Going to Tournaments? Here’s What You Need to Know

Coach Dan explains the format to the Y8 fencers.

Gather round and learn what you need to know about tournaments!

We had a tournament information meeting last Saturday, and discussed the ins and outs of attending your first tournament, plus useful information for those who’ve been to a few. Read on to learn more!

We’ve got a tournament coming up soon – register today and you can put all of the following information to good use!

Houston Sword Sports St. Patrick’s Day Tournament, March 17-18

Signing Up

To participate in a tournament, you must be a member of USA Fencing. Memberships last until July 31st each year. Many novice and Y8 events only require the non-competitive membership; most require the competitive membership. To sign up, visit https://member.usfencing.org/. Be sure to list Houston Sword Sports as your primary club and the Gulf Coast Division for your division.

To see upcoming tournaments, sign up, and check your results, go to https://askfred.net/. Currently most small, local tournaments use this system. Larger tournaments like ROCs, RYCs, RJCCs and NACs are handled through https://member.usfencing.org/.

When you sign up for a tournament, email the coaches to let them know. If a coach is available for a local tournament, they will attend to support our fencers. For out-of-town tournaments, sending a coach will depend on some other factors, and all fencers will need to pay a coaching fee.

Tournament Classifications

Tournaments are divided by four categories: weapon, age, gender, and rating.

Weapon is foil, epee, or saber. Each has its own rules and scoring areas, so you won’t see an event with foil vs epee, saber vs foil, etc. All of our classes start fencers with foil, but each weapon has its own personality, so try them all over time.

Age is broadly youth (Y-8, Y-10, Y-12, Y-14), teen (Cadet or Junior), open (13+), or veteran (40+). All ages are based on birth year, check out our post here for more info on this https://houstonswords.com/news/age-classifications/

Gender is male or female, usually not too tricky. Mixed means the tournament is open to all.

Rating is a letter, E through A, that’s earned by placing high enough at a tournament of a certain strength. Tournaments can be restricted to fencers who are unrated, E and Under, Div 3 (D and Under), Div 2 (C and Under), Div 1A (open or any rating), or Div 1 (C and above). Most tournaments are Div 1A, aka open, by default. There’s also a novice classification that applies to people who’ve been fencing for less than 1 year.

What do you need for a tournament?

All Fencers Foil Epee Saber
Knee socks

Fencing pants

Chest protector (for girls)

Underarm protector



2+ working foils

2+ working body cords

2+ working head cords

Foil lame

Foil mask

2+ working epees

2+ working epee cords

Epee mask

2+ working sabers

2+ working body cords

2+ working head cords

Saber lame

Saber mask

FIE saber glove with conductive cuff OR

FIE glove and manchette

*Foil and epee fencers do not need FIE gloves, but saber fencers do.

Where can I get all this stuff?

For novice events and HSS’s in-house tournaments, you can borrow items from the club (first come, first served). For other tournaments, you will need your own equipment. We recommend http://www.absolutefencinggear.com/ for entry-level fencing gear. If you need more information about product recommendations and sizing, ask the coaches.

What else do I need to know about the stuff?

Michael Mergens has a great booklet called The Care and Feeding of All Things Fencing: A Parent’s Guide. It’s a great starting point for taking care of your equipment and available free at the club. If you want to outsource your equipment maintenance, Michael is at the club most Tuesdays and Thursdays and can check your gear for you. All gear needs to be checked for function and holes before a tournament. Try to check it at least a week in advance to give you a chance to get items with issues fixed.

How do I know what tournaments to go to?

The coaches will highlight local tournaments that we think would be good for our fencers on the club whiteboard and in the monthly newsletters. A good number of tournaments to start with is four per season (August-July), so you aren’t too busy or overwhelmed.

When you start competing more regularly and at higher levels, it’s still a good idea to pick a handful of tournaments (three to six) to really focus on, and treat any other tournaments you attend as practices.

Your Day at a Fencing Tournament

When to arrive: AskFred will list the close of registration for your event. That is the absolute latest that you could sprint into the venue, out of breath, and yell “I’m here!” and then check in for your event (don’t do this). You should plan to be at the venue at least a half hour before your event starts. This will give you time to do the following:

  1. Check in, pay, sign waivers, etc.
  2. Take your equipment to the armorer to have it checked. You will always have your mask, glove, body cords, and lames checked. Some tournaments will also check weapons. Lames should be zipped, body cords should be presented neatly and one at a time, rather than as a tangled mass.
  3. Warm up with jogging or other cardio and footwork.
  4. Suit up (5-10 minutes before close of registration)
  5. Warm up by fencing other people in your event. Don’t fence your hardest here – you are trying to focus and get ready.

Part 1: Pools. On average, pools start about a half hour after close of registration. The entire group of fencers will be divided into smaller groups, usually of 5-7 fencers. Fence everyone in your pool to five touches. The results of pools are used to sort you into the next round, the direct eliminations.

Part 2: Direct Eliminations. In most tournaments – especially small local ones – everyone advances to DEs. Some larger tournaments will not have 100% advancement. DEs are a bracket, just like March Madness. If you are in a Y8, Y10, or veteran event, you fence DEs to ten touches. In epee and foil, it’s two three-minute periods with a one-minute break in between. In saber, which is not timed, the break comes after one fencer has five points. For all other events, DEs are fifteen touches, with three three-minute periods or (in saber) a break after one fencer has eight points.

As the name implies, if you lose a DE you are directly eliminated from the tournament. If you win, you get to fence another DE. This continues until someone has won the final bout and earned the gold medal. Some tournaments will require the two people who lost semifinal bouts to fence off for third and fourth place, but most don’t. Most tournaments will have awards for the top four, possibly the top eight, so if you have done well, stick around until the medal ceremony.

If you’re doing multiple events: Sometimes, your events will overlap. You’ll have less break time, and will spend your break for one event fencing in the other event.  If there’s two hours or less between registration times, expect some overlap. If the registration times are farther apart than that, overlap is still possible depending on how the event goes. Get ready for a long (but fun) day full of fencing.

Best practices for fencers

Be polite, be friendly, ask questions after the bout. Keep a fencing journal where you can write down your questions, how you are doing in your bouts, things you want to work on later, and so on. If you suspect your equipment isn’t working, ask the ref to test it (but don’t test it yourself). Watch other fencers fence – get ideas of actions to try and develop some questions to ask your coaches when you get back to the club.

Best practices for parents/friends/spectators

Cheer for your fencer after the ref makes the call, and stop when the ref says on guard. Keep the advice you give your fencer simple and positive (Nice touch! Keep trying! Slow down and take your time!) and only shout it between touches, not during the action. Bring your fencer water during their breaks and in between bouts. Take videos of bouts when you can to show the coach when you get back to practice. Never walk in between the ref and the bout they’re watching.

Tournament fees for out-of-town tournaments

The following expenses must be met for a coach to travel out of town for a tournament:

  • Coach’s travel expenses
  • Coach’s hotel expenses (in the hosting hotel)
  • Per diem (for coaching, travel and in-between days)
  • Daily coaching fee (for coaching days only)

If you are traveling to an out-of-town tournament and want coaching, contact the coaches at least 45 days before the tournament begins. When we have the full numbers, we will divide the total expenses by the number of fencers. This amount will be due from each fencer one week before the coach leaves for the tournament.


How to Be a New Fencer


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.