Well-Coached vs. Well-Learned   Leave a comment

This is a distinction that I find myself coming back to a lot lately, and I think that there’s a meaningful distinction between the two concepts. This is ultimately a matter of skill progression, but I think that there is some nuance worth delving into here.

A well-coached person is one who can perform specific actions at specific times, and do them well. Someone who has been well-coached might have been so well-coached that they can do every single thing out of Fabris’s book one successfully, but more likely they are someone who can perform very well against certain styles or situations and not so well outside of those parameters.

Imagine a fencer who is studying Giganti and drills a handful of specific moves: the voids, a feint-lunge/cavazione in seconda or quarta, a few contratempo attacks, and maybe a cut or three. Let’s say that they practice those things, and nothing else, 12 hours a week for a year with a good coach who can correct their mistakes so that they are practicing those actions without any errors. Let’s also say that this fencer has no mental hang-ups and that their fitness is also good enough to perform well.

How successful will this person be when they enter into tournaments? I would hazard to say the answer is “very successful.” In fact, I think they will handily outperform 80% of the field, and that’s a conservative estimate. The simple truth of it is that if you have the ability to act in a way that brings victory 90% of the time in situations that you encounter 90% of your fights, your career average is going to start looking very good, very quickly. In fact, if the only attack you have is a cavazione di tempo when your opponent moves to find your sword, but you can land that shot 99% of the time, you’ll win 99% of the fights you have where your opponent moves to find your sword. Right?

Sort of. The problem with this is that you will win 99% of the times your opponent offers a tempo in the right measure with the right action for you to respond: good odds, but limited by some variables that are outside your control. If that is your only attack, any other action by your opponent will defeat you. Of course, none of us ever have just one attack, but this serves to highlight the problem of someone who has been coached, but has not learned: you can only handle the situations for which you have trained, and limitations on your training are limitations on your skill.

I see this all the time. There are a substantial number of fencers who can be quite successful up to a point because they can perform well within the narrow confines of other people with similar skill sets or familiar styles. How many of us have, at one point or another, come across something unforeseen that resulted in serious difficulties? How many of us suddenly struggled because the opponent was left-handed, or used a smallsword, or a longsword, or had a big shield, or fought case, or preferred to fight on the outside rather than the inside? I’ve been guilty of all of those problems, even when I was on a hot streak and winning a few tournaments a month. I knew what to do in specific situations, and I was lost outside of that realm.

Though my desire to solve that problem is in part what led me to the study of historical rapier, this problem also manifests itself in HMA enthusiasts in the form of those who can do all the plates, but still lose to those who don’t fight according to the “rules” of that system. Having depth to your coaching is still prescriptive, which always suffers from the same problem: anything novel will stymie you.

By comparison, someone who has truly learned and internalized the principles of fencing ought to be able to adapt to whatever circumstance they find. This is the difference between seeing a left-handed opponent with a big shield and hitting the shield over and over because you can’t help but target the right shoulder, and seeing that same opponent and keeping their sword on the outside of your dagger so you can negate their shield while you attack in prima with an angled lunge. That may seem like a tactically simple thing to do, but I have seen dozens of people fall victim to the former and far fewer perform the latter. Moreover, simply fighting on the outside line is enough to make opponents feel compelled to take several lateral steps, often in measure, just to get the fight back to the “right” place where they feel comfortable. Try that out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half your opponents do it.

What does all this mean for us? It means that evaluating skill, both in others and in ourselves, must be done carefully lest we overestimate the abilities we see. It would be a shame if we hampered or halted our growth because of a misunderstanding of what the end goal looks like. It also means that victory is not the only measure of success or skill, and is only a measure of those things relative to your opponent in that particular instant.
Most importantly, it means that drill and automaticity are stages in a journey that are necessary, but should not be mistaken as the destination, or even as the means to the destination. To be well-coached is the cost of admission for expertise, but it is not expertise in and of itself.

Posted June 5, 2014 by Dante di Pietro in Musings

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