Correcting errors in technical and tactical performance is a key part of any fencing lesson. Error correction is inherently an iterative process in which the athlete is guided within the lesson, and then in a training year, to correct performance. This means that the correction process is continuous and is cyclical. Understanding this cycle is important to coaching success.
The first step in the process is identification of the performance issue. In many cases, especially in the beginner, the problem appears to be obvious. However, correction depends on finding the root cause of a problem and fixing that first, and then working outward to correct the smaller and smaller problems. For example, a beginner is not going to be able to correct the arm position in the guard of 6th (or 3rd in sabre) if the torso is twisted past 45 degrees to the inside, the shoulder is leaning forward, the hips are locked, etc. The arm in the wrong place is merely a symptom of the cause.
To identify the problem watch the fencer’s body positioning and movement carefully, not just the movement when executing a specific skill, but movement in the full range of the fencer’s actions. Look for other indicators such as point control and hit accuracy, synchronization of footwork, quickness of tactical decisions, etc. This is particularly important in more developed athletes, as often the problem will not be obvious.
When you have an idea of the problem, the next step is to demonstrate correct performance. In general demonstrations are first performed at fencing speed, then at a slower speed, then as component parts of the action, and then finally reassembled into the action at a speed that the fencer can follow. It is particularly important to emphasize correct movement in the parts of the action the fencer is performing incorrectly.
In general do not demonstrate bad performance. The fencer is as likely to remember the demonstration of the bad performance as they are to remember the good performance If you must show bad performance, use video – it is different from the demonstration, and thus less likely to transfer, and they are more likely to believe the video.
The third stage is guided performance. The athlete performs the skill slowly at first and then with increased speed with the coach using a number of techniques to control performance. One is to physically guide the fencer’s weapon or body by hand or with the weapon. Alternatively, the coach can stand beside the fencer and have the fencer model the coach’s performance.
Drills occupy a bridge position between guided performance and free performance. An experienced drill partner who routinely executes the skill correctly can be paired with the athlete to provide partly guided and partly free repetitions. Drills themselves can be structured to address problems by breaking down a skill with multiple parts into blocked subsets of the drill. Drills come closer to free performance as they move from blocked sets to having the fencers execute skills in a serial and then a random order.
In the fourth free performance stage, the fencer performs the skill as many times as possible in the lesson without direct coach instruction. This may be in a training format in part of an individual lesson, in drills in a group lesson, or in bouting. The coach can set a goal for the student for the skill or tactic for the practice or for training bouts. The coach can also assign repetitions to the fencer for practice between lessons. Such “homework” can be very effective in the development of skills by motivated fencers.
Then the fencer shifts to a performance monitoring stage of correction. As a first step, the coach should check performance of the skill randomly later in the lesson. Because the earlier correction is recent, the fencer should be able to make the correction with oral or weapon based reminders. However, the coach is well advised to spot check performance at least once a lesson in subsequent lessons until performance is solidly in the acceptable range for the technique or tactic.
At each stage of this process the coach must be ready to reenter the process at an earlier stage as feedback to correct performance. For example, if the fencer understands the demonstration, and can perform the skill in the guided performance stage, we can reasonably expect performance will be close to acceptable in the free performance stage. It may not be. Then, in the worst case, the coach must reassess to ensure the problem is identified, demonstrate the skill, guide performance, and then set the student loose to practice the skill freely. In the best case, a quick return to several repetitions of guided performance may correct the performance.
In correcting it is particularly important that corrections be positive. Do not belittle or berate the fencer. Never become abusive, either verbally or physically. And never impose physical exercises as punishments. Abuse and punishment are not motivating – you cannot actually motivate an athlete (they are either motivated or they are not), but you can demotivate one. Making the fencer feel bad about themselves or about their abilities or making the fencer afraid of you and your lessons is not how you get championship performance out of athletes.
The more you know about fencing and about sports science the more effective your corrections will be. Correct and then critique the success or failure of your corrections, and search for ways to do this skill more efficiently and effectively. Constant improvement of your skill in correcting performance should be a core goal for the fencing coach. The outcome will be improved fencer performance in the context of the bout and the tournament.