Fencing with those other weapons


Hold on, a rant is developing, I can feel it getting closer….. closer….. closer!

Yes Virginia, there is life outside of epee! Sometimes it is worth the bad calls and frustration to investigate this strange world of things like sabre and foil (let us decline treading on the slippery slope of historical fencing for the moment).

In the beginning, when the world was not so old, young students always started with foil. Foil is a type of anorexic epee, for those that don’t know. The idea being that they learn “right of way” (akin to a four-way stop sign on six lane roads) and being the skinny cousin of epee they weigh less (the foil, not the fencers). Sabre was not taught until at least a year or more of foil experience because frankly, kids would just wail on each other in an ever increasing crescendo of simulated violence, in fact, really just practicing the essential truth of sabre fencing. Somehow, foil was somehow considered a way to civilize these wayward youth before releasing them into the darker world of sabre. It all makes an epeeist chuckle.

OK, while this is an epee centric website, grant me a bit of license here. Truth is, as epeeists we can learn from our wayward brethren. Despite all those silly rules they like to flaunt, we share some basic skills: footwork, timing, understanding tempo, reading our opponents. Foil, like epee, deflects the blade with a parry. Sabre parries however, blocks the blade, and do to the nature of sabre, or perhaps just sabre fencers themselves, actions tend to be wider and more aggressive.

The foilist has some strange conventions…somehow tapping the opponents blade has become a parry. Like announcing a toast at a dinner party by tapping your glass. This I will never understand, but let’s move on. Foil is more dynamic, less patient and they argue more over…. well, let’s just agree that they argue more . Oh yes, least I forget, they flick even more then some epeeists do. It is those pesky flicks that bring us back to sabre (in the US mostly spelled saber but I like sabre, it looks more pretentious). The sabre parry is most effective in blocking those dastardly flicks. Sabre fencers also use their hand to produce a motion that they optimistically call a cut. This hand technique has been useful for me in teaching a proper flick… thus requiring the learning of sabre parries, a clear case of “the chicken or egg came first”. So learning a few sabre moves is a good thing says I. (sabre fencers like to talk like pirates)

Can an epee fencer fence in those other “weapons”? Maybe so; watching the gold medal round in the 2012 Olympics, I observed that, often, the rules of right of way were sometimes circumvented, mostly by timing their hit, regardless of the opponents right of way, to produce one light. Yes, epeeists used this “just hit first” tactic all along, without resorting to those tiresome rules. I also noticed more epee style “point work” to the hands in saber lately as well. In foil, saber, epee, similar apparitions all appear; forget right of way, produce one light and the touch is yours. Point is, we can learn from each other and even fence other weapons (sort of anyway).

So I conclude this rant, worthless as it may be, that in the hope of harmony, we allow ourselves to walk in the shoes of our distant, rule bound fencing cousins. So that in the spirit of peace we move past all those silly foil and sabe jokes and offer our mutual respect. (much like I give respect to my brother in law Ralf just for showing up sober for the Christmas party)

End rant,

coach Geoff

the definition of insanity

Photo on 7-9-12 at 9.57 AM #2
We have all heard this by now, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Sometimes fencers also resort to trying to do the same thing harder and harder thinking that will change the outcome. (FYI I am talking fencing, not politics, I think) They really are fencing the same bout over and over with interchangeable opponents! The mistake in my mind, is not seeing whats in front of you at the moment. Not interacting with you opponent, you are missing the real game that fencing can be. In short, your fencing life sucks.

Think dating!

One option could be to observe your opponent and see what they are doing well. Investigate a bit, test reactions to see their response. Often this give you insight as to best exploit the situation. An example could be that my opponent enjoys a quick parry riposte. My answer could be anything from making that opponent attack me, IE denying the opponent what the are good at or perhaps a feint disengage or whatever. The issue is to interact with the situation at the moment. See how this works!

Another twist on this subject is how fencers get stuck, both in offensive or defensive strategy. Yes, they may change their attack but the just keep on attacking, regardless of the results. It is a valuable skill to learn the ebb and flow of a bout and when to change from one strategy to the next. The answers again are to be found in observation of your opponent. We look for the balance between teaching your opponents what to expect, our purpose being to set them up, and keeping them uncomfortable and guessing what comes next.

Sometimes it is simple, if your very best “move of the week” is not working, well you best change it. After two attempts your chances are pretty low of it working on the opponent your now facing, regardless of how it works on others.

Fencers that fail to be in the moment, to interact with the fencer before them, will fail to improve regardless of physical talent. I will add that they are not very interesting to fence as well. So the experience is akin to a bad date I think. Dating is best when both parties have a chance to talk and listen (or so I’m told). Fencing is like life, it’s what you put into it.

coach Geoff

I can do this

“I can do this," these are some powerful words.

I have some students that don’t even want to think they may win. Perhaps they feel it will jinx them, but in my opinion, it is they feel they don’t deserve to win. I know other students that come out swinging with statements like, this “is theirs," or “I own this competition”. Sometimes they end up buckling under their own self imposed pressure.

I recently had good success with a “U” rated student in a local “A” rated competition. I asked him if he was willing to see how far he could go. Rather sheepishly he agreed to try. I said, “We can do this” . I used the word “we” both as a sign of support and my confidence in him (and myself). He went on to beat out some “A” fencers early that resulted in the competition falling to a B rating. Despite injuring his hand before his final bout he came in 2nd, earning him his C rating. By far his best result yet (I expect great things from him in the future).

“I can do this” gives you permission to do your best. It frees you from pressure that can distract from your performance. It allows you to dream.

To all my student let me say, YOU CAN DO THIS! WE CAN DO THIS! LET’S GO

coach Geoff

What's to eat?


Competition day nutrition…

Everyone is different. We call it biodiversity. It is therefore difficult to give specific advice to a general population without this disclaimer. However, I can offer some general principles that may be useful. This advice is based on the assumption that the athlete is healthy, has no food allergies and is not taking any drugs that may affect what he or she can eat. If you fall into any of these categories, talk with your doctor and a licensed nutritionist about your dietary choices.

It is important to have an understanding of the glycemic index. The glycemic index relates to blood sugar levels and the effect of these levels on available and sustainable energy. The bottom line, in regard to performance. Is that eating sugar or foods high in glycemic index will produce quick energy that will soon be followed by a distinct fade as the blood sugar levels drop rapidly? In fencing, we fence bouts at full intensity and often then sit around for some unknown amount of time. To ensure we are at our best, it is suggested that meals should be chosen that are low on the GI chart.

Digestion actually takes energy as well, so we often feel sluggish after a big meal. I suggest that you eat your meal three hours prior to the start time of your competition, and eat small snacks to avoid hunger and maintain blood sugar levels.

Hydration should begin well before the competition starts to avoid bloating. Once we start fencing, the body’s ability to hydrate is slowed down. “Sports” drinks can be a concern as many contain lots of sugar (simple carbohydrates — high glycemic index) that we are trying to avoid. Further, many sport drinks contain “energy enhancements” that may or may not work, and in some cases may be on the USDA list of drugs banned in competition. The replacement of electrolytes however can be a concern with hot venues, long days, bulky fencing gear and physical exertion. I find that coconut water provides an excellent source of electrolytes as well as sodium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. It is low in sugar as well. That said, plain water is still the preferred option in most circumstances.

The subject of nutrition is complex. We live in a world that is full of interested parties selling products with “healthy” or “natural” on the label. My short speech on the subject is to avoid processed foods when possible. A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables has always been good advice. Try your “competition day diet” before actual competitions to make sure it agrees with you. You are an athlete now, treat your body like an athlete should. Making good choices now will not only further your athletic goals, it will improve the quality of your life.

Further resources found down under and here as well as the local Certified Health and Nutrition Counselor (me don’t ya know)

coach Geoff

Focused vs Junk Fencing



Both physical and mental intensity as well as focus is a vital aspect of the art of epee. How is it addressed it our training? I was trained by several excellent Russian coaches who had the opinion that one should train to exhaustion, and only then fence. The advantage of this approach insured a specific level of performance even when we were asleep on our feet. Training like this requires long hours; something that in today’s culture is often hard to accomplish. It also made recovery difficult, and in my case led to injury! Though this traditional type of training is still rightfully used extensively in our sport, other options are available to supplement and expand the fencer’s training.

One alternative we can work with is greater intensity and for shorter duration. Interval training methods allows us to train harder, yet still fully recover. It also works well with drills designed to promote fast twitch muscle development. This type of training can be used to work on specific energy pathways as well. This approach does, however, require a certain base level of fitness, so be prepared. An example of this type of training could be substituting the 50 or 100 lunges you do daily, with 10 done at full speed and perfect form, allowing yourself to fully recover before repeating. It is just not possible to do 50+ lunges at the absolute speed that you can achieve with doing just 10. We can even improve on this if the lunges are combined with the short, varied footwork that we use in a bout!

What about muscle memory? Can muscle memory be achieved with shorter more intense methods? I think so! Drills for muscle memory can be practiced 50% of the time at a slow tempo as long as full concentration is applied to focus, balance, form and proper execution and timing. This attention to detail done at a slower pace has worked very well with my students. Reduced inflammation and injury will then allow actions done at “full tempo” to be done at greater speed and intensity then would otherwise be the case.

On the mental side, focus is a skill, our culture has produced a generally shorter attention span as well as less ability to focus without distraction. By upping the level of required concentration and intensity with shorter training times we can promote the ability to focus to a greater degree both in quality and duration. Traditional long practice bouts of say 20+ touches can, in some cases, lead to the athlete fencing with less focus as fatigue sets in. Frankly speaking, many students have not trained their ability to focus intensely. Sometimes the shorter, 1 to 3 touch bout can demand the fuller attention of the fencer, do to the reduction of fatigue that longer training often produces. The more time we spend in the highest levels of focus, the better we get at it. FENCING 3 MIN AT 100% IS BETTER THEN 30 MIN AT 80%! As the ability to hold focus improves we can then extend the fencing time as long as focus is maintained properly. I suggest not training if you can’t focus, you will likely be training both your mind and body, the wrong things!

I am also a firm believer in periodization in training. The idea is to stress both our physical and mental abilities in new specific ways and then advance to our next training objective. Remember that we actually get stronger in the recovery phase!

Whatever the training method we use, we should eschew “junk fencing," training that is not directed towards a goal, or fencing in a less the mindful way. My training advice is to train at full intensity, yet with a calm full focus that is available to all incoming information without internal or external distractions. Train your body from a rested state at full intensity and then fully recover. I suggest you rotate your training routine in both macro and micro cycles. I also suggest base endurance and conditioning work be done in the early off season so as to not overload the fencers ability to recover. Speed work just before your season or target event.

Have fun!
coach Geoff

A View from the Plateau


Not progressing, hitting a wall, stuck on a plateau, whatever you call it happens to every everyone at some point.

It is the most often reason people quit a sport. They believe they have maxed out, reached their potential, or have no talent. Sometimes it will be expressed as “I just don’t love it anymore” or “I just don’t have time”. Sometimes they just never come back without a word.

It is seldom the case that they really have “maxed out”. However, all coaches need to work to help students move forward through tough times. I try to let students know this will happen at some point before it becomes an issue. So, how do we move forward and bring back the confidence?

My strategy often comes down to “back to basics”. In epee, this means point control, foot work, and distance. Sometimes a short break is also needed to “reset” the student. Attention must be paid towards replacing bad habits with better habits. Even with all this it can take some time for a student to get “unstuck”. I try to approach teaching students fencing skills in a new way. Every student learns differently, so often we need to be willing to try different methods. If the issue is related to conditioning or overtraining, rest and cross training may be suggested. The body adapts to the exercises we commonly do so maximum benefit can be reached by constantly doing new things in rotation. There are many other strategies as well that can be applied also. Just ask your coach.

Can hitting the wall be avoided? My opinion is that for the most part it can. It takes planing, time and a willing student. The use of training cycles is common in many sports, with the idea that you can train up to the point of adaption, and at that point you do something else. This gives time for skills to settle in (to be readdressed at another time) and muscles a chance to both recover and be stressed in new ways. In fencing it is advisable to differentiate between conditioning and skills development. Both are necessary! Both can benefit from training being varied with new skills learned and old skills reviewed.

If you feel stuck, discouraged, or frustrated please talk with your coach, set some new goals and remember that fencing should be fun.

as always
coach Geoff

The Art of Seeing


Let us consider the simple act of seeing. Well, I’ll back track already because this is about understanding what we see. Seeing what is actually happening. Seeing patterns that help us process what we see.

Many times I ask a student why he did or did not do a specific action, or take advantage of an opportunity, and the answer is almost always…” I did not see it.” Heck, they have eyes, and for the most part have better vision than I do. So what is happening here?

I have several answers to this question. Let me give an analogy for a related sense - listening. We all know people that listen well and those that don’t. Good listeners focus not on what they themselves want to say but also on what the speaker is actually saying. I wish I understood that as a teenage boy - my dating life would have been greatly improved! Anyway, seeing is much the same.

The ability to see, in the moment and to be in the moment. Fencing the same bout, over and over, trying to win by will power alone, prevents seeing what is really happening in the moment!

The ability to see patterns is one way that the brain is able to function at very high speed. We can use this to our advantage (or disadvantage, but lets consider that at another time). When you learn a new action in fencing, focus not only how you do it, but how it looks when someone does it to you. Consider how the action needs to be set up in context of a bout. Then consider this from your opponent’s view. What does he or she need to see to set up a specific action? Maybe an extended blade or distance or any number of factors. When we associate these actions with specific prerequisites and specific actions we will start to see what is really happening before it happens. How cool is that!

Seeing the big picture: is my opponent playing offense or defense? Are they able to respond to our feints? Most important, see what they are good at. If you know what their expertise is, and you have had any training at all you will then know what to do.

More to follow on this insightful subject. Coming soon, using your peripheral vision to improve point control and distance.

“see ya”
coach Geoff

Olympic sport

London 2012 is coming soon!

Fencing has been a part of every modern Olympic games. I suspect sword play has been a part of every Olympic games for that matter.

Why don’t I see it on TV?

Well, you can, at least in part. You will most likely need to be a night owl or set up your TV to record it unfortunately. We all have different cable companies so times and availability will differ. My suggestion is YouTube or Fencing TV. A quick search should give results.

If you are new to the sport, I suggest you just watch one fencer. Trying to follow the actions of two fencers in a bout is overwhelming most of the time.

Students, please discuss with your coach any “olympic moves” you are think you are ready for. These require an advance skill set and must be approached in context to the bout. You will do yourself no good by trying to look the part! Really!


Anyway, they do inspire us all. Go the USFA website to read the profiles of our American team.

London’s calling
coach Geoff

Well intentioned advice


We have all, I suspect, been the recipient of advice by well-intentioned folks. One of the things I like about fencing is how fencers are willing to share. Even more so (cough), if their sharing is about how to beat somebody else. I have often had great advice, but sometimes it is…how should I put this? Not the best? Perhaps ask yourself...Do you know the person giving the advice? Is it a well-respected coach or a disgruntled fencer?

I have been around a while so I feel I am a fair judge of the merits of such advice but to my younger students I offer my own advice. Smile and thank those folks who tell you what you should do, and if it sounds reasonable, talk to your coach.

If you feel the urge to give advice to other you don’t know, I suggest confining your remarks toward support and above all refrain from suggesting tactics. Also, the middle of a bout is not the time to teach new tactics.

To my fellow coaches, can we agree not to coach each others kids unless asked?

Now for the big one, a subject that is very difficult for all involved:

Let me give you some background. A flashback as it were….In the distant past my son is fencing at a regional competition and I am there. My gut is burning as I see all the opportunities my son may have missed. I had to say something, right?

Well, I’d say no. The parent-child relationship is a far cry from a coach-athele relationship. My real job at that time was to be the parent. That is, IMO, the most important job we have. My advice to parents is: if you really have the need to offer advice, do so by way of the coach. Fencing is hard enough without the distraction of multiple voices yelling at the same time to “Attack!”, “Keep the distance!”, or whatever else feels important at the time.

coach Geoff