Coaching at Fencing Competitions: Guiding Fencers to Better Performance

by Ed Kaihatsu

In November of 2016 at the North American Circuit (NAC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was working as a referee for many of the foil events. Over the course of the tournament, I judged upwards of 100 matches and had the opportunity to hear a lot of coaches from around the country advise their students. I couldn’t believe some of the things I heard, and so somewhere around the 38th bout, I decided I had to offer the fencing community my thoughts based on my 43+ years as a fencer and 34+ years as a coach.

This is the first of a three-part piece on several critical aspects of coaching. In this first short essay, I will discuss how to coach effectively AT fencing tournaments. In the essays that follow, I will write about other key aspects such as how to prepare both coach & athlete and how to work with fencing referees.  

Coaching At Fencing Tournaments

The biggest benefit of fencing is its innate ability to build and develop character for all aspects in life. Having confidence, developing good work ethic, taking action and doing things correctly and efficiently are all essential ingredients to the growth of a student’s skill and high level of character.

While many talk about the importance of coaching FOR tournaments, few understand the nuances of coaching AT tournaments. The coach’s influence can be very powerful, especially while under the intense stress placed on fencers by competition.

Coaching before the fencing bout

The best thing for both student and fencing coach is to know their opponent. However, many coaches simply tell their students what to do. I believe in the old proverb “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Sitting down with your students to watch video of opponents from previous bouts or prior competitions is a great opportunity to not only create a plan of action, but also steer them towards coming up with their own tactical ideas. Asking questions like “I notice that the opponent often pulls distance in the middle, what do you think you could do in response?” is a great way to help them develop the problem-solving skills needed while on the strip. It teaches them what to look for, so they devise a new plan when conditions change.

However, before the bout starts, it’s best not to overwhelm your fencer with tactics, as their best fencing will always come from being calm and focused. So, in the moments before a match starts, remind the student to relax and keep breathing so they can think clearly and be in a better state of readiness. Simple general instructions like “eyes open and keep moving, stay ready, and be aggressive” will be helpful to get started.

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

Coaching during the bout

During the bout there may be limited things you can do depending on the situation. Talking during fencing actions is against the rules. Talking between actions is a grey area but usually allowed, however, don’t be disruptive because it may distract your student. If you’re able to share some comments between the commands “halt” and “fence,” keep them simple and positive. Studies show that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement. It is essential that you provide advice in the affirmative. In other words, avoid telling them what NOT to do. Instead, tell them what they NEED TO DO, as these changes are easier for the fencer to implement.

Also, providing advice that is intended to motivate and inspire them emotionally often triggers a positive response if fencers are struggling tactically. For example, saying “stay aggressive!” “finish strong!” or “your tempo” can give the fencer the energy they need to execute their plan and techniques better. One of my favorite coaching instructions is “just get one good touch!”  This can help channel all their focus on the task at hand.

During the one minute break between periods in DE bouts, your instruction needs to be very efficient. There are only 60 seconds or less to convey your observations and ideas. There are  many things you can discuss to be helpful, but whatever you choose, KEEP THE MESSAGE SIMPLE! For example, you might discuss your observations of the bout, however, it’s best to only refer to those actions or strategies you want them to repeat. Depending on the experience of the fencer, you must adjust how you provide advice during these moments. With a more experienced fencer, you can continue to ask questions, inviting them to solve their own tactical problems. Less experienced fencers need clear and direct advice that can be implemented easily in the next period. If they are feeling intimidated or outmatched, remind students that often it’s the fencer who WANTS IT more that comes out on top.

At the end of the break, it’s essential that you leave them with a final, encouraging message. Basketball coach Bobby Knight said that during timeouts, regardless of what he had said to the players during the break, he knew the thing they would remember was the LAST thing he said.  So, he would always end his time outs with, “keep your hands up on defense!” while nodding his head with assurance as they walked back onto the court. Make your endings concise and powerful with phrases like “keep moving” or “find your zone.” For some athletes a simple, positive gesture may suffice, such as a nod or hand motion which says to them, “you can do it.” This may impact and empower your student more than you think.

I suggest you try some of the techniques above, as I believe they can improve your ability to communicate with your students, helping you to better shape their character and elevate their performance in competition.

About Ed

Ed Kaihatsu is the former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University. Prior to that, he was the Assistant Fencing Coach at University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois. He was also the Fencing Program Director of SECA Sports Academy, Shanghai, China. Ed is also a longtime competitive fencer, a two-time national team member and, more recently, a six-time veteran national champion (5X Foil, 1X Sabre).

Footnote from Ed

I want to thank the many collaborators on this article. First and foremost, Kevin Carroll for helping me structure my thoughts. I would also like to thank John Heil, Jamie Douraghy and Jason Rogers for their input to the piece. Thank you so much to the photographer, whose name has escaped me, that took this great image.

Preview Image Credit: Serge Timacheff | FIE