Swords. Duels. Battle.
What’s the deal with fencing and violence? How is it that a sport that has its origins on the bloody battlefields of Europe considered safe for elementary school children to participate in? How can you put a sword in the hands of a child and say that it is somehow safe? You’re literally telling people to hit each other with swords! What about the movies where swordfighting is all about killing an opponent?
Let’s define what it means to be violent. According to the dictionary –
using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
Fencing is NOT a violent sport. That’s because it doesn’t fit the definition of violence! Our purpose in fencing is not to hurt people. It’s not to damage people. It’s certainly not to kill anyone.
If those things aren’t the purpose of fencing, then what is?
The purpose of fencing is self mastery. We are learning to control our bodies and our minds, then using that control to get the better of an opponent in a point match through the use of non-injuring swords. It’s physical chess, played out at a lightning fast pace.
Fencing weapons aren’t “weapons”
Though we constantly call our fencing equipment by the words “weapon” or “sword”, these are pieces of sports equipment. They are designed specifically not to hurt anyone.
This understanding of fencing training equipment as being non-injuring goes all the way back to the origins of fencing in the great schools of Europe. In fencing schools hundreds of years ago, fencers were practicing for real duels. However when they practiced, they didn’t really want to get hurt or to hurt their training partners. It wouldn’t make sense to practice with live weapons and potentially get hurt or even die at the hands of a training partner when you’re preparing for a fight with the enemy!
Fencing schools started out by blunting the end of their weapons using a big ball of leather. Interesting side note – this “florette” or “flower” of leather on the end of a training sword is where the word “foil” comes from. That was only the beginning of fencing safety protocols, and the weapons eventually evolved to be so different from actual swords that the word remains in name only.
This is something that isn’t just true of fencing training that originated in Europe. Martial artists all over the world practice with false weapons to learn their craft. Think about the wooden swords that the samurai train with or the padded nunchucks that are used in martial arts schools today. Training isn’t a time for getting hurt or hurting someone else. What makes fencing different from most other martial arts is that it is truly a sport.
Injury rates in fencing
You might be surprised to know that fencing has some of the lowest injury rates of any sport. That’s right, fencers might be using swords, but we’re doing it in such a controlled way that injuries only derived from the sword in extremely rare cases! You‘re much more likely to get a standard fare sports injury like a twisted ankle or a strained muscle than you are to get any kind of harm from a sword.
Rankings of Olympic sports by injury rate consistently show fencing to be among the safest to participate in. Fencing as a sport ranks well below common sports like volleyball, soccer, and track and field. It even ranks well below badminton, curling, and table tennis! Why is that? Here are three reasons:
1. Low body to body contact.
Think about American football or soccer, the bodies of opponents are constantly hitting one another, often at a high rate of force. This is even true in sports like volleyball and softball, though to a lesser degree. Clashing bodies, even if they aren’t central to the sport, create all sorts of injuries. There are no clashing bodies inherent in any aspect of fencing.
2. Low body to object contact.
Think about gymnastics for example, a gymnast is in constant contact with the pommel horse or the bar. This is true of a wide variety of sports, including any sport that involves a ball. That hard object can and does cause significant rates of injury. Yes, fencing involves the use of objects (swords), but there is a low level of contact between the body and these objects and the sword and protective gear absorb most of the impact.
3. Low body to ground/floor contact
Most sports that involve a ball involve diving for that ball and coming into contact with the floor or ground, which can cause injury. It’s the ground that causes figure skaters to get injured or basketball players to get bruises. In fencing we don’t have contact with the ground built in, which lowers the risk of injury.
If you want to dig super deep into what happens in fencing in terms of injury, you might want to look at this incredible study from 2017. Among the findings were that most injuries in fencing came from the overuse of muscles in the lower limbs, and that wounds from punctures by broken blades accounted for a miniscule amount of injuries. How incredible is it that fencing injuries rarely have to do with the weapon?
Fencing safety equipment
Over the course of centuries, fencing safety equipment has evolved a great deal from the simple leather buttons on the ends of swords at classical fencing schools.
Competitive fencers today are covered in protective gear almost from head to toe, with the only areas of exposure being the back of the head and the back of the non weapon hand. It’s rare and unlikely that a fencer’s bare skin ever comes in contact with a weapon.
Protective gear for fencers includes the jacket, the glove, the mask, the knickers, the socks, and the plastron (underarm protector). Competitors also often wear chest protectors, depending on their age and gender, but all women are required to wear them. The sport strictly requires protective equipment for all fencers who participate in any fencing activity, and it’s standard in every fencing school.
There are layers upon layers of protection for fencers. Hits from weapons are felt through the protective gear, but they don’t necessarily hurt. Epee and foil target with only the tip of the blade, meaning that touches from these weapons puncture forward but are contained to a single spot. Though sabre fencers use the side of the blade and therefore cover more area with their hits, again these athletes are covered in protective gear that prevents them from feeling the full force of the weapon. The fencing weapon itself also absorbs most of the hit by bending upon a touch.
Another important note here is that novice fencers do generally start fencing soon, but that it’s always in a controlled environment. Coaches spend a great deal of time discussing safety rules and procedures before letting novice fencers take to the strip, and even then these fencers are closely monitored to ensure that they are doing it safely.
Fencing is a sport of the mind
Where some sports run on physical acuity and raw power, fencing is at its heart about finesse and control. It’s as much about what the fencer is doing with their mind as it is about what they’re doing with their body.
That’s not to say that fencing doesn’t include a great deal of emotion and physical energy. Fencers sometimes shout during matches, get frustrated, pour their feelings into the sport. But all of this is done with an overarching sense of control. Our goal is never to hurt our opponent, only to challenge ourselves.
Fencing may have started out as a battle, but modern sport fencing has taken the violence out of it!