Reflection cycle for fencing

In previous blogs I talked about Strip Coaching and Getting the Most Out of Your Practice. Both topic require you to be able to honestly and critically reflect you performance. To help you improve the reflection process I will introduce a model that is often used in education: the Reflection Cycle.

Why use a model for reflection?

In all likelihood you are implicitly reflecting on what you are doing all the time. Something along the lines of “that match went really well” or “I fenced like shit with feet” may sound familiar. But “what exactly went really well” or “why did you feel that you performed badly” are questions that are usually harder to answer. If you cannot identify the parts of your game that are strong and weak, you cannot set training goals accordingly. Moreover, you would not know what you can best do or avoid in a match. Having a system to reflect lets help you set goals for training and create a game plan for a bout. In turn, knowing that you are working  on the issues that are important to your progress as a fencer, and knowing what you need to do to maximize your chances of winning are important confidence boosters when your skills are put to the test.

The reflection cycle

This reflection cycle was proposed by Korthagen who in turn based it on the learning cycle proposed by Kolb. The four phases of reflection are characterized by the following questions:

ActWhat were my goals?

What did I want to try?

What did I want to pay attention to?

Look backWhat happened?

What did I think?

What did I feel?

What did I do?

Create awarenessWhat did it mean to me?

What did I discover?

Develop alternativesWhat are my options?

What are the pros and cons?

What will I keep doing?

What will I do differently?


This is all about your goals. Without having a clear goal at the start of a bout, tournament, or practice your reflection is going to be far less effective. However, even if you have not pre-determined your goals, you will always be able to figure out what your implicit goal was after the fact. By starting to ask yourself (or your teammate) the question: what did you want to do? The important first step towards reflection is taken.

For example, you may want to work on attacking into your opponent’s preparation. You could try to focus on their footwork and distance. If they lift their front foot and step to close, you can launch your attack to punish their mistake of coming to close without launching an attack.

Look back

It may seem obvious, but this is actually the hardest part about reflection to do honestly. Often we are either too strict or too lenient on ourselves. The four questions listed are intended to help create a more objective and realistic judgment of your performance. Answer them all four and in the order presented above! It is hard to tease apart events from thoughts and emotions. However, you should really try to, as your thoughts and emotions can have a profound impact on your performance. By practicing this step with these questions alone, you are strengthening you mental game.

If we go back to the example, you may have found that sometimes the attack worked, but sometimes you got touched against. The times that you scored, your opponent had their hand back still. However, when you were touched against, your opponent executed a proper lunge, starting from their hand. What did you think? How did you feel? Did you become frustrated, or anxious?

Create awareness

This is where you are triggered and challenged to gain new insights about the way you approach the game and yourself. What may be helpful is to compare and contrast situation where your performance was what you aimed for to situations where you failed to perform. What were the differences? How can you recognize those in the next bout or training session?

Perhaps, you were overly focused on the footwork and attacked into proper attack, rather than into a preparation. Maybe you got upset that the action did not go as planned, and you  tried to force the attack rather than trusting your body to react the way it needs to.

Develop alternatives

This is where you get to be creative and try to break the mold. Figure out what works for you. You can ask others for input. Obviously, you could ask your coaches. But also pick the brain of an experienced fencer, for example. However, remember that styles vary between people. What works for them might not work for you. Other sources such as YouTube or even completely other sports may also be worth checking out.

In our example, you may want to try talking to someone at the club who uses attacks into preparation a lot in their game. What are they looking for? What types of opponent do they use the action on, and when do they stop using it?

Performance goals versus results goals

Finally, I would strongly recommend that you reflect on what kind of actions you want to practice and improve. Fencing is an open-ended sport where the outcome of an action or match is not only determined by you, but also by your opponent. Therefore, focusing on a score or winning will set you up for disappointment. More importantly, if you start working on key weakness of your game, expect your scores to be lower initially! If you focus on scores too much, this will leave you discouraged and it will stymie your learning. Scores follow from continuous improvement of your performance.

Practice set-up

In order to accommodate performance oriented practice, training nights are going to look a little different. Starting this Monday the program will be as follows:

21:00 to 21:05 Announcements

21:05 to 21:20 General warm-up 

21:20 to 21:30 Specific practice (technique/speed/explosiveness)

21:30 to 21:35 Suit-up

21:35 to 22:15 Sparring bouts 

No score keeping. At least one other fencers acts as a ref and/or coach (also for épée). The focus is to practice technique, tactics, to explore out-of-the-box actions. You can agree on a format with your opponent (e.g. no parries, only in-fighting, etc). 4 minutes per bout, 1 minute to change, so 5 minutes total per round. Timekeeping will be central and through the PA system at the salle. A fencer can be no more than 2 consecutive bouts on the piste. When you are not fencing you are either refereeing, strip-coaching, taking a lesson, or doing weapon maintenance.

22:15 to 23:00 Free practice

Still plenty of time for your grudge matches and competition style practice. I strongly encourage people to put in some side bets (e.g. who is buying drinks) for one of their matches to help create some competition pressure.