Articoli di Giancarlo Toràn, La Frase Schermistica

The fencing lesson

Coach, may I have some lesson?


Behind this question, and the answers it generates, there is a world few people are aware of: neither the “outsiders”, nor the users. Sometimes, even the coaches themselves are not fully aware of all that “passes” through their lesson. I was about to say “that they impart”, but I corrected myself in time: what passes goes towards both directions: from coach to pupil, and from pupil to coach. The difference is that the coach is – should at least be – aware of what is happening, during and around a lesson.

Let’s start with the aims. The pupil wants to learn a new game, improve themself, win more, and relies on the coach. One rarely has a precise idea of what they desires, and here we have to make a preliminary distinction based on the age and maturity of the student. The child trusts completely, he knows nothing, he wants to have fun, and often the most important thing for him is to receive the attention of the coach. The adult is more aware of their shortcomings, and can come to have lesson with more specific requests. To these are always added the evaluations of the coach, that will guide the work towards the most effective direction.


The lesson, however, is certainly not just a matter of fencing technique, as many might think. The matter is much wider, and ends up involving the entire organization of the fencing hall, with all the problems related to the territory, the budget, the availability of people, and aims. Too large a topic for an article like this, so I’m enforced to simplify.


A scheme I find useful is the one that identifies the four sectors of intervention, from which we take the ingredients that the coach will dose, in their personal recipe, according to convenience:


the physical sector (phisically training lesson);

the technical sector (technical lesson);

the tactical sector (tactical lesson);

the psychological sector (motivational lesson).


I believe that in the single lesson, as well as in a cycle of lessons, all these elements must always be present, obviously to a very variable extent.


This also applies to the group lesson: a kind of work that can be considered less effective from a technical point of view, but can also have great value for its socializing effects, for team spirit, for emulation. Let’s start from here.


The group lesson can “work” in different ways.


  • Individual movements (without opponent or partner in exercises), with or without holding a weapon. The coach controls the entire group, gives the necessary explanations and commands, corrects verbally and quickly, shows the movement by giving a sample, or using a more experienced pupil. Hence the importance, for the coach, of knowing how to perform the movement correctly, and knowing how to explain it concisely but clearly. For example, it’s not speed that matters, but formal and linguistic accuracy: conditions, by the way, also required for the coaching exams. This type of lesson mainly affects the physical sector, being able to vary its duration and intensity. The technical aspects are connected mainly, but not exclusively, to the movements of the legs, and coordination, with all the limits that can be guessed. Many refer to this kind of work, or to an aspect of this work, calling it “fencing footwork”.


  • Exercises in pairs, without a weapon. Attention is paid mainly to the distance. pairs should vary often, and when the group is not homogeneous, because the individual skills are very different, it may be appropriate to choose to pair students with similar ability, for a better result in the exercise; or pair the best with the less good, giving the former the role of coaches, and thus encouraging individual bonds and a sense of responsibility. To effectively teach something one needs first to understand it, and then ask themself questions: a very educational step in the growth of the


  • Exercises in pairs, with the weapon. Very useful both from a technical and coordinating point of view, and to get familiar with the clearness of the fencing gesture: giving the blade, engaging, inviting, following a pre-established, more or less complex pattern. In this case, there’s also the need to collaborate, the willingness to let oneself be hit, the difficulty of giving the blade correctly for some types of actions, constant attention to the distance. It is also necessary to wear the proper protections, or to choose equipment, such as the plastic one, that does not produce painful effects, thus eliminating the pleasure and usefulness of exercise. For more complex and realistic actions, with regular fencing weapons, individual lesson is

The individual lesson, necessarily followed by the experience of the bout and of the competition, is a determining feature of the technical training, but it also involves a limit that is difficult to overcome in  order to make ends meet in the fencing halls: a quality lesson to a good level fencer could last for long, limiting the number of lessons that a coach can give during the day, and therefore, in the end, the number of pupils he can effectively pay attention to. Working in the context of a fencing hall and of its needs is completely different from working, for example, for a national gathering.


Having said that, and limiting ourselves to the traditional aspect of the individual lesson, the coach must have clear in mind the aims of that specific lesson, in order to dose the ingredients of the four sectors identified above. Let’s clarify them a little more in detail.

  • The phisically training lesson involves greater duration and intensity, less attention to technical, tactical and motivational aspects: which translates into greater tolerance to execution errors, whose frequent correction would lead to a decrease in the intensity of the


  • The technical lesson concerns the correct execution of actions. There are different schools of thought in this


o The classical lesson tends to make the student adhere to an execution model that the coach considers correct and effective, according to a logical progression. The master decides the action and the starting measure, and repeatedly checks the details. The limits of this kind of lesson, which also produced many excellent fencers in the past, are due both to the fact that not all students are able to adapt to a predetermined model; and the fact that fencing is constantly changing, and no one is sure – today more than yesterday – of which is the right model. In addition to fencing, and the speed with which it’s expressed on the piste, fencers have changed too: generally less disciplined than in the past, less willing to prolonged concentration and repetitiveness of actions.


The modern lesson – this way I’ll call it- could be defined also as a stimulating lesson or a go-and-see lesson. A kind of lesson that, unlike the previous one, has the coach “moving” back and forth on the piste, while making the pupil perform the actions, and so getting tired faster, especially with better pupils. When the first attempts of getting away from the classical lesson came out, someone called it also global lesson or mute lesson. Each naming catches some aspects, without entirely explaining it. In this kind of lesson –


better to say “those kinds”, for the various possible interpretations – the coach proposes often different stimuli, leaving the pupil much more free of finding themself their own solutions, actually encouraging them to find one. A limit to this kind of lesson, as in the previous one, is given by the fact that the initiative is kept in the hands of the coach. Another limit lies in the fact that it doesn’t exist a precise codification of the process, if not on a very general level, while it does for the classical lesson. So, someone talked about a “non-method”, thus making much difficult to explain and most of all communicate an effective process. One ends up copying what they understand, and letting alone the rest, that often is the most important part. Or sometimes neglecting the importance of a theory, i.e. of a neat description of the whys and wherefores of actions, positions and movements.

The tactical lesson tries to overcome these problems, working precisely on the whys and wherefores, on the observation of the opponent’s characteristics, on the logical consequences of previous actions, on the ability to prepare someone’s own action. One works on the perception of time, and therefore on the counter-attacks, the countertime and the second intention. You learn to interpret the slightest revealing signals of the opponent’s intentions, to avoid revealing your own, and to communicate misleading signals: the grammar and syntax of fencing communication on the piste.


  • The motivating lesson is a new term that seems appropriate to me, as a consequence of the initial subdivision. It requires from the coach a careful evaluation of the characteristics and possibilities of the pupil in front of him, and in that precise situation. The assigned task must be stimulating: difficult but surmountable, and the coach must know how to graduate the difficulty, and use positive reinforcement rather than


As mentioned earlier, a lesson always includes all four ingredients. It is up to the coach knowing how to dose them, with competence and sensibility. Qualities that are refined over time, as long as the desire to learn and improve is always alive. The schemes, such as the one illustrated here, initially serve to bring order, to frame the subject, to have guidelines. Then, inevitably, they must be abandoned. We move from method to “non-method” because the sensitivity of the coach has grown, and they no longer relies on memory, but on the present situation


Translation and cover image by Isabella Panzera, whom I thank.

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