Gauging Improvement in Fencing

Most of us tend to carry simplistic notions of progress and improvement. This is as true when we talk of societal “progress” as it is a particular skill-set such as fencing. [1] In broad outline the idea of progressive improvement is not “wrong,” assuming that the topic is subject to the idea of progress (here defined as an increase in skill, knowledge, and ability over time), but on a day-to-day, functional level it wants for a lot. How we view progress, especially our own improvement in something, depends greatly on our attitude toward it. Happily we have considerable control in shaping that. I don’t mean this in some sort of pie-in-the-sky Professor Pangloss way, but in the sense that there are considerations, methods, and approaches to the idea of improvement that we have control over and that can do much to make the process much less painful. [2] This doesn’t mean free from aggravation. Frustration is a part of learning, not just at the beginning of acquiring new skill, but later too, and how we manage that is as much about how we think about it as anything else. How and what we think affects how we learn as well as our enjoyment of the subject.

A Conventional View of Progress

This is just a chart I made, inexpertly, using Word and Paint, but it illustrates an attitude toward improvement that many of us have. We often don’t even realize we’re applying it:

Usual View of Mastery
One Typical Way of Viewing Progress

Looks so simple, right? In this view, beginners start at the bottom, and through hard work, discipline, and time, increase their knowledge, skill, and ability, until they reach mastery. It’s a straight line up a steep slope. Length of climb depends on the gifts of the student, the talent of the coach, and access to practice. It’s deceiving. The slope is steep and long, but the way looks smooth. It isn’t.

Were this an impressionist painting this view is the one that we’d get from perhaps mid-gallery. We see the whole work. Beginners start with no experience, spend time and effort, usually with help, and in time and assuming good coaching, discipline, etc. they master the new skills. As we get closer to the painting, however, we see more detail, we see the brush strokes, the ways in which different colors mix, and up close it’s harder to see how all this chaos leads to the attractive image we see. It’s not as pretty, but, it’s important, for without all those details there is no painting. It’s these less attractive details and how they relate that produce the pleasant whole. We need to step closer to the painting, or in this case the chart, and examine in closely to appreciate it fully.

Plateaus of Progress

What follows is a closer look at the painting. Rather than view this as above, as a nice isosceles triangle with a smooth slope to success, we’ll look at it as if it were a stepped-pyramid or ziggurat consisting of uneven blocks. The way forward, in truth, isn’t easy, straight, or made in regular stages, but in moments of insight and break-through, in long plateaus of stasis, followed by another jump in ability. [3]

Plateau Final hopefully
Plateaus of Progress, a.k.a. the Ziggurat of Improvement

Like the first chart, the beginner [B] starts at the bottom, but improvement is illustrated in a slightly different way. Initially, the climb is vertical, long, and improvement is marked by sharp contrast as we hit the first plateaus in learning (the sharp, 90 degree corners). Over time, as we grow, those edges round off a bit (steps farther up have rounded edges): adding new skills is a little less difficult because we have a better sense of the geography. In time, some plateaus are shorter, we spend less time on them; we grow a little faster. It may take us a while to incorporate the new skills as they grow in complexity, but we spend less time between them (steps are taller, but distance between one step and the next is shorter). “Mastery” here is a guide, not a goal; the concept of it helps us strive to improve and add to our ability, but the more we learn the more we realize that there’s always more to learn, and, ways to deepen what we already know. There’s no top to the ziggurat—in Babel fashion it just reaches into infinite heights.

Looked at this way, with full recognition that the path of improvement is not straight, should make harder aspects of the process less painful. Some sections of the path are easier than others, some take longer to travel than others. It’s all part of it. We will struggle sometimes, we’ll make mistakes, we won’t understand, we’ll feel like we’ve added one skill only to lose another, and we will sometimes feel as if we’ll never get it. Knowing that this is to be expected, that there’s nothing wrong with you, that it’s not a question of talent, but of dedication, can help us get through the rough patches.

We Control Attitude

Attitude is thought. Whatever native self-confidence or self-worth issues we might have, however much we might struggle with imposter syndrome, whatever sense of grace or clumsiness we possess, whatever setbacks we have or identify as setbacks, how we think about it all makes a difference. It can take an “I’m no good at this” or “I can’t do this” and change it to “I’m still learning this” and “I can’t do this yet” (or better, “I’ll be able to do this soon”). Fencing, no matter what sort you’re pursuing, is difficult; it’s a complex way of thinking with movement. It takes time.

Bob Ross, the famous television painter, said “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do,” and he was right. [4] That fencer that you see whom you find gifted, who makes it all look easy, whose movement and tactics inspire, got where they are through hard work. Maybe they were precocious physically, but they too had to learn; they too made mistakes; they too struggled. They got to where they are because they didn’t give up. The best fencers recognize that the learning never stops.

An attitude that takes into account the mileposts, not just the destination, and realizes and accepts that parts of the path are bumpy, parts steep, parts easy, that some stretches are longer than others, will suffer less and get more out of the trip. Approached this way, it can be easier to focus on where you are now, on the new skill you’re working on, and not how much farther you have to go and all that you haven’t mastered. With practice, it’s possible not only to be present in the moment, focused on the task in front of you at this specific time, but enjoy it too. 

Theory and Practice

Theoretical approaches to pedagogy are informative, but how does one apply all this to the actual practice of fencing? There are two chief ways.

Macro Level

What I’ve shared above about a more useful way to consider improvement is the macro level. It’s the big picture. The whole painting seen from a distance. Put another way, it’s your life as a fencer from open to final curtain. When we hit a plateau in learning, when we feel like we’re not getting where we want to go as fast as we think we should, this is when a more realistic look at the big picture can help. It puts the present moment in context. We see that our current struggle is necessary, a key part of the journey, and importantly, that we’ll get past it and then work on another one.

Micro Level

This same ziggurat of improvement can help us with individual techniques, tactics, and maneuvers too. Just as our entire fencing life can be examined against this notion of improvement, so too can the acquisition of new skills. As an example, consider the simple cavazione/disengage in foil. When we first learn how to perform this, our actions are large and clumsy; our arms might not be extended. We pick the wrong time and distance to use it. Over time, with practice, we make smaller evasions; the action is tighter; our arms are more extended; we use thumb and forefinger more than arm. We start to select the right moment (where time and distance converge with judgment) to use it. The technique, the cavazione here, is now part of our repertoire.

Setting Expectations

This idea of plateaus of improvement assists us in setting realistic expectations and goals. Our expectations affect our performance, so developing a pattern that preempts the downside of frustration only helps us. Used on the macro and micro levels it helps us manage long- and short-term learning goals. It is also a kinder way to appreciate our improvement, because it’s easier to see each stage in context, as part of a much larger whole. Both student and instructor can benefit from this perspective [5].

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” (ca. 1818), by Caspar David Friedrich [6]

Recognition of the reality of the road of improvement won’t erase frustration, but it can mitigate it. If nothing else one can look back over the climb they’ve made to date, realize how far they’ve come, how hard they’ve worked, and that today’s tough plateau is just one step in a series of plateaus we’ve already conquered and those yet to come. There’s an odd mix of satisfaction and determination in such moments. It builds confidence. It can be the one thing on a tough day that helps us with make the next leg of the journey. 

Macro & Micro Expectations

  • Expect learning new things to take time
  • Expect to improve with practice
  • Expect certain maneuvers to make more sense later
  • Expect to make mistakes & that it’s part of the process
  • Know that you have all you need to succeed
  • Know that you will improve
  • Know that your benchmark is not others, but yourself yesterday

Addendum, 10-24-19:

A fellow local fencer, and a chap who also teaches, shared some feedback with me about this piece. I want to share it in full here as it will speak more to those with experience than my attempt to reach a wider audience does. Most of the comment only restates, in more technical language, the point I was making, but he shares an idea there that I think is worth adding. Thank you Will P. for your feedback =)

“A very approachable explanation of a non-intuitive and important topic, thanks for writing it, Jim BT Emmons, and to Mike Cherba for sharing. Some feedback, though. As a preface, It’s a given that any concept involving humans is going to be complex enough that one has to strike a compromise between detail and actually getting something written, but there are two concepts that I think are fundamental enough to be worth knowing even in an overview. First, improvement comes in the complementary forms of expanding understanding and skill building. Skill-building follows an exponential decay pattern while understanding follows a step pattern (like in your diagram). And they inter-relate in that skill-building is capped by understanding while gains in understanding often require a certain threshold of skill in order to be meaningful. Putting the two together, and you get something like a ziggurat with heavily rounded corners, where the upwards movement is skill-building that gradually slows down until a new insight occurs that allows it to speed up again. Second, and more important for beginners to understand, is that progress (as can be seen externally) can be very different from the experience of progress, where the latter looks a more like the Dunning-Kruger curve: one feels like one is improving rapidly as a mysterious thing becomes comprehensible, followed by a period where one feels like one is getting worse (as the full scope of the skill becomes apparent), followed by a slow build (as one’s perception finally starts to align with reality). ” [source, NW Armizare, fb page, 10-23-19]

Will’s second point here, that experience of progress in oneself very often looks much different than that of a coach or other fencers, is important. Perspective changes with experience, and for newer fencers it can be easy to believe that one is doing technique X well when in fact one is only doing it marginally better than yesterday. This isn’t bad, but knowing that our own estimation of where we are, especially at the beginning, is important. I can attest to this well myself, though the example (one of many alas) is a little embarrassing. In my first year of competition, as the third string sabreur on my college squad, I left one bout of however many I fought that day convinced I’d won. Everything seemed to go well, better than well, and yet… I kept losing the touch. In this particular bout I think I managed 1-5. In discussion later, my coach at the time remarked that I had made some of the actions well, better than before, but at the wrong time or in the wrong context. Looking back on that now, some 30 years later, I know far better what he meant. Anyway, be kind to yourself, give yourself room to screw up, and keep fencing!



[1] There’s not room enough to discuss the idea of “progress” or its failings, but if you’re curious the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a decent summary:

[2] Pangloss, a caricature of the philosopher Gottfried W. Leibniz, is the ever-optimistic tutor of Candide in Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph (1759).

[3] In the process of editing this, and looking for typical charts for fencing improvement, I found a very similar idea if, in my opinion, less well spelled out 😉 [the link here has issues, so look up academyoffencingmasters, blog, and small-steps-big-progress and you should find it.

[4] Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, “Meadow Lake” (Season 2, Episode 1).

[5] My plan for the next essay is on dealing with criticism/assessment of skill as fencer, instructor, and researcher.

[6] Photo obtained from

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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