How better questions lead to better fencers
by Jason Rogers
Daryl Homer is crushing it. In addition to his many achievements in fencing which are too long to list, he just won a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Games following an epic 1-point victory to make the Olympic final.
He’s probably got it all figured out, right? Wrong.
When I was younger I was a little bit afraid to ask questions and let my curiosity run wild. But now, even though it requires an element of vulnerability, I make sure to seek out people I can learn from. I even speak to fencers on opposing teams that are on the same level as I am. Following an interesting touch, I’ll ask ‘Hey, why’d you do that?’ or we’ll watch someone else’s match together and talk about what’s good and bad. At the end of the day, it’s just adding more substance to what I am doing and helping me excel a little bit faster.
- Daryl Homer, 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist, Men’s Sabre Individual
To date, Daryl still makes a point to ask questions. Let’s examine why questions are so important to becoming a better fencer.
KEEP A BEGINNER’S MIND
As you accumulate knowledge, skills and experience, most people begin to develop a dangerous habit. Over time you stop asking questions. Doing this is an unconscious, but profound, mistake. Questions are the most important tool you have to deconstruct how to improve.
But you can fight this effect by keeping a “Beginner’s Mind.” This is a concept from Zen Buddhism which refers to approaching your craft with an “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions...just as a beginner in that subject would.” Embracing this mindset begins with surfacing the questions that you never ask. The questions that you avoid because you think you already know the answer. When you push yourself to challenge your most basic assumptions, you often find that there is more to learn about even the most basic skills.
When I moved across the country to attend The Ohio State University and train with Vladimir Nazlymov (6-time Olympic Medalist), I thought we would spend my first few months on tactics and complicated drills. However, I was in for a surprise. Instead, we spent countless hours drilling and reviewing the best mechanical motion for the first step and lunge. It seems basic, but truly mastering that foundational skill solves many other complex footwork problems you encounter as you progress. Whether you’re able to extend your attack or to pull distance when the opponent does something unexpected is highly dependent on your body position in that first step. Never underestimate the power of a question like “What is the best way to take my first step?”
SHED COMPLEXITY BY TALKING TO BEGINNERS
Do you ever find yourself trying to explain a concept to someone, but then you find that as you explain it your understanding isn’t quite as good as you thought? Often what we think we understand differs from what we actually understand. As we learn, we tend to layer new information on top of old information, which doesn’t always lead to precise, clear thinking.
One of the best ways to uncover these discrepancies is to teach others. They don’t have the same foundation as you do, and so you must break a concept up into small pieces. The process of doing this helps you clarify your own thinking, leaving behind any unnecessary parts.
Similarly, there is much to learn from beginners. When you ask a child to explain something, it can be revelatory because the simplicity of their answer cuts to the heart of the idea. The same is true of fencers with less experience; the way they understand fencing is usually very basic and simple, and often something that a more experienced fencer can learn from.
ASK THREE QUESTIONS THIS WEEK
I suggest you do a little experiment. When you go to practice this week, push yourself to ask the three questions below.
• Ask an expert a beginner fencing question
This can be your coach, your teammate or anyone else that you think you might learn from. You may find this is difficult. The reason is that we are uncomfortable revealing when we don’t completely understand something. As you progress, this discomfort grows even stronger because you are supposed to be an “expert.”
• Ask a beginner what they don’t understand about fencing then explain it to them
The best way to learn is to teach. You might find yourself coming to some realization you’ve never had before just by trying to explain something very simple.
• Ask a beginner an expert question
They might not be able to give you every complicated detail, but they’ll likely give you a perspective you might not have seen before.
If you can’t think of something to ask, start with the most fundamental question of all: “Why?” Why do you do an advance a particular way, why did your opponent do a particular action, why is it important to change tempo? “Why” questions are often the simplest and the most thought-provoking ones to ask. I think you will be surprised by what you can learn if you keep a “beginner’s mind.”
Judge a person by their questions rather than by their answers
Let me know what you learned. What was the answer that most surprised you?
*Footwork video courtesy of Nazlymov Fencing Blog