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Coaching and Learning Step by Step in El Salvador

03/26/2019, 2:30pm CDT
By Cory Price, Prevot de Fleuret

Cory Price coaches foil at Gryphon Fencing Studio in Placentia, Calif. He manages the Youth League Program and the Competitive Youth Program. In addition, Cory runs summer camps and teaches beginning to intermediate classes. After being recommended by the Coach Resource Team at USA Fencing to attend the Pan-American Sport Organizations’ FIE-approved clinic, Price wrote about his experience in El Salvador.

Cory Price

In October 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador for an FIE-sponsored coaching clinic. One person from each of the North, Central and South American countries was sent to represent their home country’s fencing federations and learn from Petru Kuki of Romania – a maestro and three-time Olympian.

I was very excited to go, but I was also nervous since I had never traveled outside the U.S. before. Additionally, I speak about as much Spanish necessary to find the nearest bathroom or beer. I was worried that I would not be able to understand the lectures and demonstrations, but my love of fencing overcame these concerns! This was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I felt like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” as I stepped off the plane into San Salvador, El Salvador. I couldn’t read the signs and I was too proud or embarrassed to ask for help, so I wandered through the airport. Outside the airport, a man holding an “esgrima” sign was waiting patiently for me to arrive. I missed the sign since I still hadn't fully grasped the idea that I needed Spanish and not English, but he saw my rolling golf bag and lost expression and put two and two together.

The training camp was being held at the Hotel Indes, located up in the mountains outside the city of San Salvador. Everything was a lush shade of green. It rained a heavy kind of fat rain, the kind that soaked through your shirt instantly. It was very humid all the time!

The next day I met the fencing coaches from the other countries as well as Maestro Kuki. He is a booming, jolly and charismatic man. He spoke in short and concise English with charming hand gestures to emphasize his points. If you did a great job, he would enthusiastically give you the thumbs up; if you progressed faster than he thought you would, it would “blow his mind” and he'd make a gesture to indicate his head was in fact exploding. He was positive and spoke in a direct manner.    

He taught a classic French style, but his pedagogy was all his own. His overwhelming philosophy is that you must take a “step-by-step” approach to teaching fencing. He says, “Coaches think they have no time. They feel like they must make a champion today!” He went on to say: “A maestro knows he has time … time to explain every facet of the sport, every small detail a maestro can and has time to review.”

Kuki's philosophy is simply to teach each action step by step, not to rush, but to really go over in detail. He believes if you learn slowly, and step by step, that you can be brought up to a high level quickly.

He proved this theory correct during the course of the training camp. Some of the people who showed up had almost no fencing experience. However, by the end of the camp they had worked hard and were giving some relatively high-level lessons despite their relative inexperience. It was truly amazing to watch a master class in coaching. 

Maestro Kuki's quote of the week was that in fencing “you cannot take an elevator to the top. Instead you must take the stairs, working step by step to build a great foundation.” Once a fencer has a solid foundation, it's easy and a pleasure to work with them. If you skip these building processes and they don't have a solid foundation, it will be frustrating to work with – always bad habits that need reforming.

The basic routine for the 12 days at the training camp were: three hours in the morning of practice, one hour of theory, then three hours of practice at night and an hour of theory. The lessons were presented in English and they had a Spanish translator for the Spanish-only speakers.

During these lesson practice sessions, Maestro Kuki would explain to us what he proposed for us to learn. We'd work on giving good cues, engaging the blade, having the student engage the blade, etc. One big difference that struck me between the U.S. coaching style and Maestro Kuki's was how much "off the blade" actions he used. For Kuki, most of the students’ actions would start with some sort of blade engagement or beat initiated by the coach “presenting the blade.”

After Maestro Kuki would tell us the action. He would demonstrate in detail, taking his time to explain every action, every extension of the arm before the feet moving; every disengage was broken down into its smallest of simple actions – all  while cracking a joke, or occasionally extrapolating an action into some sort complicated bind/transfer flick to the back – just to demonstrate that simple fencing leads into all the cool complex fencing we all love to do. We'd then break up into pairs, working with a different coach as often as we could, and go over the lessons – much the same way we do in USFCA coaching clinics. We worked on giving good cues, working on engaging six and many, many, options from that: counter attacks, parries and ripostes.

The daily theory classes were held in a lecture hall. Maestro Kuki would talk about the finer points of fencing, refereeing and how to analyze different bouts. We watched and analyzed many videos of top international fencers, such as Sergei Golubitsky, Alexandr Romankov and Valentina Vezzali. Maestro Kuki taught us a type of shorthand note taking to keep track of the actions and habits of these fencers – how many times they parried, counter attacked or remised and where on the strip they did it. Amazing and useful stuff!

Every day we would break for a three-hour lunch “siesta.” This is a practice common to hot climates, but I wouldn’t mind if it was adopted in the USA! In addition to eating, this was a time to do some shopping, laundry, nap or play a pick-up game of soccer. In the evening after the final lecture, the coaches would go out to local restaurants and pupuserias. It was a wonderful time to try different foods, bond with our classmates and learn more about fencing in each other’s countries.

It wasn’t all work though. One afternoon we took at day trip to a volcano and hiked up to look around. The vegetation in El Salvador is green and gorgeous. Of course, it rained on us, but no one’s mood was dampened. It was just too surreal and beautiful. On another outing, we went to a black sand beach and played soccer, drank coconut water straight out of a coconut, relaxed and swam in the ocean.

The weeks of training concluded with a test in front of the maestro. We were randomly assigned partners, either to act as the “student” or “coach” in the test lesson. For my test, my “student” was a very talented fencer from Costa Rica, Erick. The lesson went perfectly, but I was corrected for not giving him any breaks during the lesson. I was so worried about the lesson flowing smoothly that I forgot to let him breathe! This was a nice reminder for me, since I frequently do this to my students at home.

I was the “student” for Maestro Fernando of Cuba. The lesson was flawless. Afterwards, Maestro Kuki pointed out to the whole class that even though I don’t speak Spanish and Maestro Fernando doesn't speak English, he was still able to give me a beautiful lesson. No words, totally with the blade and silent, proving that you should be able to give the right cue with the blade and the student should know what you want. Fencing makes sense. As Kuki said, "Fencing is EASY. Why you try to make it hard?"

This was one of the best trips of my life. The hospitality of the host county and FIE was wonderful. I met the most amazing people that I will always remember. I felt like a sponge absorbing the numerous lessons, drills and insights into fencing. Maestro Kuki was a fantastic role model. He was thoughtful, funny, intelligent and passionate about fencing’s past, present and future. Before I left for the training camp, my peers considered me to be a talented coach. Now that I have returned from the camp, I can see that my coaching has improved considerably. I now stand in the center of my club more confident and knowledgeable than before.

I’d like to thank Peter Burchard, Donald K. Anthony Jr, Sam Callan, USA Fencing and the FIE for sending me on my first international adventure. It's well worth it if you can attend coaches training camps, either internationally or at one of the many US Fencing Coaches Association events.

Coaches need to continue their education, too! A good coach keeps pushing and climbing, step by step, never taking the elevator to the top.

Tag(s): Blog