,

The Benefits of Fencing

Epee, foil and saber at Houston Sword Sports

We all have a lot of things competing for our time. Work, family, friends, school, hobbies, pets… The list goes on. A common refrain from those who would like to try fencing is there is no time for it. While I can sympathize with that – my schedule is as maxed out as the rest – I’d like to make the case that some of your precious free time should be spent fencing.

An easy reason to try fencing is that it’s fun, although I’m sure many of the things you do are – why do workouts or hobbies that don’t bring joy after all, right? But more than that, let me make the case that fencing has so much more to offer than the occasional bruise or blister.

1. An individual sport with a team element.

Fencing is at its heart a positional game like chess that you play with swords. Learning the stance, movements, and actions needed to be an Olympian is easy. Honing them to become proficient enough to win some matches takes focus, self-discipline, and practice.

As an individual sport, you can set your own goals. How far you progress is up to you. You make the effort to learn and develop, you are the one who plays with new tactics, and you are the one who ultimately succeeds at your goals. The support network of your club mates forms a team that helps you through this. We all fence together and give one another feedback – if my teammates become stronger, so will I. There’s also great emotional support to help with plateaus and valleys as you learn to fence.

2. All the essential elements of physical exercise.

Fitness is divided into 4 broad components:

Muscular endurance – the ability to maintain a high level of performance over time. This includes aerobic (using oxygen) conditioning which fencing trains by getting on strip and fencing someone for an extended period, and anaerobic (not using oxygen) conditioning which is periods of intense activity followed by a recovery period in the flurry of activity leading to the touch. Both are important to your overall health and wellbeing.

Muscular strength/power – how much weight you can lift and how explosively you can push it. The rapid changes in direction of the anaerobic conditioning part of fencing leads to a stronger set of leg and core muscles. We are purported to have some of the best glutes in sports…

Balance – those rapid changes of direction also improve your balance. working for the touch forces us to learn new and interesting ways to move our bodies. Our pride gets us to develop the balance to not fall on our faces when we do it. This improves our coordination – the more balanced and grounded you feel, the easier it is to do fine motor tasks like scoring a point.

Flexibility – reaching that little bit more for the point or twisting to your utmost to avoid your opponent’s blade. Fencers become pretty flexible in more than just their mental abilities. Most people have done fencing lunges to stretch out for other sports. There’s a reason for that.

Fencing blends all these into one workout for the body and the mind, bringing us to…

3. Mental stimulation.

The brain is like a muscle in that the more it’s challenged, the stronger it becomes. Fencing is a puzzle – how do I hit and not be hit? Is my opponent laying a trap, or making a mistake? Am I really doing what I think I’m doing (it’s surprising how often this isn’t the case)?

Fencing is so great for mental stimulation that scientists have used fencers to study the way that “open-skill sports” (that is, sports where you react to an opponent) affect the brain’s ability to process information (source). We all get a little slower as we age, but one study found that fencers don’t get slower as fast – and middle-aged fencers have better accuracy, which is a pretty good tradeoff (source 1source 2 ). Fencing is a great two-fer, since it improves your health both physically and mentally.

4. Finesse, not strength.

Most martial arts will give you some version of the elements above, but the difference between fencing and most martial arts is that our sport is based on finesse rather than strength. You don’t have to hit very hard at all to score a touch in fencing. Most martial arts have you stand with your dominant foot in back, which grounds you and gives power to your attacks. In fencing we stand with the dominant foot in front, which makes us more nimble and allows for light, fast attacks.

What this means is that fencing appeals to people who’ve tried a lot of sports and not yet found their niche. Emphasizing quick, light touches instead of power means that kids who weren’t the biggest or the strongest can compete on an equal footing. You don’t even have to be very fast, if you’re sneaky and have good timing.


 

Have all these benefits made you think you should carve some time into your schedule and give fencing a try? Great, now’s your chance! We are holding free introduction to fencing classes on September 2 and 3. If you can’t make those, your first class at the Bellaire rec is always free. Sign up for a free class or email liz@houstonswordsports.com for more information.

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Top 10 reasons fencing is Houston’s perfect sport

I’ve fenced in a few different cities, and so has Dan. But fencing in Houston is better than fencing anywhere else, and here’s why:

  1. It’s inside and air-conditioned – For eleven months of the year it’s not particularly pleasant to be outside in Houston for any extended amount of time. Nine months of sauna-style heat and humidity, two weeks of nice weather, two months of cold-ish* rain, two more weeks of nice weather, and then right back to the sauna. But through the miracle of modern air conditioning, inside is pretty much a comfortable temperature all year round. Why would you choose a sport that you have to play outside?
  2. No mosquitoes, either – Those things are unpleasant and unsafe. Decrease your risk of West Nile disease by staying inside with a fencing jacket on.
  3. Surprisingly safe – Sometimes you need a safe haven like swordfighting to get a break from the dangers of rodeo and football. Seriously though, fencing is one of the safest Olympic sports. Take a break from those dangerous, stereotypical Houston sports and swing a few feet of steel around for a while. I’m sure that bull will be right where you left it when practice is over.
  4. There is a lot of fencing nearby – Houston has quite a few active clubs, and there are even more within a few hours’ drive. This means that we have great tournaments almost every weekend. Some tournaments cater especially to kids, veterans (folks over 40), or novices. This means that if you want to find a little tournament with other folks like you, you can. Or, about once a month, you can find a giant tournament with folks that run from total newbies to national team members.
  5. Diverse sport in a diverse city – Houston is one of America’s most diverse cities, and fencing is a great sport for people of all backgrounds. You can meet all kinds of people at fencing classes and tournaments, and you have an instant bond based on your love of fencing. Let’s face it, you probably also love the Princess Bride, you can always bring that up and make friends.
  6. Sport for smart people – With our growing tech industry, not to mention oil and gas, Houston attracts smart folks from all over the US. Use those smarts to your advantage on strip. Fencers are not the biggest, fastest, strongest, or quickest athletes, but we are some of the cleverest.
  7. Sport for nice people – Houstonians are friendly (provided you get us out of our cars). Fencing doesn’t happen in a car, and it’s a sport where sportsmanship and etiquette are highly valued. You won’t see people booing at a fencing tournament, and no matter the outcome, opponents always shake hands afterwards.
  8. Sport for out-of-shape people – It helps to be in shape, but if you’re out of shape, you won’t be punishing your body as much as you would be if you were trying to run around for a whole soccer game or something. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of good Houston cuisine between us and perfect health. Fencing will help tone you and keep you active, but it won’t kill you if nothing else in your life is keeping you toned and active.
  9. Commuter sport – We all drive big cars and trucks, so hauling the gear is no trouble. Our club may not be a five minute drive from your house, but you’re already used to driving at least fifteen to get anywhere. No car? Don’t worry, everyone else in the club has one. I’m sure you can bum a ride.
  10. Growing fast – Just as Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, fencing is one of our fastest growing sports. Get in now, before it fills up like 290 will as soon as they finish that construction.

If you aren’t already a Houston fencer, check out our class schedule and our membership rates. Your first class at the Bellaire Rec is free, or show up to our free classes on September 2 and 3 to learn the ropes along with a lot of other newbies!

*I have to say cold-ish or Coach Dan, from the frozen wastes of Indiana, will laugh at me.

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Learn to Fence for free, September 2 & 3

July free adult class

In July we had a great time offering free introductory fencing classes, so we’re doing it again!

This class will be a great way for anyone who’s never fenced before to try it out. You will learn the basics of our sport and get to fence with your friends in this one-hour class. All you need to do is come dressed to move, in close-toed shoes and pants or long shorts.

And if you have a great time, we’ll be ready to help you sign up right there. All new members who sign up for at least one month of classes before they leave get a free Houston Sword Sports t-shirt!

Wednesday, September 2
Location: West U Rec
Youth, ages 8-18: 6:30-7:30
Adults, ages 18+: 7:30-8:30

Thursday, September 3
Location: Bellaire Rec
Youth, ages 8-18: 6:00-7:00
Adults, ages 18+: 7:30-8:30

Can’t make either of these classes? Check out our schedule and find another time that works for you!

To sign up, fill out the form below or email liz@houstonswordsports.com.

Your Name (required)

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Add me to the HSS email list!

Which class will you attend?

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For each participant, tell us their shirt size and whether they are right or left handed:

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How to become a Prévôt

Last week I told you that Dan and I had just become prévôts in epee (to be accurate, Dan already had his prévôt in foil and saber). Today I’d like to talk a little about the examination to become a prévôt. We spent several months preparing for the exam, but the day itself wasn’t quite what I expected.

The first phase of the exam is a written exam, done before you even set foot in the room to do your practical. The US Fencing Coaches Association’s website, usfca.org, has a huge study guide for the written exam to help you prepare. The test itself is 100 questions. It has a time limit, but I forget what it was – well over what you’d need if you’ve prepared well. I was surprised by the variety of material covered by the written exam. It covered the types of things you would expect, like how to structure training programs and lessons. It also included topics I didn’t expect, like questions about the best way to plan for emergency situations in the club, and a really in-depth exploration of how muscles work.

For the practical portion of the exam, the examiners evaluate you as you give several types of private lesson to a student. These are the option lesson, the teaching lesson, and the warmup lesson. The biggest mistake I made, going in to the exam, was not preparing these lessons enough ahead of time. For some reason I thought the examiners would choose which techniques I needed to teach. When I realized that I could do any type of lesson I wanted, I didn’t have enough time to map out a really good set of lessons. What I came up with was decent, but not as good as it could (or maybe should) have been. You can find the scoring sheets the examiners use to evaluate lessons on usfca.org (direct link if you have a login). Definitely use these to prepare your lessons before you dive in.

The option lesson generally goes first and is the longest phase of the test. This is the type of everyday lesson that you’d give to a student who takes lessons regularly. You give them a handful of different moves that they can make, then give them different cues and have them choose which move to use in response. For example, if you extend your tip at their chest with your arm high, you’d expect them to use an opposition parry 4, but if you extend at the same target with your arm low, you’d expect them to counterattack to the arm. You need to change the rhythm and tempo of your actions and the student’s actions, and you need to mix things up to surprise them from time to time. You need to demonstrate to the examiners that you see mistakes and correct them appropriately. You also need to have a mix of coach-initiated actions (coach extends, student parries) and student-initiated actions (student counterattacks when the distance is right). Student-initiated actions are going to help them on strip more often, so you should be in the habit of using these in your lessons anyway.

The teaching lesson asks you to teach your student three fencing techniques: one offensive, one defensive, and one counteroffensive. I decided to go really simple with mine, so the offensive move was a simple attack, the defensive move was parry 6 riposte, and the counteroffensive move was a simple counterattack. I should have chosen something a little fancier; maybe attack with disengage, or attack to the hand and remise to the body for the offensive move. I observed another exam where the teaching lesson was too complicated and taught three different types of attacks. This is definitely a goldilocks situation. Your lesson should be set up to teach a student of prévôt-appropriate level (that is, not a beginner and not a world champion, but probably a competitive, mid-rated fencer of some experience) a skill they either don’t know or need to improve. You need to be able to demonstrate the skill yourself and to explain its tactical applications. You also need to have the student use the skill from different distances and at different tempos.

The third type of lesson is the warmup lesson. This is the type of lesson a coach gives a student at a tournament, just before going into pools or an important direct elimination. This was the part of the exam I felt best about and the one I did the best in. For several years my husband Dave and I have had a few specific exercises that we work through before either of us fences – mostly quick touches to the arm or body with lots of disengages thrown in. These are great for clearing away tournament jitters, loosening our hands and shoulders for precise movements, and focusing our minds on the bouts ahead. Because I’d given this type of lesson so often, I was much more confident and relaxed.

The final phase of the exam is the oral portion. The examiners ask you five questions. The first is general knowledge of training and conditioning; in my case, since we have a lot of veterans in our club, they asked how I would design a training program for a Vet-60 woman who was aiming for a national championship. The second question is about distance, timing, and initiative and… I can’t remember what the question was exactly. The next three questions are weapon-specific, asking you to demonstrate your knowledge of the rules, tactics, and techniques of the weapon you’re testing in. They want to know if you have enough understanding of the specific weapon to be a good instructor to your students and a good advocate for them at tournaments.

The test was really thorough and nerve-wracking. For a little while, I was afraid I had failed it. (I didn’t!) Dan told me that of the three prévôt exams he’s done, he did the worst in his own weapon (saber) because it was the first he did and he didn’t know what to expect. I think that was the exact thing that cost me points and kept me from having the best exam I could. I hope that this explanation of the exam gives some insight for those of you prepping for your prévôt. If you aren’t a coach, I hope this gives you some more information about how we got our certifications. The USFCA really cares about ensuring that the folks they certify deserve those certifications, and that they will be good caretakers of the sport and the fencers who participate in it.

If you haven’t started fencing yet, join us this week and find out what it’s like to be coached by someone with so many accent marks in their title.

Prévôts also have to be good at multitasking.

Prévôts also have to be good at multitasking.