I have been an avid fencer every since discovering the sport at university. Over the years I’ve fenced in many fencing competitions in the USA and the UK and been instructed by a number of different fencing masters. I would like to relate an experience that is a perfect example of demotivating instruction.
I attended a fencing camp a number of years ago and the experience is still branded in my consciousness. The camp was highly anticipated by the members of my fencing club. It was to be instructed by Professor Zbigniew Czajkowski, one of the world’s greatest fencing maestros. He has coached the very best, including Olympic medalists and world champions, and is revered among the Polish instructors at my fencing club who are all schooled in his method of fencing. Unfortunately, I did not find the camp to be a motivating experience, but rather a traumatic one. His method of instruction was the antithesis of the informal way in which we interacted with our regular fencing coaches. His regimented way of imparting knowledge was something that we were entirely unfamiliar with and belonged in a B grade World War II flick. We were the naughty children and he was the stern and raging master, in a situation that required us to suppress our egos and submit in a way that we were not prepared for.
I didn’t absorb anything from the great maestro, I have no memory of any of the topics discussed or any of the fencing drills that I participated in. However, I still cringe at the humiliation that I suffered at his hands when I was unable to recall a specific fact that the Professor had just mentioned in front of the class. Some members of the group were publically castigated for not remembering a particularly complicated drill such as advance-lunge, parry sixte, riposte followed by a flèche, for example. The issue was not that we were not motivated, we all fence for fun because we love the sport. It just wasn’t life and death to us. This is a guy who fenced with a wooden spoon in a POW camp during World War II in order to maintain his skills. Fencing for him was a religion and had been quite literally a matter of life and death. His teaching methods remain among the very best for training fencers whose motivation is about the survival of their careers or even their lives. However, his expectations of our motivation as recreational fencers were not realistic.
This contrasts greatly with another fencing camp I attended instructed by the great Russian fencer, Pavel Kolobkov, probably the finest male épéeist in history. His approach couldn’t have been more different. There were no psychological battles, everything was completely relaxed. He appreciated that we had intrinsic motivation, but he also understood that we were just recreational fencers. Our career and social status didn’t depend on whether we made the national team – which certainly would have been the case for Kolobkov as a young man in the Soviet army. I remember many moments from the camp. At one point, he explained a mistake in his lunge that he has never eradicated and then explained that I was also making a similar mistake (making the same mistake as Kolobkov didn’t feel too bad). I still remember fencing him for five touches at the end of the camp and absorbing every single movement. I remember vividly how, during the bout, he tricked me to flèche out of time for a few of the touches and the advice he gave me after it was over. It’s something that has stayed with me throughout my fencing career.
Ultimately, I have immense respect for Professor Czajkowski as he is one of the true greats of the sport. Despite the negative experience, I feel lucky to have met him and to have attended his fencing camp. He has had incredible experiences during his lifetime and in some sense he has earned the right to teach in any manner that suits him and we should have been more prepared for him. Maybe if we had been his long term students his methods would have made sense. However, for the eight hours that we were exposed to the Professor, we could have all been touched by his teaching, and had our lives altered in a positive way, if he had only understood our fencing culture and motivations more clearly.