Turning Laziness into Focus: Find the One Thing that Matters to Your Fencing Practice
by Geoffrey Loss
I am a lazy fencer, and you should be too.
That doesn’t mean I never go to practice, or that I don’t work hard when I’m there. But where a lot of people struggle with the challenge of how to train more—between work, school, or family and social commitments—I want to train less. Sure, I want to get better. But I have other things going on in my life, and I don’t want to spend any more time at the club than I have to in order to improve.
That might seem paradoxical, but it’s actually quite logical. Rather than worrying that I’m not spending enough time at the club, I focus on how good my training is—emphasizing quality over quantity. This way, I can spend less time at practice while getting the same, or even better, results, and I get home sooner to make dinner, get some work done, or even just watch TV.
Bringing a high level of quality to every practice isn’t necessarily easy, but at least it’s pretty straightforward. The trick is just to be very conscious and focused on what you are doing and how you are doing it the whole time. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls this “deliberate practice” and says it is the key to improving.
What is deliberate practice? It’s not what most people do—show up, go through the motions of warming up and doing drills, fence a few bouts for fun, and go home. Deliberate practice means really being aware of what you are doing, where you are going right or wrong, and consciously focusing to improve a skill. For example, rather than just doing some advances and retreats without thinking about it, this way of training means catching yourself when you’re off balance, or when your steps are too big, or when your front foot starts to turn in, and correcting it.
SHOULD YOU EVEN FENCE FOR MORE THAN TWO HOURS?
Also, many people commonly believe that more practice is better. However, Olympic coach Greg Massialas, whose son Alex took silver and bronze in the individual and team foil in Rio (respectively), challenges this assumption. Greg has all his students train with extreme focus, and as a result, they only fence two or three times a week, leaving time for other important activities like school work, cross-training and having what resembles a normal life. “You train for two hours intensely in our program—for two hours, you’re not doing anything else,” he says. And it’s hard! It can be very challenging to maintain this high level of concentration for the entire duration of a practice at first, or even for more than a few minutes. “If you fence two hours really hard, I mean really hard, hardly resting at all… could you really fence for more than two hours non-stop?” Greg asks. Most people couldn’t. But once you start approaching your practice this way, you’ll find yourself able to sustain that focus longer and longer very rapidly. And you’ll get just as much, if not more, out of the time that you put in.
“You train for two hours intensely in our program—for two hours, you’re not doing anything else. If you fence two hours really hard, I mean really hard, hardly resting at all… could you really fence for more than two hours non-stop? - Greg Massialas.
THE FOUR STAGES OF LEARNING
You might be wondering why this way of thinking matters. If you’re doing the same drills either way, who cares what you’re thinking about? That’s where what psychologists call the “four stages of learning” come in. These stages are a model they use to describe how we learn and develop new skills.
The first stage is being unconsciously unskilled. This means that something is wrong, but we don’t really know what, or even if anything is wrong at all! If you’re having some problems with your advance lunge, for example, you might have a vague sense that it’s “not good enough,” or just that you’re losing touches but you’re not sure why.
The second stage is being consciously unskilled. This stage is the key to improvement—this is the point where we realize exactly what is going wrong so we can fix it! This is where you might have the realization that your advance lunge isn’t powerful enough because you aren’t pushing from your back foot, or that your opponent can see it coming because you tense your upper body before you start to move. It can be easy to get stuck in the previous phase, but breaking out of it just takes a little self-reflection or advice from an experienced coach or fencer. By knowing exactly what the issue is, you can design drills to specifically target that problem.
The third stage is being consciously skilled. This means you’ve put in enough practice that when you’re really focused, you can do it right, but under pressure or if you’re not thinking about it you might slip into your old habits. This can be frustrating for a lot of people, but it’s actually a good sign—it means you’re making progress!
Pretty soon, you’ll enter the fourth stage—being unconsciously skilled. When you watch elite fencers, this is the phase they’re in for just about everything. They can do an advance lunge or take a parry correctly and automatically. This leaves them free to focus on the more abstract, mentally challenging pieces of the game—controlling their opponent, making the right choices, or even persuading the referee that a touch was theirs.
IT'S GOOD TO MAKE MISTAKES
Being in the unconsciously skilled phase doesn’t mean you never make a mistake, of course—I spend plenty of time walking around, but I still trip from time to time. And it’s good to fail sometimes! That’s where we find out where we still need to get better. If you’re doing a drill and you’re 100% successful, make the drill more difficult! That’s when you’ll discover the next thing you need to work on—now that you can do a perfect advance lunge without thinking about it, you might realize you still don’t know when to do it, for example. That’s how the learning process works, and it means you get to start all over again with your new challenge!
Remember, the third and fourth stages might seem to be the ones where you see the biggest changes in your fencing. But in actuality the most important piece of that whole cycle is the transition between the first two stages—making the conscious discovery that a particular area of your fencing needs to be improved. Once you get the ball rolling and start doing the proper drills (with intensity and focus!), you’ll get better naturally. But you can’t start that process until you’re aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FOCUS
Often when you want to improve something, it can be daunting because it means you will have to put in extra time—extra bouts during practice, or extra footwork afterwards, for example. The great thing about training your focus is that you can work on it as you do your normal routine, and you can apply it to anything—your technique, being calm during bouts, making good tactical choices, whatever you need to work on. As you get better at being more focused during practice, you can even cut down the time you spend at the club. That doesn’t mean you can roll in, fence one bout, and declare that you were so focused that you can just go home, of course. You still need to put in a certain amount of hours, just like Greg Massialas’s fencers do. But even two hours twice a week of very focused, deliberate training will help you improve quicker than three hours every day of half-hearted and distracted practice.
FINDING THE ONE THING
One of the obstacles to this type of focus is trying to achieve too many things in practice. I often used to come into practice with five or ten different things in my head that I wanted to work on, and as a result I would bounce around between them during practice, hardly giving any one issue very much attention at all. I would leave feeling frustrated because I felt like I hadn’t really made any progress on any of them.
The key to focus is picking one thing during each practice to work on. If you can decide, “This is what I’m going to work on today,” and really dedicate that practice to that challenge area, you have a much better chance of actually improving that skill and feeling like you have made real progress when you walk out the door that night. Don’t underestimate the importance of that feeling because it’s what keeps you motivated to come back the next time and put in that hard work again.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do all the other activities your coach has planned for you or that you shouldn’t be aware of other areas of your fencing. The important idea is that one skill is receiving the deepest part of your focus. You should feel proud of improving that skill rather than worrying about all the other things you might be doing wrong—once you’ve mastered that one skill, it will be time to move on to another.
One thing that will help you achieve this analytical, deliberate way of training is to take five minutes before each practice and make a plan for what you will work on and how you will work on it. Then take another five minutes afterwards to reflect on what you did well and where you still have room to do better. This only takes ten minutes a day—even if you practice six days a week, that’s still only an extra hour! Even the busiest fencer in the world has a few minutes in the car or train on the way to and from practice to commit to this. But even though this might seem trivial, it’s really the critical starting point—you have to know what it is you’re focusing on before you can focus on it.
What is your main focus for your next practice?
*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE