Introducing Students to Fencing through a Constraints-Led Approach

When talking about using an environmental approach for coaching, one of the first questions which people bring up is typically aIong the lines of “ok so that sounds like it might work well for more advanced fencers, but how would you handle a newbie? Surely you have to teach them techniques first, right?”. Well, no, it turns out you don’t. Instead, if you’re able to spend some time working 1:1 with your new student, you can introduce a bunch of basic fencing ideas very quickly and without ever prescriptively teaching anything.

Here’s the framework I use when I’m working with a new student:

  • Give them a sword. Have them swing it in the air a couple of times, optionally show them a simple descending cut to copy. I give absolutely no technical feedback at this point — literally anything they do is ‘ok’.
  • Put on a fencing mask and take my own sword. Get them to hit me with that descending cut, arms only, no step. Repeat a few times.
  • Step a little bit out of distance. Tell them to hit me again, so they step forward and hit. Repeat a few more times.
  • Instead of just standing still slightly out of distance, start to move around a bit. Again, their job is just to hit me.
  • If they start stepping super close without hitting, then I might sometimes do my cut first instead. This will be a gentle smooth cut, just to make contact. Now they learn that they need to come in with their weapon as defense, not just get as close as possible.
  • If they start cutting from very far away, then I start to make simple parries on those long cuts. Now they begin to learn that the attack needs to be closer if they want to avoid my defensive action.
  • Once we’ve got both of those options used a bit, then I’ll start to add simple ripostes. They’ll probably also start to invent feints as an idea to get round my attempted parries.
  • Further stuff gets built on from this. Maybe I’ll go for a longpoint style guard and see if they can beat my sword out of the way to get an opening to hit. Maybe I’ll start to launch my attacks from further away so they can parry + riposte, and then we can see things like ‘counter-riposte’ get invented for free. Etc.

While the exact speed of progression will depend on the physical literacy / proprioception of your new student, the whole process can typically be done as outlined in well under half an hour. One thing which helps speed this up is that you don’t need to get them doing one action ‘perfectly’ to move on to another step. Sure their cut might be questionable, but it’s probably good enough that they can try to hit someone moving around, so give them that puzzle now.

When you’re taking the coaching role in this form of training, there are some key ideas to bear in mind that help make it as productive as possible for your student. The rules I use for myself are:

  • This is never presented as a competition, it’s a problem solving exercise for them to explore
  • The consistent rules are ‘hit and don’t be hit’. Everything else is added implicitly
  • New challenges are built naturally from what’s already happening
  • There is very little technical feedback or prescriptive instruction
  • I try to keep my actions reasonably consistent – what distance I’ll try and attack first, what distance I’ll try and parry from vs let them hit, what body language signals the action I’m about to take, etc.
  • They are never ‘wrong’ if they hit. I just make sure that if I don’t like an action they’re trying to use, it doesn’t work in future.

If someone gets stuck on one particular puzzle, I’ll just drop that idea for a bit and circle around to something else. As the more experienced fencer, I can exert a lot of control over what sort of actions are being used and what sort of situations are occurring, often without needing to interrupt their flow with explicit changes to the rules.

Sometimes they’ll interrupt the game and ask “how do I deal with that?”. My usual first piece of advice is “try doing it, and then see what I try”. They can use that idea repeatedly — any time they get stuck with solving a problem, they give me the problem and see what solution I come up with, then they copy that solution for their own part and see what makes it work/fail. Imitation is an incredibly powerful learning tool.