Lots of people have told me that they have a hard time practicing with someone who is new to fencing. On the one hand, they don’t want to simply rush off the line and clobber someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. And on the other they want to get something out of their practice bouting time and not spend it all explaining the game to someone new.
First of all, remember that you were a Newbie once yourself. Someone had to fence with you to help you get to where you are today. Like any martial art, part of your practice is giving back to those around you and making your clubmates better. Please don’t be arrogant and think you’re above fencing anyone who asks you to bout. Besides, if the people around you get better then they’ll help improve your skills in return.
On Saturday mornings at Cutting Edge all ages fence together (normally we’re divided into two groups: 8-12 years old and 13+). The competitors that come regularly to that practice generally perform better at tournaments. This is due in part to simply putting in more time at the club. But it is also due to the fact that they use the younger kids and less-experienced people to hone their skills. They use the slower bouting speed to perfect their parries. They understand that if they can get Johnny New Kid to react to something, they will probably be able to do the same thing eventually to a highly-trained fencer, with the added bonus of being able to practice it at first at a much slower speed.
Notice I’ve said several times that it’s good to practice new things at a SLOWER SPEED. This is why bouting newer fencers can be advantageous. They don’t move as fast (yet). Duh. You get multiple opportunities to do the same kind of thing because they probably won’t be able to hit you (yet) when you mess up whatever action you’re practicing. They get to see some more challenging actions and will pick them up eventually if they’re paying attention. It’s a win-win.
Here are a few tips on how to make a bout with a Newbie challenging for you (assuming you’re at a higher level than they are).
If you’re doing sharp bouts (one with points), give yourself challenges for each one. For example: if both lights come on, the Newbie always gets the point. The referee makes the correct call so everyone learns about right-of-way but the point goes on their side. You can do this for parries (i.e. you don’t earn the 5th point until you’ve done Parry 4 at least twice), counterattacks… basically anything you know you suck at. Practicing through the suckage will make you better. You sucking during this bout will boost the Newbie’s confidence. Everyone improves because you’re not just steamrollering them off the line and getting easy (for you) touches.
Do some training bouts where you don’t keep score. Le gasp! Fencing without counting the points?!?! Yes! We like to do training bouts to ten or twenty total touches as a warm-up for sharp bouts. These are intended to give everyone the freedom to practice new moves (or improve sucky ones) without the extra pressure of keeping score and “having to win”. Most people aren’t disciplined enough to keep practicing something during sharp bouts. This will help. Do people still keep score in their head? Sure. But that’s–literally–not the point. The referee still tells who earned the touch but just numbers the touches from 1-10 (or 20) rather than assigning points for each side.
Play a game where you have to score with five different, pre-arranged actions. For instance, direct attack, parry 4-riposte, one light counterattack, distance parry with immediate riposte, and attack in preparation. The Newbie can fence however they wish. You get one point the first time you score with each action and you must do all 5 in order to win. Will a Newbie know how to set up an attack in preparation? No. But he/she can be coached on how NOT to let you get one and therefore keep you from earning your last point and winning the bout. Do this with a more experienced fencer and you’ve got the potential for some REALLY good practice, especially when you both know in advance exactly what you need to do to win.
Make challenges for yourself privately. When Johnny New Guy hooks up on the strip with you, plan on practicing one or two of your sucky actions during that bout. You don’t need to tell anyone. But in your head keep track if you’ve accomplished them. If not, do pushups or extra footwork or something to hold yourself accountable. Is this fair? Not really. JNG doesn’t respond to your provokes, does he? It’s really hard to get him to attack where you want so you keep missing your parries. Know what? Too bad. You’re going to have plenty of opponents that don’t react the way you want in competitions. Suck it up and try again. And SO WHAT if the new guy “beats” you at the club? You’re practicing your moves, bettering your skills, and improving your mental toughness.
Reduce your speed by at least 50%. If you’re used to scoring because you’re quick off the line and have a killer attack, change to a preparation step and fence open-eyes. You can still do tempo attacks but make your usual slow step even slower and then increase speed from there. You’re going to feel like you’re fencing through molasses but it’ll be good for you. Practice good footwork the whole time too… no lazy crossovers or galloping. Keep your feet apart and your knees bent!!
Make yourself fence in a different part of the strip. If you normally feel more comfortable pushing your opponent to their end of the strip, pull the Newbie toward you and learn to deal with it. If you love hanging out in the middle and winning with your superior foot tempo, make yourself use the whole strip.
If you have feedback or suggestions on how to practice with newer fencers, please post them in the comments.