Resilience and creativity may not be the most lauded skills in fencing, but they probably deserve to be included among the virtues traditionally associated with it. Despite Covid-19, storms, fires, political upheaval, and much more, fencers have still found ways to study and train. The pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to pursue the Art, from sharing solo drill footage to various online meetings. In a sense it’s an ideal time to work on self-improvement because most of us can’t congregate yet. We have time to expand our knowledge, increase our skill-base, and hone ability. It can help to have goals with this–this past week I started an extended course via the USFCA (the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association), online, and though we’ve only met once it’s clear to me just how valuable this class is going to be.
One thing I have always told students, be it in college courses or during fencing lessons, is that we never stop learning (we shouldn’t anyway). A teacher is first a student and if they’re smart they remain one. I have probably expressed this different ways, ad nauseum, in most settings, but it’s because I believe it’s true. Even if we have something down well and have taught it umpteenth times someone else may know a way to improve our approach. There’s always more to learn or new ways to do what we already do well. Every instructor should take time to continue their education–it’s important.
Interacting with new people, and especially a new maestro, can be difficult for many people, but for those of us farther along the introvert spectrum it can be down-right daunting. Luckily, a good friend alerted me to this course and is taking it himself–it turns out that two other people I know are as well, one a local coach, the other a master in California. I was nervous going into the class, partly because of the social interaction (something quarantine has done little to help), partly because despite using a lot of technology I tend to struggle with these online meeting platforms, and partly because as someone who has focused on historical fencing, who has had a challenging relationship with competitive fencing, it’s easy to feel out of place. Turns out there’s a lot that can tag along with that last one.
One Art, Many Paths
Like many people, I started teaching fencing when assigned the task by a maestro. The last two masters I studied with, both of whom I spent a fair amount of time with, asked me to help newer students or assist their more advanced fencers prep for an event. Dutiful and honored I did my best. I enjoy teaching and the chance to do so was fun, but teaching is also critical in improving our own ability and knowledge. Having to teach something goes beyond being able to do it–we have to understand it. I didn’t want to disappoint my maestri or steer my fellow students the wrong way. They trusted me to do a good job or they wouldn’t have asked me, but that doesn’t mean I felt up to the task every time.
My approach to teaching is, more or less, what I saw my own teachers do. This goes for everything: the sections of a lesson, the types of drills, the various cues–verbal and physical–we use, everything. In time, we develop our own style, we tweak this or that perhaps, but this method is by definition often informal, organic, and implicit rather than explicit. Feedback from those same masters helped, as does time in the saddle, but just how different this is from formal instruction in how to teach hit me hard last week.
This course is the first “how to teach” course in fencing I’ve taken. The maitre d’armes teaching it, a highly-respected, published, and extremely well-trained instructor, hit the ground running day one. He put names to things, gave explanations, and explained a lot of what we do as fencing instructors, things I have done but never really thought about. If that class had been the only one in the series it would still would have been extremely valuable, but to know that I have weeks and weeks of similar instruction coming is exciting. It’s also intimidating.
The course in question is on epee/spada, the weapon of the modern three I’ve had the least training in, but which I have fought quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about it, both in terms of its development as a distinct weapon and with regard to modern tactics. In addition to improving my teaching I hope to gain further insight into the weapon. Often tackling the hardest aspect of a challenge first makes sense, so epee being the least familiar to me, it’s a good place to start.
Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8
The cosmos, if we’re paying attention, has a funny way of ensuring that we stay humble. Of the various gaffs in the universe’s comedic toolbox one of the most painful (if sometimes amusing) has to be self-sabotage. We can be our own worst enemies, and moreover, in different ways. In my case, the first homework assignment for the epee course put the spotlight on a prime example of this, and for spice, on multiple levels.
It may seem odd to share this, but to date I have found that sharing tales of failure as well as success isn’t just honest, but sometimes helpful. How, for example, is a student going to know it’s okay to make a mistake if we can’t admit our own? Maybe they will learn to harness failure or missteps without our help, but it sure might save them some pain if they have a model for how one might do that. As teachers we don’t expect or look for perfection, just improvement. Part of our role, I think, is making it okay to mess up, to fail, or as common parlance has it, “to suck.” We need to be able to be bad at something first if we wish to get better at it. I don’t think this is a one time deal either, but a reoccurring process we experience at various plateau moments in learning. I am not one to boast and it makes me uncomfortable when others do it–the culture I grew up in considered such behavior ugly–but I will say that I’ve been fencing a long time, teaching a long time, and I make mistakes too. I will make more. It’s part of learning. So, while the following story may read as more humiliating than illuminating, that’s okay–if it makes it even slightly less painful for anyone else to mess up, then great. Sharing this example also sticks it to my own ego, the root of the problem, and that is healthy as well.
In my own most recent example, I was intrigued but puzzled by the maestro’s homework assignment. I understood it, I thought, and it struck me as odd, but I assumed I more or less knew what he wanted so didn’t follow up with him. I should have. I always tell students to ask questions, and, that no question is stupid in class. Better to ask than not.
He had asked us to make a video where we coaches devise two responses against the student as the student recovers from the lunge. It will likely be immediately obvious to many reading this that after having shared these two options one would have the student demonstrate counters to them. I mean, that is what we do each time we teach, right?, we take them from this action to the next, sometimes building complexity, or changes of tempo, or working distance and the student eventually makes the touch.  Even with Covid I teach three times a week and never make this mistake. Well… I took the instructions rather literally.
Why? I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few days to think about it and I think I’ve figured it out. First, in the past when a maestro has given me an instruction I have carried it out, and, normally without question. If they said “okay, now do x, but in this tempo…” I did it; if they said “Help Sarah with transports,” I did it. In silent lessons they wouldn’t say anything and I had to figure it out from physical cues, precedent, or deduction based on principles. This may sound rather military in obedience or thoughtless, but it isn’t really. Two of the masters I worked with were retired military officers, and having grown up in that culture it’s comfortable if not natural to me, but one reason I didn’t join the military was because I actually don’t take orders well.  It’s also part of traditional fencing culture–there is a time and place to ask the maestro about something, but normally one doesn’t when the sala is full, the maestro busy, and there is work to do. If the master pauses a lesson and calls to us, we answer, especially when they are asking for us to help.
The other issue, the critical one, was over-thinking. On the one hand, I tend to feel like I wear a scarlet “H” on my jacket when I’m around many Olympic fencers. If you’ve read any of the previous posts here that will make sense, but if you haven’t in summary leaving the competitive world for the historical doesn’t earn one a joyous send-off at the pub, but the finger and all too often a loss of respect. The three other people I know in the class, all with experience in a variety of branches of fencing, also have more formal training in teaching fencing.  When we feel like the odd one out our brains can go crazy places–in this case, I focused too much on what the assignment said and not what we were supposed to get out of it. I was more worried about what the instructor would think of me, that I might earn a larger letter “H,” than just demonstrating via that homework what I’d do in that instance. That rabbit hole leads to crazy town and interior monologues such as “Maybe it’s a test of sorts to see what we know or how we think? If so, then it’s okay to focus on that alone… or is it…” repeat. It’s a horrible place to be. The solution was simple, but I was too worried to think of it: it’s a class on teaching, so, if I gave a student A and B, what might they do with them?
Coming up with two options as the student recovered was not the problem, but in worrying more about getting it right I neglected the most important aspect–why do it at all, so what, why does this matter? The most important question was to consider why the maestro assigned this, what it was meant to impart. Even in the midst of feeling bad about it that irony wasn’t lost on me.
Part of the assignment was to take video of these actions. My eldest son, a wiz at all this technology stuff, helped me, as did my spouse, and I put together option one and option two. This is where another layer popped up–trusting our gut. It felt like a really weird place to stop: if it’s just me showing the option, then the student is hit, and well, that’s not really what we do. We set things up for the student to make the touch properly. I was afraid to trust myself, reassured myself that this is what he asked for, and submitted it. But, the rest of the afternoon I just kept thinking about it. It bothered me.
Later, in chatting with a friend in the class, he showed me what he and his student had done. It was all there. He shared his two options, and significantly, what his student might do to counter them. I knew it! Panic set in. Every scenario blitzed through my head, and in each one I was hounded out of class, the look of polite disgust of my fellow students blatant in their zoom boxes, the maestro shaking his head slowly, the mean jailor from “Games of Thrones” pointing at me and saying slowly “shame…. shame….”
What could I do? Maybe nothing this time, but I needed to do something to change my mindset. I asked my son if he’d be willing to add an additional move; he was; so, we made another short video and I explained in it that I’d left out the most important part, where the student defeats those two options. The maestro saw it, and in discussion about it was kind, generous, and full of helpful feedback.
Teacher, Teach Thyself and Be Taught
I’d broken my own rule, the one by which I do most everything now, which was to leave ego out of it. I was so worried that I’d put it a poor showing, that I would mess up, that I would look stupid, etc., that I fulfilled the fear or at least felt that I did. Anyone who has weathered disappointment or failure ideally is better able to handle them the next time, and while it took a while to shake off the feeling of embarrassment, of letting myself down, and all the rest, when I could finally see it objectively I was glad it had happened. Having screwed up, what could I learn from it?
Too much concern over how we’ll be received or viewed, of what others will think, not only can taint an experience, but also prevent an experience from happening. Fear of censure or failure, worry about making a mistake or looking stupid, all of that can prevent us from doing the things we need to do, things we like to do, things we should do. Not the karmic burden I would have picked, but it’s hardly unique to me. Many if not all of us suffer this at one time or another.
We need to give ourselves, and sometimes be reminded…, that it’s okay to be new to something, to mess up, to be vulnerable. If we stumble, we get back up; if we fall again, we get back up. Ever forward.
If there is one thing more I learned it’s that being in this class, learning new things, and well… re-learning some of these same lessons again…, is precisely where I’m probably supposed to be. I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ll learn more, and really, that’s the point.
 The exception to allowing the touch is when a student performs the action incorrectly; in this case the attack may fail or we ensure that it does, and then examine why. All of that is geared toward helping them perform the correct action the right way and gain the touch.
 It’s a long story and not particularly interesting, but I had all but completed the initial ROTC courses at my first college and the commander met with me to figure out the next step. When I told him my major, he paused then said “Huh… well… um… let’s put down ‘undecided’ for now” and I realized then and there I was going to be a poor fit.
 These are three people I respect a great deal and whose friendship I value. The master in California is equally at home in Olympic, HEMA, and the SCA, and a super cool chap on top of it all; the local instructor, an old friend I’ve fenced with off and on for over a decade, and I were going to start on our certs together, but things happen and he started last year; and last, a good friend of mine and fellow devotee of Italian fencing is the one who told me about this class–he has taken a variety of courses, at Sonoma, in the USFCA, and in Europe.