Why fencing?

Of all the things do devote one’s time to, hitting each other with a sword...it really is a bit strange.

It is that strange aspect that draws people to this sport, and yeah, some of the folks it draws are on the strange side as well. I have often received odd looks when I explain what I do, what an epee is, and that I somehow I even get paid to teach it. I must affirm that it is all just a bit weird to the average citizen of the twenty-first century.

I heard a comment by someone recently, suggesting that fencing was not important to the community. I was a bit stunned at first, unsure how to respond (my first reaction was a feint, disengage, thrust). I can’t sleep anyway, so let me try my best to tackle this interesting question. As many of you may have observed, fencing often attracts a certain type of athlete. Attached to this armada of unique athletes, we have those that participate, not so much to become world class athletes, but to work on a whole host of personal development type of issues, or for the glory of showing off a bruise the next day at the water cooler or lunchroom. I also see fencing as keeping some kids active and engaged who might otherwise fall through the cracks of typical team sports. I see kids learning impulse control, learning to deal with anger issues, learning to think ahead. Participating in an actual reality vs that dreaded virtual one, getting kids moving, interacting, teaching them to focus on one thing for a time longer then a television commercial; these are all good things.

Let me address the virtues of women’s participation in fencing. It is a rare thing I think, for girls to compete directly with boys in such a face to face, one-on-one, direct manner. Some of my proudest moments have come from seeing a shy timid young girl transform herself into a confident athlete, ready to stand up to any opponent. This translates into girls seeing boys as equals, both in sports and society. OK, sometimes they do get to feeling just a wee bit superior, but I think you can understand the benefits. This transformative epiphany will serve them throughout their life in work, in play, in relationships — you name it. I once saw a young quiet young girl, just five feet tall and maybe eighty pounds tops, charge a US Marine off the strip. Seeing his rapid and somewhat panic-stricken retreat was interesting to say the least.

Adult fencers (I am referring to those that take up the sport later in life or those that return to fencing) highlight another interesting aspect of our sport. You may be surprised to hear that fencing is a lifetime sport, I teach fencers from five years old to senior citizens. I know of several fencers still competing at seventy plus years! This sport allows adults to socialize, exercise and have fun regardless of age and talent levels. Adults get to learn new things, and learning new things, especially when combined with movements as we see in fencing, develops new neural synapses and is thought to develop neuroplasticity in the brain. Creating new synapses and developing neurplasticity reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s according to recent research. It’s not a bad way to meet people either.

I am not implying in any way that team sports do not also have important benefits. What I would like to say is: fencing addresses a segment of the population that is otherwise underserved. It is a sport that you can make part of your life regardless of physical limitations or age (yes, even wheelchair fencing, and fencing for the blind)!. It has added benefits, based on my observation, to those with ADD, ADHD, high-functioning autism, and those with social or developmental issues. It is a sport of tradition, discipline, honor, respect, and where declaring a point against yourself is a matter of pride.

Let me not fail to give mention and credit to the incredible top athletes that take our sport to the highest levels. A place were sport becomes art, equal to that of any sport played at that wonderful transcendental level. These gifted athletes have dedicated so much time, so much effort and deserve our attention and respect. To find these stars among us, we need to support fencing at the grass roots level. This is where it all starts, here in our community.To those that run those facilities, the recreation centers, the school fencing programs, the small fencing clubs and those that are behind the scenes in other ways, your efforts are appreciated more then you know. Often we have competition between sports over limited funds or space. Fencing serves an important and diverse population. It is a cost effective, safe sport that can be done year-round, offering flexibility in using existing facilities for multiple purposes. You’re offering a unique activity that is engrained deep in our history and culture.

I think my response must be, and any reasonable person would conclude, that fencing serves our community just fine.

Thanks for your time,

coach Geoff

The non combative rule in epee?


“An ingenious solution to a non existent problem” but without the ingenious part.

non combative rule

If you happen to have fenced in any US Fencing sanctioned events lately, I will guess you have heard of the new dictate, the well intentioned offering by the FIE. The words “well intentioned” often proceeds decisions made by folks that perhaps did not adequately consider the consequences.

What were they thinking? I asked this of my good friend coach Greg, a worldly, well connected (in fencing circles) kind of guy. He gave me his all knowing smile that let’s me know, he is about to address me as one would address a young child. “You see, they had to do it, (non combative rule) for the TV viewers, to make fencing more interesting”. Being more the grass root type and being about as non connected as one could be, I expressed my concern about the introduction of “judgement calls” made by a director, in epee fencing. These calls could effect the strategies and outcome based on the directors opinion of what is happening in a bout. That it is an idea I consider foreign to epee. I was even more concerned that it was made without, as far as I can tell, any consideration to the traditional nature of epee. A sport of few rules, that rewards patience and cunning, as well as “just not getting hit” as important tactics. Heck, most epeeist I suspect, rather then adopt this rule, would prefer to get rid of all those pesky directors. Perhaps not in the popular mafia meaning, but more in the “just send them home without their supper” vain. Still I have to confess that epee, is not ready for prime time television. My suggestions to the problem;

Real Epeeist of New Jersey, this TV reality show portrays the daily struggles of a group of up and coming epee fencers as they go about …………
Or we could put the sharp points back on the epee. A bit of blood is good for ratings after all.

Now wait just a minute, foil and saber have lots of rules that require years of practice to implement and perhaps more to direct. Yes, the rules are often misapplied, and interpretation changes with each season, but fencers cope. Sure, they have bad calls. Yes, it is hard for the casual (and not so casual observer) to understand who got the touch. What’s the harm? Well, the harm may be that television viewers can’t relate to or understand what they see. How will the new rule address this issue?

Rule changes in sabre, IE the elimination of the flèche, changed the nature of sabre. I’m told this was also for TV, to slow things down a bit for the viewers. Sabre was to fast for TV and epee is now to slow. So how did that sabre rule change work out on the TV ratings? Frankly I don’t see sabre as gaining any more TV viewers then epee or foil after the rule change. Arbitrary rules, rules that distract from the nature of the sport and do not pertain to safety are, in my opinion, doomed to fail. Epee is about truth, at least as far as possible, without the dire effects of a duel. That is why my friends, many of us prefer to fence epee. Fewer distractions and more fun, everyone understands the rules in epee, as long as we don’t muck it up. Keep the traditions, keep it simple, keep it real.

coach Geoff

It's an emotional thing


Fencing is often referred to as the physical game of chess.

I will admit it can be. I suspect it may be something more. As we compulsively analyze our opponents, and coaches debate strategy, is something else going on? Are epic bouts being won on an emotional battlefield of bruised egos, anger or self doubt?

I’m sure you’re thinking I have plunged into some alternative universe. Perhaps this perception is valid, but lets explore the possibilities anyway. Consider two equally matched fencers. For the sake of argument, let’s say they are perfectly matched in both tactics and skill. Only one of these fencers can win. Perhaps luck will decide a bout, but more often, one person “psychs” out their opponent. Often this entails great theatrics, posturing, acting over-confident, sometimes acting in a dismissive manner and sometimes being just plain obnoxious, like some cat sticking out his tongue at you. All these behaviors and more are designed to illicit an emotional distraction to get you off your game. It may be intended to make you mad, make you question your self and your skill. They distract you from your game and you lose. In sports, we universally see this gamesmanship; it is well known, yet it is still effective. How are you training to deal with this proven strategy?

We have at least two considerations when we think about emotions in a fencing bout. Let us look at the one we have some real control over - OUR emotions. While emotional reactions cover the full spectrum, some of the most distracting emotions are anger, fear and insecurity. We can try to ignore these emotions, or we can use these emotions as motivation. We can work on our focusing skills, thus disarming these emotional distractions, and we can address our physical responses to emotional stimuli.

Physical responses associated with these emotions can include shallow breathing, sweating, and loss of fine motor skills. Breath control is well known for reducing these effects, as well as controlling the emotions themselves. Trying to remember to breathe, in a controlled way while in a bout, is a distraction in and of itself, unless we incorporate it into our training! As an example, I have my students train to exhale deeply and forcefully as they lunge. It becomes part of our “muscle memory”, without becoming a distraction. Breathing is also a key part of yoga and this intentional type of breathing is a powerful tool for those students that tend to get excessively nervous, distracted or mentally stimulated before a bout. Learning to focus is much like anything else in that the more we use it the better we get at it. I find visualization an excellent training aid in developing focus. Visualization is often combined with controlled breathing, and these are a synergetic combination.

We can also use a twist on the classic judo move by redirecting our opponents emotional assault as motivation for our own emotional counter attack. When an opponent tries to “trash talk”, intimidate, or otherwise distract us, do not allow their behavior to anger, intimidate, or become a distraction! Rather, try to redirect these emotions back to our opponent. I counsel caution in this however: remember that we are striving for a calm but totally focused mind. We need to keep our mind in that specific mental zone where we are most effective. While some fencers can use anger to motivate, others will find it highly destructive and at the very least, distracting.

My advice is to not allow your emotional strategy to be up to chance. Have a plan, prepare, find out what works for you before you face your opponent. Write down your “buttons” - those thing that just set you off. Read them back until they lose their power, or better yet, deal with those underlying issues that create those “buttons”. Work on your focus skills at every opportunity. Inviting a friend to inflict their “mind games” can be helpful training. Practice appropriate breath control before and during your training and while fencing. Practice visualization on a regular basis with attention being paid toward overcoming distractions. Prepare and prepare some more, being confident in your skills is a strong mental and emotional defense. My final secret weapon….. have fun, humor can disarm even the most sinister emotional attacks.

coach Geoff

New fencers and good habits


I often ask new students, how it would be, if in school their teacher left out a few letters of the alphabet, perhaps adding a few unique letters as well. What would happen to you, as you advanced in school, went to collage, got a job? I think you can guess the replays I receive.

We can see parallels in learning to fence, at least I do. This is why fundamental skills and correct form must be demanded at every turn for the developing student. This is why we repeat the same actions over and over. Time spent at this stage is well rewarded. Time spent correcting bad habits is frustrating for everyone. Yet every week, I hear “ My child took the six week beginners class, are they ready for the competitive class yet?”. Patience is needed, as much as I hate to say this, talent and winning your first few bouts, does not exempt in any way the need to learn proper form. My biggest setbacks as a coach have been when I allowed fencers to advance to soon. One step at a time. Private lessons can certainly help your student learn faster but we must always strive for good, constant form before more advance skills can be developed.

Let me say that fencing, as fun as it is those first few days, weeks and months, it is far more fun as you master skills and understand tactics. Beating your opponent not because they slipped and fell on your blade, but because you set a trap and they fell for it. That your execution of the action was done with skill and timing. That my friends is even more rewarding. So please, take some time and master those basic skills. To go back to the alphabet analogy, learn your letters, learn to spell, learn sentences, then write your poetry.

coach Geoff