Training bouts are fundamentally different from competitive bouts in fencing, and we know that both are important for improving performance. All training bouts are not the same, with some challenging our thinking skills, some challenging our physical skills, and some challenging our. . . well, what happens when a training bout isn’t challenging at all?
Right now, a lot of fencers aren’t training in group lessons or in open fencing because of restrictions due to the pandemic. This often is pushing some fencers to be paired with opponents in training that are not on their level, either very far above or very far below. It’s a reality of what we are working with, and it is a problem that we are likely to see continue for the long haul as the pandemic progresses through the next few months or longer. Even in normal times, fencers can find themselves in training bouts that are not challenging, depending on their level and what kinds of fencers live nearby and can train with them regularly.
Training partners are important, especially as we progress in fencing. For many elite athletes it is often a norm to go back to their native clubs and train there. They aren’t always training in national camps or with their teams. Most of the time they go back home, where they don’t have the same level of training partners and are with younger fencers. Nick Itkin told us about this experience and also Mara Navarria shared her experience, and it was eye opening. There are ways to learn to do this effectively!
It is always important to challenge ourselves to grow, no matter the situation. How can we maximize our ability to train effectively with partners of different levels?
An exercise in frustration
When you face a training opponent, or even a competitive opponent, who is considerably weaker than you are, that puts you constantly on the offensive. It can be likened to learning to write, you are using one hand all the time and so that becomes the dominant hand. When you try to write with the other hand, it’s not successful because you haven’t developed it. Training only offense is one-sided.
When you are facing an opponent who is not able to provide a competitive offense, it can feel like “Oh, I don’t feel anything.” It’s like you are fencing against someone who is almost not even there. This is hugely frustrating! It seems like less of an exercise and more of a waste of time. That is a harsh way of looking at it from the perspective of the person who is less experienced, but it is the reality of how many fencers experience these kinds of training bouts. It’s not a judgement on the inexperienced fencer but the situation.
With the pandemic this is even more pronounced than usual, but again this situation happens all of the time even in normal times. Fencers who push to higher levels but are from small clubs experience it as they grow more adept at their art. It can become an exercise in frustration instead of an exercise in fencing training.
What can you do? A lot of fencers get discouraged about this.
Go from winning to learning
The thing is that it doesn’t matter who you are fencing against, you can always find ways to challenge yourself and grow. When you fence, you need to change the emphasis from winning to learning. Now with little to no competitions, the emphasis can’t be on winning – it has to be on learning.
You can put a lot of things into your fencing, for example you do things that you learned in private lessons or things that you saw on Youtube videos, things that you watched in competitions. Techniques that you were unsure about but that you want to develop. You have a golden opportunity to hone your skills in a live combat environment in these training bouts. It is a wonderful way to learn that should not be wasted.
This is a place where you can focus on very technical aspects of your fencing and try to do them to perfection. You aren’t trying to win against your opponent, you are trying to push yourself to add things to your repertoire that were not there before. Changing the tone of your fencing is much easier in these kinds of training bouts than it is when you are constantly on the defensive end. What works and what does not? What feels right?
You can try not to just win but try to learn.
In our interview with champion fencer Max Heinzer, he told us that oftentimes when he fences with easier partners, he works on his technique. This is where he tries out new touches and ideas that he has had. He doesn’t care whether he loses because it is only practice for him. This mindset is ultimately freeing when you think about it this way. Stop focusing on the score and start focusing on what your body and mind are doing.
Your opponent may not come back at you like an opponent of a higher level, but they will still come at you. The amazing thing here is that you can execute the action that you want to execute in real time. This can become very physical and very physically challenging, but also mentally freeing and exciting if you allow it to be.
When you are with a weaker opponent you can oftentimes much easier set up situations where you can execute exactly the technique that you want to execute. When you are fencing a person you can draw them in to attack, then do a parry riposte. It’s not the same as doing it with a fencing coach where you are practicing the line and know exactly where the blade is going to go. When it’s very well presented, it’s very easy for you to execute the action and perform the technique.
In fencing against an easier opponent, it’s a situation where you can become self determining. You can create your own setups so that you can practice your timing and your distance in real time. You can focus on different situational aspects. Not all actions are specific actions.
My points will count only if I will score them with a clean action of the blade. Or my points will only count if I score them with parry or counter-parry. Or I must score only with this specific kind of contact. Or if they perform this action then it will score against me. If it’s off target, it will be minus one point to me. For example epee my point will count only if it’s the whole arm from the fingertips to the wrist. Maybe you say that you can only do two steps back in defense. Or that you cannot retreat behind the beginning of the red zone. You might start with handicapping your opponent with a higher beginning score.
There are any number of options that you can make, it is really endless. You don’t have to tell your opponent that you are thinking these things either, they can be just within your own training mind.
These situational decisions in your bouting will help you improve your bouting. Some fencers of course try to overthink anyway. Another way that you can push yourself here is to push that idea of focus. Can you pull your attention to the bout in a controlled and specific way? Taking charge of your mental attention is so important for fencers, but it is not something that we always have time to practice. This is a perfect opportunity to challenge your ability to stop that mind wandering.
Explore your own accountability
You can then start to even take things to the next level. Hold yourself accountable in various ways to push yourself.
Maybe you say that you will do five pushups or five sit ups if you lose. You could do this same metric if you don’t win by a certain number of points that you decide beforehand. Make these kinds of challenges for yourself and you can see different results than you would otherwise.
Another great form of accountability is to track these bouts. This is particularly good now during the pandemic when your training partners are likely even more limited. Don’t simply phone in this training time. Chart your fencing progress in a fencing journal or electronically. How are your training bouts progressing? What techniques did you work on each day and how are they improving or not improving? You will find patterns both in yourself and your opponent.
Remember that none of this is done to push down your opponent. Less experienced fencers are just that – they are less experienced. We were all there at one point in our training, and just like this is a chance for you to grow as a fencer, it’s a great chance for them to grow as well. Mentorship is a necessary part of our sport, and by engaging in these bouts that might not be so challenging to you, you are participating in mentorship for another fencer. You must find your own way to grow, but that is still valuable to both of you.
Don’t think about these situations as time that is not valuable. These are important opportunities to improve your fencing, to improve your skills. You can work on the elements where you are weak and to perfect the elements that you are strong. You cannot focus on these kinds of details when you are stressed out, when your opponent is very tough against you.
I must close with this, because it is what I feel very much in this moment as we are adapting and learning how to grow more effectively than we have ever had to before. The fencers who we see having huge success, those who are far at the top of the field, they are not unattainable ultra-human individuals who are far beyond us. These fencers are just like everyone else. The difference is that they have been diligent, inventive, and most of all consistent. You can get to wherever it is you want to go in this sport, even in the face of the limitations that other people put on you. Even in the face of a global pandemic. You must put your passion and focus together with your work ethic and ingenuity to get there. No matter how challenging the training partners you have to fence against.