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National Office Blog: Seth Kelsey, Director of Sports Performance

01/01/2014, 1:45pm CST
By Seth Kelsey

January 1, 2014

USA Fencing Director of Sports Performance Seth Kelsey is a three-time Olympian who won gold as the anchor for the U.S. Men's Epee team at the 2012 World Team Championships. In his first blog, Kelsey discusses the importance of planning practice ... 

“Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been effort stored up in the past.”

- Theodore Roosevelt  

Towards Ideal Practice

Every athlete is limited in the amount of time he or she can practice. What separates athletes is not the amount of time they practice, but how much they get out of each session. To maximize a practice, I look for three things. The practice session is planned and written down; athletes are emotionally connected and bring the appropriate level of intensity; and the session has a purpose and is appropriate for the time in the season.

Writing out practice
While training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I designed and led most of the practices from 2006 through the Olympic Games in 2012. Each practice started with me writing the workout on the big white board and reviewing the plan with all of the athletes. After answering any questions about purpose, handwriting, terminology and/or volume, we set to work. I know we got the most of out of every practice by planning it ahead of time. In addition, having the public critique improved practice and thereby everyone’s fencing skills.

Writing out practice on the white board or on a handout is good for both athletes and coaches. Athletes can gauge how to meter their energy and coaches can more clearly see the true volume of a session. Having a written record allows the coach to refer back and make improvements for future practices. It also provides an opportunity for timely feedback about volume, purpose and intent of the session. In addition, seeing sessions that are written out allows students to learn and eventually plan and write their own practices.

We all dream of winning gold. In those moments, it is likely that your heart will be racing; your blood pressure will be up; and you will be wrestling with strong emotions. All of these things can be controlled with practice. My favorite practices were when it was just myself, another athlete and a coach. These small sessions provided the greatest opportunity for intensity. When two athletes know each other well, tactical changes are very difficult so the victor is whoever can keep their focus together the best. My teammate Cody Mattern and I had many practices like this. Emotions ran high; hits were hard; and we both were better for it.

However, if you only get experience and practice when you are fencing the final bout at a tournament, you may never excel at it. Practice should be intense. Athletes should be emotionally involved in their bouts. They should care about winning and losing, performing an action correctly, and sticking with their plan. If you have not been frustrated or angry during practice, then you haven’t been using the level of intensity you need to become a champion. If a touch is scored against you in practice, that should upset you. That emotional response becomes the impetus to change and improve. I assure you, fencing in the final of a World Cup, World Championships or Olympic Games will be a moment riddled with emotion. Experiencing some of those emotions in practice, even if it is clearly on a different scale, will only better prepare you for future victory.

Last year, I was anchoring in the gold medal match against Russia at the Tallinn World Cup. I was up four touches with 14 seconds to go. The Russian fencer rushed and tied the score and won in overtime. Sleep was hard to come by for many days afterward. We had a camp in France immediately after. Instead of brushing the experience aside or dwelling on the loss,  my coach and I work out bouting situations I could practice. Those practices were emotionally difficult, but my sleep quickly improved. Later that season we ended up in the same situation. I was anchoring again and I had a four- touch lead. The Russian rattled off two quick touches. Instead of folding, I had practiced what I wanted to do. I had a solid plan and was able to keep calm. Our team emerged victorious from the match. I continued to incorporate bouting situations to best prepare myself and my teammates for the most difficult moments of competition.

Going to practice just because that is what happens on Tuesday is not a path to success. Designing practices that have goals ensures that the time spent is meaningful and efficient. Early in the season, practices can be about trying new actions and improving fitness. The middle of the season can be used to work on difficult situations, restoring confidence and honing skills. Practicing right before a tournament should be focused on boosting an athlete’s confidence and preparing them physically. Whatever the purpose of each practice is, a coach should make this clear to the athlete.

However you design your practice, be mindful of what you are doing. We only have a limited number of hours on the strip and you should maximize that time. Decide why you are there; be fully invested in what you are doing; and write it all down.

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