On Coaching and Teaching

Picture this: I’m at a small Local SCA event. Thunderclouds loom over the open-walled, tin-roofed barn where the only fencers who bother to show up are a couple of totally green novices, two of my cadets and me. Everyone else, including other locals, have been scared off by the weather. You could call the event a bust, you could say it wasn’t worth the drive, and you’d be dead wrong. Let me tell you why.

First, a bit of context. It’s taken a few decades and a child to turn this stubborn and arrogant boy into a decently tempered and relativity equanimous man. One area this transition has shone clearly is in my role as a fencing instructor. When I first got serious about teaching, I was zealous and overbearing. As I became more engrossed in codified historical fencing styles, I grew contemptuous of those actively uninterested is historical fencing and began proselytizing. I also became exceedingly prescriptive in my teaching. This did not have the desired effect, and I quickly found teaching, in general, to be entirely too stressful for my taste.

I still feel as strongly as ever about pursuing period-correct historical fencing, and I still teach classes based on my knowledge of various arts, but after shutting down The Edge of the World, I realized that I’m a far better coach than I am a teacher. This isn’t to say that I no longer teach—I do teach classes here and there and provide one-on-one instruction—but that I can generally do more good as by providing small bits of advice in the context of direct application rather than by attempting to convey large chunks of information all at once.

I’ve done a lot of coaching in the context of providing feedback to fencers during pick-up fights, but it was the reaction I got from a couple of my cadets following this past Saturday’s event that drove the point home. Here’s the thing: I was feeling extremely self-conscious on Saturday. While my one cadet Rashid is local to me (in fact, we work at the same company and used to fence over lunch), our schedules don’t line up well and we rarely get to train together.

Conversely, Harkin lives over two hours away, and I see him once on the occasions I can make it out to a practice about equidistant for both of us. Even then, we don’t train together as much as either of us would like. As a result, I was feeling a lot of pressure to make the most of their having my undivided attention. The only problem was that I had no idea what to do.

I spent a bit of time working with a totally new fencer and was delighted to have charge of such a quick study. No sooner had I explained a concept than this gentleman had internalized it and visibly improved his form. It was impressive! In fact, I considered going into full teacher mode, running some drills or putting together a structured lesson the way I used to do at The Edge of the World, but then something happened. Another fencer I’d never met jumped into the list. It took me about ten seconds to determine two things about the newcomer. First, he had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and second, he was extraordinarily arrogant.

A few passes in, I could tell the fellow was getting frustrated, so I offered him some encouragement and gentle advice. Rather than accept the feedback, he doubled down and refused to take my next shot. Once upon a time, this kind of person (we used to call a nightmare student when I taught martial arts professionally) would have bothered me, but now I approach guys like this with a sense of humor, lots of encouragement, and zero leniency. By the time I was done with the poor guy, I’d heard all of the excuses for losing I ever need to hear. Needless to say, I concluded that leading any kind of structured class with him around was not going to be fun, so I scrapped the idea.

That’s when it first dawned on me that I’d accomplished more offering the new fencer a few gentle nudges than I could in weeks of training a nightmare student. The implications are profound: it’s not my job to turn fencers into good students; it’s my job to help good students grow, and one of the best way to do that is to provide clear and actionable advice, right there in the moment. And so I did.

Harkin, Rashid, and I spent the rest of the day sparring. Over the course of the afternoon, I provided little tidbits of commentary, mixing a bit of praise with a bit of criticism. I put a lot of thought into what I was doing, planning passes that would let me evaluate specific skills and enjoying the experience. I managed to avoid my usual pitfalls, never pontificating or doling out too much information at once, and the effect was striking.

Although they have vastly different learning styles and are not at the same skill level, I could see both rapidly grasping and internalizing feedback, and the result was stunning. Still, I was worried that my students would feel somehow shortchanged, until both told me that what I’d provided was exactly what they needed. I’ve been teaching a long time, and few experiences have ever made me feel so good.

In the past couple of days, I’ve put a lot of thought into this experience. I’ve mulled over the divide between teaching and coaching and what they mean to me. I’ve concluded that both are absolutely critical aspects of instruction, but that I’ve definitely overvalued teaching in the past, and that my struggles soured part of fencing for me. But as I reflect on the past year and a half, as I’ve moved from teaching every week solely to coaching, I feel I have every reason to reevaluate my role as an instructor (and to maybe stop beating myself up over it).

Written by Phil Selman

Known as Warder Philipp Reimer von Wolfenbüttel in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Phil is a lifelong historical fencer and martial arts instructor. He specializes in I.33 sword and buckler and avidly enjoys late-period Italian rapier (primarily Giganti).