How Fencing Is Like Academia

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Yergler launched his blog with a post entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Perfect Technique in Fencing.” In this long and slightly rambly post I agree with everything he says and expand on why his points doesn’t really apply to beginners.

If technique is defined as “how you do something,” and more relevant to our interests “how you try to score touches and avoid touches being scored on you,” some of the possible choices are likely to be effective more frequently than others.  There’s definitely such a thing as bad technique – just think of the slow, unbalanced, awkward actions that make beginners so easy to hit.  Or for a more extreme example, imagine what will happen if you decide to lunge towards your opponent with your tip pointing towards your referee.  Everybody can agree that’s probably a bad idea, right?

But sometimes, it can be a little more insidious.  I bet most of the coaches who read this blog have run into a rank beginner who wins a few bouts against a much more experienced fencer by being weird and decides that means they’re God’s gift to the sport.  I’ve seen this multiple types in the type of smaller club where slightly more experienced fencers are doing the coaching rather than a Real Coach who is trained in the pedagogy of the sport.  The ad hoc coaches know that the weirdness will only get the beginner hit (or worse, injured) later on, but if the coach isn’t a strong enough fencer to immediately take advantage of the beginner’s weirdness or doesn’t have enough of a command of the sport to persuasively explain what’s wrong with the strategy, it can be hard to convince the beginner that the coach has any authority on the matter.  Such fencers may experience success in their home club but usually struggle and become frustrated when they venture out into tournaments.

If you have a coach who is trying to train competitive fencers, the techniques that he or she teaches you probably look similar, in many ways, to the techniques that other coaches are teaching their students all around the world.  That’s not an accident.  The body of knowledge from which they are drawing and on which they are building are the product of thousands of hours of still-ongoing study and testing by people who have devoted their lives to achieving excellence in the sport.  To think that you can walk into a club and revolutionize the sport with no knowledge of the state of the art is, well, a little presumptuous.

I mean, what's more likely -- that I have uncovered fundamental flaws in this field that no one in it has ever thought about, or that I need to read a little more? Hint: it's the one that involves less work.

Jonathan really nails it in making the point that fencing is not a performance sport.  If fencing were like figure skating or gymnastics, and the referees were determining bouts by handing out 10.0s for fencers who execute the most perfectly textbook lunges and fleches, well, things would look rather different, and all the fencers would look pretty close to the same.

But we don’t!  In my own weapon, we have Kat Holmes’ aggressively extended arm, Amanda Sirico’s crazy deep overlunge, and Anna Van Brummen’s absence of blade and staccato footwork near the top of the senior points list.  You can identify these fencers by their styles as easily as by their faces.  And they’re all really successful fencers.

That’s the secret: there is such a thing as good technique, but there’s also more than one such thing as good technique, while perfect technique is an indefinable Platonic ideal.  When we compete to find out who’s the best fencer, inextricably linked to that is the test of who’s developed the most effective variation on good technique.  If one of the girls I mentioned above goes on to dominate the senior circuit, you can bet that following soon after will be a wave of copycats trying to incorporate her secret sauce into their own games.

In epee, the final arbiter of what is good technique is the scoring box.  That’s why good technique and good tactics can occasionally under go a radical change when circumstances change or someone has an original idea.  For examples of this in action, compare use of the flick in foil before and after the 2005 timing change, or read Johan Harmenburg’s book Epee 2.0 to learn about how, after about fourteen years of middling results with traditional technique, he and his coach invented bouncing, adopted heavily disruptive tactics, and changed epee forever.

So don’t blow off the weird guy who has everybody in his pool licking their wounds.  It’s possible that he is on to something, and understanding your opponent’s game will never hurt you.  But for the love of Kolobkov don’t just copy him and ignore your coach either!  Once you have the basics down, you can join in the collective research experiment we’re all doing to figure out what is the best way to poke each other with steel rods.

Here’s the metaphor I promised in the title: Learning to fence is like participating in the academic publishing process.  First you take Fencing 101, then you study advanced topics, then you begin to participate in original research projects.  Your fencing is your paper, your opponents are your peer review, and the tactical and technical ideas that win are the best ones on that day.  In the long run, the really good ideas win over and over again.  They’re the best because they won, not because they’re the answer everybody wanted to be right.  Just because you might later on discover quantum fencing and prove that everything we thought we knew was wrong doesn’t mean it’s okay to skip class as a freshman.

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I’ve included an Amazon referrer link in this blog post. If enough of you make a purchase via this link, I’ll receive a small commission which will go towards the cost of my training.  I’ll never recommend any product that I haven’t used myself and loved.  I bought my copy of the referred book with my own money in 2009.

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4 thoughts on “How Fencing Is Like Academia”

  1. Nice post. I never really noticed that about Kat, but looked at some vid on YouTube and saw her arm extension…that takes some crazy arm strength to hold that for a whole bout.

    Regarding Anna Van B’s style…I think that may also be the Alliance “house” style…as I see it in other women (Cadets) who work with Coach Geva. Actually, the more tournaments I’ve attended (with my daughter, a Y14 WE) the more I’ve been able to pick up on small common elements across fencers from the same club. Not all of them, of course, but enough to suggest that it’s more than coincidence.

    The RIFAC kids I’ve seen, for example, seem to have a particular cadence about their footwork (which is, IMO, very good and quite athletic). And this sounds like a small thing, but I got the idea to try badminton shoes for my daughter from some Windy City youth fencers.

    So, in addition to the “copy cat” phenomenon you mention, I also think there is a “you are a product of where you train” thing going on, too.

    1. I find the arm position such a distinctive feature of Kat’s fencing.

      You might enjoy this bout between AVB and Francesca Bassa. You’re absolutely right about the similarities between many of Coach Geva’s pommelers. Look for the following from both: ducking counterattack, high counterattack popping back on the front leg (“The Starfish”), a little distance break where the front foot comes way back (both of them do it around 4:05), an in-and-out prep with the elbow way to the side of the body, left and right arm moving symmetrically, lunge with the tip coming up from a lower line. They’re not twins, though. It may partly come down to tactical considerations later in the bout, but AVB seems to lunge more while Bassa fleches. Francesca’s got a little tic movement with her off hand; Anna with her off leg. Anna more obviously withdraws her body with her retreating counterattack and there’s something sort of angular about the way she carries herself (that one may partly come down to being taller). It’s really fun to watch them side by side.

      You’re right, lot of us do wear badminton or squash shoes at WCFC! I’ve been pretty happy in my Asics.

  2. As an academic, I like your post. I also love all the ways that fencing is NOT like academia. No peer review where you can’t tear apart someone’s ideas too much because they might be reviewing your paper. It doesn’t matter what terms you use to describe an action, just did it work or not.

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