Fencing – teaching the cut and thrust of a new sport

By Patrick Dight – Coach with Munster Blades Fencing Club

The sport of fencing is one of the original Modern Olympic disciplines and has been practiced in Ireland since 1906. The national governing body Fencing Ireland (Pionsóireacht Éireann) operate an Interschool fencing programme to foster collaboration and competition between schools. 

The objective of the sport is to hit your opponent with your sword (a foil, epee or sabre) while at the same time not allowing them to hit you. It’s been described as a physical game of chess, played at lightning speed.

So why offer fencing lessons in schools?

Sport Ireland research has identified that by the end of year two in secondary schools there is a large gender gap in sports participation. The disparity is overwhelmingly caused by girls dropping out from team sport. Providing a variety of sporting activities maximises sports participation within a school. 

Individuals who don’t enjoy the pressure of team sports can flourish in an individual setting and studies show females are less likely to drop out from individual sports. Many studies have demonstrated the link between being physically active and higher levels of wellbeing in adolescents, and fencing can be part of a school wide wellbeing syllabus in Junior Cycle.

Fencing is not about strength, it’s a highly technical challenge where speed and point control determine success, so boys and girls can learn and compete together on a level playing field (or in this case the fencing piste). 

  Success is determined less by physical characteristics and more by mental application and technical accuracy, so it can suit students who have not previously shown an interest in sport. Unlike traditional sports no body contact is allowed, and this is a key distinction which contributes towards safety and making the sport attractive to students.

Group Based Learning 

Fencing is taught in classes of up to 25 students, with pairs working together on specific technical exercises as demonstrated by the coach. There is a high degree of problem solving as fencers must determine the optimal angle and timing of defensive and offensive actions. 

Lessons incorporate footwork drills and games at the start both to warm up and build on the fundamental skills of movement in fencing. Then each lesson will focus on a different technical skill such as how to hold the weapon and direct the point; a range of defensive parries for different circumstances, simple direct attacks and more complex indirect attacks, preparations of attack, ‘pres de fer’ actions (enveloping the opponent’s blade) or discussions on tactics and how to understand and exploit an opponent’s defense.

When sparring – which is introduced at the end of the first lesson – it is very much an individual sport, with the fencer attempting to find a way to land a hit (touché) whilst not leaving any openings. Strict rules of etiquette are followed which teach discipline and keep fencers safe.

Benefits to Fencers

Fencing builds self-confidence and mental resilience and it’s a great antidote to stress. When a fencer squares off against an opponent there is nothing else to focus on except the person in front who is holding a weapon and trying to stab you!

Fine technical skills such as point control and blade technique are developed but timing and controlling distance are equally important and this requires significant physical effort through footwork to attain good competitive results.

The challenge of sparring with your classmates creates great positive energy and once the fundamental skills are learned in the first few lessons this competition increasingly becomes a mental challenge as fencers attempt to predict and counter their opponents’ moves. 

How can a school provide fencing lessons?

Fencing is taught by professional fencing coaches who are overseen by Fencing Ireland. 

There is a significant quantity of equipment that must be brought to the school and since we are putting steel swords in children’s hands – albeit sporting weapons with no sharp edges – safety is paramount and professional instruction is a must.

A fencing coach will meet with the school and discuss the school’s objectives for fencing. These range from taster lessons as part of a school’s active week, to a 10 week course that will culminate with a competition using electric equipment. 

Fencing points
• Safer than traditional sports
• Tactics and technical accuracy is more important than strength or size
• Group based learning and problem solving
• Boys and girls can learn and compete together
• Builds self-confidence and mental resilience
• Good for stress, wellness and increased sports participation

It takes at least 5 hours tuition to acquire a range of attack and defense options and from there the game becomes increasingly more tactical. Lesson length and frequency can be tailored to match the timetable. 

Schools that offer fencing to all their students join the Irish Interschool Fencing Programme, which brings participating schools together to collaborate and compete and is facilitated by the fencing coach.

There are coaches available in the Dublin area, South Munster and North Munster / the Midlands. See the Interschool menu on the Fencing Ireland website (www.irishfencing.net) for further information. Fencing Ireland also provides training courses for coaches so schools may grow their own teaching resources should they wish to.