This is a post written by Maestro David Sierra (aka “my fabulous husband”). Written with the idea of sharing his thoughts on what it takes to produce a Competitive Fencer, it’s a good read for anyone who wishes to attain a high level in our sport.
Training of Fencers for High Level Competition – the Three Layers of Fencing Training
As fencers begin to move into the ranks of competitors, they (or their parents) are often curious about what their training schedule will consist of. For the athletes I train, I refer to the Three Layers of Fencing Training: Lessons, Drills, and Bouting.
Each of these different pieces has its own purposes but they work together to build fencing training and reinforce each other’s progress. Of course, in addition to this, the fencer should be engaging in footwork practice (either solo or in groups), pursuing athletic training (strengthening, conditioning, speed development, etc), and conducting video analysis of both their own and other’s fencing.
Drills are often the most overlooked component of a fencer’s training, and many fencers stop participating in them once they move out of beginner classes, except for camp environments. Partly this is because they are, well, boring. Repetition, repetition, repetition. If a fencer is just “going through the motions” of drills, they will not serve their purpose. Good drills are challenging for a coach to develop and a variety of different types is important for the training schedule. Some drills are cooperative – the fencers take turn essentially being “training dummies” for their partner. Other drills are competitive – the fencers a trying to score a point utilizing specific set of actions.
How much time should fencers spend each week drilling? The answer is usually, “more!” At least twice as much time as is spent in lessons is a good way to start. Don’t forget to add in footwork practice as well. At Cutting Edge, we conduct half hour Open Drills classes four times a week, in addition to our Bronze and Silver Curriculum Classes.
One-on-one individual instruction with a coach is the “gold standard” of fencing training for competitive athletes and is the First Layer of competitive fencing training. Good lessons incorporate both technical and tactical elements although some will lean more towards one or the other depending upon the specific needs of the athlete at that particular moment. Repetition is an important element of lessons and high level athletes will spend hours with their coach working on the nuances of hand position for a specific action or the exact distance to make a certain preparation. The coach will also provide critical analysis and feedback (delivered in many different ways) during a lesson.
How many lessons a week are appropriate and what is their duration? That depends upon the specific goals of the athlete and where they are in the competitive cycle. Some coaches will insist upon 4-5 lessons a week, but I take the approach that, generally speaking, 2 is a typically sufficient number, if properly augmented with drills classes (the Second Layer). Adjustments are made depending upon training cycle, development level, training goals, and commitment of the athlete. Generally speaking, 20 minutes is an appropriate length for a lesson; any more than that and most athletes are unable to focus. At the highest levels of training, longer lessons may be appropriate, but the goal of the lesson should never be to exhaust the athlete to the point of failure. There are other, much more effective tools in the coaches bag to achieve this if necessary and appropriate!
Fencers approach bouting in different ways. For some, it’s pure all out competition, every time they step on the piste. For others, it’s playtime and a chance to relieve the stresses of day to day life. Both of these approaches ignore the valuable role that bouting can have in training. It’s awesomely effective to practice a move that you’re not good at against someone who will score on you every time you don’t get it right! And when you finally get that action that you’ve been working with your coach on in lessons for what seems like forever, there is no greater feeling success that can happen in the fencing salle.
Good fencers use many different types of practice bouts in their training. Generally speaking, bouting practice can be differentiated into “Sharp Bouts” (keeping score to a predetermined measure, i.e. first to 5, 10 or 15), and “Practice Bouts” (not keeping score, and fencing to a predetermined number of touches or length of time). To increase the difficulty of your Sharp Bouts, give one fencer a handicap of several touches lead. This is a great way for fencers of different levels to compete against each other. During your Practice Bouts, try to focus on one or two actions that you need to work on. Don’t be afraid to ask your bouting partners for help in setting up certain actions. If you need to work on your parries, tell your bouting partner, and have them attack you over and over again.
How much time should be spent bouting? Some students spend too much of their time bouting and others don’t spend enough. If you’re taking two half hour drills classes each week, then you need to spend at least 30 minutes a week ACTUALLY ON THE STRIP FENCING (not counting the time spent refereeing, recovering, chit-chatting, or warming up). This will probably translate into a hour or more of time – and not all on the same night! One of the secrets of high level fencers is that some of their best bouting practice comes at the end of the night, when the less dedicated have left the salle.
So, what would a solid weekly training schedule look like for a highly competitive 15 -17 year old fencer who is wanting to achieve results at NACs? One to three lessons (depending on training cycle). Two or three half hour drills classes. 45 to 60 minutes on the fencing strip (not counting rest breaks). Plus time spent in footwork practice and conditioning (a subject for another time). If results are your goal, there is no substitute for time spent in the fencing salle! Yes, you’ll need to balance your school work and other activities, and time management will need to be a skill you acquire.
Note by me: when David and I talk about this, he often mentions the visual of a three-legged stool to help people realize that each component is equally useful in their training. Each “leg” helps build a better fencer and none is more important than the others.
This is what you want to achieve:
And certainly not this!: