The Fencing Coach’s Guide to Finding the Right Club

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Photo credit David Ruskin, DC Fencers Club

 There’s an idea in fencing (as originally told by Gary Copeland, I believe) that says there are three types of clubs: champion clubs, recreational clubs, and money clubs. A champion club is the kind of place that produces high-caliber athletes and national champions like clockwork. A recreational club is where a couple of the boys will go to after work to socialize, hang out, and fence. And lastly, a money club is where the ownership wants to just collect enough cash that they can swim in it. It’s an interesting idea that provides a high level overview of picking a club based on competitive preferences, but I figured I’d break it out into a few more steps.

According to the United States Fencing Association (USFA) website, there are approximately 330 registered fencing clubs in the country. Every club offers a unique set of people, coaches, and facilities to satisfy a particular fencer’s needs. These criteria should help you evaluate the club that is (or isn’t) right for you:

1. The People

In many ways, a fencing club is just as much a social club as it is an athletic facility. Beers after a (senior or veteran) tournament or practice are commonplace, social gatherings outside of practice hours happen frequently, and teenage fencers tend to gravitate towards romance, usually in two week spurts before they get tired of each other and break up. (My friends at Salle Palasz are building a hot tub and a bar inside their club. I’ll be frequenting there when that’s complete!)

Those in the working world who maintain a serious competitive regimen will spend dozens of hours in the club in a given week, and even the parents will be engrossed in the social component of a fencing club as they wait for their kids on a given night.

It is for these reasons that the people aspect of a fencing club is one of the most important criteria to evaluate in selecting a fencing club. When assessing a club’s fit, ask yourself: “Can I spend 10-30 hours per week training with these people? Is this a club that the fencers work together cohesively? Can I tolerate the bad apples without wanting to breakdance spin kick someone to the face?” You will be around your teammates a lot, so make darn sure the people side of the club suits your personality.

2. The Coaches

At the end of the day, evaluating a coach is really based on personal preference as to where you want your fencing to go. If you’re recreational, you want a fun, high energy coach who is teaching out of love for the game. If you’re serious about the sport and want good results both nationally and internationally, you want a coach with a proven track record in developing elite athletes (the same criteria of teaching out of love for the game applies for the best coaches too).

Looking for a coach based on your desired level of effort you’re willing to put in fencing is one thing, but there are a few areas in a coach to evaluate, and if the coach lacks these qualities, you might want to reconsider the club:

  • Can the coach communicate well?
    This does not necessarily mean via spoken language (let’s face it; many of us have language barriers with our coaches). You need a coach who can illustrate the nuances of the game well, know when s/he’s over-corrective, and who can expand your mind and repertoire. Good communication is critical.
  • Can the coach inspire confidence in the athlete, and can they keep the confidence in check when it gets too high?
    Many coaches take the “I’m going to go Russian on your ass” and break the fencer down emotionally to toughen them up. It might work in the short run, but the burnout rate on fencers subject to that is sky-high. Tough love is critical in fencing, but the tough love must lead to a gradual progression of the athlete going from timid and tentative to comfortable in their shoes and ready to compete. The coach also needs to have an understanding of when confidence has turned to cockiness, and nip it in the bud before the fencer allows it to be ingrained in his/her character.
  • Is the coach a good life teacher?
    I’m 26 years old, and I’ve had the same coach since I was eight (Janusz Smolenski). Janusz is a great life teacher, and I frequently get good nuggets from him about how to better myself not only as a fencer, but as a human being as well. In finding a club, you want to make sure the coach/es are able to grow you not only on the strip, but off the strip as well.
  • Is the coach honest and does s/he have integrity?
    There are plenty of coaches out there who coach fencing just to collect a paycheck, but trust me when I say that this is only a miniscule crop of clubs. When evaluating a prospective club, look for the red flag of the coach who talks more about the dollars than the fencing itself. If your gut tells you that the coach is just doing this for money, then follow your gut.
  • Is the coach presenting an accurate résumé?
    This is a big one. I once read a coach’s résumé from a particular club in my area that said he “Fenced NCAA varsity fencing for UCLA and was a two-time Olympian for Russia in 2000 and 2004.” Funny thing was, UCLA has never had an NCAA team and this guy sure as hell wasn’t an Olympian for Russia during the Kolobkov era. Incidentally, this coach is now apparently a fugitive from the law. If a coach makes a claim to be a former Olympian, that is easily verified by going here. Buyer beware, coaches will embellish their résumés more often that you would think and use it as justification to charge more for lessons. Make sure you’re buying what is actually presented. 

These are just a few of the means of evaluating the coaching aspect of the club. Look for good communicators, a coach who is able to expand your repertoire, lovers of the sport, and (in my opinion) most importantly, teachers of life. If the coach/es lack these qualities, it might not be a good fit.

3. Weapon Preference/Desired Level of Competitiveness

As someone who primarily fences epee, I’m not so sure I would waltz into Massialas Fencing Foundation and join the club (as amazing as they are in developing foilists). Similarly, if I were a recreational fencer, I can’t say that Olympian producing factory New York Athletic Club (NYAC) would be the right fit (yeah yeah I know you need an invite anyhow). Make sure that in joining a club, there is a stable of fencers that share both your weapon preferences and your desired competitive goals.

4. Quality of Equipment and Facilities

Not every club can afford the luxury of a permanent space with electric machines and reels. But, I’ll be frank in saying this: dry fencing is the equivalent of a professional golfer playing Putt-Putt to get ready for the PGA Tour. It ain’t gonna do you a whole lot of good. So, going back to the idea of desired level of competitiveness idea, if you want to take the sport seriously, you need a good facility to train in with the right equipment. The top ten ranked seniors in mens/women’s epee, sabre, and foil have one thing in common: they all operate out of clubs that hold a permanent space with electric machines/reels (or a college team facility that has such equipment). Simply put, you’re going to be as competitive as Jabba the Hutt in the 100 meter dash if you try to compete above the local level by practicing with dry fencing

5. Price

Unfortunately, when it comes to cost, fencing is not a sport for the pauper; but there’s still a certain point where prices can reach exorbitance. Ask yourself: “What am I paying for?” If the facility is top tier, the coach is a ferrari, and the quality of fencing is superb, then the price is right. If, however, you’re operating out of a recreation center with a mediocre coach and they’re charging $50 for a twenty minute lesson and $1,000 for annual membership, you might want to consider a different option. Evaluate price on the following criteria:

  • Facilities
  • Individual lesson cost
  • Annual/monthly membership dues (inquire if group classes are included in the cost, or what other perks besides floor fees are included)
  • If family membership rates are available
  • Quality of coaching

Conclusion

The club you choose is about what your gut tells you is a good fit, but I hope this provides a framework of criteria to consider. Think of the people, the coaches, the facilities, and the price, and your desired level of competitiveness, and you probably won’t go far from wrong! 

 Damien is a competitive fencer and volunteer assistant coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. Damien was the coach of a London 2012 Olympic Athlete in Modern Pentathlon. He is an A-rated epeeist and was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team, and a Silver Medalist in the 2013 World Maccabiah Games.

 

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