Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Month: February 2023

The First Gift Fencers Get From their Parents

Raising kids is not for the faint of heart, and one of the most difficult things that parents do is learn to let go of control of their kids and allow them to spread their wings in the real world.  We agonize over whether they will be ok. Will they get hurt? Will someone bully them? Will they achieve the things they want to achieve? Will they be happy?

The truth is that we only get our kids for a few years before they are out there on their own. The hours that we spend with them are precious few and always precious. The natural inclination that we have is to hold onto those years tightly, keeping them as close as we can for as long as we can. This is both because we want to protect them and also because we just want to be with them. 

There comes a time that we have to let them go, but luckily for us it doesn’t happen all at once. There’s the first time we leave them with a babysitter when they’re babies. The first day of school. The first sleepover. The first time we let them go head to head with another child with a sword. 

Giving kids a sword

Fencing is unlike other sports. Though there are fewer injuries with fencing than there are with things like soccer or track and field, there is also the reality that it’s a sword that we put into the hands of children and the psychological reality that goes with that. It’s important to note here that fencing is the safest of combat sports. Karate, Ju-jitsu, Taekwondo, boxing, etc., are have far more potential for injury than fencing does. It is still considered a combat sport, even as it is much safer than most non-combat sports. 

Our swords are engineered for safety, but they are nonetheless still the descendants of deadly weapons. In our minds, swords are deadly weapons that are used on the battlefield. They are striking both in the visual beauty and power that they possess and in the way that they are used to strike other people. The point is to poke or strike another child with that weapon and to have that other child poke and strike our own child with one. It’s an astonishing thing! The intentional giving of an epee, sabre, or foil to a kid is an extraordinary choice for a parent to make. 

It is brave to give a child a weapon, no matter how much we might have worked with that weapon to make it safe. (It’s also very, very cool to give a child a sword.)

Kids who first start fencing often have visions of lightsabers and pirates rolling through their minds. They imagine that they are learning the lightning fast skills that would protect them should they ever find themselves in a dark alley with a bad guy. As long as they have their trusty sword and their fencing training, they are well protected. While it’s no good to put much stock into a fencer being able to use their sport fencing skills for self defense, there is very much something to be said about the empowerment that kids feel through the power of fencing.  

Independence is gift

The first gift that a fencing parent gives to their fencer is a trust in their independence. 

To put a sword in the hand of your child and say “Hey, I trust you to use this weapon properly and to not hurt your opponent or to get hurt yourself.” That’s huge! You are communicating to them in a big way that you believe in their ability to handle themselves in a situation that is not only new and unfamiliar to both of you, but also that is potentially dangerous.

The only word to describe most new kid fencers when they first pick up a sword is reverent. There is power in the blade – the kind of power that elicits movies and books and songs to be written about swords all over the world. The magic in this piece of metal is palpable, and almost no one who holds a sword doesn’t feel it in some way.  To hold a sword is to feel an extension of yourself and to become stronger. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling into words. 

In this sport, we put a heavy emphasis on taking care of our equipment to help keep everyone safe. That care comes from coaches, but it is the responsibility of fencers to take it on and make it happen. Every time we step onto the strip, we are trusting our opponent to follow the rules and keep us safe. We believe in their self-discipline and their training. Though we trust the coaches and the referees to make sure everything goes as planned, it is the fencers who carry the weight of responsibility to not go too hard or to neglect the rules and injure someone. This is not lost on kids who are fencing. 

This is a big reason that fencing is such a wonderful tool for building confidence in kids. They know the power that they’re being entrusted with, and parents of fencers are doing the right thing by giving them that opportunity. There is a pride in being able to do this sport safely, to walk that line of responsibility that has just a hint of danger. We are not jumping around a castle fighting a foe, but we still have that sense of being a hero in our own story when we are on the fencing strip. This kind of pride can propel a kid forward towards independence. From the very first time a parent watches their child pick up that sword with awe and excitement, they are fostering empowerment. 

Though allowing our kids to stand on their own two feet can be difficult at times, fencing parents give their kids an incredible treasure just by allowing them the chance to participate in swordplay. 

Philosophy of Sparring by Charles Selberg

Philosophy of sparring by Charles Selberg

Sparring is more the key to developing fencing strength or fencing proficiency than any other thing you can do. You can focus on individual lessons, group lessons, line drills, good advice, books you read, and competitive experience, but all is for not, if you don’t know how to spar.  

I was a boxer for many years before I ever heard of fencing. The one thing that separated boxers from people who ended up not boxing was sparring technique. You think in boxing you have an option. Perhaps you decide to work on your development. If you think that boxing and competition are the same thing, they’re going to get out there and try to knock each other out and there can be no learning. Boxers soon learn that there has to be a way to train without making it all out warfare.  Sparring means we don’t hit hard, it means we hit for touches. When boxers learn to hit for touches, they are really learning power, because they learn to control the quality of the punch, which develops tremendous sensitivity. With the control it takes to hit lightly, you automatically learn to release your energy so that you can go as hard as you want to and there is no limit to how hard that can be given the right timing and distance. People who go on slugging all the time and cannot slow down and control the quality of their actions never learn to hit hard.  The same is true in fencing, but it is more difficult to see because in fencing you can hit someone really hard and not hurt them. You can go for touches and there is nothing that reminds you that that might not be the way to go. If you start slugging in boxing, someone gets hurt pretty fast and those two boxers quit boxing each other, so they have nobody to train with. In fencing, you have an alternative. You can fence for touches, which means competition or you can fence for sparring, which means the learning process in light competitive practice. The learning process is the focal point and the action of scoring touches is the secondary factor.

Fencers sparring - Picasso style

Sparring offers the fencer the same as it offers the boxer–a place where you can go try things out. If it does not work, that’s fine. It has not cost anything. On failing an action, you learn what you should not be doing, which is more important than what you should be doing.  Fencing is a subtractive process rather than an additive one. In the process of fencing and in sparring, you are learning what you should discontinue in your game. You shed the over-reaction, you shed too much attack-oriented fencing, you shed this and that and pretty soon you end up with the stuff that works. 

Learning 10,000 Chinese Characters

One of the things that are most amazing about fencing is the international nature of our sport. We have a rich and diverse group of people who practice fencing, and they are embedded in clubs all over the country. 

This is an aspect of fencing that we herald regularly for our youth fencers because connecting with people from varied backgrounds is a wonderful way to enrich their understanding of themselves and of their place in the world. It’s a beautiful aspect of our sport, but it’s not just youth fencers who find insight and inspiration from the wide berth of cultures that we engage with. Not long ago, I found some surprising insight from a parent in our club.

Forward faster?

The mother of one of our Y12 fencers came up to me a while back and asked me what technique her son should learn quickly so that he can improve his performance in competition. Her child is diligent and focused in practice and in tournaments, but many of his opponents were getting the better of him at the time. 

This is not unusual, especially for fencers who are relatively new to the sport, as her child was. This young man lacked some of the basic skills and techniques that his opponents seemed to have mastered, and it held him back. He and his mom were searching for ways that he could weave those methods into his fencing, allowing him to go further. 

I told them to be patient and that these things take time, but then he was developmentally appropriate given how long he’d been fencing. If he kept going with the hard work, then he’d eventually get there. “Growth takes time,” I told them.

The look that I got back showed me that this mother and son were clearly not satisfied with this answer. 

I took a different approach. “Your son hasn’t been fencing for very long, and his opponents have more experience, even though they are still Y12 fencers. The variation in opponents will actually help him to grow.”

The mom kept looking at me, and then asked, “But surely there’s something else that we could do to help him? You can see that he works hard and is attentive. He’s always going to be less experienced than someone – isn’t there a technique to catch him up? Otherwise, he’ll be behind forever.”

I realized that it’s really difficult to explain why two fencers that look the same on a piste actually do have a different set of skills. For a moment, I paused and thought about it. And then I saw a label that gave me an idea of an analogy that worked well for me in that conversation and several following ones with other parents. Something that is easier to explain to parents without a fencing background.

Fencing Referee Hand Signals (Infographic)

There are several essential components to a fencing match. One consists of the fencers themselves, who are vying for points. Another are the weapons, those things that make the points possible. And the final essential component to a fencing bout is the person who calls the points.

Fencing bouts are monitored by that same stalwart bastion of sport control that everyone has – the referee. Depending on the bout, the venue that it’s in and the purpose for which it’s being fought, the referee could be either an officially certified referee or another fencer. Either way, the ref is not part of the action. The more official the venue, the more official the referee must be. The more informal the venue, the less official the ref will be.

Why use hand signals?

Fencing refs use hand signals because there are often language barriers in fencing. Fencers often come from all over. That’s part of why we love this sport so much! It brings together people from everywhere. No matter what language you speak, you can learn to understand fencing referee hand signals fairly easily. It’s not that complicated!

Hand signals are also helpful because it can be loud in a fencing venue with lots of other bouts going on around you. Hand signals mean that you don’t have to be able to hear in order to understand what’s going on in the bout. That’s helpful for people watching the bout because they can just watch the big gestures of the refs without having to be close enough to hear what the referee is saying.

Hand signals give us a universal, simple language with which to communicate effectively about the fencing bout.

A simple primer to fencing referee hand signals

The good news is that hand signals are very, very easy to understand and we’ve created an infographic to help you to recognize and learn the hand signals. There is also a printable pdf version available to download (size 6’x2′) which might be a good tool for fencing coaches if it is hung in their fencing club. You can download it here.

You don’t have to feel overwhelmed by fencing referee hand signals! With just a bit of quick study, you’ll have this down in no time.

Fencing Referee Hand Signals

Why you need to understand fencing ref signals

While it might seem like you can just roll on without knowing the fencing ref’s signs (I mean they generally say things anyway right), it can actually make things MUCH more clear when you’re watching a match! Fencing matches run so quickly that there’s often not time to process the sound before the next thing happens. The better you know the fencing referee signals, the easier and more fun watching matches will be!

Keep in mind that every ref is going to be just a hair bit different. In general these signals are easy to recognize, but they can also be a bit confusing if you’re not exactly clear on what you’re looking at. That’s another reason it’s so important to learn those signals, because then you’ll have a better handle on what’s happening in the match, even if the ref’s signals are a bit unclear or vary slightly from the norm.

If you’re at a match with an electronic scoreboard, it’s incredibly informative to watch the scoreboard and the referee alternately to help you really learn the signals. This will allow you to make much more sense of the signals and to connect them with what’s happening in terms of the match winning or losing!

If you or your child is new to fencing, we highly recommend that you work to learn the hand signals of the fencing referee. Don’t just watch your child’s match – watch other matches to help you learn the signals and scoring!

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