Corrections in Group Fencing Lessons

Possibly the most common fencing lesson is the group lesson, a staple of all beginner training and a key part of the training of competitive teams. This means that corrections of technical and tactical errors in group lessons influence a very large percentage of the overall fencing population each year. Effective correction in the group lesson thus becomes a critical skill for fencing coaches.

The group lesson poses two scenarios. The first case is the individual who is having a specific difficulty performing the material taught in the lesson. Everyone else is doing this part of the skill correctly. At the best end of the spectrum, one fencer is having performance problems; everyone else is within an acceptable range. At its worst, everyone may be doing some part of the skill incorrectly, but there is no commonality in the problem areas.

Intervention in this case is individual, and may range in effort required from a single sentence of correction (for example “extend first”) to more complicated efforts. With experienced fencers, only a few words may suffice as the fencer has a large enough knowledge base to understand the instruction and be able to self-correct. The next step up is the very short demonstration-performance correction. Show the fencer the skill correctly executed in a quick demonstration. This can focus on the problem area alone, or on the entire skill if integration is the issue. After the skill is demonstrated, it may be necessary to lead the fencer through the movement correctly with your hand and blade. Finally the fencer should be able to do two or three executions of the skill, and be on track with the rest of the group.

For more difficult problems, more detailed intervention will be needed. This means that you have to have help, someone who can either do a check lesson or someone who can keep the rest of the group on track. The check lesson pulls the student out of the normal activity so that you can demonstrate the skill, have him perform it alongside you for perhaps two repetitions, and then have her do sufficient repetitions on your plastron to result in four or five correct performances. Hopefully this can be accomplished within 1 to 3 minutes. The student can then be returned to the ongoing group activity.

The second case is when a number of people have the same, or closely related, problems. Group problems require a group solution. Halt the activity, identify the nature of the problem, demonstrate how to perform the skill correctly, breaking it down as needed, and then have the fencers practice the specific correct execution. You can expect that a number of the fencers will not understand the correction or that it applies to them. This means that you must move through the group doing quick oral instruction and physically guiding performance as needed. This must be quick – if you spend 1 minute with each of 10 fencers, you have spent 10 minutes of practice time on a single problem. No more than 30 seconds per correction is a good goal. This process can be helped if you pair fencers who are doing the skill correctly with those who are not, with instructions to the fencers who have the skill to help their new partners

In doing corrections it is important that you not demonstrate the incorrect performance. Athletes’ memories are selective. If you emphasize the failures, they are just as likely to remember the incorrect method of performance as they are to remember the correct execution. One exception to this is video; videotaped poor performance will often be recognized by the athlete before you can point it out to him. With the ready availability of inexpensive video cameras, even small clubs with limited resources can afford to use this tool.

Problems in group lesson performance may self-correct in keeping with our principle of not intervening too quickly. However, they equally often propagate, with one fencer having difficulty transmitting that difficulty to her partner. This means that the coach teaching a group lesson must pay close attention to student performance, and intervene to correct errors. Be vigilant, make quick corrections, and move on to keep the group on track.