While attending the USFA's Coaches College program in epée several years ago, Coach Gary Copeland gave a demonstration to the épée class. Selecting a student and putting him on guard, he gave the student a simple direction: "When you see my blade come up to the high line, beat my blade and hit my hand". Standing still, Coach Copeland slowly raised and lowered his blade. Each time the blade came into line, the student beat and make a small lunge to hit his hand.

Coach Copeland then told the student he was going to add more difficulty. He started to move back and forth very slowly. At intervals, Coach Copeland would stop moving, and raise his weapon. The student would beat, lunge, hit, and return on guard. Coach Copeland then begin to move a little faster, changing the size and speed of his footsteps, but still stopping for a brief pause to give the cue.

"Many...coaches believe a lesson has to be complex to be a "high level" lesson."

"Now", Coach Copeland said, "We'll make this lesson harder." He pointed out to the group that he had been waiting for the student to have his feet under him before giving the cue to beat and attack. Now he said he would give the cue without considering if the student was balanced or not, relying on the student to decide if he could execute the attack properly. The lesson restarted. The student had to work harder to make changes of direction, while looking for the right time to attack. Several times the student was late on the attack because he did not have his feet under him, but attacked regardless: arriving late and out of balance. When that happened, Coach Copeland told him to not make an attack unless he was ready.

At this point in the lesson, only a few minutes had elapsed. Coach Copeland paused, and reiterated his directions, adding an caveat: "beat only if you think you can score". As soon as the lesson started again, Coach Copeland raised his blade while moving backward. The student beat, and made a long lunge to attempt to score, which was easily parried. The student scored on a counter-riposte, instead. This was a nice adjustment, but obviously not the drill. Quickly, the student became more discerning, and let some of the cues pass him by, while acting on others. The student's scoring became less frequent, but more sure. As the student became more confident, Coach Copeland began to give false cues: sometimes bringing his blade up quickly, only to bring it down again. Sometimes Coach Copeland brought his blade up while moving far out of distance.

Finally, Coach Copeland told the student to take responsibility of the footwork. The student should maneuver and attempt to score with the same action: beat and lunge, but this time he could move independantly. With the student controlling and leading the footwork, Coach Copeland hovered just out of reach of the fencer, occasionally blundering into the space and "falling" for footwork traps that the student might set. The appearance was very "fencing-like". In fact, if the observer didn't know it was a lesson, it might look like a bout between an aggressive opponent who liked to make strong actions on the blade, and a more passive, maneuvering fencer.

The entire lesson took 15 minutes. In that time, Coach Copeland took a fencer from a very beginning lesson ("see the blade, beat the blade, hit the hand") to a more sophisticated, maneuvering lesson demanding skill and energy from the student (especially when conducted at 6000 feet elevation).

Many students—and, unfortunately, many coaches—believe that a lesson needs many complex blade elements to be a "high level" lesson. There is an expectation of complicated phrases for the lesson to properly challenge the student. On the strip, however, skilled fencers score with the simplest of actions. Skillful fencers always seem to be in balance and ready to make the appropriate action at the right time.

Demanding complicated phrases in the lesson seems contrary to the nature of competition, when the fencer should not be looking for increased contact time with the opponent. Instead, fencers look for the right time to make a simple action to score and fight their way out a long phrase only when necessary. Orienting lessons on involved blade actions obscures the fact that the most successful fencer is the one that can sort out a variety of conflicting signals and chose the right action at the right time and place.

Context is important. The student may "know" the action to perform it mechanically in isolation. However, in competition, the action often fails because the student has picked the wrong time/distance to execute the action. The action is correct, but the context it is performed in is incorrect. A coach observes the action failing in competition, and decides that the solution is to continue to drill the action out of context. This repetition is a waste of time. The coach has taught the action already, but has not given the student the power to put the action in the context of a bout.

In a lesson, you must first teach a given stroke. Then you should replicate the conditions that the student will actually use a given stroke. This does not mean that the lesson becomes a free for all, with you and student fencing, but rather that the student must execute critical actions in an environment in which the choice of time and distance for the action is instrumental to the action's success. As importantly, the student must learn to discriminate between those times when it is appropriate to the do the action, and when it is almost appropriate.

What elements can be added to an action to put the action in a bouting context? Some are very simply, some are much more difficult:

Noise. At times, I like to give lessons in noisy clubs. It is even better if I can give a lesson at a competition in which a lot of fencing is still going on. The background noise forces the student to concentrate, and the conditions are similar to a competition. The student has many distractions in a noisy environment, and they must block those distractions out to focus on the time and exection of the action. This also forces the student and I to communicate quickly when conversation is difficult.

Movement. When your student understands the basic elements of the technical execution of an action, you should move the student in lesson. This is the first element that should be added to make the lesson more realistic and more difficult. At the start, observe the student closely, and only give the cue when the student's feet are on the ground and balanced. This will insure that the student is being reinforced to only make actions when they are centered and ready to move. Once the student knows that they should only be executing attacks from a comfortable and stable footwork base, you should give cues when the student cannot realistically respond to them. Students are Pavlovian in responding to cues and will try to execute a stroke on cue, even they are off balance, or not ready.The student must then discriminate between being ready, and not ready. When the student is not ready, they should let the cue pass by.

The correct cue at the wrong time, or the wrong cue at the correct time. The student should be exposed to false cues during a lesson. The opponent will often give false actions to tempt the fencer to move or execute at the wrong time. Learning to descriminate between an opportune time from a less than opportune time is an important part of the student's eduction. They must not just know how to excute an action, but also the "when" of execution. To facilitate this learning, you should:

  • Give a cue at the wrong time or in the wrong space. This can be as simple as giving a cue for an attack while opening the space. If the student does not have the distance to score, they should ignore the cue. Many students are "blade rich and distance poor". They respond to a blade cue no matter what the space. If the student should attempt to make an action when you are too far away to be hit (or, in the case of defensive actions by the student, too far away to be attacked) they should be corrected.
  • Give the wrong cue at the right time: when the student is looking for a specific action they are going to score with, you can then offer an action which might be correct in some situations, but is not the action the student is expecting and has been told to act on. They should ignore this "correct" cue. For example, you inform the student that when they see you present your blade in the inside inside high line, they should beat your blade and make a direct attack. You can then make several extensions in the high, inside line, and the student responds as instructed. Then you might choose to make an extension in the low, outside line. If the student acts on the cue, they have made a mistake, even though in another context, the cue is valid and they might choose to respond. Most students will object to this correction, especially if they are capable of turning the "wrong" cue into a scoring action. You should explain to your student that you are simulating an opponent that is vulnerable only in this one line. Attacking in a different line will always result in the "opponent" scoring. The student must be able to discern similar cues from one another, and show restraint in acting on a cue from you that is "almost" correct.

Cues and preparations for no reason. A certain amount of random blade movement out of distance is exactley what an opponent will do. As part of discriminating between real and false information, you can add blade actions (searchs, sweeps, and short attacks) outside of the critical distance for the student. Again, the Pavlovian fencer wants to act on any blade action that you perform. This should not always be the case.

Surprise actions. "Surprise" actions can take many forms. It may be a parry the student did not expect. It may be a retreat when you have previously always advanced. You may attack the student without warning, forching them to swtich gears from attack to defense or counter-offense. Your goal is to ensure that the student is paying full attention to you, and is ready to be flexiably in their response to any change you make. In the priority weapons, attacking into the student's preparation is important. Often the student is so busy setting up an attack that they fail to observe your behavior and can be caught in mid-step. The student should prepare, always ready to finish the attack or make a change of decision action..

Student controls the lesson. In addtition to leading footwork, the student may take complete control of the lesson, making preparations and decsiions about the strokes they will use to score. Your role is to impede, hinder, and keep the student off balance. This forces the student to both control and asses the distance at the same tiem, while searching for the "moment to go".

This is a difficult lesson to take. It is also a very difficult lesson to give. It can be simplified by restricting the actions the student has to choose from, but even so, this lesson demands a great deal of concentration and work by you. For more ideas about the student controlled lesson, see The Student Controlled Lesson on this website.

"At this point, the student...is simply moving and flailing..."

At some point, the idea of "noise" can get carried to extremes. There is too much mis-information, your cues are coming too fast, and the student begins to fail in every action. At this point, the student is not learning anything, but simply moving and flailing out of control. This is NOT the feeling you want to instill in the student. When you see the student punching, flailing, or out of control, you must immediately slow down and take away some of the complications in the lesson to give the student a chance to recover and take back control of themselves and their actions.

When is it appropriate to add "noise" to your lessons? Not every lesson should use this idea. Certainly if the student is learning a new stroke or technical action for the first time, the use of confusing cues and false cues is a mistake. At the same time, once a student is comfortable—but has not yet mastered— an action, certain aspects of this approach are useful. When teaching the beat, for instance, giving the cue for the beat while retreating (the right cue in the wrong distance) can assist the student in discriminating between times to attack and not to attack. If the student is very comfortable with an action (even if not necessarily doing it quickly or properly every time) this lesson is appropriate early in teaching an action.

This lesson would not be appropriate off season, or when the fencer is attempting to rebuild technical skills. I do find that some elements of this lesson are appropriate for warm-up before a competition, though not at such a high level that the fencer is completely drained by the lesson before his or her first bouts of the day.

These types of lessons are more difficult to give, certainly. The lesson takes some thought and planning before hand. These are also lessons in which it is easy to loose control of the student, and they will simply attempt to go very fast and hit on every action: counter-intuitive to the purpose. You should balance given the student control by strictly controlling other areas of the lesson. For instance, you might allow the student any attack on the blade that they wish (beat or press) but the attack must follow a specific footwork pattern (such as an advance and lunge).

When used properly, judicious use of "noise" in lesson enables the student to transition known technical skills from the lesson to the strip, the final venue for all instruction.

Written: June 2005. Rewrite for editing, format, and some content in January 2014. Further editing of spelling in June 2016.

The student that answers every cue and scores every time is learning less than the student that is forced to discrimnate and chose their actions carefully.