As a parent, you want your child to have the best of both worlds – a great education and the opportunity to excel in their chosen sport of fencing.
One of the things that participating in a sport like fencing gives (or should give) kids is a sense of equilibrium. Life shouldn’t be all about school and family responsibilities, just as it shouldn’t be all about work and family responsibilities for parents. (FYI – fencing for adults has the same benefits as fencing for kids.)
Unfortunately, life can devolve into our just checking things off of endless to-do lists that don’t hold much meaning anymore. This happens to kids and teenagers, too. Go to school. Go to fencing practice. Go to bed. Eat breakfast. Compete in a fencing tournament.
The problem here is that we lose all perspective. What’s it all for if you’re just checking off boxes? How can young fencers find more meaning in both their fencing and their academic work? One way that has worked for a lot of people is to use the rule of three to create a synergy in their lives that helps them stay connected.
Because fencing is a niche sport, there aren’t always easily available guidelines for youth fencers especially on what to do in the case of things like training and equipment. For the most part, there is a wide variety of wisdom out there on things like choosing the right blade, and sometimes it can be conflicting.
Today, I want to offer some clear advice to parents who are trying to choose the right blade for their youth fencers. This is an area that people are often confused about because fencing blades are so specific – it’s not quite the same as choosing a basketball or a soccer ball. Choosing the right one is more important than choosing the right ball.
Parents naturally want their children to have the best equipment, both because it will save them money down the road in having to replace equipment that gets battered through use, and because they want their kids to have every advantage.
In fencing, where the sport is intense and the costs can add up, parents often come to us to ask about what the best thing for their child is. This brings us to FIE blades.
There are two kinds of fencing gear – FIE and non FIE.
The FIE requirements for equipment are more rigorous than the requirements for USA Fencing. The fabric has to be tougher and have more layers, the combat gear has to withstand more hits, and the conductive gear has to be more durable. This is in large part due to the elite level of international fencing, where bouts are more intense and hits are harder. Once fencers hit a certain level, this kind of equipment is essential.
That being said, most countries outside of the U.S. follow FIE protocols for their gear in competition. The United States is fairly unique in the world for having a different set of standards for its gear in competitions. In other places, the lower level of gear is only used when fencers are training at the club.
FIE fencing blades must meet specific requirements in strength and durability. They’re usually made of maraging steel, a formula of steel that holds together for longer when cracked. When a fencing blade breaks, it usually starts with a tiny knick, which then cascades into a crack, which eventually leads to a break. The treatment required for blades for FIE does keep the blades from breaking as often as they do in swords that don’t have FIE strength blades.
Non-FIE blades are made of a different grade of steel that doesn’t require the same kind of treatment. They are less dense and don’t do as good a job of resisting cracking, though by no means does that make them fragile. Some of the difference is also in the regulation. FIE blades are manufactured in facilities that are more heavily regulated than non-FIE blades. This extends to the treatment of the blades in terms of heat etc.
The mechanics of steel are complicated, but the takeaway is that FIE blades will last longer and deform less under heavy use, and are heavier than non-FIE blades. There are slightly different requirements for each kind of weapon, and FIE is constantly evaluating and tweaking what it requires for each of its pieces of equipment to make things safer and longer lasting. The end product is that FIE level equipment can cost significantly more than non-FIE equipment.
Are shorter fencers at a disadvantage? Isn’t my child too short to succeed in fencing?
This question is much more common than some might think and is one that parents of prospective fencers ask all the time. For many aspiring fencers, height is a determining factor for beginning or even continuing their career in the sport. Many people think that it is super important to be very tall with the epee but okay to be short in foil. That’s only a myth!
Being short is not a disadvantage at all in fencing.
There is a whole world of anecdotal evidence from fencing competitions both domestic and international that shows how shorter fencers are able to take on much taller opponents across disciplines.
One of the best and most recent examples of a beautiful display of the art of fencing is Samuel Imrek, the 2022 Cadet World Champion. Sam, in the last December NAC in the Division 1 event, beat two Olympians, 15:6 each, much taller and much more senior than him.
Overall, fencers on the Olympic level tend to be on the shorter side, in fact. There’s a great analysis of the anthropometry of fencers in the 2012 London Olympics on Topend Sports. Here, you’ll see that male fencers tend to be right at 6 feet and female fencers average 5.5 feet. While that might make it seem like fencers have to be on the taller side to win, it’s not so stark when you look at the greats.
Here’s a quick list of fencers who are on the shorter side, in all weapons and across both genders.
Lee Kiefer, women’s foil, Olympic Champion Tokyo 2020, 5′4″ (162 cm)
Sera Song, ranked #2 in the world in women’s epee, 5’4” (162 cm)
Koki Kano, men’s epee, Olympic Team Champion, Tokyo 2020, 5’8” (175 cm)
For both men and women in all fencing disciplines, there are plenty of examples of athletes who are on the shorter side who make it all the way to the top of the sport. In many tournaments, we see again and again that short fencers beat their tall opponents. Just like tall athletes, short ones use size to their advantage too.
How long to push a child into staying in a sport is an important question. It gets right to the balancing act that parents walk as they work to scaffold their children’s development while also giving kids the right amount of autonomy to grow into independent individuals.
This is an age-old parenting conundrum, and it’s one that we get over and over again. Knowing when to give up on something is a difficult decision, and it’s one that parents are often torn over because they want what’s best for their child. What’s best for a child is not always what they want, and that’s why we’re here to guide them.
As parents, we always want to be there for our kids. There’s no doubt that we love them, and to express that love we’re drawn to be right there with them, giving them everything we possibly can to support them as much of the time as possible.
This tends to be especially true of sports parents in general and fencing parents in particular. Showing up, both physically and emotionally, is important. There’s a cliche about the enthusiastic sports parent on the sidelines with the camera, clapping and shouting out their kid’s name, for a reason. It’s absolutely true.
Certainly, this kind of enthusiasm and this constant presence is a good thing. It must be, right? Not necessarily.
When support turns to stress
I recently had a long discussion with a fencing dad who said that his son always underperforms in competition. In class, the young man went at his opponents with wonderful focus and confidence, but once he got into the competition he was suddenly not as confident or as capable.
This father couldn’t imagine what must be happening because it seemed so night and day. The father didn’t come by to watch at practice often, but he was at every single competition right there on the side of the piste, cheering and watching intently.
My suggestion to the father was this – walk away. Though it can really help fencers to have someone there for them, it can also put a lot of pressure on them.