Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Fencing Penalties 101 for Parents

US Fencing Penalty Cards - Yellow Card (for first warning type of fencing penalties) , Red Card (for second warning or more serious offence - result in touch awarded to opponent) and Black Card (for very serious offence - results in exclusion from the competition)When your child starts fencing, it can be overwhelming to learn the rules of a sport you may never have watched or learned about growing up. One important part of the competition is penalties. As parents, we want to understand why our child is being penalized if it happens, and we also want to be able to talk them through it if it upsets them. This post will explain the basics of the different types of fencing penalties, why they are given, and what happens if your child gets a penalty card.

It’s typical for new fencers to not understand all of the rules when they start out, even at their first competition. The current US Fencing rulebook is 200 pages long, and who can be expected to learn all of that material right off the bat? Some things just have to be learned as you go. It’s not uncommon for a younger fencer to receive a penalty and not understand why or to not know how to avoid getting one. In the event of a penalty, remind your child that it happens to many fencers and it’s not a big deal—just a learning opportunity.

The first thing to know is that the USFA provides a convenient penalty chart. While it’s only two pages long, it’s still a lot of information. However, in my experience, inexperienced fencers tend to make similar mistakes, so we can start with a smaller subset of penalties and cover most situations. The other good news is that most of these “newbie” mistakes are easy to avoid and you can talk your child through them ahead of time to prevent penalties.

Penalties result in fencers being carded, either with a yellow card or a red card. Often yellow-card offenses result in red cards if they are repeated within the same bout. Yellow cards are essentially warnings. Red cards give the opponent a touch. In the worst cases, with repeated offenses or very bad sportsmanship, black cards can be given, which means expulsion from the competition.

Here is a list of tips for younger fencers and new parents to stay on the right side of the rules.

  1. Always take two weapons, two body cords, and two mask cords (for sabre and foil) to any competition. While at the competition, bring both sets of equipment to the strip. Having a spare set in your fencing bag on the other side of the venue won’t do you any good once you’re competing—the delay caused by retrieving it will lead to a yellow card.
  2. Never touch the reel cord, the connected body card, or the socket. Children sometimes find comfort in keeping their unarmed hand on the connector. These actions can cause equipment malfunctions and lead to yellow cards.
  3. Always check your weapons before a competition, and before each bout once you are there. To avoid yellow cards, look for missing screws on epees and malfunctioning body cords (i.e., showing off-target for foil when wiggling).
  4. Never straighten your weapon on the strip! Always ask the referee’s permission to straighten your weapon if needed, and if granted, go off strip to straighten it. Straightening on the strip will lead to a yellow card.
  5. Similar to not straightening on strip, never drag your weapon on the strip. Younger fencers often drag their weapon, especially when returning to the en garde line if they’re disappointed because they just lost a point. This might be a yellow card offense, and although it’s not strictly enforced, I have seen it recently after a referee warned a fencer not to do that. It’s important to learn proper etiquette regardless, and learning this early will avoid penalties now and later.
  6. During Direct Elimination, fencers must stay on the strip and connected during the one-minute breaks. This can be confusing for new fencers, especially the 10-and-under age category (Y10), since they have a break at five touches and might logically assume they should leave the strip. Leaving when you aren’t supposed to can lead to a yellow card.
  7. In larger regional and national events, equipment is often checked and has to pass inspection to be used during the competition. Equipment that passes receives an identifying mark, and this is the ONLY equipment you can use that day. Never grab a spare cord or glove that hasn’t been stamped. This is an automatic red card.

It’s a great idea to go over this list with your fencer. I suggest not overemphasizing that penalties are “bad,” but rather a part of the game that you want to avoid. Chances are mistakes will be made and your child might receive a card depending on the referee. You don’t want to encourage them to get overly upset in this situation because it can affect their performance going forward and lead to a bigger punishment than the card if it causes them to lose the bout.


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  1. 408fencer

    While avoiding dragging a weapon on the strip is certainly a good idea, there’s actually no rule that specifically penalizes dragging a (point) weapon on the strip when returning to the en garde line *after* a touch.

    However if the ref has already told the fencer not to do it, then if it happens again the ref could card using the generic “refusal to obey the referee” penalty.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Well, the rule t.46.2; t.61.2 says it, and one of our fencers was actually penalized for that as well (I am not sure however whether she was warned before for the same thing). The major rule of thumb in my opinion is better be safe than sorry. No point to drag your weapon in frustration from many reasons, including you risk to get carded.

      • 408fencer

        Read the full text of those rules again and note that they only apply between “fence” and “halt”. If your fencer is walking back to the en garde line after a touch then that’s not between “fence” and “halt”

        • Igor Chirashnya

          You are right – this do refer to in-bout situation. Thanks for spotting this! I corrected the post – to emphasize the need to listen the ref. I believe that what happened in the bout – the fencer most probably annoyed the ref by dragging her weapon after every received touch and got notice.

  2. L Mao

    There certainly are a lot of rules. Fortunately for us parents, refs at local tournaments tend to treat enforcement as a teachable moment. This leads to kids learning the rules on their own just by virtue of attending competitions. I can tell you for a fact that my kid has never read the rulebook, but he knows all the rules you mentioned and more. Particularly the ones he has been carded for not obeying (mostly covering and turning around before halt is called). Rule #6 above actually came up at a recent competition. During a DE break, I motioned for my son to come a couple feet toward me to get his water bottle. He adamantly refused. What I didn’t realize was that it would require him to step off the strip (if only for a couple feet) and that the rule meant you literally had to stay on the strip. Guess I just thought it meant you couldn’t unhook and leave the strip. There is always more to learn.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      He certainly will remember every rule that involved him being carded! At last Summer Nationals Adam went to the restrooms and the tape from the cord went off, so he was red carded for using not checked equipment. Now at every RYC he checks whether his cord still has the tape. Cannot beat a personal experience.

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