What is the Role of the Coach?

In a perfect world, a coach winds the student up outside of the competition venue, gives them a little shove through the door, and returns in a few hours in time to see the student collect a medal.

There are some coaches that work this way, and there are some students that are capable of performing in this way. However, for the rest of us, we attend competitions to support our fencers, educated and help them, and gain insights into their competitive behavior. While at the competition, it is expected that you will assist the student during the day by:

  • Engaging in pre-competition warm-up lesson or other activity.

  • Providing information about opponents in the opening seeding rounds of the tournament, if that information is known to you, or based on your observations of the fencing.

  • Offering reassurances during the pool about the correct choice of actions, choice of rhythm or speed of the bouts, and a reminder about any serious tactical errors your student is making.

  • In the direct elimination rounds, you can help your fencer develop a plan for the opponent, based either on observations of opponent's behavior in that event, or on previous encounters with the opponent.

  • During the one-minute break between rounds in the direct elimination, you have a chance to redirect tactical choices or provide additional information to the student.

  • You can provide emotional and mental support to a struggling fencer who has the tools to score, but may not have the belief.

  • Finally, you can provide feedback and reassurance (if needed) to the fencer after the fencer's elimination from the event.

Even if you decide to do none of these things (and these suggestions are not followed by all coaches) attending the competitions of your students gives you the perspective of their fencing in a real competitive environment. This information is invaluable in assessing the effectiveness of the fencer's training.

When to Coach

There is a good argument not to coach the student through every bout, or through an entire competition. You might chose not to coach for a number of reasons. One of the skills of a top fencer is the ability to problem solve, and to come up with unique solutions to "solve" the problem presented by the opponent. Yelling action-by-action advice by the side of the strip—which I have seen many coaches do—makes the student dependant on your analysis and problem solving skills. Coaching in every bout removes the responsibility for winning the bout from the student and transfer that responsibility to you.

Withholding coaching can also inspire confidence. You put your trust in the student to win the bout on their own, without assistance. I once saw a coach talking to his fencer at the break for the full minute. When I looked at the score, the fencer was ahead 13 - 1. What did the coach feel that he needed to provide to this student except to show a lack of trust?

The Analysis: What is Important?

When coaching, you must be able to analyse fencing phrases in order to give concise advice. As complicated as a fencing action may be, only three physical factors control the success or failure of touches. These three factors are:

  1. Choice of action,
  2. Distance of execution, and
  3. Timing of the execution.

These factors are necessarily broad. These physical factors ignore the psychological factors of the bout which may be equally as important (more about those, later). You may have difficulty intuiting these factors when looking at actions. However, an internal series of questions and their answers can guide you in the analysis. With time, you will integrate these questions into an analysis of the three critical factors without taking the time to review the individual questions.

Let's assume that your student is losing touches in a bout (otherwise, there is probably no need to help them) Here are questions that can help you analyse why a fencer is being scored against:

When is the student getting hit?

A hit cannot be scored unless the fencer is controlling the distance between themselves and the opponent. That control of distance may be active (the fencer takes the distance from the opponent) or passive (the fencer allows distance to change by not keeping the distance with the opponent). The fencer who controls the distance will invariably get the touch. A student may be being drawn out by the opponent and scored with parry and riposte late in their action, or may be encouraged to rush and be hit with a counter-attack or attack in preparation. The student may have a predictable start off of the on guard line, and be hit before they are ready to fence. Watching how the distance opens and closes gives clues to how the bout is being controlled.

Where on the strip is the student getting hit?

This "when" is related to footwork and the timing of the bout. If your student is being scored against at the same spot on the strip, the student may simply need to avoid that spot as a mechanism for controlling the distance and timing of the opponent. Noticing where on the strip the student is being hit (for instance, deep on their own side of the strip) may also tell you something about the opponent's tactics. For instance, the student hit deep on their side may need to be more aggressive, or push through the distance to the opponent on the command "fence". On defense, they may need to take an extra space to defeat an opponent who may have a deep (but predictable) attack.

Where is the student getting hit?

Is the student vulnerable in a particular way or in a particular target? This can be a difficult question to answer, since the same target (say, outside low line) can be hit through a variety of tactics and methods. But it is an important question for you as it may suggest a favorite attack by the opponent, or a favorite place for the opponent to finish an attack. If the opponent always finishes every attack (even compound ones) in the same line, this is a pattern that should not be ignored.

Does the opponent have a favorite attack?

Does the opponent use the same preparation over and over? Is the opponent over-preparing, giving an opportunity for the student to attack in preparation? Does the opponent use a long attack that can be shut down "early", before it starts? Does the opponent like to make many false attacks before making an attack they intend to finish? You can instruct the student to either remove a "pre-requisite" for the opponent to make an attack (such as moving to low line against an opponent who likes to find the blade) or to use the opponent's preparation against them.

Does the opponent have a favorite defense?

Especially if the opponent prefers one parry over another, or has a predictable counter-attack, you should be able to point this out to the student. It is also important to notice if the opponent's favorite defense is due to the student repeating the same attack. Has the student challenged all of the opponent's targets? A fencer that is very strong in the high line may have no defense (or a poor defence) in the low lines.

More generically, what type of fencer is the opponent?

This may be as simple as identifying the opponent as an attacker, defender, or counter-attacker. By identifying the overall theme of the opponent's actions, it becomes much easier to counter him or her by knowing the inclination of the fencer.

These questions help you frame the bout in terms of choice, distance and timing. At first, you may have to examine the bout while considering each question in turn. This will not be a quick process. In fact, you might come up with the ideal answer for the bout only after the bout is over! Your analysis will improve with practice, and certainly any answers you develop—but are unable to implement—after the bout should be written down as a plan of attack for your student's next encounter with that fencer.

Answering at least one of these questions, however, should enable you to give the student helpful advice. In some cases, the answer to just one of the questions might be enough to turn the bout around.

Solving the Problem, Turning the Bout Around

These questions above allow you a methodology for sorting through all of the information in a bout. The advice for the beginning fencer will usually be very apparent: "You are too close", "She is always attacking the same line", "You are going too fast, slow down.". When giving advice to more advanced fencers, touches may be occurring against the student because of a combination of factors. It will be difficult to decide whether one, two, or even more factors should be considered when giving advice. Sometimes adjusting one of the aspects of the bout—invariably the distance or the timing—will let the student see the rest of the solution with no assistance from you. If none of the factors that you have identified in watching the bout lend them selves to an easy decision, concentrate on giving the student advice about the distance over any of the other factors.

For example: your student is being hit on his third or fourth advance, deep into the opponent's side of the strip. The hit by the opponent is delivered with a straight lunge, catching the student flat footed. This might be the case of the student over-preparing: getting too close to the opponent without launching an attack. The advice at the break might be to make a simpler attack with advance-lunge, or to make the same preparation with only one advance to encourage the opponent to make an attack that can be parried.

Another example: your student is hit one retreat from the on guard line by the opponent who has a very fast advance-lunge that lands in the low line, which your student has not been successful in parrying. The advice might be to take a half advance, and then TWO retreats, causing the opponent to fall short so that the student can execute a take over attack without making a parry.

Hopefully you have formed your advice before the break. There might be a temptation to yell out the advice early, but you run the risk of distracting the student, and giving away information to the opponent. Instead, continue to watch the bout, looking for confirmation of your plan of action. This confirmation will come from additional actions, or—by lucky accident—your student will attempt your solution on their own, and you will be able to see the result. By confirming your advice in subsequent touches before the break, it can assist you in delivering it with some authority. This which will give the student confidence, as opposed to you stumbling over ideas while the minute ticks away. It might also be possible to communicate just one idea to the student in the time between touches while he or she is still fencing, but this should be used sparingly.

Simple is always better. Look for the obvious solutions first. If the student has been losing touches on attacks (and it makes tactical sense to do so, i.e., the student is still ahead) tell the student to stop attacking. If the opponent is putting up a very strong defense in the high lines that the student has been unable to penetrate, the advice should be not to make additional deceptions, but avoid the high line and attempt to score to the low lines instead. Here is where pre-competition reconnaissance is always worth its weight: the student can start out the bout knowing what actions to avoid and what the weak parts of the opponent's game are.

The Advice

Once you have decided an a course of action for your student, you must communicate the advice to the fencer. Once communicated, the fencer must act on it. Your best analysis is useless if your are unable to properly communicate it to the student, or the student cannot understand it to act on it.

One minute is not a lot of time to give advice, especially if the idea behind the advice is very complicated. Practice sessions and training at club is the time for you and your student to build a dialogue in order to communicate swiftly and accurately at the competition. You and the student must have a shared language to communicate the ideas necessary to change a bout. When you tell the student to "pick up the tempo" in the bout, does the student know that this means (for instance) making actions faster and closer together? Or does the student interpret the advice to simply charge the opponent?

During the bout, fencers are in a very focused state of mind, what sports psychologists term a "high state of arousal". In this state, your student is probably not capable of a great deal of verbalization, and can only hold few pieces of information at a time. Your advice at the break should be as simple as possible. At the most, it should consist of one or two ideas. Once, during a break in a bout at an NAC, I stood close to a fellow coach as he used the entire minute to outline a plan for his student to score. While the advice was probably a correct way to hit the opponent, it was very complicated, and had many components. As the minute break was running out, the student, with a very puzzled look in his face, said: "So.....you want me to....attack?". In this instance, the coach's failure to communicate well with the student gave little room for information that the student needed.

Once communicated to the student, the student must act on the advice. As the coach, you must give the student actions that you have previously prepared the student to execute. It may be obvious, but any advice that you give to the student must be an action they can execute comfortably and reliably. Trying to outline a new technique or action to the student at the break is a recipe for failure and frustration on the part of your student.

If the student is making an error in technical execution of a parry or attack, this cannot be fixed at the competition. Fixing technical execution is the role of lesson. Spending the one minute break trying to correct the technical execution on the part of the student is fruitless. Certainly you should make a note of any technical failures in the bout and focus on those actions in the post tournament lessons. However, it is far better to address tactical choices the fencer is making on the strip. If the fencer, for instance, cannot stop his or her opponent's low line attack because they lack the proper parry (or are doing it poorly), encourage the student to open the space up when the opponent executes that action to make them fall short, rather than emphasize a parry the student hasn't shown the ability to execute.

Your demeanor while giving advice is important. YOU MUST BE CALM. Coaching in the one minute break is not about expressing your own frustrations (if they exist) with the progress of the bout. Being visibly upset or yelling does very little to assist the student in a stressful situation. Being calm will help the fencer stay calm, and make him or her more receptive to your advice. You should try to get a very quick read on the emotional and mental state of the student when you first approach them. Sometimes you will know the student so well, you will not need to guess at what they are feeling. If you are not sure, you should ask a few quick questions, such as: "What are you thinking right now?" or "What are you seeing?", and "How are you getting hit?" or "When are you getting hit?". Even with a solution in mind, it is a good idea for you to guide the student to the action, rather than simply demanding that the student execute a given stroke. If the student can "discover" the solution themselves he or she is more likely to believe the solution, and trust in it during the execution. In addition, a quick discussion with the student may give more information to you. This information may impact your advice, especially if the student has the skills to win the bout, but is unable to focus or concentrate on the correct actions.

Finally, your advice may be invaluable, but it also simply that: advice. The student must always understand that they are in charge of the bout, and your role by the side of the strip is limited to the best advice that you can give—always with the understanding that it is the fencer's job to fence and win the bout.

Strip Coaching and the Referee2

We are fortunate that thanks to work by the Fencing Officials Commission, refereeing in all weapons has gotten more consistent in the last ten years. Even so, there are still occasions when the role of the referee in the bout cannot be ignored. When the coach chooses to attempt to interact with the referee, there are several points to consider.

By the rules, a coach is NOT allowed to interact with the referee, unless the coach is acting as the team captain in a team event. In an individual competition, there is no distinction between a coach and any other spectator. At best, the referee should ignore any comments you make. At worse, they can card you, even to the point of asking you to leave the tournament. You cannot be helpful to your student if you are sitting in the parking lot. However, with that said, there is always some interaction between a coach and a referee in a bout. This can be a constructive interaction (for you, and for the student) or a destructive one.

If the referee makes an occasional mistake. In every bout, even a good referee can make a mistake. If you know the referee as a strong referee, let the error go. Arguing over a call the referee is not going to reverse breaks up the momentum of the bout and your student's concentration. If your student turns to you ("Wasn't that MY parry?") reassure them and tell them to focus on the next touch. This is another situation in which the coach and the student will benefit from having explored this situation before at club.

The referee consistently makes an incorrect call of an action, or you disagree with the interpretation.The worse thing that can happen in this situation is for you—or the student—to attempt to convince the referee to give them the time on an action the referee can't see (such as a low line attack in saber). At the break—or before—the student should switch actions. A sophisticated student might use a referee's mistake against the opponent. For example, if the referee consistently calls an attack by the student a preparation, the opponent might be convinced to attack into this action early, letting the student score with a parry and riposte. The worse thing a student can do is to repeat a failed action over and over again, attempting to "show" the referee the correct timing or call.

After the bout, it is worthwhile to discuss the call with the referee. The referee might be inexperienced, and is simply calling the action incorrectly. Or, the referee could be interpreting something in the action that you don't see. Possibly, the action you've taught your student does not grant the priority to them in the way you expected. Several years ago, one of the national foil coaches spoke during a seminar I attended. He told us of teaching his foilists to make two beats on the blade during an attack. His reasoning: that this would remove the ability for the opponent to a counter-attack (which happened a lot to his fencers) or to freeze the opponent to prevent them from making a parry. In one of the first tournaments after this action, every referee called it as a beat attack for the fencer, and a parry riposte for the opponent! The coach quickly told all of the fencers to abandon the action.

The referee makes the correct call and the student doesn't agree.This is a perfect time to back up the referee. The student must know that this was a correct call and that a change has to be made. Verbally backing up good calls also assists you in discussing bad calls with the referee in the future. If the referee knows that you know a good call from a bad call, they are more likely to listen to you when you have a question or complaint. It is silly to argue good calls that go against your student. Good referees know when a coach is arguing for the sake of arguing. Do it too often, and you risk being ignored when you have a valid complaint or question.

The referee makes inconsistent calls, or incorrect calls. Or, the referee is not capable of calling at the level of fencing on the strip. Unfortunately, there is very little a coach can do in this case. Yelling at the referee will provide some satisfaction for you (and perhaps make it appear to a parent or student that you are advocating for them) but yelling at referees is unprofessional, hurts your chances to be heard with future referees, and may get you carded from the event. If the referee is egregiously bad, asking a polite question of them after an incorrect call might direct their attention. This is in direct violation of the rules, but if the question is phrased politely, and asked calmly, a referee will often answer, and give you additional information for you to give to your fencer in how the referee will call an action. In the very worst cases, you might request that a member of the Bout Committee observe the referee, understanding that a referee cannot be removed in the middle of a bout, no matter how poor their performance.

An occasional bad referee is unavoidable. If the tournament consistently features poor refereeing, it is in your best interest to not attend that event, and to let the event organizers know why.

If the referee is cheating. These occurrences are very rare. However, in extreme cases of referee misconduct, you should advise the fencer to refuse to continue to bout, and to have the fencer ask for an immediate bout committee.

Moving Beyond Advice

As the fencer gains experience, no bout will be entered without a general idea of what every potential opponent does, and what your student will do to counter it. Information about opponents should be kept by you or by the student, with a list of actions that the opponents favor and what has worked against them in the past. These records should be carried strip side and can be kept on a collection of note cards, or on a pda. Remember, however, that fencers—especially younger ones—are constantly improving their games, and the information may be out of date if you or the student have not observed the opponent recently.

For those opponents that you or the student do not have information on you may have to start from scratch. However, a teammate or another student may have fenced the fencer before, and have some knowledge of what the opponent likes to do. If a teammate has fenced the opponent before, inquire what the opponent's favorite moves are, and look for ways to anticipate them (It is probably not helpful to ask what the teammate did that worked against the opponent, since the teammate might not share many characteristics of your student). It is true that "no plan survives contact with the enemy", but even a general idea serves as a departure point and will be better than stepping onto the strip without any clue as to how to approach the opponent.

One of the most difficult things for a coach to do is to NOT coach the student. Constant, unnecessary coaching at competitions builds an unhealthy dependence in the fencer. By relying on the you as their "tactical brain" the student never learns to solve problems on the strip. If you are running a successful club, there comes a time when you will have many students at a competition. You cannot be by the side of the strip for every fencer. If the student has not learned to solve problems on his or her own, you will eventually have to help every student through every bout, and naturally, this is impossible.

Eventually, the student "graduates" and fences the opening rounds of a tournament, even major ones, on his or her own. This leaves you to coach to other, younger students, beginning the process all over again. For the "graduated" student, you may not be needed until the final 8 of big competitions. The tension will be higher, and the decisions more important—but the rewards much bigger!

Wojciechowski, Ziemowit (no date, post 1992?). Theory, Methods, and Exercises in Fencing. Published by the UK Amateur Fencing Association

My thanks to Ian Serotkin, a referee for the USA Fencing, for his assistance with parts of this document.

Written: July 2007, last edit December 2012. Copyright © by Allen L. Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and this copyright notice is included.

This article was originally written in 2007. When I revisited it in 2012, I found that it had a number of glaring deficiencies, and I've completely re-written it. For those of you interested, the original article is archived on this site, and is here.