My students regularly ask me how they can become better fencers. My answer is always the same, and is applicable to competitive amateur fencers, recreational fencers, and classical fencers:
First, train in group lessons. The group lesson format focuses on drills to provide the repetitions needed to improve any single skill. You have to do thousands of repetitions to develop smooth execution under pressure, and the group lesson is the most efficient way to do this. Any fencer at any level can benefit from group lessons, even at the beginner level.
Second, take individual lessons. Time on the Fencing Master’s plastron has long been the gold standard for teaching new techniques, for correcting errors in technique, and for developing tactical skills for application in the bout. Individual lessons teach new skills and fine tune old ones, prepare for competition by reviewing and honing skills and speed, and return the fencer to the training program after the disruption of a competition.
Third, practice on your own. Every fencer can hang a ball and practice hitting the target from static, advance, lunge, and advance lunge to develop accuracy. Every fencer can do set amounts of footwork every day. Every fencer can fence ideomotoric bouts (fencing an imaginary opponent). Every fencer can practice visioning to improve skills. Every fencer can develop psychological skills to maximize performance. The key is to do these on a regular schedule and according to a training plan prepared by the coach.
Fourth, build fitness. Fencing fitness is a combination of physical strength, core stability, speed, flexibility, and endurance. Much of what has passed for athlete conditioning over the years has been extensively revised by sports science research. Find a trainer (your coach should be able to do this, but many fencing coaches do not have a sports science background) who knows modern training methods and match fitness training to your other training schedules.
Fifth, fence. You get to be a better fencer by fencing. Ideally you fence fencers who are a bit better than you. But if you are the best in your club or salle, use bouts with weaker fencers to practice perfect execution under specific tactical conditions. And fence everyone – every opponent poses different challenges. A reasonable monthly target for a serious competitive fencer is 200 bouts.
Individual and group lessons are governed by the schedule of your salle or club. You should practice some skills element daily on your own. Your fitness plan developed by your trainer should require work at the level appropriate for the portion of the season. And you should fence whenever you can.
A balanced program made up of these five areas is key to developing as a successful fencer. How the mix is assembled depends on your experience level and the stage of your training. For example, beginners need fewer individual lessons, or possibly none at all – they need to learn to adjust to a wide variety of skills and abilities, and the best way to do that is to work with as many different opponents as possible. In the period between the end of the last season and the start of the new season, more emphasis may be needed on the development of fitness than on technical perfection. A competent coach can design a periodized training program to incorporate the best mix for each fencer.
The bottom line remains – ultimately you are responsible for your development. So plan your training to address all five elements. And then go train.