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

If you liked this follow us on Facebook, check out our club YouTube page or come check out the club at facebook.com/fencingclub

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Resistance Band Work Out with Videos

Another work out series from camp. These can be done at home on your own, or in club. You don't need a partner but you'll need a resistance loop. You may need different resistance strength for different exercises.

These can help develop strength, speed or endurance depending upon how you use them. For our fencers we've been focusing on learning the exercises but will mostly be focusing on speed. Use lighter resistance and quick but clean execution of the movements if focusing on speed.

Our fencers have been doing sets of 15, moving through each exercise for one set, and then repeating each one for a second set. You can vary the number of repetitions and sets for your own needs.

Lat Pull

Works lats and shoulders

Stand upright, relax the shoulders and back muscles

Place the resistance loop around your wrists.

Extend your arms upward.

Slowly pull your arms down so that the band rests where your neck and shoulders meet.

Slowly raise back to your starting position.

Extensor Pull

Works Triceps Hold the resistance band, or loop, to the chest with one hand.

Take the other end of the band in the palm of the other hand.

Extend and then relax to draw back.

Repeat through your number of reps then switch arms.

Lateral Arm Extension

Works Lateral arms, chest

Stand with your feet shoulder's width apart.

Extend arms shoulder height and width with fists clenched.

Open the arms outward and then close back to the original position.

Resistance Band Shoulder Tri-set

Works shoulders, chest, upper back and triceps

Stand upright with your feet shoulders' width apart.

Place bands around your wrist with the forearms straight from the body, and the arms against the torso.

Extend the forearms outward using your shoulders.

Relax and bring them back to the original position.

Resistance Band Lateral Walk

Works Hips and Glutes

Stand upright, with a slight bend in the knees, feet shoulder's width apart.

Step to the right, taking a wide step, being mindful to keep the knees out instead of buckling in from the band.

Once you complete one set in one direction, work the other leg by going the other direction.

Resistance Band Squat with Leg Lift

Works Hip Abductors, glutes, and thighs

Position the resistance band around the thighs

Stand with the feet hips width apart.

Lower into a squat.

As you come up extend the right leg out to the side.

Repeat, but this time extend the left leg.

Resistance Band Star Jumps

Works glutes, hips, quads, and hamstrings

Place the resistance loop around the ankles, place hands on your chest

Jump and extend the arms to your sides and legs outward.

Jump and return to the original position.

Friday, July 17, 2020

On the Mats

Our last couple posts have been – and maybe some of our next couple posts will be; posts on exercises from the summer camps we are running now.

A lot of our morning activities are conditioning and work out activities.

None of them are individually too intense. The fencers are doing several work out activities throughout the day so each one is pretty reasonable and doable.

Whether you're a fencer or not, these are largely activities you can do at home. You can give them to your fencer to do to keep them working out while they're not at their salle. You can do them with your fencer so you both get some exercise. You can use them however you like.

Today's set is really simple, very standard stuff that many people might be doing already. At the very least you've probably done most of these exercises.

You'll need a yoga mat, a jump rope, and a timer.

Working with athletes of various ages and fitness levels we use a timer instead of a number of sets or reps. The athletes are told to do their best and break them down how they need to. If you have a more controlled group or are working individually you could either set yourself based on time or based on reps and sets. Using a timer you can measure against fitness tests that require as many as you can in a set amount of time.

We do 2 minutes, but you could vary the time per exercise depending upon your comfort levels. If you're keeping the short time and not doing this with another work out you can repeat the cycle.

The exercises are:
Sit ups
Standard Push Ups
Leg lifts
Triceps (Diamond) Push Ups
Jump Rope

Sit ups are pretty straight forward. Crunches are an option here too. The big thing to pay attention to is moving by flexing your stomach muscles not by lifting your shoulder and rolling your back.

For standard push ups one of the tips that has come up routinely is keeping the elbows back unless you're using a wide base for your hands. Younger athletes might need to do the push up from their knees. Athletes may need to be reminded to keep their backs straight. There is a tendency for young athletes to just dip their shoulders instead of actually doing a push up. For more developed athletes a way to prevent them from only going partially down is to require that the chest touch the ground and the hands come up from the ground. For younger, or less in shape athletes, give them space to go partially down and back up while they work on getting strong enough to go lower and lower in their push up.

For leg lifts, there are a lot of ways people do them. For this we're doing them to work the stomach, but you'll work the legs a bit too. Lift from your stomach muscles. Your legs, while fixed straight, should come about 15 to 20 degrees up from the ground. While they're up, spread your feet apart and make a V with your legs, then bring them back together. Lower them, try and keep them about an inch off the ground when you lower them. Repeat the motion from that slightly elevated position.

Diamond push ups or triceps push ups work your triceps. This is super important for fencing because triceps are extensors. They help the arm extend instead of contracting to pull the arm back. That extension is a big part of fencing. You don't necessarily need bulky triceps but you need the muscles to be trained for speed and endurance. These are a more difficult push up for most people because they aren't used to working these muscles. You'll do this much like a normal push up, but the arms are pulled in close, aligned along the torso, with the hands brought together under the chest so your thumbs and pointer fingers make a diamond or a triangle.

Jump rope is pretty self explanatory. Jump rope for the time allotted, try and maintain your jumping as best as you can. Restart if you fail.

Burpees. Most people are familiar with burpees these days. If you're not I recommend checking out YouTube for examples. Sometimes the push up in the middle of the burpee is viewed as optional, but we consistently include it. For this, instead of a timer, we just have everyone do two sets of five. But you can modify that for your own needs.

Our list includes meditation. The boys in our camp do running, kinetic stretches, a footwork focused work out and then this work out each morning, so by the time they're through a recovery activity makes sense. You could use various options for this. More stretching, yoga, light movement, all are options. We use a breathing meditation because our fencers work with it periodically as a way to help focus and collect themselves. It can be a useful in the stress of a tournament when you only have moments to calm yourself or to shake off a strenuous bout, or anger over a bad loss or a difficult referee. Having a way to shift focus while calming the body can be super important.

The breathing exercise we use is called four-fold breathing. You inhale for a count of 4, hold in for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 hold out for a count of 4. While doing this try to focus your thoughts only on your breathing and the count of your breath. Doing this for a few minutes will help bring everything down, you might feel some tension initially but then it will release into relaxation. Focusing on the breathing can help pull attention away from stress and create calm.

Thanks for reading!

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Red Riding Hoods – Fleche and Other Footwork Training

This drill can be done by a fencer with their parent or friend. So it can be assigned as homework or it can be one parents can adopt to do with their fencer.

One of the big things with training the fleche is to be able to execute from any point in your movement without telegraphing that you're about to. The fleche should explosively take an opponent by surprise. They should not have the time to realize the fleche is happening or to respond.

If an athlete has to fully settle their feet before beginning a fleche, they lose the moment in which it would be effective. If an athlete has to load the body and set up the weight to be explosive, they lose the element of surprise.

This exercise is a fun one. My youth fencers love it – despite it being strenuous. I originally started using it for my college fencers to help teach them to fleche suddenly from light footwork movement. The team of beginner fencers who first adopted this drill went on to win their conference's foil title three years running. Obviously, this drill was not the only element of their success – but their ability to make sudden bursting attacks, counters, and attacks in prep, helped set them apart.

It is also adaptable. You can change the footwork involved, or even dispense with footwork altogether.

It's pretty simple. The leader tells a story. While the leader is telling the story the fencers “float” or maintain a dynamic guard (they bounce back and forth lightly or shuffle constantly between their feet, if they have trouble with this an advance-retreat in place pattern is fine).

Certain types of words trigger certain responses. Usually you only want two. You could work it as a recognition and choice drill by adding more than two – but this can be difficult and those are better as visual drills.

For example, we tell a faery tale and every time an animal word is used the fencer's fleche, every time a color word is used they do a burpee.

Number words can be an option also. Or the name of a character. Faery tales are the easiest to use, but we used The Death of Superman once. One of our youth athletes likes leading the drill and makes up stories. The important parts are
  1. Keeping the story fun and interesting so athletes enjoy the exercise despite the work
  2. Embellishing the story in the extreme – partially to keep it interesting; in order to add the trigger words as much as possible.

Your chosen responses can vary.

For footwork we commonly use fleche, flunge, double advance-lunge. You could use a distance pull-lunge. You could add an explosiveness exercise and do a scissor jump lunge, or a squat lunge.

For conditioning we typically use burpees or sit ups, but you could use jumping squats, or sprints, or even sit ups. It should just be a small number, or even only one, so that they can reset to their constant movement quickly. You'll also be making them do it several times throughout the story so they don't have to do a lot each time the word is said since you'll say your trigger words several times.

If you want to focus on creating a work out instead of focusing on footwork then you might try three or four cue words. You can increase the cue words in this instance because they don't have to worry about quick reaction on a precise or correct execution of a fencing movement, they are just doing a simpler exercise movement which should be more natural to them. Then set all trigger words for exercise movements. So colors trigger a burpee, numbers trigger a jumping squat, and animals trigger a sprint.

If they get the cue wrong, give them a jovial reminder of what the cues are. It's not a choice or decision drill so the error doesn't really need any firm correction – they just need to get on track so they get the most out of the drill.


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Red riding hood image found on pintrest by Edli on Deviant Art, classic fleche image taken from Sydney Sabre

Monday, July 13, 2020

A Footwork Conditioning Exercise

Last summer I put together a sequence of footwork conditioning exercises for one of my students. He was really working at his fencing, but wasn't working out much. His footwork needed some help. It seemed like perfecting his footwork form would get easier if he had some more strength in his legs, specifically strength oriented towards the activity.

He used it through the summer and into the new season and saw a major improvement in his footwork. He then progressed from a D to a B during the course of the COVID shortened season. Another one of our fencers worked the routine and went from just starting fencing, to making it into the top 100 on the Cadet National Points List in that same shortened season.

In both their cases, they practiced multiple times a week for several hours. But footwork is your foundation and so improvements in footwork and better conditioning on the legs probably helped a lot. So this was potentially one of several factors to help them with their success.

We've been using it over our summer camps this summer, and into week two we're already seeing footwork improvements from the week one fencers.

The routine is really simple and can be done at home or at your club. You'll need a timer, a jump rope, a weight, and a length of space about as long as a fencing strip.

First step is advancing and retreating.

Advance the length of the strip, then retreat the length of the strip. First set do slowly, stay focused on your form.

Repeat at a medium pace. Focus on your form.

Repeat at a fast pace, focus on your form. This is a little harder at the fast pace but still necessary.

Now go at your maximum pace, stay attentive to form.

Now you'll work backwards. Do another fast set, then a medium set and finish with a slow set.

You're working your way up in speed and then bringing it back down. The first half works on maintaining form the second half on fixing form.

Second step is Sabre Runs

Sprint from one end of the strip to the other, then slowly walk back.

This simulates the explosive burst of going forward in a fencing action, and then the recovery from the action while you return to the line. It mimics the burst-rest interval experience of sabre.

When sprinting push to your limit. Try and push each sprint faster. This is how sprinting works to develop muscle speed. The muscles push to use more power so they adapt to normalize that power.

Third step is Jump Rope.

Set 2 or 3 minutes on the clock depending upon capability. Jump rope as consistently as possible during that time.

You're working on cardio, but also a little bit on hand eye and foot coordination.

The fourth step is Weighted Lunging

Grab a weight. Hold the weight to your chest. Lunge and recover forward the length of the strip and then back.

When you're done repeat on your non-dominant leg.

You can add a second or third set of these depending upon capability.

The fifth and final step are Standing Broad Jumps

Take your weight and hold it to your chest. From a stationary position, standing as if in guard, jump forward explosively using only your back leg.

Repeat this up and back the length of the strip.

Repeat the process with your non-dominant leg.

This is a power exercise, so time is a component.

The best way to do this is to run a stop watch and clock how much time it takes you to do one set on each leg.

Rest for about thirty seconds and then do both legs again. Run the stop watch to see if you improved your time.

Rest for about thirty seconds and repeat again. Run the stop watch to see if you beat both previous times.

If doing this for a group you can set partners to time each other, or you can have fencers count the number of jumps they take and try to beat the number each time.

You're only trying to beat the time or number done by that leg. So all your jumps on your right leg compare to each other but not to your jumps on the left leg, and visa versa.


There is a tendency when doing this to take huge breaks when one is left to their own devices. You have to fight this tendency. One student would stretch this to an hour or an hour and a half when he could. You can finish this in about 25 to 40 minutes.

My best friend is kind of into cross-fit. When he saw a student doing this set he was not a fan because it was all such specific exercises focused on such specific sort of uses of the legs. It is specifically a series of exercises to help develop footwork. It's important to do other conditioning and physical development that is more general as well.


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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Strangest Defensive Sabre Move

Among the questions my college students asked when I was fishing for topic inspiration was “what is the strangest defensive sabre move you know?” I guess the answer to the best defensive sabre move I know would be...attack more perfectly so you don't have to defend? I jest...sort of.

Over my time fencing I can think of a few amusing things I've encountered or used in sabre.

The coolest defensive sabre move is probably the jump parry-two. The Polish (or the sky-hook) is probably one of the cooler counter offensive movements, but the counter close out, or a resemblement pris-de-fer counter attack might be cooler.

For strange though...we have to dig deeper.

And honestly, even strange moves aren't super strange, they're just unusual, and usually impractical.

In college I was a fan of making a counter attack with a passata sotto followed by a parry five and riposte. Now you would make the same idea using what I like to call a “bunny hop” but what most people just call ducking...that crouching motion that you see in foil and epee sometimes. The passata sotto (ducking in a sort of reverse lunge with the off hand touching the floor for balance) was flashy and cool and esoteric in the minds of college kids I guess. You don't see it a lot now, it's probably one of those historical curiosities of fencing.

I once saw a coach, who claimed to be a former national coach, explaining to a group of kids that a passata sotto was the french term for an advance-lunge. The term is Italian, the Italian term for an advance-lunge is a patinando. It's been a few years, that coach seems to have since corrected his use of the terms.

I guess, again, this was a counter-offensive rather than a defensive action.

When I took my first lesson at Salle Palasz it was with Coach's best friend, Ramon Mathews. He was in his late seventies or early eighties and had an intense dramatic flair. He used to dress up as Zorro for the kids at Halloween. The lesson he gave me was on the use of the parry six in sabre.

Prior to this, I knew what a parry six was. Basically a backwards parry five with the hand brought to the other side of the face. When it was first shown to me by another fencer in college I thought he was making it up. By the time I received this lesson, I knew it was real but just something people didn't really do.

Ramon taught me that if I had made an attack in four, and was parried, if my opponent collapsed the distance with a riposte to the head, I could take the parry six more quickly than a five, and probably more effectively than a four at that distance, and then riposte by rotating the wrist and dropping my tip.

This is a pretty unlikely action in contemporary electric sabre, but it can work. It's definitely a hold over from non-electric sabre and is basically an infighting option. But there might be some scenarios where it could get used if you were against someone who managed to force fencing that close, or against a tactical distance-close on the parry to eliminate the parry-counter-riposte option.

Another weird moment was the use of a parry seven. The parry seven is a parry behind the back in sabre. Coaches talk about it as the parry you would use as someone was passing you on horseback. I don't know if that's real or not, but until the early nineties passing in sabre probably happened a lot because fleching happened a lot.

I was not fencing when the fleche was still allowed in sabre. But, a few years back I was doing a sabre bout with a student. The student was a left handed foilist, he has now switched over to being an epeeist and has moved away to be a professional fencing coach. I'm not sure why he was fencing sabre with me at the time. At one point his instincts kicked in and I guess he tried to attack when he saw me make a preparation, and he made a fleche. As he was going past tried to hit, so, I made a parry seven and extended behind myself to hit him as he ran past me.

Super unusual. I've seen one other fencer do this one time in a similar situation. But only that one other time.

My favorite though was probably this last one.

I was on a team with a foilist and an epeeist. We were in a three weapon team competition. So each team had one fencer from each weapon, and you fenced a relay to fifteen. I'm not sure how the bracketing worked, but we fenced a handful of teams and eventually won the competition. My high school students crushed a team from a local college, which I assumed would be the team to beat my team, and then my team crushed my high school students in the final.

Earlier in the day though we were against a team from another local club, and their head coach was doing sabre for their team. He was a lot of fun to fence and is a super nice guy. He made an attack with a very low line, or maybe he was going for a counter attack. He was left handed, and so he was closer than I expected and the distance was closing. So I switched from attacking to parrying but continued forward and took his blade in two and then bound the blade continuing from the second position in order to score the touch on his back while still holding his blade with mine.

It sounds a little ridiculous but can actually be done with some elegance. It's another example of sabre taking an action that is essentially in fighting.

So yeah, I don't know if any of those are the strangest...but they're the strange ones that come to mind. 

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Are All Ratings Created Equally?

         Several times over the last eight months a friend and I have ended up talking about perceptions of ratings. Most fencers and parents are aware that USA Fencing has a system of rating, A being the highest, E being the lowest, and U for anyone who has yet to earn a rating. For those unaware, our rating system is a purely USA Fencing thing. Internationally, and also domestically, there are multiple ranking lists whereon fencers achieve a numerical ranking through earning points based on placement in significant tournaments.
          For ratings, placement in a single tournament determines an earned rating. The tournament strength is decided by the number of people and the ratings of those people along with the number of rated people who place in the top eight. A rating lasts for four years. Any local event can give out a rating, even if its entirely attended by people of a single division, or even a single club, as long as the event is one of the appropriate age categories for giving the rating. Whether you earn it in a senior, a junior or a vet event, or if you earn it in a mixed, a men’s or a women’s event does not impact the rating. They’re all the same.
          Rankings are earned through points given based on placement in certain types of events. The number of points awarded may be determined by the nature of the event, or by the size of the event. Events which give out points are broken down between age groups, division, and gender. Your ranking only applies in the category where you earned points (Junior Men’s Foil, Division II [Senior] Women’s Epee, etc.). Your ranking will be the result of multiple performances, potentially, and points drop off after 12 months, or at the end of the season, depending upon the category.
          Because points reflect, potentially, multiple performances, are category specific, are earned in larger “more official” events, and exist for a shorter amount of time, many people feel rankings are a more meaningful system. It’s definitely the system which impacts more important stuff. But the rating system is more visible and is easier to comprehend, so it has an importance as well. Both systems can result in weird attainments. A fencer might have an unusually good day, or they might fence in an unusually easy tournament, or they might get a bizarrely lucky path through the DE table or an unfairly easy pool. In both systems random factors can impact performance so neither one is fool proof. The basic idea for both systems makes sense though, and both rankings and ratings can both be good determiners for an athlete’s ability to perform in a tournament setting.
          But are all ratings created equal? This is the question my friend has brought up after discussions with fellow competitors. Rankings get more specific, you’re given a particular place relative to everyone else. You earn that placement by performing in a regional or a national circuit event, which will often be pretty big, with – hopefully; national referees who know what they’re doing. You ranking is again for a specific category. So, when someone says “I’m in the top 50 Cadet Men’s Epeeists in the country,” it feels specific. You can guess how they qualified for that status. But when someone says “I’m a B,” are all Bs created equally?
          Some parents who don’t fence and some younger athletes take the view “Hey, if you earned it you are it, and it’s all the same.” They don’t consider whether you just had good luck, or opponents had bad luck, or if you got it in an easy event, or if the category of event makes it easier or harder. Those factors all exist though. So, yeah, sometimes a rating might get earned before a fencer is ready. Sometimes a fencer deserves a rating but keeps running into an unusually tough opponent in DEs, or the event strength drops mid-tournament due to upsets, or someone doesn’t show up or pulls out during pools and it just doesn’t hit the expected event rating. Again, it’s not fool proof.
          My friend, maybe questions his rating, he earned his B super-fast after earning his C, and that was pretty fast after his D. But, he spent two years training five to six days a week. In his case, he beat a B who was a former A and a former National Team member to earn his B. He did it in a large event with people from several divisions, and way more Div1 ratings than were needed for the event to have its strength. Half the referees had international referee ratings, including the one who refereed his pool, and the one who refereed most of his DEs. He was in a fairly strong pool as well. His rating was well earned. Conversely, I’ve seen people earn ratings in events where referees were throwing calls in their favor, or where it was all club mates, or events that were so mismanaged and so poorly refereed that many bouts finished in ways that defied logic. I’ve seen people earn ratings by being tall, skinny, and left-handed while fencing so awkwardly that they end up haphazardly getting past better opponents who just can’t adjust to hit them. It’s a mixed bag.
          In most cases though we can say a few things about ratings. Between an E and a D in foil and epee there usually won’t be a ton of difference. There is frequently a big jump between the D and the C in foil and sabre. In all three weapons there is, usually, a big jump from the C to the B, and from the B to the A.  
          Even with those trends…does that mean everyone with the same rating is comparably good? Obviously not. Some Cs routinely lose to some other Cs, some Bs routinely lose to some other Bs. The space for difference is real and unquestionable. Just because you’re on the weaker end of the Cs doesn’t mean you should be a D, or just being on the stronger end doesn’t mean you should be a B. There’s a fair shot your rating makes sense. Sometimes though, people are weaker or stronger than their rating suggests.
          The real thing you want to look for isn’t did you earn the rating, it’s what does your performance usually look like. After all, the rating is an exciting moment, it’s a great thing to celebrate, and it’s a great goal to motivate you – but your performance over time is the real thing you want to make good. So, you earn a C, are you routinely placing such that you would re-earn the C? If you’re in a larger event where re-earning is less likely – are you outplacing most of the Ds and below? Are you finishing amid the Cs? If you’re a C and you’re outplacing the bulk of the Bs routinely that can tell you something too. That’s what I look for. I’ll celebrate the win, but then I’ll look for the trend.
          If the trend isn’t immediate though don’t worry. You earned the rating, and if you did it in a meaningful context, it might just be a matter of getting your sea legs. The game changes a little. People will adjust the effort they put in because they expect you to be a harder opponent. Relative pool strength shifts, which should be an advantage but it can still weirdly adjust what your first DE bout is like. Adjust your training to your new context. Keep at it. Find the trend.
          For parents and team mates, when athletes get a rating they don’t expect and they doubt themselves, it might not be useful to just tell them that they earned it so it’s theirs. Point to the context, show them why it was deserved, and remind them they now have something to work towards fulfilling rather than to work towards earning. If they get too excited and their head swells up too much, remind them they need to be able to repeat it, and their access to tournaments is changing in a way to encourage that. All in all, celebrate the win, strive to prove the win through continued success and growth.

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