Preparing the coach and athlete for fencing competitions

U.S. fencing coaches observe a match between Chinese and Russian competitors at the Paralympic Games in London Sept. 4, 2012

by Ed Kaihatsu

Coaching involves a lot more than showing up at competitions and giving great fencing advice. In this short essay I will discuss what I have learned about preparing both my fencers and myself as a coach for important events. This is the third of a three-part piece on the critical aspects of coaching in fencing. Topics of other essays in this series include coaching at competitions and how to work with the fencing referee.

Preparation of the coach for fencing competitions

The coaches’ preparations for themselves are often overlooked.  It is the responsibility of the coach to always be prepared and be professional. Here are some fundamentals of which coaches should be aware:

Acknowledge that you are human

It doesn’t matter how good a coach you are if you do not tend to yourself. While we are professional coaches, we have to remember we are also human beings.

It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes we can be the ones with the bad mood or have a personal issue that can get in the way of focusing on our students or the situation at hand.

However, if it’s competition day, we can’t have “bad days” or be in bad moods, as this will negatively affect our fencers.  We must be the ones with the energy to guide, encourage and inspire our students to do their best from the beginning of their tournament to the end.

Our students will look to us for help.  We have to be emotionally present for them.  We have a job to do, and it is up to us to build and develop the best fencers within their individual capacities to succeed.

Tend to your well-being

Make sure you’ve had enough rest.  The better your students perform, the longer your day will be.  You need to be rested and fresh.  Just as your students arrive rested to fence hard in pools and win the final, you must be equally prepared from warm up to gold medal bout, day after day.  Remember, your students fence only their event, but as a coach, you may have several events with different starting times in one day. You have to be rested and ready for each event!

Make time to eat! Grabbing a quick meal or nutrition bar will help you be better for your students and keep you energized. Skipping lunch will cost you later in the day.  I find parents can be a great help if I don’t have time to get food.  Just make sure to ask parents whose children aren’t fencing that day or are on long breaks. At the same time, you can make sure your students are also getting the right nutrition and hydration they need between pools and the DE tableau and between DE bouts.

Start to recognize signs of your own fatigue.  After many years of coaching, I learned how to recognize when I was tired, such as when I started objecting to insignificant issues. I would be able to say, “I must be getting tired. That was a dumb thing to question.”  I found taking a deep breath or splashing cold water on my face helped me refocus.

Be mindful of how you communicate with your students

Ensure that when you communicate with your student, you focus on the future with proactive statements. It’s vital that when you address mistakes, you do so with actionable feedback. For example, don’t say “Why do you hesitate  in your attacks,” instead say “Take a chance and attack quickly.” Focusing on the future keeps the student from getting down on themselves and also sets a clearer expectation for correction.

Intensity can be a good way to get the student’s attention. However, you must make sure the words are pro-active, well thought out and about future situations. When used correctly, intensity can be used to muster the energy and emotion they need for the moment.  Intensity cannot be used out of anger or the message may be lost and it may upset your student.  As frustrated and angry as we may become, when it’s time to talk with your fencer, stay calm and think it through first.  They need help, not anger.  Things said in anger may hurt more than help.

As an actor, I’m learning to either become “someone else” or amplify the part within me that my students and situation need. When I’m angry, I put the “angry me” away and bring out the thinking, supportive and strategic side of me. Sometimes we must get into our “coaching skin” and leave our personal emotions out for a while.   

The effective coach needs to be controlled and calculating in order to communicate better and be more helpful to the student.  Be the coach they need when at the venue. Always be the coach they need.

Preparation of the student for fencing competitions

Most of this section will deal with tasks and events that need to be done before the event because this helps set up the other tasks that need to be done during the event. Many of these may seem trivial, but every little thing helps in a high-octane event. Many top athletes have told me that the difference between being a champion and being everyone else is in their attention to details.

Pre-competition preparation

If you prepare your student well at practice, when it’s time for the competition, little needs to be said about technique.  They should already know their strengths and weaknesses.  However, they may need some reminders of their capabilities.  

For example, one talented young fencer in my club sat on the side often during practices.  I remember asking him why he was sitting so much.  His answer: “I’m tired coach.”  So I asked him, “What if you get tired at a competition?  What will you do then?  You have to fence tired in practice so you know how to when you’re at a tournament. The competition won’t stop because you’re tired.”  He got up and started fencing again.  

Later that month, at an ROC, he again complained he was tired before his 3rd DE.  I told him it’s ok, because now you know how to fence when you’re tired.  He jumped out of his chair, got on the strip and fenced very well.  He lost the bout (very close) but he wasn’t defeated.  He got off the strip with a content look on his face because he knew he’d given his best. Sometimes all it takes to get the best out of your students is to remind them what they are capable of. This is why preparation is so important for success.

Just as they prepare for tests, papers, presentations and performances, so must they prepare for competitions.

Set goals with your fencers

Make sure your students have goals.  Their goals should be mainly ”process goals”. These are pro-active and actionable. Process goals sound like “I will be ready all the time,” “I will change up my tempo” or “I will keep thinking forward” etc.  Before I fence in competitions, even local ones, I write 4 things on my unarmed hand:

  • SIT
  • PUSH
  • FINISH
  • IT’S ALRIGHT

While others see it as things I should DO, for me, they are reminders of how I should FEEL:

  • SIT means BE READY.
  • PUSH means BE AGGRESSIVE.
  • FINISH means HIT STRONG.
  • IT’S ALRIGHT means let go of the past (especially calls I didn’t agree with).

Your students will also naturally have “outcome goals” that are usually based on the result they want to achieve. Communicate that these are a distant second to the all-important process goals and should only be looked at AFTER their tournament is finished. Looking at the outcome goal during the tournament adds stress and can be extremely limiting.  For example, if their outcome goal was to make the top 8, what happens when they have made the top 8? What next?  Is the tournament over because their goal is accomplished? A top fencer once told me, ”In the final 8 half of them are just happy to be there, the other half are there to win.”

For that reason, outcome goals should be set as MINIMUM goals for the event!  I have seen my athletes lose winnable bouts without giving their best because they had “achieved” their goals.  If making top 8 is important, set the goal as “At the minimum, I want to make the top 8.”  This type of language prevents limiting thinking because achieving the minimum is only the starting point.  The goal continues until the end of the tournament and gives the fencer the best chance of extending a great performance.

Take care of your fencers so they can focus on fencing

Your fencers have enough to focus on during their bouts. Try to eliminate any unnecessary decisions or complications for them on competition day.

Communicate a clear idea of what you want your athletes to do before the event begins (such as if you expect them to arrive at a certain time, and warm up by themselves or as a group) and make sure that all your fencers are aware of what you expect.

Make sure your students are on top of simple things, like knowing the time of their event (so they wake up and arrive on time), making sure they have all their equipment and it’s been marked as inspected, checking in at the venue and possibly even doing a “walk through” the day before. The benefit of the “walk through” is to become familiar with the venue.  Learning the layout, finding bathrooms and outlets or even just seeing how long it takes to get there will be helpful on tournament day. If these things aren’t addressed, it could add stress and be a distraction for the rest of the day.  

Miscellaneous items such as nutrition, rest, travel arrangements, tournament food/drink are also important and need to be attended to so they don’t get in the way of the student’s focus. Parents can and often do help with this aspect.  There are also fencing things that must be addressed, like starting their mental preparation routine, warming up, and knowing their strip number.  These are the things a coach needs to keep an eye on to make sure they all happen and are done well.

Additionally, have some tools on you so you won’t have to scramble when your fencer is on the strip.  Scrambling for tools adds unnecessary stress for them (as well as you) that can easily be avoided.  I usually keep a 6mm Allen wrench, a tip screwdriver, and a small bit of tape (usually a piece on my shoe).  Also, because I coached between 25-35 women for 24 years, I used to keep hair ties in my pocket.  Interestingly, those hair ties were used the most during competition.

Track the mood of your students

The mood of your students will vary from tournament to tournament, and will even fluctuate throughout the duration of the tournament. You need to keep careful track of the moods of your student. Observe things like what time they arrive, how they warm up, and their disposition when entering the venue. This will give you a starting point for guiding them.  

While they’re getting dressed, have a little chat with them.  Ask questions like, “Which strip are you on? Are you checked in? Do you have water? How many weapons do you have?”  Watch how they respond and you may be able to sense their mood.  If they’re enthusiastic or respond in a positive way, the mood is good and productive. This can indicate a good performance for the day.

I remember one time I saw two teammates from another team laughing while warming up.  They were in such good moods, I knew they were going to be trouble for us.  They both ended up making the final.

Keep in mind that all athletes approach tournaments differently, and that works for them – you have to keep track of their normal dispositions: sometimes students are just edgy before tournaments. Their feistiness is how they generate energy.  If that’s their “normal” behavior before tournaments, then let it be unless it consistently creates problems for them.

However, if your athletes are irritable or cranky, or are in a mood that isn’t normal for them, there may be a problem. Now is the time to either solve the problem (whether it’s a problem in fencing or unrelated), or discuss letting it go if it can’t be solved now.  

There are many techniques that I have found over the years that can change a student’s way of thinking or even change their mood.

One way I call “change the channel” like on a TV.  Simply put, tell the student think about something else. Give them something else to focus on that has a more immediate need for attention that they can understand.  For example, say something like “Remember, relax, distance first and finish strong” or “Fence like you’re at the club” or “Be the better fencer.”  None of these are about technique but about an emotional state and a personal image to boost confidence and to remind them of their capabilities.  This show of support coming from you, the coach, can turn everything around for your student.

The second technique I find effective is “monkey bars,” a mental preparation process.  Imagine you are all on monkey bars and going hand over hand across to the other side.  You can’t go to the next bar until you let go of the bar behind you.  If you can’t let go, the others will pass you by.  Let go of your problems so you can go forward. If you let go of your past problems, you can go forward. I’ve seen this have immediate impact on my students at the grueling NCAA Championships which is a 24-person round robin of five-touch bouts.  There are no eliminations!  You must fence all 23 bouts!  One fencer in particular had never fenced better at the NCAA because, while there were some very frustrating calls for her, she immediately got back “en garde” and went on to get the next point.  If she started to hang on to past events in the bout or even tournament, I’d shout out “MONKEY BARS” and she’d snap back into the present situation.

Lastly, there’s the “smile” method.  Tell your students to put a smile on their face, a smile on their heart, smile on their mind, or a smile on their liver (for some reason liver is funnier than kidneys).  These images usually put an an actual smile on their face and relaxes them. Humor is a great way to break tension.  If you’re witty, try to combine humor with the present situation and they can see their situation in a lighter point of view.  It is here that my Second City improvisation class has shown many of its uses.

Summary

The majority of preparation for a fencing competition happens weeks, months and even years beforehand. However, how a coach approaches the critical time just before and during the tournament can make all the difference.  You have to take care of your physical needs such as rest and food. You also are responsible for the dispositions of both your athletes and yourself, setting up goals and being the best you can be off and on the strip. Professional coaching is a complex profession.  You play several roles for your students.  Sometimes you’re also a mentor, fencing parent, disciplinarian, teacher, fellow fencer, teammate, and friend. It also requires, knowledge, experience, enthusiasm, passion, compassion and respect.

I hope you found these essays to be useful in your future experiences coaching at the competition.  It can be a hard job but it is very rewarding for you and your students.

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

About Ed

Ed Kaihatsu is the former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University. Prior to that, he was the Assistant Fencing Coach at University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois. He was also the Fencing Program Director of SECA Sports Academy, Shanghai, China. Ed is also a longtime competitive fencer, a two-time national team member and, more recently, a six-time veteran national champion (5X Foil, 1X Sabre).

Footnote from Ed

I want to thank the many collaborators on this article. First and foremost, Kevin Carroll for helping me structure my thoughts. I would also like to thank John Heil, Jamie Douraghy and Jason Rogers for their input to the piece. 

Image of Ed: Thank you so much to the photographer, whose name has escaped me, that took this great image.

Preview Image Credit: Wikimedia CommonsDepartment of Defense