Art of Fencing, Art of Life

An Open Letter to the US Fencing Community – Why Requiring Coach Certification is Detrimental to Fencing

Dear American Fencing Coaches, 

Do coaches who have guided their fencers to international championships need to be taught how to coach? 

What about coaches who are former Olympians or National Team members? 

What about coaches who have graduate degrees in coaching from universities?

What about coaches that constantly produce top level fencers, that feed NCAA teams, whose students reach high levels regionally, domestically and internationally.

This list can go on and on and on and on.

With the new rules that were just announced by USA Fencing, even the most accomplished coaches will be required to spend their valuable time taking courses that are well below their skill and experience level and in most parts are incorrect and unprofessional. This centralization of certification is a requirement that has been long opposed by clubs and is opposed by a great many coaches. Its passage came out of nowhere – completely unexpected as it has been hotly debated.

Why is this such a big deal? Why are we crying out so loud against this requirement? Let’s dive into the reasons.

Forcing highly accomplished coaches to certify is a problem

Fencing is not a monolithic sport. 

The sport of fencing in the USA is club-centric. Our model has always been driven by the clubs. 

We are a decentralized sport. In fact, all Olympic sports in the United States are decentralized. There are many varied groups who have different methods and different priorities, even though they feed through the national organization into the World Championships and the Olympics. There is a huge strength in that diversity of viewpoints. It’s also what makes American sports unique and successful.

Other countries, like Hungary or France for example, do have rigorous requirements of everyone in their sport. In those places, there is a central group that has a huge amount of control over the way that athletes train and the way that their coaches are trained to coach them. There is also government funding to make it all work.

We are not that way! In America, things come from the ground up as clubs build their base through bringing in accomplished coaches that already have training from other sources, or else they are athletes who have a passion for the sport and develop as coaches through mentorship. There are of course ways that we should be supporting developing coaches, but we’ll come back to that later. 

We also have a very unique way to develop our athletes for international competitions, totally different from any other country. Many of our top athletes are developed through the NCAA, and the university model is a wholly different path than centralized anything through USA Fencing or the USFCA. These are different paths, and this current attempt to force coaches to come under one banner is counterproductive. 

Most of the clubs in America are built on the expertise of extraordinary coaches from abroad. These are the people who created American fencing as we know it. Yes, we have a few fantastic coaches, both now and historically, who were born in the U.S. – people like legendary Bucky Leach,  Sean McLain and Greg Massialas who did a tremendous job in foil. For the most part, the best international results we’ve gotten have come from fencing masters who came to this country from the outside. 

Who creates this certification?

Let’s start here – no other major group has any kind of coaching requirement. Not gymnastics or tennis, not soccer and not even football. What some of them do offer are training, but it’s always optional.

With all respect to the USFA, what is it about this organization that makes them a high authority in coaching education? Even beyond that, what made them an authority here at all?

Unless we’re missing something here, there was never a forum of the most accomplished coaches convened to judge whether this course is even qualified to train coaches at any level. And now, after the course is out – this course is far beyond a reasonable level of critique.

It would be easy to gather the top dozen coaches in each discipline, as measured by who has produced the best results in the last decade on both the domestic and international level, then have them review and analyze this course and define its place in the sport. 

  • Does this course authors meet the criteria for fencing mastery? 
  • What are their credentials to dictate the course as mandatory? 
  • And most important, why this course should be mandatory? 
  • Who gave the USFA right and authority to dictate the coaching education? 
  • What was the process of buying this in among the fencing coaches community? 
  • How mandating this course fits our bylaws?
  • Are the people who created this course even qualify as the best fencing coaches?
  • You can add dozens of additional questions to this list because by no means this list is even close to be encompassing all the aspects
  • Why during the last 100+ years the USA Fencing was ok with its current decentralized model of coaching, which in the last two decades has brought unprecedented results at every level of International competitions, including raising Olympic and World Champions, and all of sudden the USFA must mandate this education?
  • And most importantly – what’s next, as it is clearly the first step?

It’s important here to note that this has all gone very fast, with a proposed start date of finishing this requirement just around the corner. Add to this that all this was announced and became mandatory after the annual coaching fees were paid by all coaches, putting the entire coaching community on an uneasy path of antagonism with the organization. We don’t have time to process important questions like:

  • What are the certificates for exactly?
  • Will coaches be allowed to strip coach without these? 
  • What about having them coach in the club setting? Will the USFA revoke club membership/insurance if they don’t make their coaches take these courses? Or if one coach refuses? And if yes, then on what basis? 
  • If a coach disagrees with the curriculum, will they be exempted? Punished? Will their students be able to write their coach’s name during the medal ceremony? Or put a coach medal around their coach’s neck?
  • Will coaches be required to teach what these courses say if they disagree? Who will monitor or enforce this? How and why?

There are a huge number of unanswered questions here that are materially essential for our understanding of how it will work.

The danger of bureaucracy

Why do this now? What is the urgency?

Why not give the new board to review all this?

This move adds power to the bureaucracy. The coaches who will need to be certified are some of the best ones in the country, they built the sport in the United States. We’re talking about people who are at the top of fencing expertise in the United States. 

Doing this whole thing adds time, money, nerves, and energy. The time and energy could be put to much better use for professional development of coaches in different ways. Do we need more qualified coaches? Absolutely we do if we want to grow the sport, and we definitely do. Is making our highly accomplished coaches spend time (and thus money) on something that they don’t need the way to accomplish that? Obviously not. 

The mental and emotional energy required for these coaches to go through this is completely unnecessary. It taxes them when they could better be pouring that into developing the next generation of champion fencers, who incidentally will at times go on to be the very coaches that we need to have. 

Why do it then? If it’s clearly not to develop the fencing coaches, then what purpose does it serve? Plain and simple – it’s a power play. 

By forcing coaches to become certified through this narrow path, the power becomes increasingly centralized. Our once decentralized sport becomes more and more beholden to the national organization, eroding autonomy in services of uplifting a central organization that does not have the same history of achievement.

We do not need a more heavy handed approach – we need to recognize the talent and mastery that our coaches bring, then help to build new coaches as we support clubs and parents. Forcing an additional layer of bureaucracy does not serve the sport. 

Alternatives to coach certification

There are plenty of other ways to go about this, and we know that there are because other sports do this!

We definitely need to create a coaching education program, but we need to do it in the right way, and that’s not through a mandate like this. Things that we should include are:

  • Required basic licensing in safesport
  • Required background checks for coaches 
  • Required training in sport safety

Only a very slim bit of this should ever be mandatory from the national level. Only the base line, most basic things should be required to ensure the level playing field. There is a huge difference in that and the kinds of requirements we might be looking at. Forcing accomplished coaches to certify in something that they have vast experience in is honestly insulting and mostly serves to break our community down. 

We need to educate coaches, we need to provide resources for them, we need to create resources for those athletes who want to become coaches, we need to help facilitate mentorship from experienced coaches to new coaches if such access doesn’t exist for new coaches. But instead of helping the clubs, moves like this generate more problems and create more barriers. 

Part of what makes fencing in America strong is the diversity of coaching methods and styles. Well, that diversity characterizes the It’s the opposite of a centralized coaching program. Many of our best coaches left places with centralized systems precisely because of the freedom they have here to teach the sport in the ways that they know work. In fact, models like this have proven to fail in other countries. It’s one our amazing coaches are here, and now we’re repeating it.

What I ask of you now is to sign the petition linked here that former National Epee Head Coach and one of the most prominent epee coaches in the country, the USA Fencing Hall of Famer and owner of one of the best epee clubs in the country,  Andrey Geva put online, to show your support for putting a pause on this measure and revoke this mandatory and useless training. We don’t have to just stand back and let things happen that are not in the best interest of our sport. 

If you read this and you are not a coach, you might think why should I care? And the answer is simple – you should care because when the power becomes centralized and monopolizes your access to your most trusted resource – your coaches, at the end of the day the heaviest price will be paid by you. And not only in increased fees (which you already see) but also in quality of service you receive and the opportunities you have.

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6 Comments

  1. This is a very powerful piece of writing. One can only pray that those who think they know more than we do — without having bothered to take the time to learn one single thing about the coaching and fencing histories of any of us — will not only take the time to read it, but will — perhaps — also swallow their arrogance and condescension toward the rest of us, and reconsider this absurd program.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Let’s hope, Bruce! We all need to tell them. Please share on your social media so more people will read this. Thank you for your support!

  2. Marek

    I agree with most of the people commenting on this event. I am writing to share my perspective on some recent decisions made by the United States Fencing Association (USFA). There seems to be a desire to adopt the model used by the European Fencing Federation. While the intention to draw inspiration from established practices is commendable, I believe it is necessary to consider the intricacies of these models before making significant changes. Many fencing programs in Europe are university-based, with prestigious institutions awarding degrees in education, pedagogy, teaching and coaching. This comprehensive approach fosters an understanding of both the technical and pedagogical dimensions of coaching. In addition, coaches often engage in competitive selection processes for club, union, research institute positions, similar to recruitment processes for public office. This practice emphasizes accountability, standard training and professional development. Within the European context, licensing for coaches to practice within clubs is predicated on the notion that individuals must vie for specific roles, similar to the selection of educators or professors by governmental bodies. While this approach has proven effective in Europe, it is vital to acknowledge the distinct values and structures prevalent in the American sporting landscape. The bedrock of the American free market ethos, characterized by entrepreneurial spirit and independence, has played a pivotal role in fostering growth across fencing clubs, be they commercial or non-profit entities. Moreover, the American sports arena traditionally operates with a significant degree of autonomy from government involvement. Thus, the integration of aspects from the European model into the American framework requires a judicious balance to ensure the core principles that define the American sporting landscape are upheld. It is worth noting that a significant number of foreign fencing coaches in the United States boast a rich education, often combined with qualifications and teaching degrees in such fields as psychology, anatomy, physiology, human development, anthropology, sports medicine, physics, biochemistry, biomechanics and science. about sports. Many coaches have gone from successful sports careers to national and continental championships and even the Olympics. After a sports career and the implementation of relevant university programs, they successfully passed the exams required to obtain the title of pedagogical trainer. This extensive knowledge is essential in supporting the holistic development of athletes under their supervision. It is of the utmost importance that any adaptation of regulatory measures takes into account and recognizes this pool of expertise.
    In conclusion, the aspiration to progress is indeed commendable, and deriving lessons from established models is a natural evolution. Nonetheless, a cautious and well-informed approach is indispensable to ensure that the distinctive dynamics and values that define the American fencing landscape are not inadvertently compromised. Collaborative dialogue, encompassing stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, has the potential to yield solutions that harmoniously integrate tradition and innovation. I remain optimistic that, through concerted efforts and open discourse, we can navigate these challenges and arrive at decisions that truly serve the best interests of the entire American fencing community.

    • Boris

      Marek, while I can’t agree more, I would like to add my few cents. European sport model is based on a socialism and governmental control, sponsorship and funding . Luck who are best fencers in Germany, France, Italy… They are carabineri, police officers, military. USFA is making efforts in order to stay within current political trend, and this certification is another step to total control. Bureaucracy on the march.

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