Sunday, April 19, 2020

Fencing At Home

So we’re in a pretty weird time. Around the world people are stuck at home, limiting their activities, keeping distance from one another. When I was running our Division’s National Qualifier we had to begin using the new rule of saluting with no handshake and minimizing fencer contact with paperwork. That didn’t last long because pretty quickly everything shut down. Quickly enough that no one had time to respond or plan for it. So many of us are still trying to find ways to keep up with fencing and keep athletes ready for the new season once things go back to normal.
          The first thing we can do is keep working out. Fencing provides a work out, but even when we’re in our clubs and on the strip we need to do a lot of additional work out activities if we want to be competitive and successful. So now that we aren’t in our clubs we need to make sure we’re working out even more. Most areas still allow people to go out for runs so keep that up. Otherwise at home work outs.
          With the at home work outs we should get some home drills in too. I’ve been doing Zoom classes for my students where we talk about the mental end of fencing stuff. One of my students warmed up for class today by running while we waited for his teammates, when the team did a social chat he had his golf ball and was working on point control while on the chat. This is a great commitment.
So lets go over some drill ideas.

Foil and Epee

Point Control

The easy obvious one is a golf ball. If you don’t want to set up a permanent hook from which to hang a golf ball you can get a command hook with removable double sided tape to temporarily attached to the ceiling. You’ll need an eye hook and rope. Drill a hole in the golf ball for the eye hook, and tie the rope between the eye hook and the hook from the ceiling.

Start off at lunge distance. For a lot of drills we begin close and move further out, but an extension distance doesn’t give you room to aim until you start to get your point control down.

Lunge, hit the ball, stay in the lunge, and manipulate the tip with your fingers so that you can hit the ball a second time as it swings back. The remise hit will allow you to focus on fine control a little more.

Once you have that down move to an advance lunge. Once you’ve got that will you can try from an extension distance, or an extension with an advance. Or try moving in and out and lunging.

If you can’t set up a golf ball you can set up a target. Some scrap leather framed with some padding will work, but to go a simpler route take a spare pillow and some tape. Make some cross marks on the pillow with the tape and set it against a wall and use the crosses as targets.

Epeeists if you have an old shoe tape it to the floor or put a weight in the shoe. Something to hold it down. You can work on point control hitting the toe of the shoe. Again, add movement back and forth,  then add making a feint to an imaginary wrist and drop to the toe.  


When I learned to make disengages they told us to practice with door knobs. It’s still a decent option. Take your weapon extend and move the tip under the knob from one-side to the other. Make sure the movement is done by manipulating the grip with your fingers only so it stays a small motion. You can add the double, or the completed circle, by practicing rotating in a single direction fully around the door knob. Then try the other direction.


Set a mask on the back of a chair from an extension distance make a cut to the left side of the mask and then recut from the fingers. Rotate the hand to the top of the head and cut from the fingers and then recut again. Rotate again to the right side cut from the fingers and then recut. Make the same rotation going back. The idea is from the extension to develop quick sharp small finger motions in a controlled fashion.

If you can situate the mask roughly the height of the head of someone standing en garde you can practice making head cuts. Begin at an extension distance, then advance with extension, then lunge, then advance lunge and double advance lunge. Then add back and forth movement. Then if there is room add a recovery with a distance pull.

You can also combine moving with the head cut and the double tap rotation. Move in and out and then lunge in and make the cut rotation sequence once then recover and retreat back to your movement and repeat.

Thanks for reading. Try these out, post in the comments about how it goes and about how you’re keeping your head in the game.

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Some Thoughts on Lunging

When you get to the end, there's a challenge for people stuck at home!

I asked my college students in their meme chat, which is not affiliated with the fencing program, to ask me some fencing questions. I wanted some thoughts for things to talk about that weren't just me thinking coachy things.

The first response I got was “how do I lunge” I thought this was kind of a smart alleck question, but it's really not bad. The lunge is something we think of as so basic that it's easy to overlook details. It's also something that we can get too caught up in the details of when introducing it and so we make it seem more difficult than it is. There are definitely things I'd explain when teaching a lunge that I don't hear frequently, and there is probably stuff I should be explaining that I miss.

If I was going to give a quick run down on lunging I would say

1.     Lift the front toes just enough to release the pressure of the front foot.
2.     Push forward from the back leg to propel the body forward

Pretty basic. If you followed those instructions, maybe you lunged.

Maybe not.

Some people might point out that I didn't talk about arms. The first part of lunging is extending your front arm, right?

Well maybe it isn't. Maybe you're making a body feint and you're going to flex your shoulder first to draw a parry, or maybe you're holding back the attack, or you're going to flick, or you're close enough to finish with a bent arm.

We don't have to explain that all those options are there for a beginner, but if we start with the feet and then add the extension then we can have more room to play with the extension more easily as we move forward.

So lets add the extension...

1.     Slowly begin extending the arm.
2.     Imagine a cord between the wrist and the leg so the as the arm pulls forward the legs launch forward
3.     As the legs launch forward sharply accelerate the extension of the arm

Well...why are we adding this bit about sharply extending the arm?

We don't have to...but, frequently that final bit of speed will add to the effectiveness of the attack. It's also an easier speed variance to introduce than slowing the arm. It plays well into how a lot of people read the right of way on the attack in foil and sabre.

Where's the back arm? We need that equal and opposite reaction if we want speed right?

No. That's not how physics works. That's just something fencing coaches say.

But we can add extending the back arm, because it will help us keep our balance, it draws the back upright and helps us keep that straight, and it allows us to rotate our shoulders, which simultaneously extends the reach of our front arm, and allows us to extend more from the muscles in our back and shoulders and less from the arm so that we have greater endurance on the extension.

So we've got some basics...but now maybe some details.

People will often point out that the front toe should be pointed forward. Sometimes we say it should be pointed at the opponent but we have a meter and a half of space the opponent might not be in line with us. We frequently explain that if the toe is pointed somewhere other than forward we won't lunge forward.

I don't know why we say such things, but you can, and people do, lunge straight with their foot turned.

It's important to line the foot up to avoid injury. But not just the foot, the knee and the hip too. The force when the leg comes down for the lunge can be pretty extreme, so if our knee is twisted or our ankle is twisted and the force is pulling things in different directions it can be detrimental. So keep the whole front leg lined up properly.

This brings up too other elements of feet and legs. The over lunge, and rolling the back foot.

Both of these issues tie into the question of how long should the lunge be.

For beginners I try to tell them to let the lunge end naturally. If you extend the back leg and just let the front leg glide forward then the back leg should stop when its done and the front leg will settle in that point. Trying to push further is where we run into the over lunge and the rolled back foot. If students have trouble with this idea, its simple enough to tell them not to let the front knee come past the front ankle and not to roll the back foot. Frankly explaining potential injuries there is usually enough to keep people mindful.

Once students can lunge comfortably without these mistakes adding in shorter, medium and longer lunges can be useful.

More than that I follow the instruction of my last coach, AK, who distinguished between attacking at reach and attacking at distance. In his approach your reach is where you can comfortably attack while being in control of the situation and being in balance enough to easily recover and escape. In your reach you can address a parry or distance pull, and you can recover and pull distance if needed. An attack at your distance is an attack from your maximum length, the point from which you can make an advance lunge using your full lunge capacity.

If we want to add to the idea of differing lengths of the lunge, I think this is a good approach.

What if students point out that high level athletes often lunge onto the side of their foot?

I think it's good to just own this right away. Lunging onto the side of the foot is dangerous because if you can't control the force of your lunge and you move incorrectly you can tear things in the ankle. Athletes with more awareness of their bodies and how they move and the extent of their ability to lunge can and do add length by rolling the foot without allowing a weight shift that would likely create damage.

While we're talking about the feet the height of the front foot is a good detail to address. When I was learning to fence, one of my coaches always called me out for rearing up and raising my front foot really high. I didn't think I was doing it. I probably was. I honestly don't know when I got really focused on not raising the foot, but its really important to me now.

I can get a group of 20 or so fencers to all lunge simultaneously with the softest little sound when it finishes because their feet just glide. 

If you raise your foot too much you're taking time away from your forward motion so you're slowing down your attack. This could lose you right of way or it could lead to you getting hit in prep or with a counter attack.

Additionally, your knee can only take so much damage over time. So raising your foot really high and slamming it down unnecessarily creates a lot of unnecessary impact for your knee, your feet, and your shins.

An exercise a coach once introduced me to was putting a quarter under your toe. When you lunge your heel should only come off the ground about the height of the quarter so when you lunge the quarter will slide forward. If placed right, it will slide in a straight line if your lunge is straight.

If we move up somewhat we can get to the hips. Once I was taking a lesson, and Coach just pushed on my waist a little to realign my hips. He didn't really say anything about it and he had this look on his face like I should have known to have them lined up that way. It made a huge difference in my movement. I was pretty shocked and it has always stuck with me how such a small detail could be so important.

It's a little hard to explain in text. Basically as you sit down into your lunge position, roll the hips forward slightly towards your front leg. This will pull in a little on the muscles of your back butt cheek. Some people find it also helps to tuck the butt in a bit. The result is kind of an almost shelf like hinge between the leg and the torso, so basically priming the hip joint for movement.

Later when working with AK he explained that this was setting the hip for the right type of movement in the hip flexor which allows for an effective lunge. You can lunge without doing this, but the lunge will be way better if you do this.

Once your hip is in place it lets us look at the back leg extension. Earlier I said to extend the back leg. At this point we can start saying EXPLODE the back leg. You want an explosive full extension of the back leg. Even on a short lunge, you'll adjust by angle rather than by reducing fullness. A pretty common mistake people make is to have a bent back leg. This reduces the length and power of the lunge and can also put strain on the leg.

If we have our hip lined up right the back leg explosion is pretty simple. Once you've loosened your front foot's grip on the ground, and the front leg is ready to go for a ride, then forcefully push the back foot into the ground. You would think you have to push at an angle, but if your hip is set right, then just pushing will launch you forward with the right motion.

Comparisons I like to make on the push are drawn from Dragonball Z. I thought we had hit a point where kids wouldn't know DBZ anymore, but that doesn't seem to be the case. In the Great Saiyaman story the characters explain that they fly by using their chi to push against the Earth. I like to think of exploding the back leg like you're pushing the Earth away with your back foot. So push with force intended to launch yourself, because that is literally what you are doing.

What part of the foot you push with might differ from coach to coach. Personally I focus on movement from the balls of the feet, so I think ultimately the ball of the foot is the best part to push with, but you can push effectively from the heel or with the whole foot as well.

Well, that's quite a bit on the lunge. There is probably more I could say on it, but those are my thoughts so far. Hopefully there are some ideas in there that might help improve your lunges, or improve how you explain lunges, or maybe you'll have some thoughts that'll help me in how I think about lunges.

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At home challenge: Since people around the world are stuck at home now...take the things you've learned in your fencing clubs and the ideas from this article and become the coach! Teach a family member to lunge. Post some photos or a video to your social media of your family working out and learning to lunge! Put your links in the comments. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Sports Talk

Do you say “athlete” or do you say “fencer”? Do you say “I’m going to fence” or do you say “I play fencing”?

I’ve found when talking with people from college clubs, or fencing clubs in the US you get the fencing specific jargon. When talking to international fencers and NCAA fencers you get more sports style talk.

I was at a clinic once being taught by a really good French foil coach. The clinic was amazing. There were some pretty good coaches there learning stuff from some pretty awesome coaches. There were also a lot of rec coaches who didn’t know too much. A moment that stood out for me was when we were going through vocab, someone used a French fencing term. The coach running the clinic began to poke fun at him for being an American trying to use French.

Going to college events I’ve seen beginner referees trying to referee in French with bad pronunciation and incorrect words.

Sometimes people treat fencing like a weird niche activity instead of treating it like a sport. The romantic flair of Erol Flynn overtakes the high paced, physically and intellectually challenging athletics involved.

Fencing’s uniqueness has its benefits. It gives a backdrop for fencing culture that can build community and connections.

Knowing French fencing terms as sort of an international language of fencing can be useful. I had a student who trained and competed in South Korea for a year, and her temporary club mates thought she was a beginner because she didn’t know any of the French fencing terms. They realized she wasn’t once she started constantly medaling in competitions. It’s convenient that we have language that we can use to approach fencing when connecting with the world wide community of fencers.

On the flip side…what are athletes looking for when they look for sports and sports clubs? Are they looking for a place that will teach them to perform or are they looking for a place to be different? Clubs should be able to provide a space for both.

Fencing’s unique jargon, connection to history, and association with sword fighting and dueling provides a built in space for people looking for a unique recreational activity.

Those same elements can also be a barrier for drawing in competitive athletes.

I’ve had athletes ask how to get more competitive people and experienced athletes onto the team, or into the club or into the sport in general.

Treat it like a sport. From day one.

Focus on the opportunity to develop as a competitor from day one.

Encourage athletic training and work outs from day one.

Before people get to day one they have to be interested. Show them competitive success. Show them the physical complexity and intensity of training. Refer to it like a sport.

If athletes see it as something that can challenge them and develop them as athletes they will be interested. But that has to be up front. If it looks like playing Robin Hood they might be less inclined.

We keep Robin Hood and Zorro for the kids looking for that, but we need to remember we’re a sport, and keep that on the front line if we want kids to go in knowing that they have the opportunity to be successful athletes.

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