Friday, August 6, 2021

Alphabet Soup - Your Decoder Ring for Fencing Abbreviations

For a lot of people, when you start a new job, or move to the DMV, you have to acquaint yourself with the local flavor of alphabet soup - or the use of abbreviations to refer to everything. At my previous job we had ROMs, BOMs, ROCs, ABMs, RICs, FCs, RBs, CSRs, NOMAD, RMs, other RMs, ASMs, BSAs and an endless host of other sets of letters to describe things. You had to jump in and learn what everything referred to. All the people, the manuals, the solutions offered to clients, everything was an abbreviation.

          Fencing isn't quite as bad, but there are a ton of terms, equipment, and concepts that will be unfamiliar to the average person. After you start to get a grasp on those coaches will start casually tossing around references to things described by a handful of letters expecting you to know what they mean.

          This is not going to be a comprehensive listing and explanation but it will cover some of the basic ones.

 

1. Club names

 

Clubs will usually have a name that has some word or name, and then "fencing club" or "fencing academy" "fencing association" "fencing alliance, or something like that. Some might be "Salle" followed by a name or "Academy" followed by a name. Some clubs people will refer to by their name and some people will refer to by their abbreviation, but on askFRED (itself an abbreviation for Fencing Registration and Event Database) abbreviations will usually show up.

 

Parents don't really need to learn these, but for athletes it might help you with assessing who is attending events you're looking at. We can't really give a guide to those...but askFRED will also let you click the abbreviation and see the name of the club.

 

2. Ratings and Rankings

 

When looking at events you might see "E and Under" or "Open" or "Div 1A." Your athlete might start talking about how they need to get a ranking or a rating. Or they might say "that guy over there is a B so he's really good."

 

Rankings are a system used in the USA and internationally, in which certain tournaments award points and fencers who place high enough get a "ranking" or a placement on the points lists associated with that event. In the USA we have national and regional points lists. The points lists are then broken down by weapon and gender and by category. The categories are either based on age or rating. So you might have the National Senior Men's Epee list, or the Regional Junior Women's Sabre list. The National Points Lists get their own abbreviation "NRPS" or National Rolling Points System, because they are on a 12 month rolling point cycle. The Regional Points are reset when the season changes.

 

Ratings give us more letters in the soup. All fencers start out as a U or an Unrated fencer. If a fencer places highly enough in the right tournament they get a rating. The ratings start at E as the lowest, and move up to A as the highest. A fencer might earn an E by coming in first in a tournament with 6 people, or they might earn a D by winning a tournament with 15 people, four of whom have Es.

 

Events get letters and numbers which tell you how strong the event is expected to be and how many ratings it gives out. For example, an A4 event will have at least 64 people, and 12 As, 12Bs, and 12Cs. It gives out 48 ratings, with the top 8 people earning As, and the next 8 earning Bs. For more examples of how the event ratings work you can look here.

 

If an event is labeled as Div I then that means all fencers participating must have a rating of C or higher. Div II means they must all be a C or lower, and Div III means they must be a D or lower. Div 1A is the same as an Open which means all ratings may participate. Some events will be labeled as a letter and over, like a "D and Under" which is the same as a Div III or an "E and Under" which means only E rated and Unrated fencers may participate.

 

3. Event labels

 

We talked a little about how events have categories based on ratings. At a tournament the sheets will be labeled with an abbreviation telling you which event within the tournament you're looking at.

X - Mixed Gender

M - Men

W - Women

SR - Senior, or 13 and over

VET - Veterans or 40 and over

JR - Junior or over 13 under 20, also represented as U20

CDT - Cadet or over 13 under 17, also represented as U17

F - Foil

S - Sabre

E - Epee

 

So your athlete might compete in SRXF, or Senior Mixed Foil, or JRME, or Junior Men's Epee, or CDTWS, or Cadet Women's Sabre.

 

4. Circuit Events

 

Circuit events refer to events that are part of a series of events which maintain a points list. You can have local circuits which are informal and are coordinated by the clubs/event hosts. Regional Circuits are presented by local clubs or tournament organizers but are approved by USA Fencing. National Circuits are both presented by and approved by USA Fencing.

 

Regional Circuits include:

RYC - Regional Youth Circuit. These events are for Y10, Y12, and Y14 fencers. Y10 is roughly 8 to 10 year olds, Y12 10 to 12 year olds, and Y14 12 to 14 year olds. Depending on the birth year you might be 7 or 11 fencing Y10, or 9 or 13 and still able to fence Y12, or 11 or 15 and able to fence Y14. The eligibility shifts at the beginning of the new season, so depending upon your date of birth you might be a little below or a little above the normal ages for that category. On the regional level, fencers must compete within their own Region to earn Regional Youth Points in an RYC, but you can compete outside of your region, you just won't earn points.

 

RJCC - Regional Junior and Cadet Circuit. These events are for U17 and U20 fencers. Like the RYC events you can only earn points in your region, but you can still compete outside of your region. These events also have a little wiggle room based on when your birthday is, but essentially Junior is 13 and over, but under 20 and Cadet is 13 and over but under 17.

 

ROC - Regional Open Circuit. These events are for senior fencers, so 13 and over. There is no upper age limit. Some ROCs will be Div1A events which means they are open to fencers of all ratings. Some are DivII events meaning fencers C and under may compete. Some have VET events, meaning fencers 40 and over can compete. Unlike the Youth and Teen regional events, the ROC events allow you to earn points at any ROC even if it is hosted outside of your region.

 

SYC - Super Youth Circuit. These are National Circuit events for Youth fencers. So Y10, Y12, Y14 but they provide points on a National Points List and you don't have to compete in region.

 

SJCC - Super Junior and Cadet Circuit. These are a newer category. They are National Circuit events for Cadet and Junior fencers. They provide National Points List points and you don't have to compete in region.

 

NAC - North American Cup. These are National Circuit events. They may include events in Y10, Y12, Y14, Cadet, Junior, Div III, Div II, Div I, and VET. There are generally not Div 1A NACs aside from the Div1A championship. NACs may also have team events in the Junior, Senior, and Vet categories.

 

JO - Junior Olympics. National Championship event for the "teen" categories, Junior and Cadet. Usually hosted in February.

 

5. USFA, FOC, Coaches' College

 

The main one's you'll need to know are the ones we've listed in items 2 - 4.

 

The one's we've listed in 5 are ones you might run into that don't exist anymore. Below we'll provide what they've been replaced by, as well as some other governing bodies.

 

USFA - United States Fencing Association. People still say this all the time, but the organization has been USA Fencing for several years. USFA is a different non-fencing organization at this point. Prior to being USFA it was AFLA, Amateur Fencing League of America...but no one still says that one. USA Fencing is the Governing Body for Fencing in the United States.

 

FOC - Fencing Officials' Commission is the oversight body for referees. Or it was. Now it is the Referee Commission. They organize the testing and rating and development of referees

 

Coaches' College - not an abbreviation but another thing that no longer exists. It was an educational program for coaches that was run at the Olympic Training Center each summer. Now, USFCA, United States Fencing Coaches' Association is the body that does training and certification for coaches.

 

USOC - US Olympic Committee. They oversee sports leadership bodies for sports which compete in the Olympics. USA Fencing falls under the oversight of the USOC. It's international counterpart is the IOC or International Olympic Committee.

 

USCSS - United States Center for Safe Sport. With the USOC, the USCSS oversees Olympic sports in the United States and provides rules and training for adult participants to protect athletes from abuse.

 

IFA - Intercollegiate Fencing Association. I'm not sure whether this exists or not anymore, it was the conference for Ivy League college competition. The IFA had a pool format for teams that is relatively unique.

 

NCAA - National Collegiate Athletic Association. Oversees varsity sports in colleges in the United States, including varsity fencing. NCAA Style refers to a team competition format in which teams compete to see who gets the highest number of bout victories out of 9 bouts between two teams in one weapon, or best out of 27 across a match between two schools with all three weapons. Some local collegiate conferences model their meets and rules off of NCAA fencing rules.

 

USACFC - United States of America Collegiate Fencing Conference. This conference oversees the national championship event for non-varsity collegiate fencing in the United States. They host one tournament per year. Their event combines IFA format and NCAA format competitions.

 

FIE - Federation Internationale D'Escrime. The International Fencing Federation is the international governing body for the sport of fencing. The rulebook followed by USA Fencing is based on the FIE rules.

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Thursday, August 5, 2021

7 Reasons Why Fencers Should Become Referees

 

If you are a TriWeapon Fencer, one of the obvious reasons for becoming a referee is because our program requires that you get a certification in something to graduate. The Coaches' Association and the Referee Commission have done the best job at creating straight forward certification processes, so those are the two best options. Refereeing will give you the most opportunities to use your certification and get something out of having it, so it is the most popular one for people to go for. If you're not a TriWeapon fencer, there are still lots of reasons to take a referee clinic or become a referee.

 Since we have a pretty high level referee coming soon for aclinic I figured I would present some reasons why fencers should consider taking a clinic.

 

1. It will help you understand what is happening in your bouts.

 Fencers acquire a lot of "knowledge" of the "rules" from hanging out in their clubs and talking to other fencers who don't know better. Then they start competing, or going to more serious clubs and are confused when they encounter the actual rules and actual conventional applications of them. Studying for the referee exam and taking a clinic is a good way to disabuse yourself of the accretion of incorrect knowledge.

 Even if you haven't learned a ton of incorrect rules and application, if you don't know the rules or how they're applied, you may be confused in tournaments by how stuff is called. If you're confused you can't do much about it, but if you understand the rules and recognize what you're doing isn't scoring, then you have a better sense of how to adjust to get the touch.

 

2. It will help you fence better.

 This is kind of similar to the last one, but not quite the same. Knowing wrong rules, or not knowing the rules might leave you confused and unable to understand why you're losing. Knowing the rules can let you make choices to help you win. If you understand what actions are likely to score because of how the rules work, you know what actions to prioritize. If you know what referees look for to recognize an action then you know how to tweak your execution to make sure referees will see what you're trying to do.

 

3. It gives you something to do when you can't fence an event.

If your rating is too high to fence Div III events or Div II events but your team mates or siblings will be attending them refereeing gives you something to do so you can go along and participate. If your club is hosting events you can't fence in but you still want to support the event, refereeing gives you that opportunity. If you're going to a ROC and fencing the Div1A on Friday afternoon, and can't fence the Div II on Saturday, but you're sticking around because you're fencing the Junior in the concurrent RJCC on Sunday, then referring Saturday gives you something to do.


4. It gives you another way to be involved with the sport of fencing and the fencing community.

If you really love fencing, you love going to practice, you love going to competitions, you love everything about it; refereeing is one option to deepen your exploration and learn more about it from a different perspective. Going out and refereeing will let you look at different elements of how fencing works and different actions people make and the ways they make them. It will let you see a different element of competitions. It will also allow you to make connections with competitors, referees, and tournament organizers outside of your club. Your club and other local clubs also probably need people to referee for them, so this is a great way to give back to the fencing community.  

 

5. It will give you perspective and an understanding of your rights as a fencer.

 Fencers are frequently salty about how referees call things, especially in the right of way weapons, but also in epee. Sometimes it's fair to be mad about a call, but sometimes you didn't do things the way you thought you did. Refereeing will help you understand the referee's perspective and what it's like to have to observe and interpret the fencers' actions and then communicate them as a call. Having some understanding of the other side can help you with moving past the frustration and focusing on making actions that get the calls you want.

 Sometimes referees make mistakes, and sometimes we think they do when they don't. Fencers don't always understand what things they can question and what things they can't, what the method for questioning is, and how to do it effectively and politely. Learning to referee and working as a referee can help you understand these better so you can navigate the experience better as a competitor.

 

6. There are monetary incentives.

 If you're an adult fencer with a good job then maybe making extra cash by refereeing is not much of an incentive. Even with a good job, you can always take the extra money and use it as fun money, or money to fund fencing expenses.

 If you're a teenager, or a college student, or an adult who is sorting out what they want to do, refereeing can be a nice extra source of income. You won't make a ton of money refereeing, but even without an especially high rating, you can make enough in a weekend that it's worth it. Especially for high school and college students, refereeing might give you enough extra cash that you don't need to pick up a job to make money to go do things with your friends.

 Refereeing might also cover travel expenses for tournaments you want to attend. If you want to go out of town to a ROC or a NAC and you can get on the radar of the people who hire for it, you might be able to get your travel and or hotel covered by going to referee. That might be the difference between being able to attend the event and not being able to.

 

7. You might enjoy it.

 Some people really enjoy refereeing, some people make a lot of friends through refereeing and have a fun time seeing them at all the circuit events. So in the end it could be that you end up sticking with being a referee because you enjoy it.

 

If you think you might be interested in refereeing, there are clinics that happen routinely, it's just a question of when one will be in a place close enough that you're willing to go to. If you're reading this post around the time it's being posted and you're local or local-ish to here, we will be hosting the Vice Chair of the referee commission (former Vice President of USA fencing, and a referee who has national and international experience and has lead the referees at several national circuit and championship events) to run a referee clinic here in Catonsville September 26th 2021. If you're not around here, or you're reading this too late for that clinic, check out the clinic section of askFRED and you'll see when clinics are being offered.


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7 Reasons Parents Should Attend Referee Clinics

 One of the most common things I hear said by both beginner parents and parents who've been around for awhile is "I'm not really sure what's happening when I watch them fence." A lot of parents would like to be able to follow along more and know the rules so they know what's happening. To help with that, I'm hoping to do a sort of "understanding fencing" clinic for parents at some point in the not too distant future. A common way for parents to expand their understanding though is to go to a referee clinic or possibly become a referee. There are some additional reasons why this can be a good idea, and since we have a pretty high level presenter coming to do a referee clinic at our club soon I figured I'd share some reasons why parents might consider it.

 

1. Helps you understand what you're watching when you watch your child fence

 

The clinic will talk about the rules and how the referees decide who gets a point or who doesn't get a point. It might not really teach the skill of watching for all those things, but if you're used to watching fencing and just don't really feel you comfortably understand the  rules, this will explain them.  

 

2. It gives you another way to connect to fencing.

 

 I've seen parents who became division officers, or who became office managers for clubs, referees and tournament managers because they really liked supporting and being involved with their child's sport. Sometimes I've seen parents who continued these things after their child went off to college or was more or less done with fencing as they entered the adult world because the parents enjoyed the fencing community and being around the sport. Refereeing can be a way to explore connecting to the sport and give an option for involvement.

 

3. It might give you something to do at tournaments or subsidize the tournament experience.

 Tournaments can be long, and big events might be several days. Some kids like being watched by their parents as they compete and for some   it can be an added source of stress. Whether you're watching your kid fence or not, if its a larger tournament you'll likely be there for a fair amount of time. If your kid referees then it might be even more time without the option of watching them fence. For larger tournaments that involve travel, you'll be stuck there through that. There will also be tournament fees and travel costs.

 If you are a referee then you'll have something to do in those situations if you are hired as a referee at the tournament. Referee income can cover the tournament registration expense, and the tournament will likely reimburse the travel. So refereeing can make    traveling for your fencer to fence larger more important tournaments a lot more tenable.  

4. It may allow you to support your child in a competition better.

 If your athlete isn't getting actions called in their favor either because the referee is making a mistake or because your child is making a mistake in how they do the action it can be frustrating and confusing both for them as the athlete and you as the parent watching. If you have learned more about the rules and gotten some practice refereeing    you may be better equipped to help them understand either what mistake they are making that the referee is seeing or how to adjust to what the referee is calling if the referee is consistently calling in a weird way. This might help your child adjust during the tournament, alleviate some of their confusion and allow them to have a better          event.

 

5. It may allow you to advocate better for your child in a tough situation where rules aren't being followed.

 Referees are human and make mistakes. There are a lot of rules to remember, and depending on their experience they might misapply or forget a rule. If a referee doesn't make the call you expect because   they see the action differently, or because they don't see an element of it, you can't appeal that. If they apply a rule incorrectly or don't apply  it uniformly then you can appeal that and have it overturned.

Fencers won't usually recognize when this is happening in the moment and won't know when or how to advocate for themselves in that situation. Having a spectator on their side who knows the rules can  help make sure they're receiving fair treatment when little  unintentional mistakes happen. It also helps you as a parent feel empowered to and have the knowledge to advocate for your child in those super rare cases where a referee really steps across the line. When that happens fencers and parents usually feel like there isn't    anything they can do. Knowing the rules will help you know who to approach and how to approach them for assistance if an unusually difficult situation arises.

 

6. The fencing community needs referees.

You wouldn't usually be able to referee your child in a tournament, but local tournament organizers are always looking for referees. The more quality referees we have in the local community the easier it is for tournament organizers to organize good events that your child can attend.

 

7. You might like it.

 

Personally, I became a referee because it used to be required to get certified as a referee before you could get certified as a coach. It's also interesting to me to know the rules and how they are applied, and it's useful for me as a coach to be able to explain those things to my students. I referee routinely because it's helpful to the local fencing community, but it's not the thing I enjoy focusing on because I'm much more naturally suited to coaching.

 I know other people who are very suited to refereeing and some who enjoy it quite a bit. Some people like the experience and like studying and exploring the rules. Some of them like the referee community and make friends there and enjoy hanging out with them at large tournaments. It may be the sort of thing you might have fun with and may be an arena in which you can find new friends with a shared interest.

 If you think refereeing might be for you, the clinic is the first step in checking it out. 

 

            If you think you might be interested in refereeing, there are clinics that happen routinely, it's just a question of when one will be in a place close enough that you're willing to go to. If you're reading this post around the time it's being posted and you're local or local-ish to here, we will be hosting the Vice Chair of the referee commission (former Vice President of USA fencing, and a referee who has national and international experience and has lead the referees at several national circuit and championship events) to run a referee clinic here in Catonsville September 26th 2021. If you're not around here, or you're reading this too late for that clinic, check out the clinic section of askFRED and you'll see when clinics are being offered.


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Friday, July 2, 2021

NAC's As a Learning Experience

I was working on a blog post on why a fencer might consider going to a NAC or a Regional Circuit event even if they aren’t quite ready. I haven’t gotten through that post, but it seems reasonable to still take some time to talk about first NAC experiences, since our club has several fencers about to go try their first NAC.


It’s fine to be a little nervous before a big event, especially when it’s your first time. That’s one of the reasons to try out an event like this when it’s close by. Traveling across the country, when you’re unsure if you’re ready, when you’re nervous, and when the competition environment is wholly different from anything you’re used to can be a lot of mental pressure to tack onto the pressures that are already there in a big competition when your parents and coaches, and maybe you yourself have expectations regarding your performance. It can also be a pretty expensive commitment when you’re just trying to see how things will go.


So, when a big event is happening near by and you’re eligible to go, sometimes it’s a good idea to take the opportunity. You won’t have as much expense, you won’t have as much stress traveling, and maybe this gives you an opportunity to go before anyone has too much of an expectation about your performance – so, less pressure.


I once had a fairly successful teen athlete advocate to his younger team mates that they always take time for a warm up bout because your first bout of the day will very possibly be your worst. Maybe not the worst result, but very possibly your worst performance. You’re not ready, you’re not loosened up and used to moving, your mind isn’t set to fall into the reflexes and choices it associates with fencing. Using a bout that you need a good result in to get the ball rolling isn’t a great plan when you can grab a few bouts that don’t count for anything as part of your warm up.


The same can be true as we step into new levels of competition. If we have the opportunity to get used to that kind of competition, to learn how to navigate the bigger venue and larger competition environment before we go to an event where we’re looking for a particular result, we have the same sort of “warm up” opportunity.


This might seem like an expensive warm up, and it might seem like your performance at the event will be indicative of how good or ready you are, and therefore how well you’ll do at subsequent events. These things might make it seem less reasonable to do. Considering the first point, more than a warm up you have the overall experience. Competition in that context is very different from competitions in the local context most fencers are used to. The space is larger, there is more to navigate. Strips are divided into pods which are sectioned off. Parents, and fencers not fencing have to wait outside of the space of the strips. Referees have a higher expectation of the fencers being prepared to hook up and follow directions quickly. The fencers with whom you’re competing are often “stronger’ than many of those who only do local competitions. Announcements about where you’re supposed to be are delivered differently (currently primarily through the Fencing Time Live website, but sometimes through large TV screens or postings in central locations.) Regional events have some similar elements – larger more formal check in, using armorers to check weapons. There will be numerous vendors, historical displays from the USA Fencing Hall of Fame, fencers gathering their bags into groups with their teams, people everywhere filling a convention center hall. It’s full immersion into a massive fencing environment, and it’s like a sea you can get lost in your first time out. It can be exciting and fun, but it can also be overwhelming if you’re nervous about competing.


Once you’ve done it though, the experience is different. The environment is familiar and expected. It’s a matter of returning to this cool thing you only get to go to sometimes. You can go in more comfortably the second time. Better than that though, fencers who start to get used to fencing national events begin to find other events easier. The stress of competing in a local event or a regional event fades away because now these are your small and midsized events. They seem easier and simpler than a large scale national competition. That alone is a big benefit.


As for the second point, of whether or not your performance the first time out is indicative of future performances…well, hopefully for any tournament you’ll improve with future events. Hopefully, you’re practicing and training and so future events in general will be easier. Going to a national event has some added elements though. As we said, you’ll probably be more comfortable and familiar with what you’re walking into the second time, so that can help. Another big thing is seeing more of the range of what’s out there and what successful national circuit fencers look like. You might see some ideas to go back to your club with and ask your coach about learning, but the big take away is frequently less about style and more about athleticism. Fencers competing at that level are fast and strong, they are clearly athletes. Competing in that context often works to drive that point home much moreso than local competitions would. Fencers walk away with a better idea of what they need to be in order to be successful. As coaches, we try to communicate the important of strength, speed, agility, balance, and the various traits that comprise “athleticism,” and fencers hear it, but seeing it and experiencing people who have it helps build a clearer deeper understanding.


Speaking from experience, I’ve seen a lot of fencers who have gone to a first NAC and not won any bouts. Some fenced their best, some recognized they weren’t mentally ready and could have fenced better. Some were happy with how they fenced despite results, some felt like they could have done better. In most cases, they’ve done better the next time. I know a B-rated fencer from another club who fenced his first NAC and won no bouts, but then went 3-3 in his pools at his next NAC. I know another fencer who lost all his bouts his first NAC, but then almost earned Junior National Points in his second NAC. I’ve seen a lot of fencers with stories like this. Some low rated fencers, but also several As and Bs who went into their first NACs and won no bouts, or won one bout, and then did much better their second or third outing.


Competition is always part of the training experience. Sometimes we leave competition out. But if we want to be competitive and do competitions, going to them is part of preparing to do well in them. This is true of local competitions, but it’s more true of large competitions. Practices and lessons alone can’t simulate some of the elements of competition. At all levels, early competitive experiences…and even on-going ones…are part of our stepping stones towards success.


There are also fencers who have stand out, great experiences their first NACs. We don’t want to write off that possibility. Even if you’re going in just to try it, or you’re going in nervous, try and stay relaxed and do your best. You might surprise yourself. Sometimes we are more ready for things than we think we are. Sometimes we do well with those pressures in place or in new situations. Reminding ourselves that there is a reason to go give it a try and to feel good about our efforts even if it doesn’t look like there is an immediately apparent result doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go and try and do our best. We still need to be open to the possibility of having a great day and performing well. We just want to remember that if that’s not how the day goes, it’s part of a process and it’s getting us closer to where we want to be.


In the end, what we want is to stay calm and clear, stay focused, make a good effort and walk away having had fun with a new experience that teaches us more about how to become successful competitors and how to meet our long term fencing goals.


Summary

- Even if you don't feel ready, have fun and do your best, it may go better than you think

- NACs are a big experience, when you're new to them, feeling nervous is normal, the next one will be more comfortable

- Tournaments are part of training for success in future tournaments


- Warm up bouts are necessary, when moving to a bigger type of tournament, a “warm up outing” might be necessary too

- NACs can be a learning experience, look at the overall traits and athleticism of the people who do well and see what you can learn from that

- A lot of people, even high rated fencers have a bad first NAC and then do much better at subsequent ones

- NACs will make smaller events seem easier and more comfortable

- Have fun, do your best

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Effective Epee Blade Takes

A student asked me how do you make effective blade takes in epee. I'm also currently working on this with one of my stronger C rated epeeists. 

 

This is a question which sticks in my mind because I like a blade work focused approach to epee. I also think the specificity of the question is good. Blade takes differ in each of the weapons, so considerations for a blade take in sabre or foil would be a little different than some of the considerations for a blade take in epee.

 

Many epeeists have also voiced frustration that as much as they practice blade takes it can be hard to effectively get the opponents blade, particularly in an offensive blade take.

 

So one element of the answer is to get the opponent to extend the blade.

 

Making feint-beats, or making feints toward a hit at the wrist might draw the opponent's hand upwards and more forward as they position themselves to be more ready for the action they believe you are setting up.

 

A partially extended blade closer to line with your target is easier to take than a partially absent blade. If taking the approach of drawing the opponent out you have to be ready either for their partial movement or for them to actually counter. It is a sad mistake to feint to draw a response and not be ready for the potential responses.

 

Mechanically speaking, be mindful of your hand wrist and arm position as these will set the position of your blade and define how your blade moves relative to your opponent's. The more consistent you make these elements the more control you will have and the less attention you will need to the details of the movement. Consistently practicing your blade takes with mindfulness of these elements will help you understand how the blades move and help you more naturally work with the leverage of the blades as they move together.

 

A mechanical element to consider is the positioning of your blade and bell relative to their blade. A blade take which locks their blade between your blade and bell, such that your weapon creates opposing contact points using your blade and bell will create more friction and more leverage making it harder to immediately disengage off from your blade take.

 

In practicing and drilling, once you have the basic blade take down and are able to lock the blade in the blade take and control the leverage have your drill partner simulate actual blade motion.

 

Epeeists frequently make small movements of the blade. These small rotations and small movements side to side make the blade harder to take. In part, the blade is not clearly in one place so the timing of the blade take is more difficult. Further the blade is already moving such to disengage as your contact begins, so a slower blade take may be less effective because they will slip off.

 

Have your drill partner move the blade simulating the types of movement and preparations you see your opponents making and drill taking the blade against that more realistic scenario.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Definition of Insanity is Irrational


 One of my youth fencers has repeated, a few times, to me “didn't Einstein say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?”

I thought that phrase was cool the first several times I heard it. As I got into the world, I gained more and more annoyance with it. As a coach, it is a particularly troublesome idea.


In my mind, insanity is not being able to discern the difference between what is right and wrong, or the inability to achieve moral culpability because of the inability to comprehend normal social restrictions. More broadly, it means to be seriously mentally ill. More colloquially, it is irrationality.


The idea that is expressed in that quote is that you're irrational if you think you'll get something different by doing the same thing repeatedly. If you walk down the street to the coffee shop looking for a Dunkin Donuts and find that it's a Starbucks, you would be irrational to continue walking there each day expecting to find a Dunkin Donuts.


There are other areas of life where this isn't irrational. I used to have a boss who would say “Isn't that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?” But she'd also say “You just have to keep throwing the spaghetti at the wall until some of it sticks.” 

 

The two sayings are in opposition. One says don't repeat your action because the result won't change, the other says keep repeating it until you get the result you want. 

 

I think we'll find it's often the case that we should repeat things expecting a different result.

 

The youth fencer in question falls back on this statement when drills aren't going well, or if he is being told to drill something he doesn't think he can do. 

 

When we practice, especially when we're drilling, it's the fact that we're doing the same thing over and over again that leads to us getting a different result. You can't build a skill without either repeatedly performing the skill or the pieces that build up to that skill. It's also pretty rare that anyone walks out onto any given field and perfectly has the skills of the game at hand with no practice, so the expectation is that everyone will spend time failing, and then continuing to fail until eventually all that failing leads to not failing. 

 

Granted, the idea isn't to perfectly repeat exactly how we did something before. We repeat it in ways that improve it. We repeat it until it is refined and developed. 

 

Refining isn't always a conscious process. When we're dealing with something athletic, particularly with kids, it's not always possible to just fix the problem. Sometimes it's the repetition that does it. You do the thing over and over, maybe not being able to see the difference. You slowly understand minor ways to change how you move to make it better. Sometimes you're aware of the changes, sometimes not. Frequently we'll do something and it will just feel better, or feel like it clicked, because we've unconsciously made adjustments based on our observations. We try to repeat it so it feels the same way. 

 

When dealing with kids, they won't always have the muscle control or the strength to do something exactly correctly. They approximate it as best as they can and over time this helps build up the muscles needed, helps develop the dexterity needed, and as their ability increases they are able to do it better and better until it is correct, or workable. 

 

The idea that because something didn't work we should abandon it can throw us off in competitions too. 

 

I once had a fencer who in a competition sidestepped to avoid a fleche while making a parry eight and immediately riposting as the opposing fencer was passing. The referee did not award the touch. This was an error, the riposte was begun well before the pass, in fact, the fencer hit during the pass. The referee explained because the opponent finished passed him he couldn't score. The fencer was frustrated. He successfully defended against the fleche several more times, but did not attempt to score off of any of them, costing himself several potential touches. 

 

I've seen several other fencers get stuck in their heads, fixating on a bad referee's incorrect calls and then avoiding sensible actions. I've seen fencers give up using an action because it didn't work in some competition. I've seen fencers avoid competitions because a competition went poorly. 

 

So many people have too many missed opportunities for growth and success because we convince ourselves that the first failure is indicative of future outcomes, or because we don't recognize that sometimes success is built on repeating a failure several times, and just failing a little less each time. 

 

That might sound bad: saying, go fail until you get good. I'm using the word failure on purpose. It's a word we think of as being really bad. But, anytime you fall short, you've failed to hit a target. You can do spectacularly well, while failing to be perfect. You can try really hard, and get something out of it, and have elements of success, while failing to do it right. When we see that we can fail and still make progress, we can be super comfortable recognizing that progress can happen amid mistakes, we can recognize success even if we fall short of perfection. We can still commit to a goal of excellence and realize that getting there happens in steps. 

 

 Thanks for reading!


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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Interview: Black Business Month


 Recently USA Fencing reached out to ask me some questions for Black Business Month. They posted a nice write up on Instagram summarizing some of what I had to say. I spoke with some of the board members from my club and they agreed it would be good to post my full interview here. 


I'm happy to answer your questions, with a couple preliminary clarifications. Tri-Weapon is run by a non-profit board, of which I am one of the key members, and I am the main coach for Tri-Weapon in addition to being on its board. So I'm not a club owner, as we don't have a club owner, but I'm one of the three main decision makers/organizers on our board (which covers three programs), and am the main person working with Tri-Weapon. Additionally, in covering club leadership of color, I should clarify, I am biracial. I do a lot of advocating on social media against the erasure of biracial people. Biracial experiences are very different from the individual ethnic experiences of the particular groups which make us up, but recognizing us as ourselves is also an important part of recognizing diverse voices. If you can include me in your highlighting of clubs in that context, as a biracial club organizer and coach, rather than as a black club owner, I am more than happy to be included.


1. How long have you owned Tri-Weapon Fencing Club?

As I mentioned, I'm a board member and a coach for Tri-Weapon Fencing Club. I've been on the board since 2011 when our Coach, Richard F. Oles passed away. The board was established because Tri-Weapon was the longest extant non-collegiate fencing program in Maryland and the family and fencers wanted to make sure that there was always a group of people to protect its existence.


2. How long have you been the coach at University of Maryland Baltimore County?

I began coaching at UMBC in 2006 after having fenced on the team there. I became the head coach in 2008 and have been since then.


3. Why did you become a club owner (what was your path to becoming one)?

My friends at UMBC sometimes joked that the most likely way for them to continue fencing after college was if I opened up a fencing club. It was at that point that I considered I might someday become a fencing club owner. When I joined Salle Palasz, the club for adult fencers which was run by USA Fencing Hall of Fame member, Dick Oles, I got to work with some of the Tri-Weapon boys. Seeing the environment there furthered my desire to someday run a fencing program outside of what I was already doing at UMBC. I imagined I'd work under Coach for a few more years, maybe study under some other local successful coaches as well, and then eventually find a space to open a club, probably after Coach retired, or possibly look for a way to continue Tri-Weapon after Coach retired. Unfortunately, fate had other plans, and during a blizzard in January 2011, Coach drove home from practice, a practice none of us showed up to due to the blizzard. His car broke down, and after AAA towed him to a nearby mechanic he chose to walk home. A young man driving a snow plow hit him, and left him on the side of the road. I found out the next evening what had happened. A few other local club owners called me that evening, possibly hoping to bring me in to help them absorb TWC. Fortunately Coach's nephew Mike, a former Junior Olympic Champion, stepped up along with Coach's niece Kathy and saved the club. They gave me the opportunity to step up my involvement and work with Tri-Weapon to help continue it, develop it and grow it. My involvement with Tri-Weapon has helped me deepen, organize, and formalize my approach to coaching UMBC.


4. What do you see as the importance of being a Black club owner?

I think fencing is a space which many people assume is for wealthy white athletes. Internationally we see some diversity with the growth and success of Asian fencing programs, but throughout Europe there is not a ton of diversity in fencing. The United States, however, has a long history of diversity in fencing, with Olympians, coaches, athletes, and USA Fencing officers of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. I think having a diverse field of club owners, organizers, and coaches lets people know that this is a sport for all people, not just one group. Coach tried to keep fencing available for everyone; he was reticent to raise prices even when he needed to. We have tried to keep our set up streamlined, accessible, and affordable, so anyone who wants to can fence, just like he did. I think that is a super important guiding principle: fencing should be accessible to anyone who really wants it. I don't think that principle is one which is race driven, but I think an inclusive and diverse leadership in the sport sends a message which is welcoming to young athletes who might question whether or not they belong. I think regardless of the race of the fencer or the coach, it's important that we make sure young athletes know they belong and that they are valued parts of a club community. Growing up biracial has sometimes put me in contexts where the environment in which I felt naturally inclined or in which I should belong did not always include other people who looked like me. Even when we're told a place is a safe space, or an inclusive space, if we can't see that with our eyes it can be a big step to take the leap and try it out, or to feel like people aren't questioning why we're there. Inclusion at all levels helps prevent those feelings for everyone and erases the divisions which would otherwise push our attention towards messages of inclusiveness - which sometimes feel forced and artificial. Diverse leadership, when it occurs naturally, lets us live inclusively instead of just talking about how to include others.


5. What makes your club unique?

Tri-Weapon is part of a group of clubs. We have TWC, which is a boys club for youth athletes, FIA, which is a girls club for youth athletes, UMBC which is a college club team, and Salle Palasz, which is a general club for adult fencers. We provide community on a level which sets us apart from a lot of the clubs in the area, so much so that other parents and coaches have sometimes mentioned it. We create space for competitive and driven athletes as well as casual recreational fencers and the gamut in between. We provide a scout like club environment for boys and a similar environment for girls, where they have their own spaces for work with their peers. We also have on going programs and opportunities where the boys and girls still work together, and where they work with the college and adult athletes. We create leadership opportunities within their individual sub-programs, but also encourage the youth athletes to take charge and teach and lead the less experienced college and adult athletes. This is a super empowering moment for a kid, once they get past the initial nervousness of taking someone much older than them, and telling them what to do and how to do it, they realize that even as kids they can be teachers and leaders and people who contribute. It can also be a good learning moment for young adults and even some older adults. We focus not just on making fencers, but on building people. We want athletes who are looking to be successful athletes to have the opportunities and resources to become that, but we want all our athletes to be people of character.


6. What are you most proud of at your club?

Recently, right before lock down, we had a boy join in with our boys class because he lived far away and couldn't attend our beginners class. He was fairly young, a little younger than would normally be in our regular class, and he had no experience. Our teenage epeeists did such a good job helping to teach him and make him feel included, that the boy's father came to me and thanked me and praised our kids for how welcome they made his son feel. The boy was so excited that he would go home and spend the week talking about the older epee boys, who he now looked up to. More recently, upon re-opening we ran some summer camps, and a few of the boys volunteered their time to help teach some of the boys who weren't quite as far along in their training. They made it a goal to catch them up and spent hours a day over a few weeks doing it in order to make their team stronger. A handful of times I've watched our athletes sit down at tournaments with youth athletes from other clubs who were crying after a loss and share stories and words of encouragement to comfort them. Sometimes they weren't even competing the same event, but would see a kid upset and would go to help them. I think that's what makes me proudest, is our members and their capacity to take care of each other and take care of others and build a sense of community through a strong sense of character.


7. Is there anything else you would like me to know about you and/or your club?

As far as the club goes, just that we're a great environment for good people who want to fence. As for me, in addition to coaching in the club and at the college you can sometimes find me posting fencing thoughts, drills, and more at blog.taketheblade.com

Thanks,
BJ
 
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