Practice, it is something that we all need to become better fencers and also in order to maintain the level of skill that we have attained. This blog will be addressing the idea of practice and what people do at practice in order to discuss how our attitude toward practice and what we do affects our fencing.
The first thing that we must ask is what are our practice/training sessions designed for. This is where we must start in order to see the mindset which is behind the thoughts of going to practice in the first place. If we are to truly utilise a training session properly it is important to understand that we are not merely there for honing our current skills but also learning and experimentation. These two should always be the primary achievement goals for a fencing practice.
The learning process for the true student of the blade will never stop as there is always something out there to learn. If we stop learning this will lead to stagnation in our knowledge base, and also stagnation in the process of becoming a better fencer. When a fencer starts the volume of information seems to be inexhaustible and seems like that the fencer knows nothing and there is a great deal to learn. As the fencer progresses this volume of information seems to shrink gradually until it seems like there is less and less to learn, but is this really true? While at this stage the essential skills have been learnt and a collection of advanced techniques have also been learnt, where does the fencer go from here? The answer to this is experimentation, the other part of practice.
While it is vital that we hone the skills that we already possess in order that we can become technically proficient in them and are able to call upon them, the process of learning does not stop here. It is at this point in time that we need to go out and seek new skills to learn in order to enhance our repertoire. Of course once these new skills have been learnt, we need a time in order to see how they work, the perfect time for this is at practice. Experimentation is the key to expanding your knowledge and repertoire. It is important that we are willing to experiment with new skills in order to progress in the learning process. The best place for this, of course, is at practice. Where a new skill is put up against an opponent and works, something is learnt, that the skill was performed correctly and effectively in that situation against that opponent. Where the attempt fails something is also learnt, that maybe it was not the correct time, or distance, or the opponent had a counter for it. In both cases something is learnt. The only way this sort of information is gained is if the fencer is willing to experiment with the new skills, without this experimentation, the fencer will stagnate, so we must experiment and be willing to fail in the experiment.
Next it is important to examine the question of how we learn fencing. In essence there are two paths that a person may take in order to learn more fencing once the basics have been learnt. The first is through experimentation through bouting, and the second is through learning a set of skills one after the other. The first one has the great appeal of being out on the field with an opponent having a great time matching skills against them. The second does not have this as it involves a level of instruction, drills and set pieces that must be followed, which seems to be substantially less satisfying, especially to the newer fencer. The question here is which one really has the advantage in the long run.
Learning through bouting with different opponent has the advantage of putting the skills in the situation where they will end up in the long run anyway. This tends to mean that the skills will be in a situation of working to solve a particular problem. This method allows for a great deal of experimentation as long as the fencer can keep to the goal of experimentation and learning. Sadly, in most situations this is not the case and the result of the bout actually becomes more important than the learning process. It also means that the skills that are learnt in this sort of environment are not based on principles but on what worked at the time, this can lead to sloppy technique, and often does. Learning through bouting is actually a slower and harder process while it seems faster as the body has to learn things on the fly. This is because the skill is learnt at speed where the fencer really does not know exactly why they have done what they have done, and in a lot of instances does not know exactly what they have done. This leaves out avenues for discovering why the technique actually worked and how it worked against the opponent. This coupled with the fact that the only reason that it worked may have been due to the sloppy technique of the opponent, does not lead to a solid base for learning.
Learning through learning a specific technique can seem tedious and boring to some as it seems that there is no practical application immediately to the skill being learnt. The skill is discussed, described and then demonstrated. Only then are the students involved at which point in time they have to follow the instruction and perform the action slowly at first and then speed up to do it properly, all the time being corrected by the instructor. This process sounds slow and painful, but in actual fact the student will actually learn faster due to the amount of detail presented. The reasons why the skill works will be explained along with how to use it properly and when it should be used. All this information will be present before the student even takes the field. This learning process allows for refinement of the technique based on the information given. This method followed by practicing and experimentation based on the technique is a more effective learning process as all the knowledge is present before the action is performed at speed. Learning set skills and then bouting focusing on those skills is more likely to lead to experimentation as the focus is on the skills rather than the result of the bout.
Bouting. Bouting is fast, bouting is fun, bouting allows us to match our skills against an opponent, but there is a great deal of difference between the types of bout. There is a great deal of difference between bouting at training and bouting in in competition due to the difference on the focus of the bouting. While bouting in training is focused on the learning process competitive bouting is more focused on the result rather than how the fencer gets to that result. This is an important difference and both fencers must decide what the focus of the bout is before they start. If one is there for the win and the other wants to practice a particular technique this can lead to problems, as the opponent may not present opportunities where the particular technique can be used. It is important where bouting is done for practice purposes that the focus of both combatants is upon the skills being learnt and how the fencer gets to the end result. Bouting with a new skill should always come after a period of drilling that skill.
Drills are important in the learning process as they focus on a particular skill which is being learnt. The focus of the drill must be on the skill being drilled rather than the result. This will focus the participants on the skill rather than the result of the drill. It is important that both participants in all drills understand what their part in the drill is and do not exceed this part so that both may learn. If one of the participants does not allow the skill to be performed how it is supposed to neither of the participants will learn what is supposed to be being learnt. Even where the result is one being struck things can be learnt, such as possible ways to defeat it even if they are not used in the drill. Both participants need to be aware of what is being learnt in the skill and keep their minds open to what further things can be learnt from what is being taught. This can only be achieved where both participants in the drills participate to 100% of their ability following the requirements of the drill in order that it is done properly and the correct responses are elicited. The attacks in drills must be credible along with the defence against them, if the defence fails then the attack should succeed, this is a part of the learning process. If the attack is not credible then the person who is defending will not learn the correct response to the attack. As such an attack must be delivered to a relevant target and at the correct distance in order that the defender must defend in order to defeat the attack. A failure to defend actually enhances the learning experience as the defender learns what they did wrong in defence. Drills are about repetition, but it is important that the repetition is done properly for the skills to be learnt properly.
Specific skill sets need to be learnt and then drilled in order that they are repeated so that the fencer is able to call upon that skill when it is needed. It is important that the correct response is elicited for each attack or defence that it is used in order that the skill is learnt properly. Repetition on it is own is useless, it is important that the repetition is the repetition of the correct action on the part of both participants in a partner drill, or the action of a single participant in a solo drill, in order to correctly develop the correct muscle memory for that particular skill, and it is important that it is done right the first time and every time. It takes something like 500 repetitions in order to place something in muscle memory, and takes about 100 times that in order to remove something or replace it. In other words it is better that a person does the correct action properly the first time and every time after that in order not to have to go back and take more time to remove a bad habit.
As fencers we need to focus on the reason for going to practice, and also the reason for practice itself. It is important that the correct focus is made with regard to practice in order that we are able to gain the maximum benefit from the practice we do engage in. While learning through bouting is a fun way to do things, learning through specific skill sets and lessons is actually a better way to learn. Remember the reason why you are doing drills and ensure that you are participating to 100% of your capacity in the drill in order that both participants are able to learn the correct thing. Remember practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.