Producing & Teaching Motor Skills

Methods of Producing Fencing Movements (Motor Skills)

If as a coach or fencer you will find it helpful to understand how fencing movements are acquired and then how they are performed under the stress of competition. I’d suggest loaning or buying a copy of the book Motor Learning and Performance by Richard A. Schmidt and Craig A. Wrisberg. 4th edition is the latest as I write (June 2012).  I suggest this not for academic reasons but for purely practical ones as the information therein will greatly influence how you coach / want to be coached.

In essence they say the the body acts like a computer, using various different memory stores to help process the information gathered from the outside world. It builds a model of the movements and situations it encounters, such as when being taught fencing movements. When it comes time to perform (fence) information is take from the outside world, threats and opportunities are analysed, a course of action is selected, a plan of how to implement the actions is selected and then implemented. Depending on the duration of the action to be performed one of two things can happen next. If the duration of the expected action is short then the action is simply performed with analysis of how it went after the event. Alternatively if the duration of the expected action is long then analysis of the action is done during the action and corrective feedback is incorporated into the performance. So, for a fencing movement done in a single period of fencing time, such as a direct attack at close distance or the final cadence of a compound attack, your best option when performing them is to just go for it and if it didn’t work analyse why afterwards and correct for the next execution. Alternatively, for a fencing movement done in multiple periods of fencing time, such as when attacking from medium or long distance using a compound attack you will have time to make adjustments to the movements as you come in, albeit on the final action you should just go for it as previously stated.

The motor skill performance ideas expressed by Schmidt and Wrisberg change fencing from a ‘conversation of the blades’ as it used to be known into more of a ‘conversation of the reaction distances’. In other words to win get the opponent to commit to an action from which they physiologically can’t recover while you execute a predetermined deception and deliver the coup de grâce or the final blow.

Schmidt and Wrisberg also quote Hick’s Law on page 79 of the book. This is a law describing the relationship between the number of number of choices that are available and the reaction time taken to perform any of them. Basically the more choices you have the longer the time taken to respond. Hence to win, reduce the range of choices of action you will take while creating a situation where the opponent must choose between more choice of action. They will therefore react slower than you will, given you have the self control needed to make this strategy work.

Methods of Teaching Fencing Movements

In Motor Learning and Performance, p.257, by Schmidt and Wrisberg they identify the need for blocked, random and varied types of practice. Blocked practice is when the same skill is practised over and over. Random practise is when two or more skills are practised in random order, avoiding creating repetitious partners of behaviour. Varied practise is when a single type of skill is practised over and over but with variety in that actual execution (perhaps in terms of timing, speed or depth of movement). All of these types of practise have their place in the coaches range of techniques but each has its own limitations. Please see the book, Motor Learning and Performance, for a thought provoking and full explanation. (If you can’t get a copy from the library I have a slightly older edition for sale, contact details are on this site.) On page 279 Schmidt and Wrisberg give a good summary of how best to employ these practise methods, this can be paraphrased as:

  • In the early stage of learning a movement skill blocked practise is best.
  • After the early stage of learning, random practise is best (with very limited choices)
  • Perfection of movement skills is best achieved with both random practice (few choices at first, more later) together with varied practise (gross variation at first introducing to more subtle variations later)

FEEDBACK

Gaining feedback when you are learning a new skill is vital. Schmidt and Wrisberg identify two main channels which are used to aid the learning process, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic feedback is divided into seeing what is happening (focal vision) and feeling what is happening (proprioception through the muscles). You get this feedback from your senses as you practise the movement. Extrinsic feedback is knowing the result of the movement, e.g. hit on target or knowing how well the movement was performed, successful or not e.g. verbal feedback from the coach, “well done, that’s it”,  or “OK but better if you straighten the arm first!”.

The feedback is then compared with the anticipated outcome and corrections formulated for the next attempt. Another iteration is then attempted and further analysis and correction formulated. This positive feedback loop quickly homes in on an acceptable performance of the movement under a set level of ‘stress’.

Clearly feedback is very important in learning movements but when it’s required to make the movements in a performance setting e.g. a bout or competition. The situations are very different as the stress level is different and we all react to stress in different ways…

I strongly recommend that all coaches seek out the text referred to above to inform their coaching methods and strategies. I also think that fencing coaches should be able to analyse this text and make some suggestions to the authors on how their ideas might be extended and revised in some areas.

If you a serious about your fencing and want to improve you performance seek out information on sport psychology which is of a practical nature and implement the methods suggested. I link to such a text can  be found on this site.