This was an interesting experience for both me and Helen. Finishing in 107th place I knew exactly what my student was feeling because I had been in the exact same position before, one win and cut before the direct elimination rounds. All in all I’d say that coaching is similar to fencing in that the more that you are organised the less you have to worry about on the competition day and the more time you can spend focusing on your student.
The handy hint I would have for traveling as a coach is to always have an alternative mode of transport to the hotel if taxis are not available. Although I'm trying to make my favourite thing something other than food my favourite thing about Dourdan has been the cheese.
I put this first because it is really all an athlete cares about while they are traveling, when they have arrived at their destination, and after a competition.
· Bring travel snacks and keep your athletes hydrated. It is the day before a competition and by the time you check in for a two hour flight, land and then catch a two hour train ride you have spent 7 hours traveling, even if you get lunch on the way athletes need snacks to keep fuelled the day before a comp.
· Check where the nearest supermarket is to the hotel before you leave. The quicker you can get bottled water and snacks the day before a comp the better. Same with nearby restaurants.
· Tell your athletes to buy bottled water for the venue. Even if tap water is drinkable you never know if there is a place to fill up at the venue. The only place to fill up in Dourdan was the bathroom taps which were pretty unclean.
· Do weapons check the night before. Most international comps will have weapons check at one of the official hotels the night before the comp.
· Double check that the stamps have been done correctly on your students equipment.
· Know where the warm up facility is. The warm up or training venue is usually separate to the main fencing hall where the finals piste is, it is good to find out where it is as soon as possible.
· So that it is easier to prepare your students it is good to find out the poules allocation as soon as possible. In Dourdan this information was not released until 8:55 and the comp started at 9. If you know this may be the case sometimes it is better to prepare your students generally or coach them in between poule bouts.
DURING THE COMPETITION
Organisation is probably the key to being able to coach well during a competition but I would like to focus more on deciding on the specific types of advice to give during a competition because I think this is the hardest thing to learn and really requires you to know your student well.
Technical vs strategic advice:
Technical advice such as ‘Use smaller steps’ can be limiting in a poule bout because under pressure your student can focus on that one aspect of their fencing instead of controlling the bout and fighting. I found that it was better to give more ‘strategic’ advice in these short bouts because when Helen started losing hits because she was holding her arm back on the attack she fenced better when she started using her opponents reaction to this to her advantage instead of trying the same attack and extending her arm faster.
Strategic advice is advice more like trying to take advantage of your opponent’s reactions or technical deficiencies. This is better than technical advice in most cases because technical advice gets your student to focus on their own deficiencies rather than using it to their advantage. I think that technical advice is only useful if you know that your student does not usually display that particular technical deficiency such as using really big steps instead of small ones.
The toughest advice to give is mental advice because it relies so much on what your student is reacting to. In this particular competition Helen knew that this comp was bigger than the previous world cup she had fenced and told me she was excited about how many fencers were there. In reality I think that she was too excited about it and it made her nervous. I was able to pick up on this because I know Helen well, I have seen her compete a lot and when she is focused she is very hard to distract from the competition. In Dourdan she was extremely hyperactive prior to the poule starting and this led to her being overly deflated when things did not go to plan. The hardest thing for me as a coach in this case was to know whether to try and pump her up so she could become focused or try and calm her down to stay focused. I think the advice that worked the most was strategic advice because it got her focused on the next match rather than on her previous performances.
Mental advice is all about experience, how well do you know your student’s reactions to pressure? And do you know whether it is better for them to be calm or do they fence better when they are pumped up?
I found that a lot of coaches in Dourdan prefer to debrief their students’ right after the match regardless of whether they have won or lost. I think this is only suitable in the case of a win and that debriefing after losing should be done a while afterwards, unless your student asks you directly.
Immediately after losing most fencers emotions are caught up in their willingness to improve and fence better. I find that you are generally not able to take on constructive feedback as well as when you have calmed down. This is because this feedback may be still linked with the negative feeling a of a poor performance and therefore seen as negatives eg thinking ‘I was stupid for doing that’ as opposed to ‘ok so I can fix that if I finish to a different line’.
After the competition Helen was despondent, particularly given she had previously finished in the top 16. It was important that any feedback about her performance waited until she had space to clear her head. Sure enough about an hour later she was asking about what she needed to fix technically and strategically to get better.
· Be Organised: know where you are going, transport timetables, and have copies of everything.
· Have spare money in case students need to borrow it. We had a situation where the morning of the comp Helen didn’t have enough cash to pay the entry fee.
I hope this gives an insight into what coaching at an international competition is like. I think Australian fencers tend to be really disconcerted in their performance at these large competitions and it is important to be able to manage those doubts as a coach. I also think that the ability to be flexible is crucial. Flexibility is the advice you give, the situations you have to respond to and other people’s disorganisation is very important. The more you are able to do this, the more your student can focus on their performance.
Thanks for reading,