I have taken two private fencing lessons a week most weeks since I started fencing five years ago – sometimes three, sometimes one or none, but we can assume it averages out to two. That’s roughly two hundred and fifty hours of one-on-one instruction. Now, when I take a lesson, my coach often makes corrections with a gesture or a single word. Often, I see my mistake and make the correction myself. It’s second nature to salute before and after the lesson, to change positions with my coach when we reach the end of the strip. For my students, who are at the very beginning of their fencing careers, it’s definitely not.
After the first lessons I gave, I realized that I had forgotten what it was like not to immediately know what mistake caused me to miss, drop the blade, or make my touch late. Now that I am teaching, I need to make each detail explicit for my students, who don’t have those ingrained routines or a full understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish. They can’t fix their own Wrongs because they don’t yet know what Right is. My lack of awareness of the beginner’s experience gave me some trouble in explaining new skills, which I’m already finding ways to overcome.
For example, sometimes I wanted my fencer to act out the coach role so that I could demonstrate the action I wanted her to make. She struggled to step into the partner role even when I was directing her one action at a time: So much of her concentration was taken up by following my instructions, that she couldn’t pay attention to the action I was demonstrating.
On the other hand, if she started watching me instead of listening, she’d mirror my action instead of doing the next step in the drill! At one point, I extended my arm towards her body to show her the line I wanted from her tip to shoulder. She copied my extension and moved her arm right onto my tip (thankfully, not with any force).
So now I’ve learned some things about this student that I hope to use in future lessons. If she instinctually mimics my movements, I’ll show rather than tell – from a safe distance. I won’t ask her to take the coach role at all until she’s had a little more experience. When she makes a mistake, I’ll ask her what she needs to change to see what she’s thinking about and keep her mind engaged.
But you know what? She loved the lesson anyway! Which is encouraging, but also reinforces what I said in my recent post about the very first lesson I gave: She’ll never know if I’m wrong, which means I have to get it right.