Just a Minute

A look at half-time coaching and the techniques top coaches apply. Michael Clarke writes on the one-minute break in sabre fencing and the impact the coach can have, with research and an interview from sports performance coach Jon Rhodes.

Gone are the days in sport where a half-time orange would suffice as good second-half preparation. As coaches have more and more access to real-time data, the influence of technology has turned many big sports, such as rugby and football, into a numbers game. Half time is now a technology war, where players are overloaded visually with live statistics and video analysis. At the top in fencing there has been a shift towards numbers, with British Fencing now working with a data analyst. Fencers on the world-class programme now have the chance to analyse their rivals through the use of archive footage and statistics. Data have advanced the building of a game plan before a fight in fencing, but the use of live data as a half-time tool in the sport is still at the trial stage. The limitation of one minute for sabre fencing’s ‘half time’ forces the coach’s advice to be purely verbal and it has to be direct, concise and delivered eloquently. Jon Rhodes (MSc in sports performance) has studied the subject of the one-minute break and has begun to apply techniques to optimise the impact of the coach’s advice.

“Let’s focus on getting the most out of our athletes. I have been at the side of the piste many times to give advice and I have watched other coaches offer advice, whether it’s at half time or during a minute break. The usual advice is ‘relax’, ‘you just need to focus’, and ‘one hit at a time’. Everyone has a basic understanding of psychology, and fencing coaches could do better with their delivery pre-fight, but especially during the minute break.”

Within the short period of 60 seconds a fencer commonly has to re-fuel, recover and take on board coaching advice. So how can coaches maximise this short period of time?

“Let us consider two fencers of similar ability going into the break at 8-7, with each fencer having a coach of similar coaching experience. Many times we have seen one fencer dominate after the break. It could be argued that what was said during the break was the turning point. Of course there are many variables, but the key factors are two-fold. Firstly, what advice is given to the fencer and secondly, does the fencer follow the advice?”

For his research, Rhodes carried out an international study focusing on coaches at the minute break. The study consisted of 22 fencing coaches (15 British, 4 Hungarian, 2 Japanese, and 1 Austrian) focusing on neurolinguistic programming (NLP) elements, which includes examining body language, tempo and tone of speech, eye contact and language used. From this study three main conclusions were drawn.

“The first conclusion with successful coaches is allowing the fencer time to solve their own problems. Coaches often jump in by offering the fencer with a solution to scoring more hits rather than asking – “what do you think? More fencers given the opportunity to review their performance won the fight and were likely to follow coaching advice delivered in the last 30 seconds of the minute break.”

Passive coaching is not always the most popular approach amongst coaches. However, creating a fencer that relies on his own judgement is down to the coach’s ability to give responsibility to the fencer. A coach needs to achieve this by not overloading a fencer with information of how they see it, but rather by taking a more passive approach, which allows the fencer to figure out the options.

“Secondly, minimal information given in the minute break considerably aids the fencer. The magic number is three. One technical development (e.g., smaller parries), one tactical (e.g., pull the opponent) and one opponent awareness tip (e.g., watch out for counterattacks). More than three pieces of information will result in fencers not being able to remember what the coach said, slowed down reaction time and reverting to previous behaviour. Finally, generally the speed and firmness of information is equally important. As you would expect, slow and clear feedback is essential with a normal speaking voice. In two instances the fencers were shouted at, one fencer changed their style, the other did not. Therefore individual differences and situational variables are considered.”

Giving advice to a fencer is obviously not a perfect science, as each individual will react differently to what they are being told. This is why the research focused on what words were commonly used in the one-minute break.

Translating success

“It is worthwhile mentioning that the language used is of equal importance. World class coaches have the highest use of the word ‘You’ and ask the most questions during the breaks. Furthermore, most world class coaches offer only two pieces of development information to the fencer and use their body language to refocus the fencer by using visual cues.”

Visual signs from the coach are a key aspect to success. A notable example of this is the French coach Christian Bauer, who successfully coached through a translator both the Chinese and Russian national sabre teams to numerous Olympic and major championship medals. The tactics never seem to get lost in translation, which indicates the idea and influence of not only the fencer’s body language but also the coach’s. As fencing becomes more and more universally recognisable, the role of the translator will become a more common sight on the international circuit.

The idea of the visual and simplification of complicated idea can be seen in the coaching of young fencers. Rhodes addresses this, saying: “For the majority of coaches working with junior fencers, I would suggest these three points to work on. 1) Ask your fencer what they need to do to beat their opponent? 2) Work with silence. Wait for a response, even if it takes 20 seconds. 3) Offer no more than two points of development and one awareness point and agree them with the fencer – what do they think? By doing this you are more likely to gain task cohesion and develop a critical problem solver with your fencer.”

Technology will inevitably get quicker and more accessible, which may one day mean that the one-minute break will be aided with ‘live-data’. However, as it stands, it is crucial that the coach conveys strong, clear, simple ideas to their fencer to optimise their result.

In Press: Rhodes, J., & Clarke, M. (2013). The Sword, Just a Minute.

Picture: Jon Salfield talks to James Honeybone