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How to Motivate Your Fencing Students: Give Feedback and Praise Like a Pro

02/05/2019, 6:45pm CST
By Jason Rogers

Keeping students inspired is one of the most challenging parts of being a coach. On some days, fencers brim with energy. Other days, they ooze lethargy. Unfortunately, motivation is not a magic potion that we can bottle for times of need. But, in this article, the last of a three-part series, I’ll discuss the importance of feedback and praise to keep your students motivated.

Make Feedback Private and Thoughtful

Jason Rogers, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist.

The road to improvement is paved with a thousand mistakes. But a coach’s responsibility is not only to point out errors but also to make sure that fencers understand what they need to do differently. However, fencers often struggle to internalize feedback when they aren't emotionally prepared to receive it. Think about the number of times your students have shot you that glazed-over look in their eyes that signals what you are saying isn’t getting through. This can occur because they just don’t understand. However, more often it’s because they are protecting themselves from the negative feelings that arise from being told that what they are doing isn’t up to snuff.

Delivering helpful feedback is as much about skillful communication as it is technical expertise. In most cases, your students are working hard to get it right. So, before you do anything else, praise their effort because it can provide the positive boost they need to buffer against negativity. Then you can move on to delivering the information they need to improve. However, you must be cautious in separating your own emotions from the advice itself. Upwards of 93% of the impact of your message is non-verbal, and you may not realize that your own frustration is causing you to use certain gestures or a particular tone of voice that makes them feel attacked. This only serves to create a wall between you and your student. The better you become at speaking in a kind, objective way, the more likely it is that your feedback will resonate.

If you teach large groups, it’s a natural coaching instinct to point out mistakes you believe an entire class can learn from. However, critiquing students in public can do more damage than good. As humans, our tribal history makes us evolutionarily wired to seek acceptance from groups. As a result, receiving public judgment can lead students to feel shame.

My personal experience with this destructive, disempowering emotion was it never made feel motivated. Instead, it provoked a deeper, darker question: Am I good enough? Asking myself this question did not build my confidence. Instead, it ate away at it.  So, rather than humiliating students by making them examples of what not to do, pull them aside and provide advice one-on-one.

Make Praise Public and Tangible

For a coach, understanding how to provide praise is just as important as delivering useful feedback. The desire for recognition is one of the strongest driving forces in human nature. We crave it because it provides a sense of progress and makes us feel that our effort is not being overlooked. Unfortunately, while these feelings are incredibly motivating, they are also are ephemeral. Which is why it isn't always enough to merely commend a student on a job well done. There's are reason why the awards business is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Acknowledging a student publicly with something physical, like a plaque, not only turbocharges the positive emotions they feel but also creates a tangible reminder on that moment for the future. At 13, I received the Salle Gascon award from my club for being a top up-and-coming fencer. The trophy, which was displayed at the club, not only validated the effort that I had already put in but also pushed me to work even harder so I could continue to be an example to younger fencers around me.

It's important to note that praising students doesn't always have to involve expensive prizes or time-consuming ceremonies. Maintaining a bulletin board with the week’s hardest working fencers or sending a monthly newsletter highlighting top students' progress can be equally effective. It’s a common practice in high school and college football to present small stickers to players for individual or team achievement. These decals, which are displayed on player’s helmets, are often enough to motivate them to grow and improve. Think about how you might translate this method for your own students. However about stickers on the inside of their guards? Or small patches on their knickers? The possibilities are endless.


Because students’ emotions constantly fluctuate, keeping them engaged is a demanding task. But I assure you that it’s worth investing the effort to become a master motivator because developing great athletes is a long-term game. Motivation is like rocket fuel for fencers. If you focus on acknowledging their effort, delivering effective feedback, and amplifying the impact of praise, you'll set them on a path charted straight for the top.

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."

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