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Ruthless Simplicity (Part 1): Why stripping away distractions is the key effective practice

02/14/2018, 1:30pm CST
By Jason Rogers

2008 Olympic silver medalist Jason Rogers.

Over the course of my competitive career, I found myself constantly shifting my attention between numerous goals vying for my attention.

“Fix your attack! Fix your defense! Improve your tactical approach!”my mind would yell all at once. Staying focused and making sense of it all was difficult, and it took years before I could properly prioritize where to spend my energy. In this article, I’d like to share some of the key lessons I’ve learned relating to training efficacy. In a follow up article, I share some of the techniques I used to help me get more out my practices and improve even faster.

Just a few words about my fencing career before we dive in. I’ve had the great fortune to compete on two Olympic teams for USA Fencing (men’s saber; 2004 & 2008) which culminated with our team winning a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. I’m honored to lend my voice to the USA Fencing Coaching Education Blog to provide the perspective of a former athlete to a variety of challenging issues facing coaches, fencers and parents. I also run a website called, where we provide advice and insights for fencers striving to reach the next level and beyond in their fencing.

Focus is the key to improvement

The key ingredient to getting better at fencing (or any craft) is dead simple: the ability to focus. Of course, there are a variety of other important ingredients like technical instruction, great training partners and natural physical ability, but, without focus, everything stalls at a certain level. I’ve always found that the more time I could spend uninterrupted, applying a laser focus to one skill, the greater the likelihood was that I would make progress in that domain. If, for whatever reason, I was unable to tune out distractions to give my full attention to the task at hand, my energy felt poorly spent because improvement was unlikely to occur.

Simplicity creates focus

I ultimately discovered that the more I could break down and simplify the training elements that required attention, the greater the focus I could achieve. But why was that, exactly?

Simplicity prevents becoming overwhelmed

The more that I improved as a fencer, the more I felt like I needed to introduce unnecessary complexity to my routine. To that end, I began designing my own training programs and would create and document numerous, detailed training schemes which required a huge amount of energy and initiative; however, there was one glaring problem. While they looked great on paper, I could never actually accomplish them. They were too complex for me to handle so, instead of leaving practices feeling like I had checked off everything I needed to do, I felt confused, frustrated that I had made little or no progress and like there would never enough time in the day to practice enough to see results.

Simplicity prevents procrastination

Similarly, I’d often spend a great deal of mental energy and time working out the design of one particular element of this program, revisiting it over and over in my mind trying to make it just right. I’d convince myself that it needed more scrutiny before I could properly implement it so, ultimately, I wouldn’t work on that aspect of my fencing at all. In other words, my perfectionism would get in the way of just doing what  needed to be done, every day.

Find simplicity in the fundamentals

Naturally, as I improved I had to adjust my focus to more difficult fencing actions and concepts. However, I always tried to spend a disproportionate amount of time working on the key ingredients (e.g. basic footwork) of my fencing. Now, when a fencer tells me he wants to flunge like Daryl Homer, I tell him to master the fundamentals. The simple advance that Daryl does before his take off is equally important, if not more so, than the flunge itself.

Why do we avoid the fundamentals?

My problem was a common one. The further I progressed, the more resistance I felt towards working on the fundamentals. Why was that?

The fundamentals are tedious

I would find it extremely difficult to give one simple action my full attention for a substantial period of time. It just wasn’t as mentally stimulating for me to focus on the optimal angle of a head cut compared to the challenge of more advanced maneuvers. However, knowing that fundamentals are key to improvement helped me to grit my teeth and find a way to be able to do the difficult, repetitive work.

Novelty is addictive

Midway through my career, my mind began craving novel ways of doing things, and I loved dreaming up new footwork patterns and tactics. But most of the time, I’d spent a few days trying them out, then get bored and move on to something else. I soon realized how easy it was to be sidetracked by this addiction to novelty and complexity when what I really needed was to be consistent with the fundamentals.

Complexity is often for show

I’ll be honest, sometimes I could be a little bit of a show off (I think most of us can relate to that, even if only a little bit). If there were new fencers or spectators at the club, I wanted to demonstrate the full spectrum of my abilities. I observed this, too, in other fencers during their lessons when they would do complex blade drills, which look really cool (blades flying all over the place), but involved actions they rarely used in competition. One of the most important lessons I learned was that I really didn’t need to prove anything to anyone at practice, and that practice was simply that: practice.

Failing at the basics is embarrassing

Quite frankly, I had to get over being embarrassed when I made a mistake executing one of the basics. I’m supposed to be an expert, right? What would people at the club think if I fumbled the rudimentary footwork for a close distance parry riposte? I found it was much easier to fail at something that others around me couldn’t do and so, sometimes I, too, was guilty of not paying enough attention to the fundamentals of great fencing.

Understanding where to spend your energy is critical for any coach or fencer. In the next USA Fencing Coaching Education Blog, I’ll share some of the specific techniques I used to strip away the complexity and make my practices even more effective.

Tag(s): Blog