Buy-in: Implicit Rules in Games and Drills

The idea of “buy-in” is something that I think a lot about when designing drills and games, so in this article I’d like to give a clear definition and breakdown of what I mean when I talk about buy-in. I don’t want to create a definition that everyone has to use, but this will be what I mean by “buy-in” when I use it in casual conversation about fencing and/or coaching. Basically, the idea of “buy-in” is how many rules or guidelines the activity has that are not explicitly stated. Explicit rules are not buy-in, they are just rules, and following them does not require buying into anything other than trusting that the training system will help you improve. In general I do not think buy-in is a bad thing in and of itself, but I think having too much of it can lead to negative results. Conversely, it is not avoidable to have some level of buy-in no matter what you are doing, and trying to eliminate it completely is probably an exercise in frustration and ultimately results in diminishing returns. 

Buy-in definition

So what do I mean when I say “buy-in”? In general I’m talking about implicit, usually unspoken rules that we follow when doing any activity in fencing, be it drills, games, or sparring. The clearest example I can think of right now is a cooperative drill where one person is feeding a strike and the other is performing a technique against it. This is a cooperative drill in which the feeder is helping the performer do the technique correctly. This requires massive buy-in from both sides, and here’s how:

Explicit rulesFeed a cut from above to the opponentPerform the prescribed technique that counters the cut
Buy-inFeeder has full control over whether or not the performer succeeds. 

Ways feeder can make the performer fail that they must avoid:
– Getting too close
– Doing a bunch of fake outs
– Cutting in a way that is not conducive to the technique working (IE covering the opening the counter is meant to hit)
– Going too fast

Additionally, they must avoid making it too easy or going too slow in order to make it satisfying for the performer, and so the coach doesn’t come over and tell them they are making the situation unrealistic.
Not doing anything other than the prescribed technique, even if it is not appropriate for the cut given

Not create a situation in which they will never realistically be hit (IE standing too far away)

Pretending they don’t know what the feeder is going to do

Clearly most of the buy-in is on the side of the feeder. The reason I call it “buy-in” is because you need to buy into your role as feeder. You are constrained by that role, but it’s up to you to figure out the exact parameters of those constraints. No one is going to tell you exactly how far away you need to hit from, how close is too close, what angle you need to cut for your cut to be successfully countered, or how fast you need to go so that the performer is neither frustrated nor bored. 

All of those parameters are governed solely by the club culture and goals, and the ability of the feeder to get a good sense of what they should be doing. If any of them are not correctly attuned, it leads to frustration for the performer. When someone complains that a feeder is trying too hard to “win” a drill, what that really means is they don’t think the feeder buys into the drill enough. 


One of the goals of game-based learning (be it CLA or direct instruction based games, but mostly CLA) is to reduce the amount of buy-in required for both fencers performing a drill. This solves the issue of people trying to win drills, because now we actually want people to try to win drills. It also helps solve the issue of implicit rules and unknown parameters by making the rules of the game and the constraints of each player explicit. As long as both fencers understand the rules correctly (which the coach must make sure they do), they know exactly what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do, and they are given free reign to try to act in their most optimal way within those parameters. 

Does this mean that all buy-in is eliminated? No, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. The most clear buy-in that still exists is that the fencers must follow the rules. If this happens then the coach needs to make sure they understand the rules, and if they do and continue to break them, then the drill is not useful. 

Secondly, depending on how abstract the game is, the fencers may choose to only use moves that they think are relevant to fencing, or that they think the coach wants them to do. This is an issue mostly with people who are not used to learning through games, but can happen to anyone. At least in the CLA model of learning through games, a big part of why they are useful is so that the athletes can explore their motor landscape and experiment with different movement solutions that they are not used to. If they are going into the drill trying to identify what they think the coach wants them to do and only doing that, then they are missing a large part of what makes the drill useful (and they will probably also lose a lot since they are doing the same thing repeatedly). 

On the other side of that coin, sometimes there are game breaking strategies to games that we do want people to avoid, and we don’t codify them in the rules because we don’t want edge cases making the rules excessively long. For example, in soviet foil drill (one person has a sword and tries to hit, the other does not and tries to avoid being hit), we try to slow the attacker down by saying they can’t cross their legs, but it is still possible that the attacker can simply be faster than the defender and win by rushing them down every time. This is technically not against the rules, but since it defeats the purpose of the game, we ask that people buy into the idea that you should avoid winning by outrunning your opponent, and I think that’s a reasonable ask.

Thirdly, fencers may adjust based upon the relative skill of their partner. An experienced fencer may choose to not go as hard against a less experienced or beginner opponent in order for the beginner to get some wins. I think this type of buy-in is fine, and necessary at times, as long as the experienced fencer doesn’t have to do it all the time and still gets in some meaningful reps of the game. This can even be helped sometimes, if the drill is self-scaling, which is a topic I’ll talk about in a later article.


The last form of buy-in that I’ll talk about is sparring. This one is a little bit harder to pin down, because each club will have its own culture, rituals, and styles built around sparring, and they may not even know what they are until they leave their club and spar with someone else who does things differently. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this, I think it’s unavoidable, just fencers should be aware that it exists. 

While there will be many small intangible things with style and what your club considers to be cheap or good, you should be aware of any major conventions that your club has that others might not. For example, do you allow takedowns or not, do you attack the legs or not, do you allow pommel strikes or not. These are all things that can lead to safety concerns if you end up somewhere that has different conventions. 


A tournament ruleset is where I feel the design should strive to rely on as little buy-in as possible. Unlike a fencing class setting, you have little control over who will join and what their intentions are. In this case, you can’t expect people to act in any particular way, and should clearly spell out your guidelines as much as possible. 


In general, I think it’s good to reduce the amount of buy-in that is required of your fencers in all aspects of practice. Too much can leave your fencers wondering if they are doing the right thing at any given time, and can lead to frustration and confusion on the part of their training partners if they do not get it right. On the other hand, some buy-in will always exist no matter what, and it’s basically impossible to eliminate it completely. I’m trying to think of what trying to eliminate it completely would look like, and I’m imagining books of detailed rules for every drill and sparring situation encountered in your club. Good luck getting people to explore their motor landscape when they’re busy reading article C subsection 3.2 clause 4 in your soviet foil drill rules.

Finally, your athletes need to buy into your coaching methods. They need to trust that what they are doing in class will make them improve at fencing in order for any of this to work. If that trust is not there, then people will do their own thing or not take your drills seriously no matter how much buy-in is required.