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.
What are FIE blades?
FIE is the International Fencing Federation (Fédération Internationale d’Escrime), and it’s the governing body of international competition.
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.
Should youth fencers have FIE blades?
Kids aren’t able to make their own decisions about a lot of things, and it’s our job as parents to make the decisions and fill in the gaps in all of the ways that they can’t. This is true in all things, and normally parents are experts enough to make the call. However, sometimes in youth sports, we see parents taking the initiative using information that isn’t entirely accurate.
Recently I had a 9-year-old child whose parent wanted to install an Allstar FIE #5 blade for their child to fence in Y12. Why? Because another parent they spoke to somewhere had done this and suggested that they switch too.
Having worked with youth fencers for many years at every level of training and competition, this made me immediately stop and give some hard thought to whether this was appropriate. While I appreciate the parent’s interest in giving their child the best possible equipment, an FIE blade isn’t the best way to do it.
There are a few reasons why youth fencers shouldn’t use FIE blades.
1. Weight of the blade
Though the FIE blade might be the same length as a non-FIE blade, the steel that it’s made from is much heavier in the former. An entry-level blade is light and flexible, more than a higher-grade blade.
For kids, this makes a huge difference. You have to keep in mind that there are a lot of muscles in length of the arms that fencers are developing as they practice and compete more and more. Take a second to feel the muscles in your fingers and to roll your wrist around and explore those muscles. Now make a fist so that you can feel the lower arm muscles tighten up. Finally, tighten your bicep and feel the way that those muscles contract all the way up to your shoulders. It’s all of these muscles that a young fencer has to use to hold and control the blade, plus some of their core as well.
Adding a few ounces of weight to a blade will make a massive difference to anyone who is trying to hold it up and control it. Even for adults, who have much larger and stronger muscles. For a youth fencer, those few ounces of extra weight are a big deal, especially over time.
Lighter, non-FIE blades allow a child to build up muscle mass over time. Remember, that blade is going to naturally get heavier as it gets longer, and blade length will grow as your child grows. They don’t need to have the added weight of an FIE blade yet – it impedes their dexterity and point control.
2. Longevity is not really an issue
Yes, FIE blades do live for longer than non-FIE blades under heavy use. However, youth fencers aren’t putting the kind of heavy use into a blade that someone who is more experienced and further along in competition.
For an advanced fencer, the blade is going to be subject to a whole lot of abuse in terms of both the strength of the hits and also the sheer number of hits that it receives. In competition and in training, a competitive-level cadet, junior or senior fencer who is working out at a pace to compete in national competitions will be hitting both their sparring partners and their opponents consistently and with a significant amount of force.
A 9-year-old is not an advanced fencer. It’s absolutely appropriate for a youth fencer to hit less hard and less consistently. This is developmentally exactly where they’re supposed to be. The regular STM blade for a child fencer can live a long, happy life of around two years without being snapped.
It’s more about a youth fencer taking proper care of the blade when it’s not in use in the club or the competition that matters. Teaching kids good care of their equipment, meaning keeping it in a case and only using it when training, is the best way to maximize the length of use. For a properly taken care of blade, parents should expect to get plenty of use out of a non-FIE version.
3. Parents aren’t experts
It’s important for us to value what parents bring to the table, which is certainly caring and compassion for their kids and their wellbeing. That being said, unless another parent has experience as a competitive fencer or as a coach, they are not the best place to go for advice regarding equipment.
Fencing equipment is highly specialized. It’s unlike traditional balls or cleats or other kinds of sporting goods that more people are familiar with. Fencing parents need to rely on their coaches and the staff at the club for the last word on equipment. To be fair, the parent that approached me was doing exactly that when they came to talk about this blade. It’s certainly good to talk to other parents about what your kids are doing and to connect with them about what’s working for their kids, but you shouldn’t move on that advice without first talking to your child’s fencing coach.
There are some aspects where parents are better advisors than coaches. For example, parents might know the best route from their home city to a NAC, and they’ll definitely have some great knowledge about how to give emotional and mental support to youth fencers. In all areas surrounding the technical aspects of fencing, you should always, always defer to the coach.
4. FIE blades and outcomes
There is some misunderstanding floating around out there that seems intuitive, but which is actually not accurate. Because FIE blades are used by fencers at the highest levels, it seems like they would lead to better outcomes, right? After all, better tools lead to better results.
Yes and no.
For significantly older fencers who have more experience and lots more training, the difference between a better piece of equipment and a less rigorous piece of equipment will certainly have an impact on their outcomes. We see this in all sports, and it’s the reason that Olympic swimmers wear specialized suits to get that extra bump in time or that elite runners use fancy shoes to support their getting to the next level.
Youth fencers are nowhere near that elite level, and again, this is appropriate. The desire for parents to give their children the best possible chance to win is understandable, and as a parent I feel it too. In the case of youth fencing, and really youth sports in general, it’s the training that makes the difference in a child being successful, not the gear.
There are limitations to how quickly a youth fencer will develop. There is no magic bullet that will suddenly transform a ten-year-old into an elite fencer, and would we even want that for them? A big part of what’s positive about youth sports is the way that it supports kids learning and growing through the journey. It’s not just the destination that is important. Think about what you want to instill in your child, and realize that giving them high-level equipment that they aren’t ready for as a kind of shortcut is not the best thing.
Rather than investing extra money into advanced gear that they can’t use properly, parents are better served to put resources towards private lessons or increased participation in competitions. These are the things that will help youth fencers develop, not the “stuff.”
It’s not about the gear
No matter which way you want to slice it, an FIE blade is not going to benefit a youth fencer. In fact, this kind of equipment is more likely to be a detriment to your young fencer than it is to be a boost to their growth. It’s not uncommon for a well-meaning parent to try to give their child gear that isn’t a good fit and in some ways to dampen their progress, the opposite of what we’d like to be doing.
When you give your child a piece of expensive gear that they aren’t ready for, it sets up a power dynamic and a pressure that distracts them from the training that will actually help them progress. Sure, that FIE stamp on the blade is cool looking and it reminds them of their fencing heroes. There’s something special about using the same kind of sword that an Olympic athlete uses. But when you do this, it’s more like playing dress up than it is like growing as a fencer. It pulls the fencing gear back to being a costume, minimizing the important place that it holds in our lives.
Focus on the essence of training, not on the gimmicks of the next piece of stuff. Fencing, though it is full of lots of cool gear that does cool things, is not valuable because of that gear. The journey through fencing is valuable because of what it gives to your child, not because of the special kind of fancy sword that they’re holding.