Coach Tigran strip coaching Irene Yeu (who took 5th) at the World Cup in Bratislava.
The Coach, Part 1
The Importance of Strip Coaching
The relationship between the fencer and coach can be one of the most important relationships of your child’s young life. And a relationship that can last through college and beyond. This relationship will be based on many different elements, and will evolve accordingly. I think the basis of the relationship is goal oriented. What does your child want to achieve in fencing? What do you want your child to achieve? Once you understand that, the relationship with the coach will be somewhat defined by that. And those goals can change and evolve as your child grows and matures and is more able to be involved in those kinds of decisions. My son and I have gone from the goal of “being more confident and assertive” to “making the World Cup Cadet Team.” As you can imagine, the role of the coach in my son’s life has dramatically changed. And their relationship has evolved, As in any successful relationship, communication is key. Your fencer and coach will learn, through trial and error, how to best communicate with each other. Lessons, classes, competitions, strip coaching, and eventually traveling together internationally, are all building blocks in this relationship.
During the two one-minute breaks that occur in 15-touch bouts, the "strip coach" will go onto the strip and coach the fencer, offer tips on strategy, suggests tactics. A strip coach is also a valuable extra pair of eyes to look for weaknesses in his student's opponent, which he can then pass on to his student. Strip coaches can also offer suggestions between touches, quick little reminders to "keep it small," etc.
Strip coaching is an important element of building this relationship, and an important part of fencing and learning to compete, regardless of what your goals are. Strip coaching is also an important element in terms of helping your child develop confidence, learn strategy, sportsmanship, how to stay focused under pressure, and also can help make competing a positive experience.
The Role of Strip Coaching in the Grand Scheme of Things
Parents frequently ask me questions about strip coaching. The question asked most frequently is, “Do they really need it?”
My answer - “Yes.”
And also, “Not always, it depends on the circumstances.”
Let me explain.
If your child is just starting to compete, he will probably feel some pressure to succeed. And she can feel overwhelmed by just the visual sea of white uniforms, the noise of the scoring machines, and the cheering (and less positive sounds, unfortunately) of parents and coaches around them. It can be hard to focus. Your fencer has probably been taking classes and private lessons for at least three months, although my son did not start competing until after over a year of classes and private lessons. Now, suddenly, this is it. All of those classes and lessons come down to this moment on the strip. What happens? More often than not, if he is young, your fencer will forget everything he has been working on. He will forget his footwork. She might even forget to fence. True. I have seen my son, early in his competing and bewildered on the strip, forget to hold up his sword. Or, facing a new, unknown adversary, your young fencer might just walk off the end of the strip rather than defend himself, another move my son seemed to favor in the beginning. Young fencers often have trouble figuring out exactly where the end of the strip even is. In the midst of what can be an overwhelming and confusing experience, the familiar voice of his coach, by his side, reminding him what to do, encouraging him, can make all the difference in the world. A coach on the side warning him that he is almost off the strip is very helpful. “Move in and out,” he might suggest. “Keep moving your feet.” And your child nods, mask wobbling a bit because she hasn’t quite grown into it yet, and she is able to refocus on what is in front of her. Her coach gives her a sense of confidence. “Oh, yeah,” your fencer thinks, “keep moving my feet. I know this.” And maybe a touch is scored, and your fencer nods again and thinks, “I can do this.” This helps build confidence and keep the tournament experience positive.
Your coach also learns a lot about your fencer at a tournament. Your coach learns how your fencer responds to pressure. Your coach sees what training goes out the window first, no lunge for example, and so will probably focus on that in the next few lessons. Your coach will find out whether your fencer is able to listen to direction, and follow through on suggestions. All of this experience will help your coach work better with your child, and help your child do better on the strip. These are important building blocks and help create a foundation for your fencer and also for the relationship he or she will have with the coach.
Different fencers need different things from strip coaching. Some fencers want a variety of suggestions from the coach, some want to be told exactly what to do. Some want to figure it out for themselves, and need the coach there for support and for that very important debriefing after the bout is over. As your fencer matures, as he and the coach work together, they develop an understanding of what is most successful and their own unique relationship evolves.
As a parent, I have found it important to respect that evolution, and to support it by not interjecting myself into it. I trust our coach completely. I might not always agree with him, but I am not the coach. I don’t undermine the relationship they are creating. I defer to him on all things coaching.
How to support your strip coach-
1. Be quiet
Believe it or not, your coach needs a lot from you when he coaches your fencer. He needs you to support him. What does this mean? Often, in the heat of the moment, I have seen parents jump in and yell directions from strip-side. My advice, don’t say anything, other than “Good job!” or words of encouragement when your fencer scores a touch. You can be supportive of your fencer without actually telling them what to do. There are a few reasons why I recommend this.
2. Communicate with your coach.
Chances are your coach will be coaching several fencers in the same event. And sometimes, there are two events that overlap, so the coach is even more frazzled. Your job in supporting both your coach and your fencer is to let the coach know when your fencer is fencing.
I am often surprised by parents who don’t want strip coaching at the national level. Usually, this seems to center round a concern about the expense. Here is my take on this - you have invested in classes, lessons, equipment, and if you are going to a NAC, you are now including travel, flights, hotels, rides to and from the airport, food… And let’s not forget the investment of time itself. Not just the classes and lessons, but the travel to and from the studio, travel time to the tournaments, etc. At a NAC, the pressure is really on. Fencers are after medals and points. Why wouldn’t you want to invest in having someone who knows your fencer’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses, strip side to guide him or her to do the best they are capable of? This expense is where you might draw the line? This is the time, I think, that you might want to make sure your fencer has all of the support possible.
A word about sharing a coach with fellow fencers from your club. Coaches are there to support all of their fencers. How do coaches decide who is coaching which fencer? At Swords we often have two or more coaches who divide up the fencers among them. This division is based usually on two things. Who is the most familiar with a fencer’s style and abilities? And where are the fencers fencing? If two coaches are covering six fencers, they will probably divide up the fencers primarily based on their strip locations. Sometimes at national events, one fencer will find himself in a completely different room on a different floor even. You don’t want coaches to end up running all the way across the venue to support two different fencers. They will be exhausted and chances are, they will most likely miss some of the bouts. I have seen our coaches, standing together when pools are announced, deciding which coach will help which fencer, and almost always, those two factors are the deciding ones. There are all kinds of challenges that coaches end up facing, and often, how the coaching is divvied up depends on basic logistics. It’s nothing personal. Coaches want all of their fencers to succeed.
Now - for the second answer - “Not always, it depends on the circumstances.”
A couple of years ago, Stafford went through a sort of slump. When he was fencing and fell behind, he got frustrated and emotional. When he was ahead, he might freeze. If the coach was late arriving strip side, he might panic, as if he didn’t know what to do, and couldn’t do it on his own. So… I signed him up for almost every single RYC and RJCC available. We went to many of these without a strip coach. Just to get him to deal with his emotions and frustrations on his own. I hoped he would break through and, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion from competing almost every weekend, just fence and not get emotional. For the most part, it worked.
Another reason you might not always want a strip coach is because I do think it is important for your fencer, as he gets older, to start to figure out for himself what strategies might work in any given circumstance. Fencers need skill, strategy, and stamina. You might want to take advantage of some of the local and regional tournaments to give your fencer the experience of thinking on his own on the strip, trying things and maybe failing, but the trying is the important thing. I don’t recommend this for National tournaments - again, you have invested a lot in those, so give your fencer every advantage you can, so she can perform to the best of her abilities and have, win or lose, a successful experience.
Tournament Fencing Needs
Additional Helpful links:
National Athlete Ranking - Men's Epee
National Athlete Ranking - Women's Epee
Regional Points Standings
USA Fencing Athlete Handbook
Kathryn Atwood - Swords Fencing Studio. We welcome any questions and comments, suggestions for topics, etc.
USA Fencing Rules Book