Right now, the everyday domestic vocabulary of American fencing is in the individual context. No one who thinks of fencing in any context thinks of it as being a multiple-player sport, at least not anyone in America.
This is different in other places. In European fencing competitions, the team component is highlighted and embraced. The shorthand of fencing is that it’s an individual sport and a team sport. It’s just built into the way that sport is carried out in Europe.
In America, on the other hand, we seem locked into the individual way of doing things. In fact, when we imagine folding team competition into American fencing, it seems like it’s a burden being placed on our system every time we add the team competition in. A square peg in a round hole. An extra thing that we do out of obligation instead of the enriching expansion that it really is.
It shouldn’t be this way. Team fencing should be a great support to our fencing culture, for many reasons, including the way that it extends camaraderie and how it helps fencers better develop their skills. If our goal is to support the growth of fencers in skill and happiness, and if we also want to better position ourselves on the international stage, then how can we think of team fencing as a burden when it’s such a big part of international competition and when team fencing so beautifully supports personal and athletic development?
Team fencing needs to be expanded, and soon
We need to move on expanding team fencing in the United States, and we need to move on it soon. There’s every reason for us to have this kind of expansion in place next season, because our fencers deserve the kind of holistic development that team fencing gives them.
Right now, we have almost no team events. When they do happen, they are a side note and people complain about them. That’s a tough mentality to push past, but I am saying here that it’s so worth getting past those limitations.
It’s understandable that fencers prioritize the individual events over the team events, because I can see how you would extrapolate that team fencing is not a big deal because our fencers are not doing it now. If it isn’t broken, why would we want to fix it?
I think that this mentality is totally, totally wrong.
Many of our most important events for giving fencers the skills they need for international competition, events like Div 1 and others, rarely offer the opportunity for team fencing. In any season, we have one Senior, one Junior, one Div1 team event, one Vateran, and this season there was one Cadet team event. One team event per age group. Because we don’t offer them, then fencers don’t train for them, and because they don’t train for them, no one participates in them. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps us locked out of one of the best fencing development paths we have.
Expanding for team fencing
I think the solution is to put these fencing competitions out there more frequently. If we build the competitions, then the base of fencers will come to fill it with a little time.
In my view, every NAC should have at least one team event. By spreading the team events out across different competitions at this level, we can ensure that this kind of competition is folded into the culture of our sport. Where the national tournaments go, the lower tournaments follow.
A good place to add this is to have the Cadet, Junior, and Senior Team, with Division 1 at the April NAC. But every NAC should have at least one team event.
In my opinion, at least for now, I think it’s best to have the oldest age group. Let’s say that the NAC has a Cadet and Junior Individual events, then it should have Junior team event, and in case of Cadet and Div1, it should have Senior Team. We continue to scaffold the improvement of our fencers in this way, giving them the opportunity to grow in the team event year over year. We should even bring the Y14 team event back because again, it will give the upcoming Cadet event a huge boost.
We must develop the mindset of team fencing over time. It’s not just something that will happen out of nowhere.
Why we need team fencing
I’ve written about why we need team fencing before, but I want to come back around to this concept again here.
Team fencing develops camaraderie in a way that nothing else can. There is nothing like competing together. This emotional connection is often discounted, yet it’s a massive part of our fencers developing social/emotional maturity that extends both to the sport itself and to the world beyond fencing. This is so, so important for the culture of our sport.
There is also the development of tactical and strategic skills that comes with team fencing. The USA has a strong base of competitive structure right now. In fact, I wrote a whole book about the structure of our fencing competitions and how they’ve helped us to push towards the top of the sport. Even with that firm foundation, we can still do more. We must do more.
Expanding team fencing is a powerful way for us to take American fencing to the next level, and our fencers certainly deserve that support.
Part of this process has to do with using team fencing in our youth fencers. For kids, the team aspect is even more beneficial from a social and emotional standpoint, but it’s also beneficial from a long term viability standpoint.
Team sports are great for kids, and the benefit is also from a marketing standpoint. To get youth fencers in the door, we are really competing with other activities, most of which are team-based. Parents want their kids to have that communal experience, and by expanding the team offerings from the top, we can give it to them.
The case for tying teams to clubs
As we continue to expand the team offerings in national fencing, it would be a positive step to change our current structure from allowing anyone to be on a team to only allowing teams to be formed from clubs.
Clubs are the heart and soul of competitive fencing. The coach relationship is vitally important, yes, but beyond that, the club is also a vital part of our fencing ecosystem. Adding a requirement for fencing teams to be affiliated with clubs makes the team event more reasonable and more desirable. There is something lasting to fight for, and it builds the sense of community.
This is something that we are already doing at championships, and from my view it’s past time that we expanded that mandate.
We must also look at it this way – adding this requirement will give groups a compelling reason to encourage competition in the fencers they are training. Imagine the conversations “We really need another person or we won’t be able to join the team competition. Can you join our club team? It will be so awesome to compete together!” Tying this to clubs is a fantastic way to support more fencers getting the great development they need from competition.
There is of course the issue of there being some people from different places who face the reality of not having enough people at that level to form a team and compete, and in specific instances where that is the case, we should put in a process to support those fencers. However, for almost everyone, fencing team competition should be based on the club structure.
There is one exception that I will make to this, which is the Veteran category. Veterans are completely different than other categories, and it’s important that we recognize this fundamental difference. Many clubs only have one or two Veteran fencers at all, and even those who have more often have adults who are not competitive but only recreational, so I would not suggest strict club affiliation for Veteran teams, but I do hope more veteran fencers would compete nationally.
A Club Championship in fencing
Another layer to add is a club championship where the club, not just the individual fencers, can have recognition of their accomplishments in the team event.
This doesn’t have to add heavily onto the organization and it does not require any additional competition. Across the season, clubs would be awarded points based on their placement in various team competitions. For example, if it’s a Cadet team, let’s say the first place winner in a tournament gets 100 points. If it’s a Junior team, then first place will get 200 points for the sake of discussion. If it’s a Senior team, then first place gets 400 points, and Div1 team will get 6000 points. The structure is something to be determined down the line, but by awarding weighted points depending on the age category of the fencers, we can rank the clubs.
The whole season would conclude with Summer Nationals, where the championship could be awarded for the whole season.
This is a fantastic way to build excitement and to push the club support across the year. The results of every club could be posted after the tournament, just like they are for other events for national points, lending a sense of excitement to club teams. When USA Fencing posts those results online, it creates a huge, huge thing in the club. A club championship race creates camaraderie and pushes fencers to go harder for their goals. It’s a win/win too because it helps us to expand USA Fencing tournaments within our own base.
By the end of the season, being awarded one of those championships is a big deal. Letting multiple clubs vie for the same spot can also push the excitement and huge visibility for fencing beyond our small niche. With each club having the ability to put multiple teams up for the championship, it encourages them to grow, adding another layer of drive to them. Representing the club is exciting and important. It’s a huge thing for a club to become the Bronze club or the Gold club, or even the Club runner up.
This emphasizes the amazing community we’re building the clubs around the country. It’s so, so important for us to create these bigger prizes that people can look up to. It’s not only international competition that is attractive, but we can create domestic tournament styles that capitalize on the structures that we already have in place to elevate our sport.
World fencing is a team sport, but American fencing is not
Every fencing competition in the world has a team section. On the international stage, team fencing is an essential skill. In America, we have not embraced team fencing in the same way, and that’s a real problem.
It’s not just that other countries start team fencing once they get to international level. They start off team fencing in their national championships and below. You cannot grow the skill of team fencing without having your fencers participate in it early on – it’s just not possible.
There are logistical issues to face, of course, like scheduling the strips needed and recruiting enough referees for the tournament, among other things. These are real and reasonable things to consider. That being said, we have to start somewhere. No one is saying that next year it’s all in place for everyone across the whole tournament series, but we do need to move forward with something so that we can build on it year after year.
Maybe in the first installment, we do the top eight placement or, better yet, the top sixteen, and maybe eventually with the years, do placement for the entire table. Placement for top 16 will create an exceptional opportunity for fencers to train and to fence for everyone. Sometimes you can have a four member team and one of the fencers is doing all of the work while the alternate just sits through his bouts, but by going for a final placement, there is the opportunity for everybody to fence, and there is opportunity to fence more than one match, which happen today if the team is immediately eliminated (which, btw, creates a valid point of team fencing ROI from the perspective of fencers, parents and coaches).
Solving the scheduling or referee problem likely lies in judiciously raising the fees, which can be done in a way that keeps it all accessible for our fencers. People spend tons of money to get to these competitions with the hotels, flights, and individual event fees. Adding a team fee is a small addition in the wider scope of the expense of traveling for fencing. Raising the fee from where it is now for teams, around $60, to $90 per person is a reasonable increase but it will have a huge impact on the sport.
Building a fencing vocabulary
Right now, our fencers only speak one language – individual competition.
We need desperately to expand the languages that our fencers can speak so that they can both enjoy the sport more fully and also so that our sport can thrive domestically and internationally for the long term.
Creating a Team Championship that pushes us forward overall would make the United States a leader in the world. Six team cups to six clubs across weapons and gender would be totally innovative while also being feasible. We need to be leaders in the sport of fencing because that’s the place where America can thrive.
I am a die-hard believer in the vision of community and excellence that America offers. I think as a country internationally will be unbeatable and nationally we create a much higher level of attraction to our sport as we ourselves compete with other sports for athletes and for opportunities. We could broadcast the final rounds, much in the same way that other sports put their highest competitive levels out for the world, again drawing people into our sport and giving it the profile it deserves. USA Fencing has the potential to be a leader.
Even with disciplines such as foil and sabre, that take much more technical knowledge to understand and enjoy fully, it’s possible for us to draw in new audiences to the sport. We can definitely start promoting fencing to a broader audience because team fencing is fun to watch, and it is super exciting even for those who don’t understand the rules and technique, and instead of focusing on something that is hard to explain, the broadcaster can talk about things that non-fencers can easily understand, like relay strategies, total score, p-cards, special tactics, substitutions, etc. It is hard to make individual fencing enjoyable for non-fencers, but it is very easy to do so with team events.
The fencing landscape in the United States has a major effect on who’s looking at us and where they’re going. Should I be privileged to be elected as a member of the USA Board of Fencing, this will be one of my motions early on. If I’m not on the board, I can hope that USA Fencing will listen and try to implement this somehow – I will absolutely keep advocating for it.
Our sport is incredible. American fencing deserves to have the kind of holistic, team-oriented sports experience that’s possible. It takes some imagination, but we can think big, and we can get there!