Is Your Fencing Instruction What it Should Be?

There are some excellent fencing teachers in the U.S., and others who are not so excellent. Some have had extensive, formal training by qualified institutions that school prospective teachers in fencing pedagogy (the art and science of teaching fencing), while others present impressive-sounding lists of former teachers or their success as competitors as their qualifications to teach. Good and bad teachers can be found in both groups. Yet a third group is comprised of self-made "fencing masters" who have had neither training to teach nor any competitive experience worthy of note.

Because most Americans have little knowledge of fencing they are unable to judge either the capability of their teachers or the quality of the lessons they receive. Over time, some unfortunate newcomers to fencing eventually suspect that they may have made a bad choice in their selection of a fencing school or instructor and seek better instruction elsewhere, but for many others such a revelation may be so long in coming that frustrated, they drop out of fencing before they realize that their lack of progress is not their fault.

What to Look For

If you suspect the quality of fencing instruction you receive is not what it should be, consider the following observations.

What You Should Know

It stands to reason that after having taken a fencing "class" the newcomer to foil fencing should know, at the very least, the basic elements of fencing: fencing tempo; the names and positions of the lines of attack; the degrees of fencing measure, how many thrusts there are, their names, and under what circumstances each is used; how many types of parry there are and what distinguishes one from the other; what feints are and why they are used; what comprises a compound attack. If after eight or ten weeks you don't know these basic elements, you need to find another teacher!

What You Should Be Able To Do —

Over the course of a foil fencing class lasting eight weeks or more a beginning student should be able to assume the guard position, move forward and back, and to lunge — correctly! One should also be able to invite and engage in all lines, deliver at least four of the five thrusts, competently execute each of the simple parries and all of the circular and half-circular parries. This might not sound like much, but for most individuals skillful management of these techniques is not as easy as one might imagine.

And What You Should Not!

There is an adage dating back through the 19th century that says, "It takes two lifetimes to master the art of fencing." Contrast this long-acknowledged wisdom to assurances by some present-day fencing clubs that novices taking their fencing classes will be fencing "almost immediately," or within "just a few weeks." That's exactly what impatient beginners want to hear, but wildly jabbing and poking with a foil after having taken only a few fencing lessons no more qualifies as "fencing" than the act of sounding out a few major scales on a keyboard can honestly be viewed as "playing piano." At the conclusion of a fencing class lasting eight weeks or more a beginning student, no matter how naturally gifted, is not ready to fence!

It is one thing to perform prearranged fencing actions in a fencing lesson, quite another to perform them spontaneously, under pressure, in the blink of an eye, in response to an adversary's rapid and unpredictable actions. Traditionally, during a novice's first months, a competent fencing master's primary task is to teach the student to execute each fencing technique with precision and speed. Once this has been accomplished he then drills the student over and over, again and again, until motor learning (muscle memory) develops sufficiently to enable the pupil to execute the actions without thinking and to override naturally instinctive movements that can leave him vulnerable. Training like this takes more than just a few weeks and students encouraged to begin fencing before they are ready invariably begin to develop bad habits that interfere with their training and may become so deeply ingrained that they become extremely hard to extinguish. Too often the task proves too difficult and the fencer is ruined.

Admonitions against new students fencing before they are ready are not new. The first on record can be found in the fencing treatise entitled "Opera Nova," written by fencing master Achille Marozzo, in 1536. No small number of other fencing masters have given the same warning since that time, and this fencing master emphatically agrees with them!