"Coaching fencing is not rocket science..."

I started my career as a fencing coach the way many coaches do: I was one of the better fencers at my small college and the coach was in need of assistants to teach. I traded assistant coaching duties for lessons and learned to coach by copying my college coach, supplemented by what I learned as a fencer. I left school and I continued to compete, while helping coaches at other clubs. Again, I learned mostly through copying my coaches, supplemented by a few seminars. I was not a spectacular coach at this point in my career, but I certainly knew more than the beginning fencers I was training, and some students I worked with went on to do well at local competitions.

Eventually I retired from competition. I began to coach more seriously. I pursued an education in coaching as best I could. I read what coaching literature I could find, books on fencing itself, and began to attend the US Fencing coaching program held in Colorado Springs at the US Olympic Training Center. When I could afford to, I flew coaches that I respected to my club to work with me individually on coaching skills. All this time, I continued to take lessons myself, to keep my fencing skills sharp and to experience, first hand, how other coaches taught. I copied what I liked, and threw out what I didn't. By this time, I was training students who could make the finals of a Division 3 and Division 2 National competition. Having some coaching success, more advanced fencers began to seek me out for advice and lessons.

More advanced fencers need more advanced lessons. I worked hard to move my lessons into territory I had not explored when I had been a fencer. I found myself struggling to explain concepts that I KNEW were correct, but couldn't express well in words or in lessons. Never-the-less, my students began to earn National Points, and make the finals of Division IA competitions. I was doing something right, even if I wasn't always sure of what that "something" was. More and more I found myself faced with questions of such nuance that there was certainly no single, correct answer.

At this point, my struggle was not with "how to teach" an action, but in deciding what actions were important, and finding concepts that would link actions together in some smart, systematic way. I had always coached by being a few chapters ahead of my students. Now I found that pace was accelerating, and I was in danger of falling behind. I began to look for material on advanced coaching for fencing. I found very little. What was written about fencing concerned the basic technical skills unique to the sport. I didn't need to learn what a good parry looked like, or what target areas the student needed to hit. These were all coaching skills that I had already mastered. What I wanted, and what I couldn't find, was a source of information that went beyond the basic "open the line, let the student hit" skills that I had already had.

My solution to this was to try to study under better and better coaches. But if teaching fencing is difficult, teaching people to TEACH fencing is even harder. There are few coaches in the United States today who have the skills to teach other coaches. Obviously, these coaches are in high demand, and getting blocks of their time is difficult—and expensive. Thrown on my own resources, I spent a lot of time with some of my fellow coaches in the same predicament as I was: their students needed more advanced lessons, and we as coaches had to discover how to teach those lessons.

Fortunately, I was blessed with fellow coaches in my area who were smart, motivated, and articulate. Working together, we developed the lessons we needed to teach our more advanced students by observation and practice. We hammered out ideas, experimented, and agreed upon concepts. It was a struggle, to be sure, but a struggle that was worth making, and which resulted in better coaching from us, and better fencing on the part of our students.

So, a happy ending for all. But what difficulty and what frustration we faced! We knew that these concepts and methods had been taught to students by other coaches before us. Why couldn't this information be available to us? Why were we reinventing the wheel?

When I go to the library, I see dozens of books on coaching advanced skills in all sports. Where are the books on coaching advanced skills in fencing? There are none—at least none written in English—existed. Most of articles on this web site stem from asking questions that I couldn't find answers for. Often it wasn't because someone didn't KNOW the answer, but because the coaches who knew the answers never bothered to write them down for anyone else. Sometimes it seems that each generation of coaches in the United States ask themselves the same questions and struggle to find the same answers. I keep waiting for someone to write these things down, but no one has. I finally decided that perhaps I had to be the first.

I've put, as a sub-title to this site, the phrase: "Quick and Dirty Guide" as a tongue in cheek reminder that teaching something as difficult as fencing does not reward shortcuts or impatience. But as coaches, we don't have to reinvent the wheel with every new student or situation.

Some Thoughts About Coaching Fencing

Fencing is unique among almost any sport because of the close involvement the coach has in training the fencer. There are very few sports in which the coach acts, so intimately, as an opponent for the student. Because of this, coaching fencing brings a number of unique challenges. The biggest challenge is to keep in perspective our skills as coaches verses the skills we are trying to teach our student. For me, first and foremost, giving a lesson is about giving the student the skills they need to survive in a competitive environment, and developing our own skills as coaches to that end.

This my mean that we, as coaches, have to abandon many of the old ways of thinking that we were taught when fencing. For instance, that a parry "always" looks like so, or that the hand always extends before the foot starts. At the same time, our sport is full of "fads" and untested ideas, promulgated as fact, and as coaches, we have to winnow out the true from the false. These are not easy choices

Some Thoughts About Training Coaches

As I trained to be a coach I came to several conclusions about coaching instruction in the United States:

Conclusion: The current method transmission of fencing information from one coach to another is slow and inefficient. For fencing to grow, fencing information has to flow faster.

A fencer begins helping the head coach at a club, and over the years, he or she is slowly taught to be a coach. Instruction is by example and verbal correction as lessons are taught. The "transmission rate" for information is pitifully slow. Master coaches —coaches who have the skills to teach coaching—impact a very small number of coaches every year. The United States Fencing Association's Coaches College probably teaches less than 10 high level coaches a year in all three weapons.

Coaching is not rocket science. While certainly being a good coach is a difficult skill, even advanced concepts necessary to train fencers can be taught to anyone who has done some fencing, has the aptitude to coach, and is willing to work for such low pay. Nothing will replace the beginning coach working at the plastron of a master coach. But many concepts and ideas that can be spread through written form. Even if these concepts can not be taught by reading, the coach striving to improve their skills needs to be at least aware of traits used by more advanced coaches and trainers in lesson.

Fencing is growing in the United States. Much of that growth is occurring in little clubs all across the United States. Often a group of people in a location begin to meet informally, then begin to hold organized practices, and suddenly a fencing club is born. Often the most experienced fencer is elected as the "coach" of the new club. The fencer means well, and is willing to work hard to teach, but often has no way to teach except to fall back on his or her own past lessons, often taken many years ago. There is information out there for the beginning coach, but it is not in one place, it is not easily accessible, and is often incorrect. For fencing to grow further in the United States, this needs to change.

Conclusion: There are few ways, currently, to validate coaching information outside of the coaches own circle of experience.

Many areas have only one fencing coach within easy reach. This coach teaches the competitors and the coaches for the next generation. Sometimes, these coaches are out of the mainstream of modern fencing practices. They teach actions or rules that are out of date, or simply wrong. For the beginning coach training under such a head coach, there is no outside source of information to help judge the instruction they are getting. For instance, if I'm taking a class on changing a tire, and the teacher tells me that the tire lug nuts must be tightened in a particular pattern, I can look up in any car manual and confirm that this is an acceptable practice. Fencing coaches do not have this. I have heard some pretty outrageous practices promulgated as fact by fencing coaches. Without some body of literature to help refute an opinion, however, it just comes down to one opinion versus another. Usually the loudest coach wins. (Or the one with the thickest accent). The lack of coaching materials does not allow for information to be cross-checked, validated, or refuted.

Eastern Europe is a good example of a knowledgeable approach to fencing, documented and disseminated throughout all levels of coaching. This spreading of knowledge helped to produce excellent results in the old "Eastern Block". Certainly the countries of the old Eastern Block had a large number of dedicated athletes working full time. Coaches, too, also were focused on training athletes as a profession – unlike American coaches, for whom fencing is rarely a full-time employment. Undoubtedly, the level of effort was a large part of the success of the Eastern European athletes. However, with coaching methods well documented and disseminated through their coaching programs, improvements in technique and training propagated through the Eastern Block systems very quickly. This must have greatly assisted their progress of the athletes and the development of coaches.

About This Website

"Compendium" means "assortment" or "collection". The articles on this web site are a collection of coaching information from a variety of sources and authors. These articles have little or nor relation to each other (except where noted in the text or linked). Some of the articles on this site were authored by myself or fellow coaches at Salle Auriol Seattle over the last several years. Others are by friends of mine kind enough to contribute. Where these articles have been taken from other journals or sources, they are so noted.

This web site was first published in 2003. I have added some articles since then, and tried to write some timely pieces as fencing evolves and changes. As more articles are written or come available, they will be posted to this site. Articles that I feel are time dependent may be removed as necessary. If you feel that you have something to contribute, by all means, contact me as outlined in the submission section.

What This Website Will Not Do For You

This web site will not teach you how to be a top coach. It won't teach you how to coach fencing at all. What this web site WILL do is give you some ideas, and perhaps set you on a path to discovering what questions you need to ask yourself, your students, and the better coaches around you. Only YOU can make yourself a better coach.

Written January, 2007 by Allen Evans. Reformatting and style changes on August 2012.

Copyright by Allen L. Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.

A brief narrative on the journey from being a fencer to being a coach, and why this website was started.