Jason Rogers, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist.
Motivation is the lifeblood of any athlete’s career because, without the emotional fuel needed to power training through the rough patches, progress can stall. This article is the second of a three-part series on how to motivate your students. Today, I’ll discuss the importance of incorporating regularly scheduled tournaments at your club to keep your fencers focused and their competitive juices flowing.
One of the main benefits that fencers get from practice is the ability to learn and refine new skills in a safe environment without the fear of failure. However, this no-consequences environment is not always productive. It can lull your fencers into complacency. How many times have your watched them fence at half-speed during free bouting or, worse, just sit on the bench chatting away when they are supposed to putting in hard work.
Fencers need stress to keep them motivated and on their toes, and competitions force them to put forward their best fencing because there are real consequences if they don’t choose or execute the right action. But packing their schedule full of NACs and World Cups isn’t helpful either. Too much travel alone creates burn out, not to mention the emotional toll of dealing with disappointing results.
There is a third alternative which draws the best from both worlds which I’ll call practice competitions. They bring together the stress of a competition with the freedom of practice. Now, before you coaches reading this article let out a collective groan of exasperation, let me assure you that this can be a lot easier than you think. I know that organizing a full-scale tournament at your club can be a major pain, but you don’t need all complicated brackets, referees and medals to have an effective practice competition. All you need is the ambiance of a competition.
So what goes into that? There are two key elements: stakes and accountability. Stakes are what make fencers feel like they have skin in the game. And creating stakes can be as simple as providing a reward to athletes that perform well. These rewards need not be large in order to be motivating. Take video games as an example. High scores, ranking systems, and even bragging rights are enough to keep people locked into a game for hours or more. Recognition, a free Gatorade or a pass on after-practice conditioning can be enough to get fencers fired up.
Accountability is what guides fencers to behave like they are in competition. This can be achieved by giving them a firm start time. Just like at a tournament, make it their responsibility to prep their equipment, warm up and arrive on the strip ready to go. Also, everyone’s results should be recorded, like those at a competition, to be compared with those of other fencers. So again, a practice competition range from running a one-round, ten-person pool to a full-scale tournament with a preliminary round, DEs and a final. You don’t necessarily need the latter for your fencers to take value from the session.
During my years at Ohio State University, our head coach, Vladimir Nazlymov, organized a practice at the end of most weeks called “Friday Night Fight.” During these practice competitions, we had to arrive early enough to be fully warmed up and ready for a 5 p.m. start time. We fenced pools or DEs in a round-robin style, with all of our results recorded on a dry-erase board in the corner of the room. While the setting was familiar, we all brought our A game every Friday night. We fought. We yelled. We pleaded for touches like it was the World Championships. I looked forward to these nights which freed us from our normal routine of footwork and drills. I loved the vibe because I felt that it honed my fencing instincts and skills and prepared me for upcoming competitions.
There’s no formula for how often your fencers should benefit from the atmosphere of competition. It largely depends on how frequently they practice and compete. When I had few upcoming competitions – before the season started – Vladimir scheduled Friday Night Fight nearly every week. However, when the season was in full swing and I was competing nearly every weekend, I didn’t need this at all.
It’s also important to note that you don’t need to use an entire training session for a practice competition because it can also be as short as a regular five-touch round-robin pool. Keeping it short still allows your fencers to begin practice with footwork, drills, and lessons.
By scheduling regular practice competitions, your fencers can experience both the excitement of a competition and the security of a practice. Organizing these events does not need to be a lot of extra work for coaches. All that is needed are stakes and accountability to provide the ambiance and the moderate levels of stress that keep your fencers motivated, focused, and honing their skills. What’s your version of Friday Night Fight?
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."