We are right now experiencing one of the most extraordinary moments in modern history. The coronavirus pandemic has totally changed the way that we live our lives, and that change has fundamentally threatened fencing as we know it. I am not being dramatic here, I am being realistic. Yes, things will go back to something resembling normal eventually. Of course that will happen. In the meantime, we risk losing not only the progress that our fencers have made, but also potentially the clubs that train them. Make no mistake – fencing as we know it is something that we have to protect right now.
What are fencing clubs doing to be safe? What can fencing clubs do to maintain our sport while staying safe? What can fencing clubs do to keep the spark in the eyes of their fencers?
We can only share with you what we’re doing to help save fencing in the United States and keep our fencers engaged based on our experience. I want to share with the fencing community the steps that we did so that any other club in the United States or anywhere else in the world can do what we have done. Anyone affected by COVID-19 can follow these steps and continue to train their members so that we will feel as little effect of the quarantine as possible under these circumstances.
First of all in a quarantine situations, all private lessons, classes, and any other group activities must be cancelled. This is a directive from the local government as well as a directive from the USA Fencing organization. We are all closed, and that is a devastating situation as clubs need to survive for their coaches as well as for their fencers. We are confined in four walls and with kids they have nothing, they don’t have any physical activity.
It is part of our obligation to keep our kids in good physical shape. Now more than ever we must do it because there is very little alternative to electronic devices which are already an issue for kids in modern society, but with the quarantine it is much worse.
It took us three days, working hard to create a curriculum for online remote fencing training. This time was spent testing platforms and getting things ready. In the past few days we have successfully launched it, and I can thankfully say that it has been a blast.
I am eager to share what we did so that other clubs can mobilize as soon as possible. I hope that others will be able to learn from this and copy it. Please, other clubs and other coaches share in the comments below about what you have done and what is working for you. How did you do things? We want to learn as well. We all need to learn, we all need to adapt, we all need to move forward. As much help as we can provide to each other, as much advice and hints and know how as we can express and share, that will make us all better at all of this process. It will be great.
There are several areas that need to be considered by fencing clubs in going online with fencing training. The main issues that you will face are the platform, the curriculum, the equipment, and the frequency.
I’m going to break these down so that you can decide what works or you, what you need to modify and why, and how to make this work for you.
The online video platform
The platform is the online interface that you will work with to communicate with your fencers, the mechanism. This is what we are using to actually teach the lessons.
There are several platforms that are available on the market that clubs can work with. They range from free in price to paid services, and each one has its benefits and drawbacks. Free services are things like Whatsapp, Facetime, Skype, and the like. There are more robust platforms that are paid, like Webex, GoToMeeting, and Zoom. These are just a few.
I checked all of them, looking through to make sure that we made a smart decision. The important thing here is that once you choose a platform, you are pretty much stuck with it as everyone will get used to it. Changing midstream is not easy. All of them are fairly similar in terms of what they do, but price structure is a difference.
The two major platforms that I eventually zoomed in on (pun not intended) were GoToMeeting and Zoom. Again, very very similar platforms and pricewise maybe a buck or two different. I came to the conclusion from my research and testing that Zoom is the best one for our needs. The reasoning is that Zoom offers some of the strongest classroom controls. At least here in California, it’s also the platform that schools seem to be leaning towards, which makes it easier for kids to become familiar with the controls and master them. I decided that it’s better to keep the same platform for that reason in part.
The management of licenses is quite easy and straightforward with Zoom. You do have to purchase the product unless you are a single coach that does mostly one-on-one lessons. In that case, you can use it for free. The basic license is free for Zoom. There is no free license on some of the other platforms, but there are free trials. If you’re a coach who just wants to do some private lessons, then the basic license for free from Zoom will suffice for you. It gives you the ability to do everything you need, and it is limited to forty minutes. That’s longer than the standard fencing lesson in the United States and Europe, so it’s no problem. It’s also free, and nothing can beat that.
When you do need something more complex and you need to, say, do a group class, then you can do that very easily with a purchased license. If you want to do concurrent classes or concurrent private lessons then you can do that. We have ten coaches, so we want to do these things all at once or else we wouldn’t be able to manage them.
Everyone must have their own license. The cost is not prohibitive, from fifteen or twenty dollars per license per month depending on your package. Of course, multiplied by number of licenses your club needs the sum might become substantial. The pro package was good enough for us.
Whatever you choose for your platform, just make sure that you know what you are getting into. You want it to work for you. There are lots of resources online that will give you a breakdown of what the high and low points of the platforms all are. Choose what works for you.
We have learned some quick lessons from our first run of classes, and we want to share them with you too.
Seeing and being seen is important
The most important thing is organizing the space so that the coach needs to see the whole “strip”, from the far end to the target. The coach cannot give student feedback unless they can see what students are doing! They need to be able to see student’s FEET!
Following is a photo from one of our fencers to show how the setup worked for them. Notice that the fencer is visible from the view of the camera and that also he can see the screen. This is a wonderful setup, efficient for both the fencer and the coach. At the bottom of this post you can see additional setups that worked in group and private lessons.
And not less important – make sure your own environment matches this of your students. If you want to warm them up use your own space as a model for theirs. And make sure they see your whole body, from toes to head, when you demonstrate some exercise.
Use a laptop or a tablet if possible
Yes, a phone will technically work for Zoom, but any incoming call will halt the zoom conference. That wastes time. Of course the screen is also smaller, and you want a sizable screen to be able to see and be seen. Phones have better cameras than laptops, which is a huge plus for students, but ability to see more students and in larger screen and windows beats coach’s camera quality.
Mute before group classes
Coach should take a moment to mute all students prior to group classes. There are a lot of people in the class, and all are here to hear the coach! This is critical to keeping things organized and not disruptive. Be sure to tell students to unmute their microphone for the private lessons. The coach needs to hear questions!
Log in online early
Don’t wait until right on time to log in. Fencers should pull up their device five minutes early so that they can be sure everything is working well. Even if they have done this a dozen times, that doesn’t matter. You never know when your device might spontaneously decide to update or your internet won’t come up just right. Don’t miss lesson time because of a silly technical issue! This will also give fencers a moment to make sure that the coach can see them correctly.
Tell your fencers to make their name on Zoom with their real names. Sometimes we’ve named ourselves something silly or scary or funny, but that slows everything down! Coaches need to glance down and be able to see who fencers are quickly. If there are multiple fencers in a class (like siblings), then name it “Amy and Michael” or whatever their names are.
Developing online training curriculum
There will be no way that you can provide the same level of interaction online that you can in person. We can do a surprising amount through this online method of training, but know that your standards need to change and your methods have to change.
Developing the curriculum is a big challenge.
When we developed our curricula, we tried to work with the smallest denominator in terms of what the objectives and the space are. The reality is that most kids will have the space of one room essentially within which they can work. It is not as big as a fencing club, and that requires creativity to overcome.
The room is, let’s say about fifteen feet of free space where they can move, or five meters give or take. Sometimes a little bit more. Sometimes a little bit less. This might be different in different areas of the country or different areas of the world. If you are in New York City where more of your fencers live in apartments, your fencers will probably have less space to work than if they are in the suburbs of Houston where they have free standing homes.
Think about the space that your fencers are in and limit your exercises to what is reasonable. In that space, they do have to have a minimum of being able to move five or six steps, to do one or two lunges before they reach their limit. They need to have room to place their target and do their target exercises.
Structuring online fencing classes
A big part of this is figuring out how you divide the time that you have. What do you spend on warm up, on technical elements (footwork, bladework, etc.), on conditioning.
This is a point where the levels that different fencers are in matters. For competitive it might be a little bit different than beginners.
Here’s the thing with this part. Whatever you decide today as far as structure of fencing classes online is going to be wrong. There’s no way around this. You will learn and adapt as you do the classes. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t. Actually, the best is for you to change anyway. If you do it exactly the same, kids are going to get bored anyway. Sometimes you should do more footwork, sometimes more conditioning, sometimes more bladework. Just go with the flow on this and realize it will change consistently. It’s more engaging to be unpredictable.
Depending on the way that your fencing club is structured already, you may consider combining levels when you begin. Doing online classes requires completely different level of preparation and planning, and significantly more time and energy. This is an area where you can expand later, but starting by combining levels works for us.
We have combined beginner and intermediate fencers into a Level 1 class, advanced and competitive fencers into a Level 2 class. This breakout lets us have some differentiation, but also allows us to offer classes five days per week without being overloaded. For now, it works for us. However, this process is constantly malleable.
Obviously you cannot have tons of equipment at your disposal. Think about things that everyone might have or that are very easily gotten in this time of limited movement and limited shipping. Keep in simple.
Some options that fall into this category are:
- Jump rope
- Small kettlebells or weights (can be a gallon water bottle as a substitute, for example)
- Tennis balls
- Yoga mat
Most of what fencers should need in terms of equipment is what they already have, and then try to keep things limited to exercises that rely on bodyweight. If you are unsure about what you can do, the internet is full of options and we will be posting some of our innovations here too.
There are some other essentials about equipment that we have discovered:
Keep a water bottle close by
Hydration is just as important in online lessons as it is in a fencing club, but it’s easy to forget.
Fencers must be in sport shoes, not barefoot. Fencing weapons are dangerous if they poke bare skin. This happens more than you might realize as you’re used to wearing protective gear in the club. There is also a risk of slipping in bare feet while doing fast footwork or twisting an ankle. Just wear tennis shoes! It’s so easy!
Make a target!
Without another fencer to fence against, students will be fencing against thin air. While an imaginary opponent is helpful sometimes, a physical target is much, much better. If your students haven’t made a target yet, it is a very simple two-minute thing to do. Ask them to prepare it prior to online classes or lessons. https://academyoffencingmasters.com/blog/how-to-build-your-own-home-fencing-target/
There are a lot of things like this that you need to take into consideration, but do not sweat things like equipment too much. This is one of those things that you can adapt and learn about as you are in the thick of classes.
Frequency and length of online fencing training
Figuring out how your fencing classes will be as far as length and frequency is a major part of the process. Like choosing a platform, this is something that will be challenging to change later, so you want to think it through before you begin.
Think about length. If you normally do your classes at one and a half or two hours, even three hours for highly competitive fencers, then you are going to have to shorten that. That long of a class is going to get boring when it is not in the club and when there are so many other distractions. And, as we found just now, online classes are more intense due to the lack of wasted time (think less time to go to the cooler, talk in a locker room and rotate in pair exercises)
Shorter classes are better than longer, and more per week is better to compensate. Instead of two or three times a week at two or three hours, you can opt for a one hour class that is offered everyday. It is difficult to stay engaged in those long stretches. They need to feel that it’s a good workout but they’re not overloaded, overwhelmed, over-tired, or over-bored.
Remember that you can start small and add on though. If you find that you start by offering online classes four days a week and they are going well, then you can always add more on additional days. You can also expand to other coaches and other times slots once those classes fill up. In this way, online fencing classes are very much like traditional fencing classes. This is part of the process that you know well!
The new normal for fencers
This is our new normal. It is who we are for now. We are committed to making the best of it, and it turns out the best of it is pretty fun!
This is just our first foray into learning a lot about what fencing is going to be for the foreseeable future. We don’t know how long this will all last, and in all honesty it could be quite a while. We are committed to making this work though, because fencing can help us all to survive this and create a new world. For myself, I never imagined we would ever be in this position. What an incredible and strange time to be a fencer! To be anything really.
We had a fantastic first run of classes. In our first day of classes, we had maybe a hundred and sixty kids joining, maybe even more. It was a total blast! They connected suddenly after not having seen each other for a week. It’s a very long time for fencers who are used to being together. They are used to meeting every day in the club, they have jokes and connections. Suddenly everything was different. That takes a toll. When they got to see each other again, even though it was virtually, everyone lit up with joy. Between coach and fencer as well.
It was wonderful to see the jokes and the connection, the engagement between the fencers and their coaches. They love it! It’s very important. In this time when we are all separated, it is a great reminder that we are not so far apart. We don’t have to be far apart if we choose not to be. It takes some creativity and some new ways of thinking.
I encourage fencing clubs to do this, to take the leap and go online. Your fencers will thank you. Your coaches will thank you. The fencing community will thank you. The sooner you do this, the stronger we will become. This is a test of how you show leadership in the fencing club that you are responsible for. Your fencers will be stronger and much more united, and they will truly live the spirit of fencing.
All for one, and one for all.