Every decision that the FIE has flung down from on high in recent years has had the same basic pitch:
This will make fencing look better on TV.
There’s a desperate cargo-cult logic happening here. All those people out there, giving their eyeballs and fat advertising markets to those Other Sports, they could be ours if we get this broadcast thing right.
In this logic, The Average Viewer is a simple creature who needs lots of hand-holding and colourful amusements and for everything to look like it does in Star Wars. If we get the right flashy staging, the right slow-mos, the right commentators gently explaining the game every two minutes for those just tuning in, the right rules to make all fencing actions that look like they do in movie sword-fights, then we’ll be in the money, baby. If we can only dangle the right shiny things in front of the camera, suddenly there’ll be millions of fans watching fencing and we’ll be the new FIFA and countries will be throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at us for the privilege of hosting our tournaments.
Here’s the thing: I’ve introduced a lot of people to this sport. I also follow a bunch of other sports. And I’m absolutely sure that nobody is sitting around flipping channels one day, sees a random sports broadcast of a thing they’ve never done before and know nothing about, and becomes a superfan because gosh, it looks so cool.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a challenge: Go pick a major “broadcast” sport you’re unfamiliar with. Cricket or rugby will do well for North Americans, gridiron or baseball for everyone else, or failing that Aussie Rules football if you’re really brave. Sit down, and watch a game.
See how much of the commentary is based around spoon-feeding the rules to you, or how much of the camera work is based around making it look pretty to outsiders. See how much of it is even remotely comprehensible without looking up some Wikipedia articles, or calling in backup from a friendly native.
Now go look up their viewership numbers.
Establish a real connection
All commercial broadcast sports have one thing in common: a large base of people who have some personal experience with the activity. Even Formula 1 fits in here: most people have tried to make a car go fast at least once in their life.
They don’t have to be serious, they don’t need to be competitive, they don’t even need to have done it more than once. But they do need to be able to look at a bike race or a ball game and think “Oh hey, I know that thing!”, because they’ve done it.
The broadcast sports are things people do for fun.
The pure “Olympic” sports fall down here. They’re too weird, too intimidating, too exotic, and they revel in it, playing up their difficulty and exclusivity as part of their image. They’re activities for people with Talent, people who are prepared to give up decades and vast sums of money and their future health to chase the glorious golden dream. The rest of us normal humans watch them for a few hours once every four years, ooh and aah a couple of times, and get on with our lives.
Right now, fencing falls squarely in this category. It doesn’t have to.
Forget dangling shiny things in front of the camera.
Get people to play the game.
How to break down the barriers to entry and get people playing the game
How to pitch broadcasting to the existing fan base as it grows
How to improve the ruleset and design of the game itself
Feedback? Comments? Questions? Hit me up on Facebook.
Question from one of my students after the Moscow Grand Prix the other day:
“Hey, do you know what was up with the camera angles in Moscow? You couldn’t see what was going on at all.”
We Can't See - the 2019 Moscow Sabre broadcast - YouTube
Between that and the incessant cutting around, it made following the game a lot harder than it needed to be.
I have a suspicion that the answer for why they did this can be found in one word:
As long as “fencing” is treated like one thing, we will keep getting unwatchable broadcasts. What the camera team in Moscow were doing makes perfect sense in epee or foil. You can cut around the room for a few seconds, show the tension on the faces of the coaches and the adorable kid with a flag in the front row and some funky angles of the athletes manoeuvring about, build some drama while the action is being set up, and the odds you’ll miss something important are pretty minimal.
But sabre is different. Sabre is sabre. There is no time to play around. Ref says go, stuff happens.
You need to focus.
The sport needs to focus.
Sabre is its own game. It has its own flow, its own feel, its own style, its own tactics and secrets, its own stars and heroes and stories. And it has its own fan base. These things deserve focus, because with it will come understanding and mastery, and a much better overall product.
In May 2012, a handful of scruffy nerds from USYD Fencing Club moved into a super bland office space above a carpet shop in Stanmore, stuck some fencing strips to the floor, and started fighting each other. We had no proper coach and didn’t really know what we were doing. We had eight members.
Somehow now it’s 2019, we’ve trained over 10,000 people and the fencing strips above the carpet shop in Stanmore have thundered under the feet of Korean pros and German world champions. More importantly, a fantastic community of people has formed: there has been at least one baby born whose parents met at sabre training in our club, which we reckon is pretty cool.
We still don’t have a “proper” coach and we’re still figuring it out as we go along, but we’re scientists and this is how we like it. It seems to be working out okay.
Thanks to everyone who’s helped us along the way so far!
So, the FIE COMEX wants to change the rules of sabre again.
20-odd years ago, the rules of sabre were changed to ban all attacks where the back foot crosses in front of the front foot. Essentially, they banned running. They also banned the kind of flashy cross-step attack known as the flèche.
Now they want to bring it back.
We’re fine with this, with some reservations.
Here’s the official video where someone who may or may not be Dr Gennady Tyshler explains why bringing back the flèche is a good idea:
Fencing Fleche - YouTube
The basic argument can be summarised as:
Flèche is an elegant, natural movement
If you ban it, you get flunge, which the video’s maker feels is ugly
If you allow flèche, it’s easier to make explosive defensive actions
We can make a few quibbles here: Most of the video shows bounce footwork, which is totally irrelevant to the proposal. Flunge is really not the cause of excessive leg musculature in fencers (and why this is a even thing we should consider bad I do not understand). We have never heard a single spectator complaint about flunge. All of the examples of flunge shown are from fencers who, much as we love them, are never very elegant doing anything (Dershwitz, Kim Junghwan, Curatoli) and not from fencers who make flunge a thing of beauty (Homer, Ibragimov, Berre, Kim Junho).
This is elegant. Fight me.
Leaving aside that subjective feelings about whether an action is “ugly” is a terrible basis on which to make rules in a professional combat sport, there’s some major pros and cons here:
Flèche is, yes, a more natural movement than flunge (an action I’ve never done successfully in my life). It may well be a safer way to finish fast attacks. We’re all for good biomechanics, and we can’t really argue that this is a much more normal way for humans to go forwards.
Also it looks pretty fun.
It allows faster change of direction.
If you’re going backwards, being able to flèche allows you to change direction and make a successful hit into an attacker who’s holding more easily than any existing sabre footwork. It could make counterattack more powerful and restore some of the imbalance that was created by the 2016 timing change.
It makes the attack even more overpowered than it is already.
We’re prepared to bet that giving the attacker a powerful new finishing option will more than outweigh any advantage that the defender gets from being able to change direction a bit quicker.
We leave as an exercise to the reader the question of how to defend against Oh Sanguk under a set of rules where Oh Sanguk is basically allowed to straight-up run at you.
The proposed implementation breaks the best bit of sabre.
So that we don’t have to deal with the true horror of having Oh Sanguk being allowed to actually just flat-out run at people (and hosing the blood off the walls afterwards), the proposal is to retain the ban on all forms of crossing except for “correctly executed” flèche.
This means that if a flèche fails to hit successfully, the match is supposed to halt, and the fencer who attempted to flèche gets a yellow card.
Picture this: We’ve finally managed to get a match out of the 4m box. Excitement is happening. The attacker launches, and with some feat of beautiful distance work the defender gets out of range. The attack misses.
And we all stop, stand there awkwardly for a few seconds, and start again from simul.
Raise your hand if you think this sounds like an improvement on the current rules.
Yeah, we thought so.
By all means, do the test. We’re skeptical, but that’s what tests are for. Show us it works, and show us it makes the game better.
But don’t ram it down our throats because you think sabre is ugly. Sabre is beautiful, sabre is growing, sabre is evolving.
everything is done in the nearest and shortest, simplest and most direct way, as if the cut or thrust of the fencer is guided by a wire pulling on the point or edge of the sword, straight to the openings of the opponent. In this way, the fencer makes their attack in the nearest, shortest and most decisive way they possibly can, and this method will not have the flashy, exaggerated parries, or wide fencing actions which people burden and slow themselves with.
This is exactly how we teach Olympic sabre bladework 600 years later.
Teaching sabre fencing to children is very different to teaching it to adults.
Children have few innate skills. Their training program starts with the development of fundamental skills, which can be later combined into a repertoire of useful actions. Children’s sabre is primarily about fun, especially in the early years, to keep them motivated through the large number of repetitive drills which are necessary to build fundamental skills.
In our experience, children need to have careful and structured progression through the fundamentals to avoid developing bad habits or perverse incentives that may stunt their future development as sabreurs. In most sabre programs, children start at age 8 and develop their first competition-ready repertoire at around age 15. The typical age at which children begin competing against adults of equivalent experience successfully is around 17 or 18.
In contrast, adults know a lot. They already have large repertoires of both fundamental and advanced movement skills. They know conceptually how things fit together. Adults learn sabre by adapting skills they already know and fitting them into a new framework.
In summary, adults learn sabre quickly but imperfectly (see the 50-week course). Children learn sabre slowly but typically achieve greater mastery in the long run.
Children’s sabre training is roughly divided by age and ability. These can differ dramatically for each individual. The older the child when they start sabre, the more their training approaches that of adult training, because they will have more skills from other activities that they can draw on.
Typical progression for a child from movement to basics to a style
Ages 5-7 (“Grade 0”): Five is usually the earliest age for a child to start sabre. Depending on their physical size and coordination, they may start in private lessons with an instructor to build coordination. The child should join in the group classes for the next category at the earliest possible opportunity. The bulk of the training at this stage is for the child to be able to move on command and follow simple instructions. It is not important for the child to learn anything sabre specific at this age.
One lesson a week is usually sufficient at this age. Progression to the next grade is automatic with age.
Ages 8-9: (“Grade 1”): Most (but not all) top sabreurs start at this age. Children in Grade 1 play as a group with games, drills, and simplified sabre bouts. Emphasis is on fun and footwork fundamentals. The games are energetic and require the child to effect rapid changes in acceleration and direction. Distance games – hitting, dodging, catching – are useful. Many children at this age are adverse to hitting and lack combat instincts. This is normal and needs to be gradually developed and controlled through games.
Drills should be simple and designed to build fundamental footwork skills:
advance in engarde
retreat in defensive stance
retreat jump back
The blade is not important at this stage. Most sessions should only use foam sabres for bouting. Foam sabres are light and unwieldy. This is intentional, and forces the child to use footwork to win bouts.
Absence of blade actions simplifies refereeing. The child must be able to referee basic bouts, with hand signals, and learn to intuitively sense when one person has hit in time, that is, can sense the difference between an attack-counterattack separated by more than 170ms and one that is not.
One training session a week is fine at this Grade. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U11 grading competition where the child will be assessed for their ability to execute the above footwork actions and referee actions in the absence of blade-work. It typically takes around 6 months to 1 year of training to go from Grade 1 to Grade 2, and 2-3 grading competitions.
Ages 10-11: (“Grade 2”): At this age children are beginning to develop combat instincts. Games and drills are the same as Grade 1, and are run as a combined group. Grade 2 is separated for bouting in whites and either mini-sabres or full-sized sabres depending on physical size. As a general rule, the sabre must be light enough for the child to make hit and parry actions with the sabre without over-commitment.
During the bouting phase of the session, the child should learn how to referee with blade actions and incorporate footwork fundamentals with changes in timing for the 4m zone, i.e. the ‘basic combo’ or ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game:
Attack short with advance lunge (“rock”)
Fall short with check retreat/jump back (“paper”)
Attack long with advance, advance lunge (“scissors”)
One training session per week is fine at this Grade though two may be useful. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U13 grading competition where the child will be assessed for their ability to execute the above footwork actions and referee actions with blade-work. It typically takes around 1 year of training to go from Grade 2 to Grade 3, and 2-3 grading competitions.
Ages 12-13: (“Grade 3”): Serious sabre training begins in Grade 3. The games remain energetic but now incorporate additional and changing rules which the child needs to be aware of when playing – this prepares them for the tactical flexibility they will need when dealing with referees at competitions. The drills now incorporate both footwork and bladework in partner drills, for basic actions that are not reliant on execution within the cut-off time of 170ms. These include:
Direct and indirect attacks to head, chest and flank.
Parries 3, 4 and 5.
Fall short, takeovers and march.
Focus is on good technical execution, at the correct distance and with the right rhythm. Tactical awareness, which at this level is mostly about knowing how to set up specific actions and react to the opponent, is desirable but not crucial.
Bouting at Grade 3 is in whites only. Whites encourage the child to try good sabre actions such as parries and indirect attacks, rather than attempting to force actions such as remises through superior size and strength. This is especially important if the child is in a class where there are significant size disparities between individuals. Bigger children must be penalised for using strength to mask poor technical execution; smaller children should be encouraged to attempt correct but difficult actions, e.g. parries, which work against stronger opponents.
We typically recommend two training sessions per week at this Grade. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U15 grading competition. The child is assessed for good refereeing fundamentals and correct execution of the basic blade-work actions. Depending on the child, it can take anywhere from 1-3 years to progress from Grade 3 to Grade 4.
Ages 14-15: (“Grade 4”): Children at this age typically undergo significant physical changes which can adversely affect their coordination and distance. Games and drills are shared with Grade 3, but bouting is segregated and we train the children in electrics. Electrics are used to provide timing feedback: as the child grows bigger and attempts actions with greater strength and speed, the electrics ‘lock out’ actions which are too big or too wild, e.g. wind-ups during the attack or over-commitment in parries.
14 is generally the earliest age at which we encourage children to participate in external age-category competitions (U15, and in some situations, U17). Participation in younger age categories is discouraged, because the easiest way to win in those categories is to be bigger and/or to know one or two advanced techniques for which the opponent may not have a counter. These competitions encourage the child to focus on these techniques and discourages them from building fundamentals that are important for their future development.
Progression beyond Grade 4 can follow either the recreational or the competitive pathway. Most children participate in sabre recreationally and will automatically age out of Grade 4 into adult recreational bouting. This is fine and we have many alumni of the children classes who continue to fence sabre recreationally as adults: within the club, at university, and in clubs here and overseas.
A small proportion of children pursue the competitive pathway and seek entry into the cadets. Progression into the cadets requires the child to have completed the full adult course (50 weeks) and passed the grading and bouting requirements. The adult course provides the child with the context for competitive sabre and exposure to the full repertoire of sabre actions. This repertoire is later used as a base from which to select specific skills to create the child’s individual move set, or style, as a specialist sabreur in the cadets squad.
Two training sessions per week minimum is required to progress into the cadets, and most children who successfully progress have three or four training sessions.
Ages 16+: (“Cadets”): Cadets train in squads, organised into teams of 3-4 similarly-skilled individuals for both training and external competitions. Each individual cadet is coached on their unique style, and exposed to many different opponents to test and hone their move set. Actions may be added or removed from their repertoire by the cadet on a regular basis, especially in the early days, in consultation with their coach. The cadet is expected to ultimately settle into a final style after 1 or 2 years.
Two training sessions per week minimum is required to maintain membership in the cadets, though success is rare without three or more training sessions per week. Most, but not all, cadets will also undertake 1:1 private lessons with a coach during this phase of their training to further work on their individual style. All cadets participate in external competitions, starting with local state competitions and progressing to age-category and open A-grade internationals depending on ability and commitment.
Sydney Sabre teaches an austere style of sabre by international standards which is heavily influenced by the Korean and German training programs due to the similarities between the competitive environment for those teams and sabreurs in Australia posed by being geographically distant from the global centres of sabre fencing.
European and American sabreurs are typically able to train 2-3 times per day, 5-6 days per week with many local A-grade competitions. This is not possible for virtually all sabreurs in Australia. The Koreans share our geographic isolation, to some degree, and the Germans are restricted to training only a single session, 5 days per week by academic commitments.
We have adapted their styles into our own. The style emphasizes small repertoires of simple actions backed up by protective reactive moves, and eschews the complex 2nd and 3rd intention actions that are the hallmark of European styles such as the Italians or the Hungarians.