The USFA’s goals are interesting. I hadn’t appreciated the impact that a lack of standardization would have. Do you think they’ll lose potential innovations as they homogenize? Or is fencing one of those things that’s so old that true novelty is rare?

What kinds of coaching skills did they teach, beyond curriculums and terminology? Did it apply well to teaching teenagers who don’t spend 8 hours a day training?

And finally, do you train and fence much for yourself? How did the program change your training?

It’s possible that the standarization will in fact impact the chances for innovation in fencing. At the same time, though, fencing is 500 years old and more, and the chances for true innovation are rare. Most new chances for innovation occur as a result of changes in the rules.

For example, actions in foil fencing occur in <i>fencing time</i> – a tricky concept that can best be explained as “If you attack me successfully at the same time I attack you successfully, no one gets a point.” The electric apparatus records the flow of actions by shutting off one opponent’s weapon two-sixtieths of a second after the the first fencer scores, but that means the second fencer still has some opportunity to score. It used to be that the window of opportunity was 10/60s of a second, but with the reduced window taking control of the action has become really important; if you control the fencing time, you can lock me out of the game quite rapidly. Similar rules changes also change the speed and flow of fencing, and some moves get eliminated or allowed to improve the sport’s watchability or safety, as appropriate.

As far as what they taught, it was mostly techniques and vocabulary. The tactical training is Foil level II and level III for the most part. However, the real advantage of the program is the degree to which the standardized techniques fall into seven basic tools or techniques — but there are often four and sometimes five and occasionally six major variations of that basic tool. The real value of the program for me was to recognize that a coupé, a croissée, and an envelopment were <i>all the same technique with different outward expressions</i>. I’d been teaching them as different things, without recognizing the essential unity of all three.

So will it be helpful to teaching teens who don’t fence 8 hours a day? Absolutely. All the skills are teachable to every age group, and the coaches specifically said that if your students meet once a week, you would teach this skill group for three days and this skill for two days and this skill for two days, and this skill for two days, and this skill for two days, and so on. And that creates a 14-week beginner’s program. If you teach every day, as I do… teach this group of skills one week, introducing one variation each day until the skill is fully developed; begin the next skill the following week.

The other major advantage I gained was the sense of how to scale lessons. Your lower body does one thing in fencing while the upper body does something else. The trick is how to integrate the two. So you practice footwork without the bladwork first. Then you practice a new piece of bladework standing, then from lunging distance, and then from advance-lunge distance, and finally from fighting distance — how do you develop your skills so you can move from the on-guard position to a distance you can attack from?

I don’t really fence apart from coaching from November to March, but I realize now that I have to start training and bringing my body in line with the techniques. I can’t teach it if I can’t do it. So I need to start working out more frequently — doing my footwork and bladework, going to the gym, running regularly. I also have to change my diet, so that I’m physically thinner and more agile, and putting less pressure on my knees. Right now I weigh 291 pounds, and ideally I should be between 240 and 250. This means getting a lot more general exercise, in addition to keeping my fencing skills primed all the time.

So, that’s it. All in all, a superior program. Thanks for continuing to ask questions that help me refine my understanding of what I just did.

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  1. We did discuss body awareness and muscle memory quite a lot.

    It takes 40 (forty!) repetitions correctly and in a row for something to become ingrained in muscle memory. As you say, some parts aren’t on the radar, and you have to integrate them into the process so that your whole body fences or does tai chi or does the work that it’s supposed to do, whether bowing and playing, or shifting mud in an irrigation trench.

    We did get into learning techniques. I have a whole manual of learning techniques which I haven’t studied as thoroughly as I ought to, but I’ll show it to you the next time we get together. The fine muscle control you speak of is absolutely necessary for fencing, and yes, they do get confused when they grow.

    Armory is equipment maintenance and repair, as well as learning how to make new equipment from scratch (that’s Armorer level I, or even 0, as near as I can tell, though).

  2. Your lower body does one thing in fencing while the upper body does something else. The trick is how to integrate the two.

    Did you talk much about how bodies learn? I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week with violin, since there are three new techniques on my plate. (Ask and ye shall receive!) I’m always looking for more ways to learn.

    The first step is breaking down a technique into meaningful pieces, removing variables until I can master a part. Sounds like the same process as teaching footwork, then bladework.

    The second is integrating the pieces, as you say. I can tell how taxing something is by how much technique has fallen away; when I’m completely overwhelmed my arms do things in sequence (position finger, move bow) instead of simultaneously.

    The third part has been developing body awareness. Small muscles have big impact. Ultimately I want to build a felt sense that things are right. For example, when you move the bow you twist it so the contact surface shifts from all the hair to skating on the edge. I’ve been directing that by sight: start twisting from halfway down the bow, be finished at about 3/4. I’ve slowly become aware of WHY we do this. The switchover starts when my elbow is at 90 degrees, and it happens because my wrist goes up in order to keep the bow straight. The problem is some body parts aren’t even on the radar, and it takes a long time to open communications with them. Bet you found the same thing in tai chi.

    Did you have time to get into learning techniques? Is fencing so gross-muscle oriented that fine tuning doesn’t apply until intermediate levels? And how confusing is it for your students to learn something one year, and then come back three inches taller in the fall?

    Oh – what does an Armorer do? Is that another style, or is that equipment mainenance?

    Enjoying this discussion!

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