Friday, March 20, 2009

State Champions!

A HUGE congratulations to my girls at Governor Livingston for taking the state title this year! In only three years from being a team that was pretty awful, the new coaching staff has taken them, with a LOT of hard work from the kids themselves, to being state champions! Also a big congratulations to the boy's team as well, who took 2nd.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rhode Island Fencing Academy moves location

I was recently directed towards this article at It's always unfortunate when a club has to move, especially when the move is quick and unexpected. As a former student of Medeo, a club which has gone through many moves before finally ending up owning it's own venue. I thought I'd post it as an aside today, and give them my best wishes. I bet they're thankful for the quick turn around this thanksgiving. Ideally for them I guess they'd want to eventually get their own place, and set up strips, but it is such a large finantial commitment that most clubs end up renting the space.
The club at which I coach has recently moved to the nearby university. This is good because we used to coach in a martial arts dojo, and did fencing on a martial arts padded floor, which was obnoxious to train good footwork on. If you have had a club move recently, or even better, have experience trying to find a venue for a club, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Breaking Blades, Leon Paul Epees are useless

I lent a blade to a student today. About one minute later it was broken. FIE Leon Paul, down the drain. How could this happen? It was few years old, between three and six, not a bad run for a weapon I guess. What happened when I handed her the weapon, and she naturally bent the weapon lightly on the ground or her foot to gauge the resistance. It's a fairly natural response for a fencer if they've been handed a weapon; "hmm, I wonder how much resistance I get out of this." I bring this up not because I'm upset at the girl, it's not like she was fencing stupidly, got angry and smashed it on the ground, or anything like that. What concerned me was that it broke into a sharp end, and under such little stress.
FIE blades are designed so that when they break, they do so cleanly, and with no sharp edges. However many years ago it was, I purchased two FIE Leon Paul blades. I had heard so many things about them, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I really don't like them. Yes, I know there are people who swear by them, but I just can't stand them. The blade is too thick at the end, which throws off the balance for me. They're too flimsy, I find that on occasion my takes will not work properly, and to compensate I was making bigger actions to ensure I used the thicker part of the blade. You get the idea, all around not what I want from a blade. To continue my story, one of them broke shortly thereafter, and was broken fairly sharply as well. Has anyone else found that their leon paul epee blades break improperly?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fixing your En Guard

Something I have noticed in the past few years is that a lot of fencers do not really understand why their arm position is so important in their en guard. This is especially important for epee and sabre. Call it logical, call it "position six," I don't really care, I'm not one to get hung up on diction. Neither am I claiming to present to you the only working method of en guard, but my method works, and I see at least one new fencer every week who's en guard does not. I digress, and that is neither here nor there. The important thing is that all of you are doing it correctly. These tips are best carried out in front of a mirror, but a friend will substitute in a pinch.
There are several points that are common to all three weapons. Begin in your usual en guard position, facing your ideally full length mirror. I'm going to assume again that you have a fairly basic, at least, understand on what you're doing, but for the hell of it, I'll go over your basic checklist of non-awful things to do. Are your feet properly making an L and not a T, are your knees bent, are you holding a weapon, are you facing the correct direction? Good. Make sure your off hand is back, but not far enough back that it pulls your body and your head. You should be fairly comfortable in your en guard, assuming you have the leg strength to sit in it for a while. You may choose how to set your balance, I personally prefer an en guard close to even 50/50 back/front weight ratio, but there are good arguments for weighting either foot more than the other in any weapon. Your fencing position will likely represent your fencing style, if you are offensive you are more likely to adopt a stance that will allow you to launch your attacks, while if you prefer to parry or counter attack, your stance will reflect that. Of course, your en guard will be most affected by which weapon you fence.

Still in front of your mirror, raise your weapon to en guard position. Your next step is to ask yourself, the following questions. Does this look stupid, aka, is this so non-conventional that I lack the ability to fence properly. Don't laugh, many fencers believe that if they fence differently enough, they might win. While there are successful non-conventional fencers, there is a good reason that most fencers stand in one of several 'accepted' positions. They work. Your next assessment will be to consider if you were fencing your reflection, how easily would you be able to pick at his or her wrists. If your bell is far above your elbow, then you may be giving away touches. Position your hand and arm so that you are not exposing target area. This can be done in one of several ways, and your coach will be able to best instruct you on the finer points of your arm position. Finally, decide how far your elbow will be from your body, it should not be skewed outwards in what I can only think to describe as a chicken-dance esque fashion, but may be bent in varying degrees depending on how you feel comfortable. Personally, I prefer having my arm more bent than average. As for your hand itself, your thumb should be somewhere between 1 and 2 o'clock, if you were to imagine yourself facing a clock.

Sabre has a fairly similar en guard to epee, at least in comparison to foil because the fencing arm is valid target area. This manifests itself in the degree of bend you have in your elbow, as well as the way in which you hold your sabre. First, your sabre should be angled out so that if there were a clock drawn on the floor, your sabre's bell would be further than 1 o'clock, but not as far as 3. As with epee, you may decide how much you want to bend your sabre, and this will likely be a product of your coaching, but as a general guideline, you're en guard should not have your elbow touching you, nor should your arm be extended more than 60%.

The foil en guard is subject to less scrutiny than it's other counterparts because the arm is not target area. As a result of this, we see a greater variety of fencing positions. As with the other two, no online help guide will really be able to teach you propperly how to fence, and with this in mind I am not going to tell you what is right and what is wrong, merely propogate what I have seen and directly experienced. The foil en guard is designed for quickness of movement. This movement is obviously in the agressive or defensive position, with the arm positioned for whichever goal the fencer wants to achieve. That said, we generally see more bend in the elbows, and often a departure from a 50/50 balance point. It is also worth mentioning that the off hand can not be blocking target. As with epee, a thumb position of 1-2 o'clock is advisable.

For whichever arm position you have adopted, and I recommend that you consult a live coach or contact me directly via email or comment, practice in front of a mirror. Come en guard, fix it, and then relax. Come en guard again, etc... Again, I must emphasize that if you are practicing on your own, make sure you talk to an experienced fencer who can help you before actually practicing. Practicing is only helpful if you practice the correct things, and practicing bad habits only makes them harder to break later. These tips are designed for a more experienced fencer who is either getting back into the sport, or would like to refine their en guard, but probably would be most effective for a fencer who is picking up a new weapon. I hope these tips and pointers have served you well. Keep practicing

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How to deal with a bad director

Today I would like to talk about directors. I spent today directing at my alma mater, and it went ok. I got to see a few old students, and even more old friends. I had to direct sabre though, and while I’m OK at it; it is by far my weakest weapon to direct. I did some foil directing as well however, so it worked out ok. I had the chance to think and observe quite a bit though, and I will not pass my observations off to you.When a director makes a tough or bad call, we generally know it. Rather, at least the reasonably good ones know it; we’ll delve into how to deal with truly awful directing at a later date. Giving the director a real hard time about it will not change anything, a good director knows that you can’t change your call once it has been made, and excessive arguing is simply going to make him or her ticked off at you. That said however, if a director makes a bad call, you can always ask for clarification, or ask him to explain; simply shouting out how you really feel about that last call will put you on their bad side ASAP. Instead, refrain, and ask your director to repeat himself. A director is not required by the rules to answer your question, and a mean one will probably just tell you to get en guard, but most of us are pretty reasonable people. I was told a story today of a fencer who all but threatened to punch a director in the face. He was subsequently black carded. Don’t be that guy.

I noticed today an opposing coach attempting to convince, almost bully, a team into fencing out of order to speed up the match. Let me outline the situation for you. There were only three women on the squad. Unfortunately, one had fallen and injured her ankle, and was presently having it wrapped up by the trainer. The opposing coach was trying to convince the remaining two girls that they should fence, because he wanted to get home. Know this, you are NEVER required to fence out of order, or double strip (I was threatened with a black card last year for refusing to double strip a close meet), or anything else similar to that. As a director, I was presented with a moral quandary. Do I remind those girls that by USFA law, their fencer had 10 minutes of injury time which she could use, or was that too partisan? Quietly, I took one of the girls off to the side and reminded her of this fact. I’m interested however, how would you handle it if you had been in that same position? Leave a comment and let me know!

Continuing on the subject of aggressive coaches, last year, in the same meet in which I was threatened with a black card, there was a director who was being bullied by the opposing coach, in epee no less. Frankly, we couldn’t do much of anything besides argue back, and this is an important point. While it may seem to run contrary to what I said above about not pissing off your referee, if you can see that they are being pushed around by some external influence, you need to argue that, and you need to argue it well. Do not get riled up, and do not start cursing, you need to argue your point lucidly and concisely. If it continues, you should call the bout committee.

In the end however, you need to remember that it is about fencing, and no matter how awful the director is, if you fence well, you can make sure only one light comes on. Also, if you have someone there who can argue on your behalf, so that you can keep your mind on the fencing, that is really the most ideal case. To close out the story with which I began this entry, I eventually saw the quality of some of the other people directing sabre, and I felt much better about the job that I did. Remember, there is no perfect director, and nobody will make all the right calls.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This is why fencers have a bad repuation

I had some trepidations about starting this blog, and about coaching fencing in general. While I am an accomplished fencer, and admittedly very good, I never had a good day when it counted for national points, and I seemed to miss out on my chance for British/Welsh national team consideration because of email difficulties (excuses excuses, I know). The other day I had a minor freakout about how I might actually be one of those awful awful coaches who I see at national competitions who apparently think they're amazing, and maybe once in high school or college they were OK. I'm sure if you've been around long enough you know who I mean, or you will if you fence long enough. Not that I have anything really against them, even if they are not turning out top level fencers, they are still increasing the appreciation, and helping grow the fencing community.
Then I saw this. Read as much as you can without hurting yourself. Now I don't feel so bad about attempting to start a coaching/fencing tips website. If I can direct even SOME people away from this...... stuff, I'll feel like I've done the internet a public service. Whoever wrote this appears to believe that:
  1. There are only two weapons (sorry sabre)
  2. Buzz boxes are the appropraite scoring device for practice (arguable, but most places have scoring machines these days, every club SHOULD, and every high school/college is REQUIRED)
  3. You can learn to coach fencing by attending coaching clinics
  4. Each fencer has multiple defensive "stances" and uses their foil to protect their head
  5. You equip the buzz box to the fencing dummy
  6. The best fencers have an extensive knowledge of fencing history
From all this, especially the first part of my point #4, I can only conclude that this author is confusing fencing with video games. Not even going into how he says it's best to be defensive. Although, now that I think about it, it remains consistent with his accepted two-weapon system. Another major gripe I have with this is that he calls the fencers "fighters." I'm sorry, but fencers are not fighters for the most part. In fact, watching fencers try and box can be pretty entertaining. This is up there with calling the fencing weapon a "sword." As this rant comes to a close, I can only conclude that this article was written by someone who has done a few too many medievil reenactments, and not enough fencing bouts. Fencing is a sport, and a serious one at that. As athletes and fencers, many of us work to get away from fencing being associated with the kids who should feel they should have been born 800 years earlier. Once again, I harbor no misgivings towards anyone who could be described this way, but call what you do what it is: swordplay, medieval reenactment, roleplaying. Not fencing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Footwork Basics, or "How not to suck at footwork"

Footwork is the basis of your fencing, it is almost always, at at least should be, the first thing you learn. As the basis of fencing, it serves naturally as the inaugural article to Online Fencing Coach. The reason the wording in the title is so strong, besides from my own brand of humor (mixed with hanging around overly critical coaches, only to become one), is that in my experience, at least 50% of all lost touches can be avoided with improved footwork. Now, assuming that you know, and are familiar with, the details of your en guard position, there are a few points that each fencer should focus on while practicing footwork. Begin with about a strip's length (14 meters).
Your first drill will be to advance down to the end and back. While doing this, focus on making your steps as even as possible; make sure you're not rushing your advances and lagging on your retreats or vice versa. Do not, for now, try and blur your steps together to go faster, as this will lead to bad habits later. Try and make each step look the same, and have them follow a nice even timing, this is not a race. A good way to do this is to concentrate on simple things, such as your front foot landing on the back of your foot before the front, and maintaining the distance between your steps.
This, while essential, is going to get pretty boring after a while. Change things up by doing two advances to one retreat. Keep in mind that you should still strive for a very methodical approach for this, especially if you are trying to clean up your footwork. Maintain a constant tempo. You will find it much more difficult to maintain your tempo in this drill than the last one due to the constant changes in direction. Here are some helpful tips:
  • Keep your knees bent, and keep your feet underneath you.
  • Moving too quickly displaces your center of balance, slow down at first.
  • Maintain your tempo! Initially practicing slow and methodically will help you in the long run.
  • Once again, keep your knees bent.
  • Land on your heel, not your toes.
  • Make nice, defined steps.
Once you feel comfortable with this, change the number of advances/retreats. Remember, don't blur your footwork actions together. Let me say it again, do not blur your footwork actions together. This is an awful habit that I see a lot of in highschool fencing, and honestly, it makes me cringe every time I see it. That being said, eventually you will have to speen up what you are practicing, but it is essential that I note that while you may be moving more quickly, you are not changing the movements that you make. I promise you that if you work on improving your footwork, and really work on it, you will see an improvement in your fencing and that will translate into less touches recieved, more touches scored, and more bouts won.