Why Randomness Rocks in Fencing Lessons


by Geoffrey Loss

Fencing is, by its nature, an unpredictable sport. When you step on the strip with someone, you don’t know what they’re going to do. At best you might have a pretty good idea—an expectation that they’ll probably do something—but there are no guarantees.
That makes fencing trickier to train for than, say, gymnastics. The reason for this is that gymnastics are what’s called a “closed-skill” sport, rather than an “open-skill” sport like fencing—terms that were introduced to me by epee Olympian and Team World Champion Soren Thompson. We’ll go into more detail about his thoughts on training in a future article! But the basic difference is that, in gymnastics, you know exactly what routine you’re going to do in competition and can just do it over and over to perfect your technique. This type of repetitive technical training doesn’t make as much sense for fencing, though, because fencing involves an opponent and is so much more unpredictable. So what’s the alternative?
There are a lot of different aspects to this, but for the moment we’re just going to look at the best way to structure your training. And we’re going to do that by starting with a totally different sport—volleyball.



In 2010, a Greek scientist named Antonios Travlos set out to teach a group of high school students how to serve a volleyball. This wasn’t because he just loved volleyball; he was interested in finding out what sort of training would help them best perform that serve. He divided the students up into different groups and had them practice three times over a week. The groups varied by where they would aim their shots (to the particular target that they would be tested on later or to several other spots on the court), and the order that they would serve (some only served to one spot; some served to multiple spots either in a pattern or randomly). You can read a more detailed summary of that study here.
When he tested them the following week, the group that did the best was the one that had practiced serving only to the target spot, which makes sense. However, he also found two very interesting things about how we learn and improve. The group that did nearly as well as the winning group was the one that had served randomly to multiple spots (in an order called out by their coach) and who had never practiced serving to the spot that they were tested on. This “random” group, although they had not done so in practice, also did much better than the groups that had served to the same spots but in a set pattern every time. Even more interesting, those other groups working in a set pattern got worse over the weekend, while the random group retained their accuracy—even when serving to a totally new spot!



The theory behind this is what scientists call “contextual interference” and is critical for improving a skill (or at least a physical skill). Travlos wasn’t the first to think of or test this theory, but he did come up with a good study to help confirm it. Basically, the more variety and unpredictability there is in your training, the better. It’s clear that for skill retention and performance in new situations (like the ones fencers face in competition), those who have trained with more variety are better equipped than those who train more one-dimensionally.
You might be thinking these conclusions could be true for beginners, but what about experts with strong technical foundations? After all, these kids had no previous volleyball experience and only got to practice for a short time!
A very similar study of college baseball players came to the same conclusion. Two groups of players received extra batting practice against several different types of pitches over six weeks. One group got their pitches in “blocks” – all fastballs, then all change-ups, then all curveballs. The other group got their pitches in random order, but still got the same number of each type of pitches. At the end of the six weeks, they were tested twice – once with pitches in random order, once with pitches in blocks. Both groups had improved, but the random group outperformed the “block” group by a significant margin on both tests. And study after study have confirmed these findings.
The neurological mechanism isn’t totally understood yet, although one study has found preliminary evidence that a more varied practice targets a higher part of your brain, which helps with generalized skill development and retention, rather than just sheer muscle memory. This makes sense on an intuitive level too – the more unpredictable a practice is, the more you’ll have to concentrate and the harder it is to drift off mentally. Further, the more focused and deliberate your practice is, the better you’ll get!



 Again, it’s easy to see that if we knew exactly what would happen in competition, we could train in just one way over and over, like the group that only practiced serving to the spot that they were tested on. But fencing isn’t like that. It requires constant innovation and adaptation. If you can’t handle an opponent with unusual technique or someone who does something you’ve never seen in practice, you’re toast.
Unfortunately, most fencers still train in this more predictable structure. Just watch a group class or a private lesson. They’ll start with five lunges, then five advance-lunges, then five jump-lunges, or the coach will say, “I’m going to attack, and you should take parry 4 and riposte.”



It’s understandable why this happens—it’s the easiest way for coaches and fencers to plan a training session / fencing lesson, and it’s also a good way to help the student feel like they’re making progress. We feel good when we repeat a drill and finally do it correctly. Transferring those skills into our bouts, however, remains difficult because we may not have retained what we have learned or understood its practical applications. How often have you repeated a drill one day until you got it right, then, the next day, tried to do it again and felt as awkward as a cat with shoes on? As the study demonstrates, the more you drill skills in a varied and unpredictable order, the more likely it is that you will retain the core skill and be able to apply it under different circumstances—not just in your fencing lesson.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that training a particular technique in isolation is bad for you. If you’re learning a brand new skill, it’s important to practice it on its own at first just to get a feel for it and the basic technique down. But once you start feeling comfortable with it, you should try to progress to using it in increasingly more varied and unpredictable situations.

So how can you use this knowledge to make changes in your own fencing? If you’re just beginning and learning your parries, for example, it’s fairly straightforward. Rather than take parry 4 ten times, then parry 3 ten times, then parry 5 ten times (or 6, 7 or 8 for our foil and epee friends!), it would make sense to mix them up--take 4, then 3, then 5 twice, then 3 again, and so on.

If you’re more advanced, of course, this strategy still applies. Let me give a personal example. I would often make a plan for the day when doing my footwork that was divided into pieces: do attacks, then actions in the middle, then actions on defense. Within those, I would break it down more: for example, for my attacks, I would do ten long slow attacks, then ten fast attacks with a flunge, or for my actions in the middle I would practice simultaneous attacks, then distance parries, then attacks in preparation. I was still getting a lot of repetitions in, but after what we’ve learned today, it’s clear that this wasn’t the most efficient way for me to be learning. A better way would be to mix these all up--to do a long slow attack, then a distance parry, then a simultaneous attack, then two fast attacks with a flunge, then another simultaneous attack. You can even use your phone to record yourself saying which action to do next, to listen to while you practice.

The other important thing to take from these studies is the importance of varying even the way you do the same action. You aren’t always going to do the exact same advance-lunge every time in a bout--sometimes you will have to make it longer or shorter, or faster or slower. Again, you’ll get the most out of your training if you change this up as well. In the example above, every time I did a long slow attack, I could change up the overall length, the rhythm, what footwork I finished with, and what line I finished to. 

You can ask your coach to help you with this or find a partner to do drills with, but even if you’re practicing on your own, as I often would with my footwork, just doing your actions in a variety of ways in an unpatterned sequence is a big step up over how a lot of fencers train (including me for a long time!). Having an opponent to make you react in real time is very valuable, of course, and we’ll get more into drills that focus on this soon when we revisit Soren Thompson and the idea of open and closed skills.

This will definitely make your practice more challenging than just doing one thing ten times, then the next thing ten times. You don’t have to come up with all new drills to do in order for this to work; you can just add a little variety and randomness to the ones you’re already doing. Don’t be concerned if you don’t do as well at practice with this randomness as you did before; it will be harder at first but will pay off in the long run. Just remember, fencing is challenging and unpredictable. Shouldn’t you be training the same way?



*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE


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