How To Keep Learning When You’re the Best in the Room

Most of the time, I am nowhere near the best fencer in the room when I’m at practice or a tournament.  There are, however, exceptions to this and I found myself in an odd position.  No longer do I have someone else to fall back on, someone who knows more or can serve as a better example.  Sometimes it’s just me and a bunch of new fencers.

This type of situation has two varieties.  The first is when I’m teaching.  Generally speaking, people who are better at things teach people who are worse at that thing, whatever it may be.  I’ll often times find myself working one of one with someone, but I still generally have someone better than me in the room to fall back on.  Sometimes, though, I’ll teach a class where I’m all on my own.

Teaching often teaches the teacher as much if not more than the student.  Having to break down what your body is doing at put it into words is a very different skill than just doing the action.  Once you have all the pieces, though, you can start arranging them in a fashion that you seem fit instead of a fashion that fits you.  A lot of people recommend that you just try and do what your body is doing naturally.  The problem with this is that your body often gets has bad ideas and although it will find a way for you to get by, it often won’t have all the answers you’re looking for.

Being forced to understand by having to get up there and explain can be one of the best ways to learn something.  Before this summer I had been struggling to understand Fiore’s abrazare (wrestling) section and couldn’t for the life of me remember all of the positions or how they could fit together.  Once I had to know it, however, it all started to click.  Teaching forces you to make time and look at what you’re doing.  When correcting a student’s stance, you often start to recognize what you’re doing wrong.  Last night I was helping someone understand why their foot needed to be pointed forward in order not to tear the muscles in their knee when I realized that my left hand was too high and was providing an opening.  Because the person I was teaching was so new and moved slowly enough for me to stop and think I saw that there were stabbing at what I was leaving open for them, just not always at the part I had intentionally left open.

Not everyone you are better than is there to learn, and that’s okay.  Some people fence for the exercise or just because they think it’s fun and don’t have that drive to be the best.  Maybe those of us trying to best everyone else should take a step back and look to these type of fencers to try and relearn how much fun fencing can be.

Fighting worse fencers also provides an opportunity that few realize.  Merely beating on them won’t do much more than boost your ego (which can be something you need on occasion), but it can also make you a better fencer.  Instead of trying to win the entire game, use this time to focus on one thing.  Get them to shoot at that one opening so you can cross parry, or get down that feint to the inside line you’ve been meaning to work on.  Without having to tell your opponent, you can make this time into a non-cooperative drill.  You’re still working on just one or two things like you would in a normal (cooperative) drill where both sides know the sequence of actions.  This type of drill, though, let’s you still work on those one or two things, yet have to deal with an opponent who gets to think on their own and respond how they wish.  Although traditionally this drill format limits the opponent’s actions, normally with one side attacking and the other defending, there’s no reason you can’t do it where one side is given complete freedom.  Just drill against your opponent until they’ve figured out how to counter it and then move on to the next drill.  This could even work as a way to teach someone without actually telling them what to do.  I’ll have to think on that.

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