Do Not Read This Article on Strip Coaching Fencing
Team Relay Edition
Pardon the interruption for a verbose warning that you, most likely, will ignore.
Today’s warning will focus on why Not Reading about coaching concepts for the Team Relay Fencing Bout. If you are a fan of fencing, and watch team bouts you have probably seen a team bout and scratched your head when you looked at the scoreboard and the team with the lead was not the team you predicted based on the individual player talent level or initial seeding.
If you are like many Americans or you follow politics you love a good drama and watching this talented team lose to an upstart group can be entertaining. Watching them melt down and implode turning on each other, yelling back and forth from the bench might even cause your facial muscles to curl to a sly grin as you enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching them squirm.
You might even then forget about the coffee run you were on and stay to watch on as the rushed attempts of each fencer to personally Superman the score back in the talented team's direction fail, followed by the “I am too sexy to fence these noobs” body language emerges. Meanwhile the benched teammates have their heads in their hands or are looking around the room as if they just saw a bird flying around, desperately avoiding making eye contact with their teammate out of embarrassment and disbelief. At this point you giggle out loud like a poor college student at last call carefully stacking a food pyramid on his undersized plate on five dollar all you can each sushi night!
“Cody” you ask, “why again should i stop reading this article?” Right! Assuming you are friends, teammate, family members or a coach of this talented team the tips i am about to gift wrap for you with overly descriptive analogies to force your brain into visualizing the situations and examples from my personal career as an athlete and coach, will likely deprive you, and others of the entertainment of a good old-fashion, dramatic flop. The excitement of an amazing upset would be lost to those cheering on the underdog team as the talented team boldly pushes forward with their simplistic strategy that fencing team relay bouts is exactly the same as individual matches. The world would not see collective, thought out effort, planning, and communication defeat gifted, successful, unfocused talent.
Than again I suppose that if you are coming from the other side of this story and you revel at the idea of said drama and shocking and awe amazing upset wins than you might want to read on. Since that is not the name of this article and would defeat the purpose of this warning, I will refuse to think that is your motivation and consider my warning complete. At this point we can agree that i, at most, wasted about five minutes of your time and you can stop reading now and count yourself lucky that i did not waste any more of your day! Agreed! Good!
If you’re still reading this article you probably also would have touched the edges of this sign too! You probably also did not read the final line of the sign stating that the bridge was out and after applying a bandage to your finger from touching the sign drove off the end of the bridge. Seriously some people just do not follow instructions. At this point I can presume that since I am shifting gears and telling you what you SHOULD do that you will do the opposite or your so darn stubborn you will read on just to spite me. So be it!
Remember now we are discussing what you SHOULD do!
- One Voice
The three sub topics below were covered in my previous article on strip coaching individuals during the one minute break. These principles apply exactly the same and so i will spare you if you have already read that article. If you have not follow this link to get the full details as I will only summarize those three rules below.
Now that you are up to speed ONE VOICE is very important in team. To some extent the ONE VOICE rule will also apply to individual bouts as well but always applies in team due to the nature of always having teammates, coaches and hopefully supportive friend and family present. The key to the ONE VOICE rule is that only one person at any given match in the team is allowed to speak and provide tactical advice. This is often the team coach and rightfully so but often teams are without a coach and the various team members take on the role of coaching each other or a knowledgeable friend or parent will step in to help in this role. What must be avoided at all cost is having multiple people providing tactical advice as often they will differ or even contradict one another and will than greatly confuse the athlete.
This often happens in team bouts were a motivated parent, a very supportive boyfriend/girlfriend/significant-other, teammate on the bench, and, or the team coach all want the best outcome for the team but all have their own idea of what needs to be done and all yell it out for the fencing athlete to hear at the same time. What do you do now if you are the athlete on the strip. The idea from each individual was to help you make a decision and move you in a positive direction. Instead you have four different concepts and likely some are totally opposite concepts. You can’t follow everyone's advice, you might have several good ideas but not sure which to choose. So what do you do? Follow the advice of the person you are most scared of disobeying? That might not turn out well in your bout if that is your parent and they have never fenced a day in their life but yell with passion a plan for you to follow. I could go on and on but i think you get the idea. Someone is not going to have their advice acted on and that puts the athlete in a tough spot and that is not what anyone of the people providing advice wanted when speaking up.
Before team bouts the ONE VOICE rule needs to be discussed. Only one individual at any given match will provide tactical concepts, changes, advise. At this point you clarify that EVERYONE is encouraged to be loud, positive, and encouraging of the team, but that all such cheerleading must avoid containing tactical advice. Everyone should agree that tactical advice is only for the one designated as “THE VOICE” to shout out. For myself I often have multiple team, and individual events going on during a large event and have to walk in and out of team bouts during very busy or full fencing days. My teams know that when I am present I am “THE VOICE” during bouts and the previous one giving tactical advice will yield to me on this matter. Often if I enter in the middle of a match I will advise the current “VOICE” of what i see and what I would say and have them continue for the sake of not having to change who the athlete is listening for. The fencer has likely calibrated their ears listen only for the sound of “THE VOICE” and is filtering out to a great extent most other voices and noise as well they should. If as the coach I step away I will have designated the next in line as “THE VOICE” or will let them work it out among themselves. Normally my team captain is “THE VOICE” though when they are fencing they cannot provide their own advice so it is advised to have preset or remind your teammates to pick which of their teammates should be “THE VOICE” if there is a preference.
Now that you have established your ONE VOICE rule of coaching your team, that person is advised to follow the three guiding principles of strip coaching we discussed in the previous article I pleaded with you NOT TO READ!
Three Strip Coaching Principles
Focus your advice on things that are actionable!
DON’T SAY DON’T! Avoid speaking on the problem action directly during the bout (there will be plenty of time after the bout is over for that.) Focus on what you want to see and make sure it is an ACTIONABLE thing you know the athlete is capable and comfortable doing!
Keep your instructions concise and simple. Two to three concepts is a good rule to guide you by. In a Team bout if you are giving live feedback during the action or between individual touches keep the concise advice to a single thought, sentence or word that describes what ACTIONABLE change you want from your fencer.
Be positive, provide the emotional state your athlete nee
ds, and encourage them, building their confidence up, avoiding taking it down any further. Your job is to motivate and provide solutions for your athlete. Be sure they can do what you ask of them and express your confidence in their ability to do it and succeed.
- Swing Bouts
Swing Bouts are team bouts that favor one team/fencer over the other. Often a team either has one very strong fencer or one very new, perhaps weaker fencer. Some teams have both! You need to look for bouts of advantage and disadvantage as these are the critical Swing Bouts. I know what you're thinking “Cody this is hardly rocket science we know some people are better than others and we should have our best fencer really hunt down their weak fencers.” What you probably don’t regularly do is set your advantage fencer up to do the maximum scoring impact by keeping the score lower in the previous bout in preparation for this miss match. This is where teams that look ahead and plan can maximize their advantage bouts and minimize opponent's advantage bouts.
Advantage Swing Bouts
- Let us now assume you find a “swing bout advantage”, now you need to prepare for it. Scouting one, or two bouts prior and keeping the score lower can allow your athlete with the swing bout advantage to have more room for error and additionally, high maximum return. Let’s assume you think your fencer will outscore the opponent 2 to 1 in the advantage swing bout! Pretty good right! If the score is 10-10 going to 15 in the next round we estimate that he will win and the score will now be 15-12, a +3 difference. Not bad, but now let's look at the same bout but the round prior you managed to get Non Combativity and no touches were scored. Now the score is 5-5 and the ceiling of the Advantage Swing Bout is still 15. As you might have guessed the score would be now 9-15 and a +6 improvement for our team! The Set Up bout was a match of two fencers of close to equal skill. If they decided to fence it they were likely to score about the same. Even if you outscored them in that Set Up bout by one and the score was 9-10 going into your Advantage Swing Bout your teammate with the advantage could only score 5 and as such is still likely to only go +3. Even though the Setup was a +1 it got you close to the max for both teams and gave less room to move for your Advantage Swing bout so instead of being +6 you were only +4 and that is assuming on the close bout going in your favor and not against.
Disadvantage Swing Bouts
Now as we saw at the end of the Advantage Swing Bout example, even losing a bout can be a team victory if it prevents the opposing team from doing even more damage in their impending Advantage Swing bout to come. Realizing your team is one match away from a Disadvantage Swing Bout makes it important that in the case of a close bout that you do try to fence and move the score up so the stronger fencer does not have room to improve. This is what i call a damage control bout. You might even lose this bout, but when faced with massive Disadvantage Swing Bout the last thing you want is a low score when your new/weaker fence
r goes up against the opposing team's closer/strongest fencer.
- Know Your Role/Honest Communication
Preparing for Swing Bouts is important to team success whether it is damage control or maximizing touches earned. Now a few basic roles to assign from bout to bout depending on score, pending swing bouts, and general skill match up. Again honest communication on each bout well in advance before the matches will best prepare your team for success. As the team bout develops you will need to continue to share, update, and adapt to the situation but having a good outline will go along way towards preparing for victory. Know Your Role and Honest Communication is a must!
Role playing in the team bout can be critical. Before i describe the 4 main role types it is important to recognize that my coaching and athlete background is in epee. Team bouts in epee trend more in the slower more tactical direction and one of the key elements that make some roles even possible is the Non Combativity time rule. These roles are still possible but less so in Foil and nearly impossible in Saber do to the fact the most every round ends with one team reaching the score maximum so ending a bout shy of the round maximum rarely happens. Team bouts in epee very regularly do not reach the score maximum and defensive stand offs are common place and as such coming into each match with a game plan is very important to set your team up for future rounds.
As a team the first thing each fencer should do is look at each of their personal match-ups and share their honest feeling on how that bout will go. Clearly if you have never fenced it would just be a sense of style match ups but at some point you have fenced everyone on every team or at least have watched them all so have a sense for their skill set and level compared to your own. This is not a time to be over confident telling your teammates you can crush them all. The goal of the first review before the start of the team match is to identify where your team has an advantage of skill or style and where your team is at a disadvantage. If no information is known about a team than the first rotation of bouts should be for active information gathering on top of fencing smart and doing your best. In these bouts I always encourage my athletes to probe with many preparations so myself as the coach and the teammates on the bench watching can get a sense for defensive preferences and panic responses. Those first three bouts are fencing study hall and so they are encouraged to take their time and try many safe preparations to gather Intel for the team so they can more of an idea what they will be up against when each of them have to fence those athletes.
Your goal in team is not simple to win each match (thought that is lovely if it works out that way). At some point you will fence a team that is better than you or perhaps a team with one fencer clearly stronger than all your individuals. These bouts we will be at a disadvantage and your team will want to minimize damage that can be done. Remembering that the super star closer of the other team can only fence 3 of the 9 bouts we have to look at the remaining 6 bouts for when and where to make up our points. You must find the bouts in the team order that clearly favor one team over the other. Identifying where the “swing bouts” in the team match are and looking at the bouts previous to the “swing bout” will help you in deciding on proper roles to maximize or minimize the “swing bout” match ups in the line up.
- Shooter - Athlete looking to put on pressure and score points for team generally with offensive actions. Most commonly the approach of the strongest fencer (any given bout) or in Advantage Swing Bouts.
- Stopper - Athlete looking to shut down bout. Goal is to slow down opponent from scoring, highly defensive, early parries and ready to defend. Can end up scoring many touches when going against a shooter if properly prepared. Side objective is to keep score very low. Commonly used against shooters or prior to bout in which your team has an advantage swing bout next or soon in the line up.
- Sniper - Athlete looking to apply very cautious pressure to set up and score possibly only one attack. Great for making comebacks when down early in team bouts. commonly will have a goal of +1,+2 for a bout and then will shift roles to the stopper. Checking in with the team coach/captain/bench is advised on when/if the sniper should keep going or change to the stopper role.
- Fencer - Athlete goal is to more or less “fence” the opponent. There is no set attack or defend attitude preset. Often used in the first three bouts when fencing a team or athletes you are not familiar with to learn as you go. Fencer role, like sniper, should check in with team depending on how they are doing and might shift to any of the other roles as needed depending on the results. Fencer role should feel free to act when an opportunity presents itself and is great in relieving pressure on an athlete prior to Disadvantage Swing Bouts as they know that even double is better than no touches at all when faced with the Disadvantage Swing Bout next in the line up. They are encourage to probe opponents for weaknesses and take advantage if they can and move the score up with less concern for winning as getting both teams closer to the max for that round as damage control for the upcoming Disadvantage Swing Bout.
- Attitude is Infectious
One thing i can tell you about team bouts is that the Attitude of the athletes spreads to quickly and easily in both positive and negative directions. You can win a team match segment and come back to the bench angry and unsatisfied and that can take the team down a notch on confidence and excitement. You can lose a team bout but come back bouncing and excited by how hard you fought and that can inspire and fire up your team. Fencing is primarily an individual sport so we focus on ourselves. Team is solo and yet collective as we all add to the journey towards that collective final score.
Watch any team sport and you will always find examples of the teams keeping each other encouraged, supported and pumped up. Watch a basketball game and notice how every time a player gets fouled and shoots a free throw shot that the 4 other players on the court give him a high-five after the first shot no matter if he made or missed the shot. Watch a volleyball game and after EVERY single point score for or against they come together in a quick huddle to support each other and keep the team together and positive. It is hard to watch the behavior of great teams to get any indication of who scored as the attitude is almost always positive, supportive, and focused on the next point, next play, next touche.
I have had great individual fencers on teams as both an athlete and coach. My least favorite athletes to have on team, no matter their skill level, are the ones that seem to have rain cloud over their head. You could see from bout to bout, match to match, this rain cloud spread to the other athletes. I have also had athletes who could bring out the sun for anyone by yelling in their bouts, chest bumping and energizing high fives was able to wake up their teammates and get more out of them for their bouts just by this team energy and attitude. Great individuals do not always make great team fencers. They certainly can but often great fencers do not know their role or over state their role and they bring with them a personal attitude that can pull down others and often it is accidental in nature. Be aware of the energy of the bench, sometimes one of the most important athletes is the 4th fencer who never fences a single match but keeps everyone talking, cheers the loudest, and gets everyone ramped up so they perform at their best. The 4th is often an important part of the attitude of a great team!
- Check your Ego at the Bench
Ego is probably the number one reason strong teams fall in early rounds. Having a preconceived notion of being better than someone or some team can cause you to fence them with less focus and attention to detail.
Athletes in team often hate to have any match they fence have a negative score on their personal bouts. While that is understandable this often leads to rushing to recover a lost touche in a bout. That rushed touch leads to another point against and now you are down even further. This can spiral quickly out of control and what was a nice touche scored by the opponent early in the bout turned into an angry rushed hunt to get touches back and instead of perhaps losing a single point your team loses 3-5 before they reach the max or your team yells at you loud enough snap you back to reality and get past your ego.
Ego can also hurt you when you start a bout with the stopper mind set if you do not stick to your plan. Let’s assume your goal was to shut down your opponent and be defensive, keep the score low. You start with the stopper mind set and it works perfectly. You score three touches in the first minute as their shooter rushes into your great defensive resistance. The opponent realizes attacking you in this mode is a bad plan and backs off but your ego tells you that you are clearly on fire! Since you just scored three points you might as well go and push to score two more to finish the bout. You failed to realize that you had a specific goal and style that was how you scored those three points. Next thing you know you have been hit five times while attempting to attack and get those last two points. Instead of staying in your stopper role and possibly sitting on your +3 win for your team your ego pushes you into attacking and you end the bout -2 instead. Ego is probably one of the top killers of talented teams and lack of ego is a cornerstone to success in underdog upsets and general team bout management!
Team Relay has many moving pieces and is not simply a series of 5 touche bouts. While many teams approach it this way for those that don’t and take a more thoughtful and tactical view of the strategy will often overcome teams of stronger individuals because they do not know how to best utilize their individual strengths or how to maximize/minimize matches on the road to the collective Victory!
The US Men’s Epee Team was just such a group when we took the Silver Medal at the 2010 Senior World in Paris only narrowly losing to France in the gold medal round and in 2012 when we came from behind to defeat France for the first ever Men’s Senior Worlds Championship Gold in US Fencing history. These are the basics of what as a team we developed and practiced over twelve years. As individuals we might have been ranked between 6th and 10th overall. But as a team we ended the 2012 season ranked #1, winning the world cup overall team title in addition to the world championships gold medal.
- One Voice
- Find the Swing Bouts
- Know Your Role/Honest Communication
- Attitude is Contagious, Infect with that in mind
- There is no place for ego in team
Now go out there and create some drama in Fencing Team Relay!