I like to think of fencing coaching as a partnership. When compared to sports such as Football where the Coach is master and commander whose word is absolute, Fencing promotes dialogue, exploration, and innovating for new ideas on the piste.
When a new student begins, the lessons are more linear and perhaps even mechanical, focusing on the fundamentals of proper footwork, extensions, and parry form before building on that foundation with more complex ideas and concepts. To that end, I imagine Simon Gershon’s first lessons with Miles Chamley-Watson didn’t incorporate the acrobatics and the signature namesake move that Miles is now known for; rather, it likely focused on the more “mundane” building blocks that led to his current prowess.
Once a coach feels his/her student has some mastery of the fundamentals, the lessons are likely to open up and allow for more fluidity. Perhaps the coach’s cues become more varied and subtle. Perhaps the student gets creative and ripostes to the foot instead of the body, or, perhaps the students gets a riposte behind his/her head in defense of a fleche attack as the coach passes by. When a student begins to exercise heightened creativity and a desire to play around more with the cues given by the coach, the student begins to break out of the linearity of beginner lessons and develop a fencing identity, so to speak.
Once a student’s fencing identity begins to emerge, I often turn to the student prior to our salute and masking to ask the simple question “what do you want to work on tonight?” This question does a few things. It reminds the student that we’re in a partnership, not an authoritarian dictatorship (it’s a dictatorship in the beginning), it allows the student to self-reflect on where they want the lesson to go, and perhaps if the student was inspired by some YouTube watching, this question opens the door to bring those ideas to the table.
It’s thrilling to watch an athlete of Alex Massialas’s caliber take a lesson from his father and coach Greg Massialas, which reminds me of watching the free-flowing nature of Floyd Mayweather’s mitt work. The lesson resembles a fluid improvisational piece from a seasoned musician, less the rigidity of a member of an orchestra sticking to the confines of the sheet music in front of him and the conductor’s direction.
At a certain point, the coach must feel confident to strip the sheet music handed to the student and empower them to improvise, innovate, and play. With this comes the true joy in watching the student grow, and allows the coach and student to work as partners rather than leader and follower. When the fencing identity emerges, give the student the baton and don’t look back.