By Nick Evangelista
Some time ago, I heard a sad thing regarding fencing: that a certain element in the world fencing community was lobbying to allow ear phones to be allowed for fencers—so that their coaches would be able to direct their actions from a distance via headphones. Coaching from the sidelines of a fencing strip has not, in the past, been permitted, although it happened; so, the rationale here is that if a coach is sitting somewhere in the stands directing his fencer, then it isn’t “sideline coaching,” and it would, hence, be ok. The question then becomes, why would the close proximity of someone's coach to a piste be frowned upon? Is it due to proximity or ethical principle? Is it the idea that coaching next to the strip is simply distracting for the fencers involved in a bout, or is it that a fencer, once trained, should be responsible for his or her own fencing behavior while competing? I do know that in college, if someone obtains answers during a test on any electronic device, it is called cheating. What modern fencers might call such coaching “innovations,” I have no idea. But, to my way of thinking, a teacher engaging in this sort of bout interference would be nothing more than a puppet master pulling technological strings. It seems typical of modern fencing to entertain such “enlightened” ideas.
I don’t know where this bit of electric nonsense stands today, but I hope it is dead and gone. If not, it should be. If a fencer does not learn to think, if he is just following orders, he is merely a zombie going through the motions. Thinking is a skill that must be both encouraged and practiced or it never materializes.
Yet, despite the potential for stunting the mental growth of a fencer, some coaches actively encourage student dependence. Don’t leave anything to chance. Don’t leave strategy and tactics up to a mere student. When winning is number one on the hit parade, thought requires the professional touch. Winning isn’t just a job well done anymore. It is self-aggrandizement, control, reputation, and financial gain. Many students will accept this arrangement of subservience, because winning in any context is more acceptable than the alternative. Modern society designates winning as everything. Losing is loss of face, weakness, a fall from grace, social death.
Winning, of course, is a goal. Within a given competitive setting it allows the fencer to momentarily gauge his or her developing proficiency. Obviously, a fencer who never scores a touch in a bout is experiencing some difficulties that need to be addressed. And yet winning is not the only thing fencing is about.
Neither is the teaching of fencing only about creating “winners.” When beating opponents is the only focus of fencing—in either competition or teaching—fencing is reduced to its lowest common denominator: ego. What then, one might ask, from a standpoint of teaching, is the purpose of the fencing master/teacher/coach if it is not to spew champions, like an active volcano, onto the competitive landscape?
I would say that the first and foremost task of the fencing teacher is to impart knowledge and shape skill, and to help the fencer internalize the fencing process so that it becomes irrevocably part of his nature, thereby assisting him in realizing his true potential. This then transforms the raw student into a thinking fencing entity. The true task of the teacher, therefore, is to make himself redundant for his charge. Ultimately, the trained fencer should become an independent agent on the field of play. This has a doubly important result because as the student is transformed into a fencer, absorbing fencing into his mind and body, he also becomes an excellent fencer. He observes, he thinks critically, he determines, he acts with resolve. He creates his fencing, as opposed to simply reacting to circumstances. He does not settle for accident. He knows why and why not. He is on purpose. At this point, winning becomes a by-product of his developed talent. This is what the master should be setting into motion. Well, this is what the teaching of fencing was once about, when fencing was looked upon as an accomplishment, instead of a result.
My own teacher, to the end of his days, taught fencing as an acquired art. He expected you to listen to him, to respect and respond to his words; and yet, when you walked onto the fencing strip and came on guard, the rest was up to you. You rose or fell on your own merit. And, the funny thing was, even when you didn’t win, you learned something, and grew as a fencer. You were able to take experience, feed it into your personal processing center, and create a stronger, more resourceful fencing self. After a bit, the Maestro would add some choice tidbits of advice to round out the picture, or to connect a few wayward dots. In the end, it was about learning to stand on your own two feet.
Many of my teacher’s students went on to become teachers of fencing themselves. They actually had something of value to impart to others. I would not be writing these words today if I hadn’t been allowed to become an autonomous thinking fencer.
On the other side of the coin, the saddest thing in fencing, to me, is the student who refuses to move away from the master’s shadow, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of blind obedience. It is much safer to just keep asking questions—often the same questions over and over--rather than to force one’s self to observe and reason out answers with sovereign resolve. And, yet, it true that one who continually receives answers without effort never truly understands. Words mean little when the sense of personal revelation and experience is absent. It is a shame, too, because the joy of discovery and acquisition is one of fencing’s most lasting rewards. Moreover, the fencer who shuns the opportunity to one day become self-regulating, for whatever reason, shirks the responsibility to maintain truths hard won over the centuries. To live as brain-dead, following fads and parroting officially established folly, or chanting a guru’s binding litany--and questioning absolutely nothing--is a fencing sin.
In the end, a teacher who does not allow his students to become independent is not a teacher at all, any more than a fencer who cannot think is a real fencer. From this concept, if we accept it, we are faced with one inescapable fact: a fencing that is built on a foundation of domination and dependence is inherently bankrupt. The future of fencing does not depend on the accumulated wins of any individual or individuals. It depends on the inherent truth of the system. Fencing’s tomorrow, beyond the contortions and shrieking of modern champions, rests solely on the knowledge and skills of proficient masters and students who are able to carry their legacy of fencing know-how successfully forward. Only thinking fencers can keep the essence of fencing alive. But this isn’t just true of fencing. This is the way of all human endeavors. It takes only one generation of rampant ignorance to lose the accumulated wealth of centuries.
Learn, grow, do, and question everything. Wishful thinking and magical thinking are never enough.