are a time for you to rest or rethink your strategy. If your coach is at the strip, they may offer some quick encouragement or guidance.
A key thing to remember is that the success of strip coaching is not measured by the amount of time your coach spends with you. Good strip coaching is about quality not quantity. A small piece of feedback at the right time can completely change the tide of the bout. The coach’s feedback might be one simple word to remind you of something discussed in training or a complete change in strategy … or maybe just a gesture or smile of encouragement. The best fencing coaches can maximize this time and push you in the right direction with minimal words.
A second key thing to remember is that strip coaching can look very different based on the level of fencing. At the more beginner levels, fencers are gaining experience and the bouts are generally not as close in scoring. Plus, too much input during a break might confuse or overwhelm a less experienced fencer. For more competitive fencers, a small piece of advice can easily be the difference between a win and a loss.
Your coach’s goal in strip coaching is to maximize the performance and potential of every fencer in a given competition. That being said, one person can only be in one place at one time. The following guidelines explain how many coaches approach strip coaching and help the fencer to manage their expectations.
First, there are no guarantees. The first thing to understand is that you are not guaranteed to have a coach at any particular bout. All coaches cannot be expected to attend all competitions. Your club may be attending multiple concurrent competitions and simply not have enough coaches to go around. Also, coaches need breaks. They love fencing and they want to be at your strip every time, but they simply can’t spend every weekend during the busy season at fencing competitions.
When your coach is at your competition, remember that the coach is a shared resource among all of your club’s fencers—not just you. So coaches have to choose whom to help and how to spend their time throughout the day. Many factors go into these decisions.
Here are some scenarios in which your coach may not be at your bout:
- If you are dominating in all of your bouts, your coach will likely coach very little during your breaks. Why rely on your coach to intervene and possibly freeze your winning streak when you are obviously doing well?
- If you are brand new or just having an off day, and you’re already knocked out of DE despite having one last bout (for example, in a tournament when not all fencers advance from pools to DE), your coach will likely spend their time on another fencer that is having a better day and still in the running for DE.
- If two fencers from the same club are facing each other, the coach will likely try to find another event so as not to intervene.
- DE bouts generally overrule pool play bouts, but that can still depend on how the bouts are going. For example, if a very highly ranked fencer went into DE seeded #1 and has an easy first bout, the coach may choose to watch a fencer who is fighting to finish his pool in a concurrent event at a multi-event tournament or in other DE bout where the result is not as predictable.
Only expect what you need—no more, no less. When your coach is at your bout and provides strip coaching, expect the communication to be concise and to the point. There is not enough time to dig deep into a new plan of attack. Don’t forget to allow yourself time to rest and process your coach’s recommendations. This can be challenging with only a minute of intervention allowed at a time.
Respect your strip coach’s responsibilities. Your coach is likely schooling numerous fencers at each competition. In national competitions with many fencers and many strips, it is tough for the coach to decide where to go and impossible for them to satisfy everyone. When your coach isn’t at your bout, don’t take it personally or blame your losses on your coach. This type of behavior has the potential to devastate your fencing progress and damage the current and future relationship with your coach and fencing teammates.
If your coach is occupied with someone else, stay calm and relaxed. Remember the most important parts of your coach’s job happened prior to the start of the tournament. Take a moment to reflect on what your coach has emphasized and instilled in you and then focus your full attention on your next move. Remember, fencing is an individual sport. Your coach may be available to offer brief tips and your family and friends may be there to cheer you on, but ultimately your success in fencing falls on you. Your own skills and attitude are the biggest factors in your performance at a bout.
The bottom line is that unless you’re competing at a very high level, you should expect and come prepared to not have strip coaching during your bouts. Develop your own routine for warming up and your own strategies for talking yourself out of a bad run. When your coach is there, know that they are choosing to be with you at that time for a reason, and take full advantage of their presence and advice.