Classical Fencing: The Command Lesson

Classical Fencing: The Command Lesson

Fencing texts, from as early as Rondelle to as late as Lidstone, commonly included detailed tables showing the sequence of commands the trainer would use in teaching a technique. Listed with the commands are the responses to those commands by trainer and student. We know that these commands were actually used because authors, as early as Siebenhaar to as late as Crosnier in his Fencing With The Foil in 1967, included discussions of the specifics of how commands were to be given.

However, the command lesson has generally been abandoned as a teaching tool. Modern texts, including the United States Fencing Coaches Association’s original National Training Program, do not address the use of commands.

There are a number of reasons that may account for the general abandonment of the command lesson:

• This is an old technique, in use for a prolonged period of time before the development of modern technique and the increased athleticism of fencers.

• There is an emphasis in the training of Fencing Masters on the use of blade and footwork cueing in individual lessons, and teaching by blocked repetition and training by presentation of options (actually opposite to the most effective use of both repetition and options).

• The prevalent belief in games theory in which athletes are allowed, even encouraged, to find their own way to the execution of a technique. This is not to denigrate games theory; the incorporation of games theory in specific phases of training is highly desirable.

• The command lesson demands a greater attention to the segmentation of technique into its parts, requiring detailed consideration of the sequencing and chunking (the progressive combination of parts into the whole) of all of the elements of the technique. In other words, teaching this way requires thought and disciplined performance and work by the trainer.

However, for the classical fencer, and for specific uses for all fencers, the command lesson has important benefits:

• For classical fencers it allows the current practitioner to learn the way fencers in the classical period actually learned to fence. It is thus a window into the ethos of the sport. Much as language communicates the nature of a culture, how you learn to fence communicates the nature of the sport.

• The commands provide a discipline to execution to ensure that the student does the drill, not what the student might want to do, an outcome critical to the development of technique and response time.

• Many techniques require specific sequencing of actions. Left to their own devices, students have an unreasonably high probability of not getting the sequence right, developing an ineffective habit pattern, and requiring significant effort to fix the habit. The commands can be tailored to the develop the needed sequence.

• Deliberate training and part-whole training are enhanced.

As a Maitre d’Armes, I had generally abandoned the use of command based lessons. In the development of the Classical Academy of Arms credentialing program, I included command based instruction because of its demonstrated presence in Salles in the classical period. But then, I had a class of modern fencers that wanted to improve their accuracy and control. After 30 minutes of work, first with commands for each element of the straight thrust delivered by lunge, and then with progressively larger chunks of the technique, I saw a definite improvement in accuracy, sequencing, and movement precision in their attacks. The command lesson is not the only solution, but it should be part of any classical fencing training and be considered as a specialized tool for modern fencing training.