In the highest echelons of competitive fencing, the difference between the best and the very best is narrow. More often than not, matches from the top 16 onward are decided by 2 points or less, with the exception of the occasional wunderkind who bludgeons his/her opponents with ease from tournament start to finish. I have always subscribed to the belief that the coach’s fundamental role is to prepare his students for competition—and once the competition begins, the athlete must rely on their “home run” actions, mental game, and athleticism and hope for the best. Where the coach can play a make or break role for a fencer is in strip coaching.
Strip coaching, as you may or may not know is the minute in between each of the three three-minute periods where the fencer can catch a breath, readjust mentally, and think of how to approach the rest of the bout. It also allows the coach to provide a third-person perspective on things the fencer may not have seen.
To all the coaches out there who believe they should speak for the entirety of the minute—you’re doing it wrong and you’re over inundating your fencers with information. Speak for thirty seconds MAXIMUM and allow your fencer the remaining time to process what you’ve said.
I have broken down my philosophies on strip coaching into the following flow chart:
Allow me to explain—
- Be Calm: First and foremost, it is of the utmost importance to remain calm both in body language and spoken language, even during close, tense bouts. If you show your fencer you’re calm and collected, then that will also put your fencer in the proper cognitive state as well. If a pilot starts screaming bloody murder during a turbulent flight, the passengers are going to panic.
- Explaining actions: Too often I see coaches speak for the entirety of the minute break. This is more likely to leave your fencer with more questions than answers, and when the fencer is in a single elimination tournament, you need to give them answers. Keep your language concise and don’t delve too deep. i.e. “prepare around the bellguard,” or “Change your preparations to high-line.” This should take no more than 10-15 seconds of the minute break.
- Tactical recommendations: This step might be needed if you think your fencer has an understanding of the bout.It’s good to use this step to point out if your fencer is getting hit by the same action over and over again and how to change. Other ways to use this is to point out a rule that might work to your fencer’s favor. I recall a bout where I was coaching a teammate of mine, who was fencing a gentleman who had been out of the game for 5 years and was just returning. She held a three touch lead over her opponent, and he didn’t have a threat of an attack. “Avoid his blade for 15 seconds to draw non-combativity, or do your best to avoid any touches for one minute unless he attacks you.” She did it, it worked, and she won.
None of this should take more than 30 seconds so your fencer can have the remaining 30 seconds to process what you’ve said, relax, and focus on the next touch. If you didn’t catch what I said before—DO NOT OVERINUNDATE YOUR FENCER WITH INFORMATION!