Are you getting the most out of your practice?

When we practice we hope to learn and improve (and beat our nemesis just for once). After all, if you keep improving and growing as a fencer, you can get joy out of our great sport for the rest of your life! However, we do not always practice with a clear focus and make the most out of the hours we spend on the piste. Here are some tips to change that.

In the early 1990s a research was carried out on the role of nature or nurture in the acquisition of expert skills. A study of 14 violinist carried out in Germany showed that the very best violin player had attained 10,000 hours of practice by age 20[1]. From this data many people concluded that you need to practice a lot to become the best. This is only partly true. What is more important to take away is that the practice needs to be high effort and relevant to improvement. Most of us do not have time to practice over 20 hours per week. Still, we can get the most out of the few hours we do have by fitting in deliberate practice routines and deliberate play.

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is what most people associate with training and all practice. We can divide all deliberate practice into three rough categories: part practice, block practice, and performance practice.

Part practice

Part practice means that you focus on a very specific aspect of your game. This is best suited to try and improve your technique and fundamentals. Start very slowly, preferably facing a mirror to check your movement, balance, and see what your opponent would see.

For example, in saber fencing I want to be able to make a preparing (half) advance on allez and quickly advance-lunge into an opponent’s preparation if they hesitate. First I break down the action into technical drills:

  1. A slight rotation and extension of the hand;
  2. A simultaneous half-advance;
  3. Finishing the advance by:
  1. normal placement of rear foot into a second advance and a lunge,
  2. close up the rear foot (heels almost touching) and lunge.
  3. a glide, stop and retreat (to make an attacking opponent fall short).

Then I practice making a slight rotation of my right hand and extension of my hand. Just enough to start and attack, but as little as possible to make sure that my opponent cannot catch my blade. I do this ten or twenty times over, slowly and always checking the mirrors both in front and side view. I use both views, as I want to know what the opponents sees, but also what the referee sees. Next I start adding the half advance, a try to time the feet and the hand to go simultaneous. If anything I want be sure that if my timing is off, it is my hand starting and not my feet. I repeat this slowly, again ten or twenty times while checking the mirror. Finally, I practice some full advances and lunges. Your focus should be internal, on the technique of each action.

Block practice

After you have completed your series of technical drills, you want to start adding complexity. In fencing, complexity is generally added by adding movement or follow-up actions.

So now that I have practiced the individual technical parts of the action, I start to put them into a sequence of actions. First five times finishing my advance as regular and adding a second advance and lung (option a). Then, I rehearse option b five times, and option c after. I do the series once more, but now adding acceleration toward the end of the action (the lunge or retreat). You can do this block practice facing a mirror or better yet a wall target. But it  is much more helpful to do this with a coach or sparring partner as they can offer a realistic, moving, but willing target.

In the block practice your focus start to shift to external, trying to score the touch. However, after each sequence you take a few moments to evaluate (internal focus). Pay particular attention to tempo and balance as they are the key ingredients to scoring a touch.

Performance practice

Now that you have practiced trying to hit a wall target or a willing opponent, it is time to create a more realistic scenario. Here, you really do rely on the help of a sparring partner or coach. You move like you would in a regular bout. So that means you need to call allez in saber or spend some time preparing with distance in foil and epée. Once you receive the appropriate cue, you can try to execute the technique that you have been working on. In my example, it would be that the coach shows hesitation (i.e. slows down slightly, or pulls his hand back) on his first advance which signals to me that I should make complete my advance and follow-up with an advance lunge (option a). Note that these cues should best be realistic signals that you may find in fencing a bout. In fact, what a coach really does in a 1 on 1 lesson is simulate an opponent who makes mistakes.

Deliberate play

The part, block, and performance practice above are part of so-called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is what most people associate training with. However, to really get the most out of your training you should not stop there. Instead, you should work on deliberate play also. This means that you give yourself an assignment in a practice bout or even in a competition. For example, try to score at least one touch out of five with the routines that you have been working on. This is the ultimate test of skill, since your opponent is not only a moving, unwilling target (like the performance practice). They are not even aware that they are presenting your cue!

How do I fit this into my training routine?

We have 2 hours of practice per session, starting at 21:00. The first 30 minutes are dedicated to warm-up and drills. This is where you can start your part practice. From 21:30 on suit up and you can start working with a teammate on the block practice and the performance practice. From 22:00 on you can start fencing practice bouts and give yourself an assignment. If you really want a competition element and add some stress, you could agree that the loser buys drinks.

I hope this help structure your training and get more out of the sparse practice hours. See you in the salle!