How to become a Prévôt

Last week I told you that Dan and I had just become prévôts in epee (to be accurate, Dan already had his prévôt in foil and saber). Today I’d like to talk a little about the examination to become a prévôt. We spent several months preparing for the exam, but the day itself wasn’t quite what I expected.

The first phase of the exam is a written exam, done before you even set foot in the room to do your practical. The US Fencing Coaches Association’s website, usfca.org, has a huge study guide for the written exam to help you prepare. The test itself is 100 questions. It has a time limit, but I forget what it was – well over what you’d need if you’ve prepared well. I was surprised by the variety of material covered by the written exam. It covered the types of things you would expect, like how to structure training programs and lessons. It also included topics I didn’t expect, like questions about the best way to plan for emergency situations in the club, and a really in-depth exploration of how muscles work.

For the practical portion of the exam, the examiners evaluate you as you give several types of private lesson to a student. These are the option lesson, the teaching lesson, and the warmup lesson. The biggest mistake I made, going in to the exam, was not preparing these lessons enough ahead of time. For some reason I thought the examiners would choose which techniques I needed to teach. When I realized that I could do any type of lesson I wanted, I didn’t have enough time to map out a really good set of lessons. What I came up with was decent, but not as good as it could (or maybe should) have been. You can find the scoring sheets the examiners use to evaluate lessons on usfca.org (direct link if you have a login). Definitely use these to prepare your lessons before you dive in.

The option lesson generally goes first and is the longest phase of the test. This is the type of everyday lesson that you’d give to a student who takes lessons regularly. You give them a handful of different moves that they can make, then give them different cues and have them choose which move to use in response. For example, if you extend your tip at their chest with your arm high, you’d expect them to use an opposition parry 4, but if you extend at the same target with your arm low, you’d expect them to counterattack to the arm. You need to change the rhythm and tempo of your actions and the student’s actions, and you need to mix things up to surprise them from time to time. You need to demonstrate to the examiners that you see mistakes and correct them appropriately. You also need to have a mix of coach-initiated actions (coach extends, student parries) and student-initiated actions (student counterattacks when the distance is right). Student-initiated actions are going to help them on strip more often, so you should be in the habit of using these in your lessons anyway.

The teaching lesson asks you to teach your student three fencing techniques: one offensive, one defensive, and one counteroffensive. I decided to go really simple with mine, so the offensive move was a simple attack, the defensive move was parry 6 riposte, and the counteroffensive move was a simple counterattack. I should have chosen something a little fancier; maybe attack with disengage, or attack to the hand and remise to the body for the offensive move. I observed another exam where the teaching lesson was too complicated and taught three different types of attacks. This is definitely a goldilocks situation. Your lesson should be set up to teach a student of prévôt-appropriate level (that is, not a beginner and not a world champion, but probably a competitive, mid-rated fencer of some experience) a skill they either don’t know or need to improve. You need to be able to demonstrate the skill yourself and to explain its tactical applications. You also need to have the student use the skill from different distances and at different tempos.

The third type of lesson is the warmup lesson. This is the type of lesson a coach gives a student at a tournament, just before going into pools or an important direct elimination. This was the part of the exam I felt best about and the one I did the best in. For several years my husband Dave and I have had a few specific exercises that we work through before either of us fences – mostly quick touches to the arm or body with lots of disengages thrown in. These are great for clearing away tournament jitters, loosening our hands and shoulders for precise movements, and focusing our minds on the bouts ahead. Because I’d given this type of lesson so often, I was much more confident and relaxed.

The final phase of the exam is the oral portion. The examiners ask you five questions. The first is general knowledge of training and conditioning; in my case, since we have a lot of veterans in our club, they asked how I would design a training program for a Vet-60 woman who was aiming for a national championship. The second question is about distance, timing, and initiative and… I can’t remember what the question was exactly. The next three questions are weapon-specific, asking you to demonstrate your knowledge of the rules, tactics, and techniques of the weapon you’re testing in. They want to know if you have enough understanding of the specific weapon to be a good instructor to your students and a good advocate for them at tournaments.

The test was really thorough and nerve-wracking. For a little while, I was afraid I had failed it. (I didn’t!) Dan told me that of the three prévôt exams he’s done, he did the worst in his own weapon (saber) because it was the first he did and he didn’t know what to expect. I think that was the exact thing that cost me points and kept me from having the best exam I could. I hope that this explanation of the exam gives some insight for those of you prepping for your prévôt. If you aren’t a coach, I hope this gives you some more information about how we got our certifications. The USFCA really cares about ensuring that the folks they certify deserve those certifications, and that they will be good caretakers of the sport and the fencers who participate in it.

If you haven’t started fencing yet, join us this week and find out what it’s like to be coached by someone with so many accent marks in their title.

Prévôts also have to be good at multitasking.

Prévôts also have to be good at multitasking.

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