Some fencers and their parents feel that they may be able to make it at tournaments without the help of a coach, even at major and important ones.
Other fencers and their parents mistakenly think that coaches are there to attend competitions with only one purpose – to help fencers win that extra bout in the pools or DE, or to score a decisive touch. They look at the coach as a savior or a wizard who should tell their fencer what and how to do at the decisive moment, and sometimes the expectation is even that the coach will have the power to teach some new and universal move that works in all situations and against any opponent. At times they even look to a coach to quickly teach how to make some incredible so called magic trick or give “a magic pill” that will guarantee a win in the final moments of the fight.
If the coach does not meet these requirements and conditions, in many cases, the work of the coach at the fencing competition is considered unsatisfactory and thereby the tournament unsatisfactory. Typically, the next time competition rolls around, these fencers and parents think that help from a coach at the fencing competition is a waste of money.
In my opinion, this approach is completely wrong. Why is that?
Factors that affect a fencer’s performance
Successful performance of the fencer in the competition is limited by the extent of the physical, technical, tactical and psychological preparation. But there are many factors that affect it, such as:
- Competition experience
- Individual ability to act under stress
- Degree of self-motivation
- Ability to control their emotions
- Ability to make their own decisions
- And last, but not least, ability to show strong willpower to achieve great results under pressure, in extreme conditions.
Success will not come because a coach has shown or taught a magic move in the last moment. At the same time, the role of the coach is indispensable and in most cases can be critical and decisive.
Coach’s role in competition
The role of the coach in fencing competition is incredibly important and there are many reasons why students need a coach. Here are the main factors:
● Psychological support
One of the most important things that happens on the strip is that the coach’s presence inspires his/her fencer, giving them mental strength, confidence, courage and comfort. In this sense, the coach certainly is indispensable. The coach helps the fencer to overcome any pre-start fever, sets the fencer up for fighting, and teaches how to deal with scare tactics. Having personal competitive, coaching and life experience, coaches know how to cope with anxiety. They oftentimes play a role of professional psychologist.
● Tactical assistance
When a coach observes a bout, they see things a fencer often misses. The coach can help with a strategy to use in the pools round, as well as in the direct elimination. He or she advises which tactics to choose against fencers of different styles. For example: how to fence with the fencers using the French grip or pistol grip in epee, how to fence against fencers who prefer a defensive tactic or an offensive tactic, how to fence tall or short fencers, fast or slow fencers, left-handed fencers, etc.
This strip coaching advice is extremely important when the coach is talking with the fencer during the minute break within a 15 touches bout. Usually the tips that students get at this time are crucial for the outcome of the bout.
● Technical tips
Technical advice – it is a “blade of two edges “. Such advice can help, but it’s also possible that it could harm the fencer. In my opinion, it is only in very rare cases that a coach should give technique advice, which should only be applied in the current situation in the current bout.
The reasons for this are as follows:
- The coach watches his/her student fencing from the sideline, and usually can easily determine which technical move he or she could use in this situation. But if the student is not familiar or comfortable with the suggested action (e.g., in a case when the coach provides guidance to his/her teammate), the fencer can be hit by an opponent trying to execute the suggested action. Unfortunately, not every student will always perform the same move that a coach could use by themselves in the same situation.
- A modern fencing bout is very fast and intensive, and situations change very rapidly. There is a great risk that the specific technical advice will be too late or will not comply with the changed situation.
- The third and most important reason: a significant negative factor may be that if student a constantly receives technical advices from the coach, in a step-by-step manner, who is standing next to the strip during the whole competition, they cease to think for themselves and take the initiative. Later will certainly affect his/her progress in the future as a fencer.
I personally believe that the content and balance of tactical and technical advice in the competition should depend on the level of training of fencers and their volume of competitive experience. Fencers of a high level should receive less technical advice and be less dependent on their coach in understanding technical elements of the bout. All this work should be carried out in preparation for a competition and not on competition day. The fencer has to think during a bout: “what to do?” not “how to do?” On the other hand, the lower the level of a fencer, the greater involvement and technical advice they should get from their coach, as it serves a purpose in their competitive training and experience.
Student and coach
To guarantee a success (not in terms of final result in competition!), interaction between student and coach at competitions should be to 100% cooperation, mutual understanding and complete mutual trust. If there is not unconditional trust of the fencer in his/her coach, I do not believe this union will end with any good results.
A parent’s role in the development of an athlete is huge. But sometimes parents, without realizing it and believing they act in their child’s best interest, actually play quite a negative role in competition.
Oftentimes some parents try to be very helpful to their fencer, and without paying attention seize initiative from the coach. They discuss with their children the upcoming bouts, their opponents and even give different type of advice to their child – including tactical and technical advice. In other words, they are trying to play the role of a coach, which is totally unacceptable. (Of course with the exception of the instance when the parent is the child’s trained fencing coach)
More often than not, these tips are usually wrong and harmful, despite the fact that the parents had or have fencing experience. Not only do they prevent the coach from do his or her job, they also have a negative impact on the performance of their child. This subsequently causes disrespect to themselves in the future.
In my opinion, the best advice for parents to give to their child during the competition should be limited to two phrases “Always listen to your coach” or during difficult times: “Take a deep breath – everything will be ok!” That’s all!
Competition is a training process
Another important aspect of coaching at competition is a fencer’s acquisition of the indispensable knowledge and experience from the coach during competition.
The competition should be regarded as a continuation of the training process and not as an important and a final test where coach’s help does not play much importance, or will not be effective in any way.
During the competition, every coach really wants his/her students do as well as possible, and help them to do so. At the same time, the coach observes the student and makes conclusions for themselves. They make notes on how to improve or change the training process, what skills and qualities will be necessary to improve or develop in order to improve his/her student’s skills. Coaches are always talking with their fencers prior to and after the event, as well as before and after the bout.
In this respect, the coach is simply irreplaceable. The coach analyzes the situation, concludes, explains and continues to teach the student how to behave in the competition. They work with fencers on how to eat properly at a competition, teach them how to distribute their stamina throughout the tournament, and they pay attention to technical and tactical mistakes. Of course the coach praises and encourages the student when the fencer executes a nice touch or completes a beautiful well-built bout. Lastly, the coach works with fencers on how to properly behave in different situations, how to handle stress, analyze opponents, and so much more.
In other words, the coach helps the student to acquire the indispensable experience and confidence that will certainly have a positive impact on student performance in future competitions, on and off the strip.
About Yakov Danilenko
Yakov Danilenko is a founder and a Head Coach of Medeo Fencing Club in New Jersey. Yakov is a well known coach in the fencing community and has produced many elite athletes in his long and rich coaching career. In the recent NAC in Milwaukee, Yakov and I had a long discussion about many fencing related topics. Our points of view were very similar and Yakov kindly offered to provide his insight into some topics. This is his first article and I hope many more will come as these ideas are very important and powerful.
– – Igor Chirashnya