Do Not Read This Article
Turn back now and Do Not Read This Article on strip coaching!
Whatever you do, do not read this article on three simple, yet powerful concepts that anyone can remember and do to improve their ability to give you advice during the one minute breaks of a fencing match.
I am warning you to seriously reconsider reading any further, and that I am not responsible for all the hard feelings you may soon feel towards the previous times you’ve had well intentioned coaches and teammates give you sub standard advice during critical moments in elimination matches while fencing.
I know what you are thinking: “But Cody, think of the children!” You need to think about yourself here and the consequences of this knowledge! Consider that if you know these three concepts and start using them effectively, you may well have a line of athletes beating down your door asking for you to be strip side to share your new found gift! Popularity at this level initially sounds great and (while at first glance appealing) may well become a curse, nay a burden, that may result in you having to go into self exile to some Southern hemisphere beach town until such time that people remember your strip side coaching as myth, legend or folk tales and the songs they chanted in your honour but barely whispered!
I can see that you're a stubborn lot and nothing I can say at this point will convince you of the peril, so let's move along. But, let it be said again that I warned you, and I told you so!
If I told you, do not think about about green elephants tap dancing on the kitchen table while singing show tunes and wearing a top hat and a monocle in his left eye, what do you think comes to mind? Most likely the result is similar in nature to what happened when I told you, “Do not read this article.” I am also guessing that, unless your name is Cody Mattern, you have never previously imagined a posh, dancing green elephant before just moments ago. I bring this up to illustrate that our brains automatically attempt to take in information and visualize the result.
Lets try again, when I say, do not think about the color red, or do not think about delicious bread, or do not think about a man named Fred. Aside from thinking this might be a new Dr. Suess story, you pictured the color red, a loaf of bread, and a man to whom you call Fred. Now raise your hand if on the previous statements of “do not’s” you even considered thinking of the color blue, of fried chicken or a women named Elizabeth. Of course you did not, even though blue is also a color, chicken is also food, and Elizabeth is also a common person's name. Our minds are visual and action oriented. Even though I said “do not”, you first had to think and recall the thing being described so that you could try to not think of thing described
Final round: You are half out of breath after trying to hold back a crazed sword-wielding maniac for three minutes, and I tell you, “do not parry 4, every time you parry in 4 you get hit, your opponent knows you always parry 4, so stop parrying in 4 line!” When you are in the one minute break you want advice, and you want to make changes to win the match, so you crave actionable things you can change and do when the break is done. If we review my strip coaching advice, what actionable things were said? The items underlined. The only thing you could “do” in the statement is to parry 4, however, that is just what I told you not to do! This statement is now at odds with your brain; you can do it, but you're not supposed to do it. What is worse is that after a coach or teammate makes this statement, they often describe two or three examples of when you got hit in the match to prove their point of you being hit when you made a parry 4. This is all just more fuel for your imagination and makes it that much harder to get off the parry 4 train, which is taking you straight to losing this fencing match instead of switching trains to victory station!
The reality is that we think that we are helping as best we can by giving examples of why something is not working, and by stating what not to do the athlete will change instantly away from the stated action... and all will be sunshine and rainbows. When stressed, and in the moment of the short walk back to the fencing line, the fencer might only hear a section of your statement before the referee instructs the athletes to get ready for the next touche. Even the one minute break is hard, especially when you repeat a statement multiple times that keeps bringing the fencer’s mind back to a negative point in the bout.
Actionable Advice Only!
Give your athlete positive direction of the change that you think will help them win the bout. If you do not want your athlete or friend to parry 4 anymore, then give them new actions to put in their head instead. You might say, “Hey let’s try to be more unpredictable with our parries, I really think you should try to focus on parry 6 and parry 8 for the rest of the bout. Those are the only parry directions I want you to focus on.” By giving your athlete an actionable move like parry 6 and 8 you have placed a new image in their minds, and hopefully this new image will replace that of the parry 4 action that was getting them in trouble. Another direction you might try on is to fundamentally change the bout. “Hey, let’s mix things up in the match. I want to see you being much more aggressive: more forward movement, lots of feints to keep the opponent guessing, set up your attack actions and really focus on your footwork and timing your attacks.” If we go from being too defensive (and we have a trend to parry always in the same predictable way), becoming more offensive and focusing on attacking can resolve the situation that was getting us in trouble. We won’t parry if our opponent is defending now instead of attacking.
Bad Strip Coaching (actions that are actionable but not the solution):
Don’t go backwards! Why are you always retreating? Stop running away! Don’t step back!
Good Strip Coaching (actionable solutions that directly or indirectly solve a problem):
Move forwards. Advance and go! Forward forward! Advance and push right away!
Bad Strip Coaching (actions that are actionable but not the solution):
Don’t get hit on the toe! He is hitting your foot! Be ready for the toe touche! I told you they were going to go to your foot!
Good Strip Coaching (actionable solutions that directly or indirectly solve a problem)
Parry low in 8 to prevent them wanting to hit your toe. Be ready to counter attack quickly when you get attacked to the foot. Push more and keep your opponent on the defensive so they won’t have time to set up attacks.
There are dozens of examples I could give... but I think you get the idea. Your language when you communicate to your athlete is very powerful and feels very important. First rule of thumb is to keep you advice actionable, and avoid at all cost pointing out all the “do nots” during a bout or the one minute break. Save your “do nots” for when the athlete has time to think and reflect, and is not in a do or die situation on the strip.
DO NOT, say DO NOT when strip coaching, keep your advice actionable and solution oriented!
Now that we are giving only actionable advice during the breaks, keep the concept count around two or three actionable concepts top! You may have lots of actionable ideas to share, but remember that you only have one minute to deliver those ideas. The more ideas you provide, the more ideas they have to mentally juggle when they go back on the floor. In my experience, anyone can take two actionable concepts and keep them in their head without a problem. Most can even handle a third. However, once you get to 4 or more the more, most likely your fencer will start second guessing which of the things you instructed was right one to do. It’s as simple as being confident and quick in your decision making, which in the heat of the bout needs to be fast and decisive.
Imagine going to a restaurant for dinner. Sometimes you see a menu with what seems like fifty plus options! It is going to take you ten minutes just read all the options, then decide which of the items sounded good enough to make the final cut. AND you have to eliminate a few more before making a choice, because you know the waiter will show up and you will probably feel pressured to make your choice then and there. In the end, you will get a decent meal, but in the back of your mind you still feel one of the other options that you did not pick might have been better! A week later, you go to a small restaurant with only 8 thing to chose from. It takes only one minute to read all the options. Don’t like seafood? Then that eliminates three from the list. You had pork last night and don’t want it again, so that takes care of another 2. You really like the sound of mash potatoes and asparagus as the side option, and that leaves only one clear choice. In the end, you come to your decision quickly with little to no doubt that your decision is going to be the best option from the options you had available.
Providing your athlete with a small menu of actionable solutions and delivering them in a simple, clear and, ultimately, concise way will ensure that they remember them It lets them be quick to decide and confident in the execution of that choice.
A common trend of frustrated coaches often seems to be to belittle and insult the athlete and question their intelligence openly. Keep in mind that making quick decisions and acting on them in real time with proper technical execution is difficult. Now that we are giving actionable advice and are saying the advice in simple short statements, as well as keeping those statements to under three concepts, we want to remind our athlete that they can do it. We believe they can do it, and that the athlete should believe that they can do it as well. Emotional contagion is a psychological concept that suggests that people reflect back the emotions of those around them. In the terms of sports, we see this phenomenon regularly with sports teams that play in front of their home team crowd. The energy of those fans and their positive support is reflected in the players by being more confident, more energized, and more rewarded for continued success. Mirror neurons in the brain reflect these emotional states, and they can go both ways. We all have a family member, friend or co-worker that always seems down, sad, or a bit depressed, and the more you spend time with them no matter how good a mood you were in you seem to start to equalize with their lower emotional state. When in a state of performance, it is ideal to feel that you have support and that you and others believe you can do something. Being yelled at, insulted, or heckled by the crowd, or worse yet your coach, is rarely motivation that leads to success.
Providing your actionable, concise plan in a positive can-do attitude will shine onto your athlete. Even if they are emotionally low, you can start to equalize them with your state of emotionally high and positive outlook, as well as solution-oriented coaching and support!
You and your rebellious ways!
Well, despite all my warnings and pleas for you to not read this article, you pushed on, endured many of my strange life analogies (and maybe picked up a few neuroscience concepts) on how to best communicate with athletes when time is short and changes need to be made with confidence and clarity! As an athlete on the US Men’s Epee Team for twelve years, these were the concepts I looked for and asked for from those giving me strip side coaching. After winning Team World Championships in 2012 and retiring to full time coaching, these are the lessons I live by when working with my students to provide them the best results under the most stressful competition situations.
There is much artistry beyond the mentioned concepts in strip coaching, but these three ideas I’ve covered will take you far as you develop your own style of execution. Remember: 1) Keep your ideas only on the actionable, DON’T SAY DON’T, and avoid speaking on the problem action directly during the bout (there will be plenty of time later for that). 2) Keep your instructions concise and simple. Two to three concepts is a good rule to guide you by. 3) Be positive, provide the emotional state your athlete needs, and encourage them, building their confidence up, not down. Your job is to motivate and provide solutions for your athlete. Following these three concepts will give you a great checklist to follow.
Now whatever you do, DO NOT follow this strip coaching advice and your students won’t have to thank you!