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Ruthless Simplicity (Part 2): How to focus on practice goals that matter

03/16/2018, 9:45am CDT
By Jason Rogers

Jason Rogers, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist.

It’s no secret that improving the quality of practice can help a fencer get to the next level (which is our chief concern at

In the first part of this article, I wrote about the importance of achieving maximum focus in a practice session by avoiding distractions and focusing on the fundamentals. In this article, I’m going to share some of the specific techniques I used to achieve that goal and make my training even more effective.

Develop clear practice goals

My best practices were always the ones during which I had a clear goal. I found the easiest way to do this was to isolate a single action that I wanted to improve. That didn’t necessarily mean that I only worked on that action, but the core of my attention was always on it, throughout all the components of practice. For example, if I wanted to work on taking the blade when my opponent dropped their hand, I thought about it during footwork (using my saber to mimic the action through the air), during drills (asking an opponent to attack while dropping his blade), during bouting (working hard to use that action as much as possible, regardless of the outcome of the bout), and, of course, in my lesson.

The one-hour test

Here’s a good way to figure out if a fencer had a clear goal at practice. An hour after practice, ask “what was the key thing you worked on?” By allowing a short time to pass and the fencer's mind to go on to other things, you can be sure he or she isn’t repeating something you just said when the fencer responds. If he or she can answer that question easily, then the fencer had carefully thought about the desired outcome. If you don’t get a straight answer, it probably wasn’t a focused practice.  

Using focused video review to set better training goals

I found that analyzing one to two videos from my most recent practice or competition bouts could provide valuable insight into areas that needed improvement. Personally, I got the most out of video review when I conducted the exercise with a very specific focus in mind as opposed to making general observations about what actions worked and which ones failed. For example, I might watch a bout and see that my long attack needed improvement because I was hit in preparation too often by my opponent’s counterattack. While this was valuable to know from a tactical perspective, it was not the type of insight that led to a concrete training goal. However, if I forced myself to watch only one component of my fencing, I was more likely to spot a single skill that I could focus on and improve. Watching the same video, I looked only at my footwork, ignoring my upper body completely. When I did this, I was able to see that I had a tendency to bring my back foot too close to my front foot as I approached the final stage of my long attack. This caused me to pick up excess momentum just as I became vulnerable to my opponent’s counterattack. By eliminating the distraction of my upper body, I found it easier to turn a general observation about my long attack into a specific, fundamental skill I could focus on: isolating and preventing my back foot from coming too close to my front foot. I used the same method to look at other areas (such as my upper body position and blade action) helping me to discover more concrete insights that I would not have otherwise seen.

Quick Tip: If you use this method and struggle to avoid distraction, try a simple trick I used to isolate my focus. If I wanted to look only at footwork, I held a note card or piece of paper in my hand over the screen and covered my upper body completely, so I could only see my legs.

Do the hardest thing first

Club practices often fall into a natural rhythm that is dictated either by coaches or by habit, and fencers grow accustomed to doing things a certain way. For example, in most clubs, a fencer warms up, then does footwork, then does drills, then fences. It goes without saying that a fencer must always properly warm up before you do anything. However, after that, I liked to dive right into the area on which I wanted to make progress that day. I found this to be the most reliable way to make sure that my goal received the highest-quality focus, rather than letting it get pushed to the end of practice when I was tired and distracted.  And there was an added bonus, if I did the hardest thing first, everything else felt easy after that!


No session will ever be perfect, but the more you can simplify practice and strategically direct where your focus goes, the more likely you are to make actual improvement on vital fencing skills. Feel free to email me with questions at

About the author

Jason Rogers is an Olympic Silver Medalist, Two-time Olympian in Men’s Saber and founder of Better Fencer, a website offering advice and insights from the best in the sport of fencing. Click HERE to get the free Better Fencer eBook “10 Mistakes All Fencers Should Avoid."

Tag(s): Blog