Strip coaching

The other day I was watching sports news. Dutch top tennis player Kiki Bertens (ranked 10th in the world at the time) had beaten Wimbeldon winner Angelique Kerber (ranked 2nd). The result was exceptional, as Bertens fought her way back from a 1-0 deficit in sets to win 1-2, after being down 2-1 in games in the second set. What really caught my attention was what her coach, Ramon Sluiter, said to her during the break in between the 3rd and 4th game of the second set. Everything he did and said was pure strip coaching gold. We can learn from that and apply it to fencing.

Sluiter’s strip coaching gold

The Dutch newspaper NRC published a transcript of the conversation between Sluiter and Bertens[1]. To me, there were a few key moments and things that happened in their exchange.

First off, Sluiter invited Bertens to open up: “Talk to me.” To which Bertens replied: “How should I go on?”

Sluiter: “How should you go on?”

Bertens: “Yeah, I don’t know anymore.”

Sluiter: “How did you win the last few points?”

Bertens: “By attacking.”

To me this is the first key part of strip coaching. You only have 1 minute to coach between periods. During that time the fencer needs to catch their breath, reflect, come up with potential tactics and a game plan for the next few points. Moreover, during a bout any fencer can realistically process two, maybe three, key pieces of advice. Many coaches start by sending lots of information at their fencers. This is, in my opinion, counterproductive. What you can and should do as a coach is focus the reflection and analysis process — the athlete has to do the work themselves.

What Sluiter does really well in the exchange above is that he invites Bertens to start the reflection process herself, even though she would prefer to give that responsibility to her coach (that way you are not to blame if you lose, right?). Instead of giving her comfort, he challenges her a bit, trying to activate her tactical skills.

This is met with a bit of resistance from Bertens’ side, though:

Bertens: “Should I go for it or not?”

Sluiter: “So just go now. Start making it simple. Accept that you will miss a few more.”

This is the only tactical advice Sluiter offers. It is actually straightforward: attacking worked, so attack some more. Bertens is not so easily convinced though:

Bertens: “I am missing right now.”

Sluiter: “Well, there you have it. Solve it yourself. […/…]Try to be more active. More active in your choices. That is how you won those last few points. Accept that you will miss some, but go, really go. And give yourself that nod if you miss, but miss after making the right choice. Play that way, everything that you will play in that way. Make a choice, stick with it. Yeah?”

Bertens nods. Time is up.

Sluiter’s final comment  is where the magic truly happened. Sluiter reframes the misses and offers Bertens guidance on how to boost her confidence. Not all bad results (misses) are due to poor performance. A higher number of misses can be the result of a high risk/high reward tactic. This is fine as long as you score more points than you lose that way. After the time out, Bertens’ mindset changed from playing not to lose, to playing to win. More importantly, Sluiter put a sense of control over her game back into Bertens’ own hands. He does this by suggesting Bertens reuse the mental reinforcement that she uses after she scored a point (a nod). By using the positive mental reinforcement on a performance goal (making a choice and sticking with it) that is entirely in Bertens’ hands, good performance is internally rewarded even if there was no score. Keep performing well and scores will follow after. If not in this match, then the next.

How does this translate to fencing?

In fencing, like in tennis, scoring a touch is also up to the opponent, not just the fencer. However, the performance of a fencer is entirely up to themselves. So if they do not score a touch, or even get scored against, they may be satisfied with the action if it was the right action according the tactical plan. By adding a positive reinforcement, the fencer can create a more optimistic outlook on the bout and remain confident. This relates to perhaps the most important and difficult part of strip coaching: inspiring self-confidence. There is no magic bullet to inspire confidence. It needs to be nurtured with practice, perseverance, and success. Ingraining positive reinforcements during practice (like Bertens’ nod) is an important part of it.

You may have noticed that offering technical pointers (e.g. “your hand movement is too big”) has not been discussed until now. That is because there are very, very few people who can alter their technique during a bout and while under pressure. Moreover, discussing technique makes the fencer internally focused, while they should be focusing externally – on the opponent – during a bout. Technique is something to work on during practice, not on game day.

Takeaway messages

  1. Invite the fencer to start talking. Strip coaching does not mean that the coach does all the talking. Instead the coach guides the thought process of the fencer.
  2. Limit your advice to simple tactical suggestions like: “attacking worked, keep attacking.”
  3. Focus on mental reinforcement and performance goals: “Give yourself a nod every time you made the correct choice, even if you missed.”

Some practical tips for strip coaching

This is the way you can structure your precious one minute, realistically 40 seconds, of strip coaching time:

  • Start by inviting the fencer to talk.
  • If necessary, ask what is working for them.
  • If necessary, ask what is working for their opponent.
  • Offer your own analysis of the opponent.
  • Help come up with a plan:
    1. How to avoid what is working for the opponent;
    2. How to force the opponent into what is working for the fencer.
  • Ask the fencer to summarize the plan.

Strip coaching is a skill, and like all skills it can and should be practiced. How you can practice strip coaching is a topic for another time.

Also give this article a read, it offers some more practical tips and suggestions: