The modern sport of fencing: Is it right for you?
Fencing has a lot of misconceptions associated with it. The number of times that someone has brought up Zorro when they find out I fence is too many to count. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Swordfighting is in mainstream culture - it’s in movies, tv shows, and plays. However, the sport of modern fencing is less familiar to many than its Hollywood counterpart, and is as different from Zorro as Mad Max is from Formula One.
This article is an attempt to clearly lay out what fencing is and isn’t as a sport in the modern Olympics. Through this article, we’ll cover what makes fencing - well, fencing - why we love it, and why you might or might not. Throughout, we will draw analogies with other, more common sports in America to give you a sense of the larger picture of the sport. After reading this article, you should have a better understanding of the modern sport of fencing, as well as what it’s like when done at a high level.
What is fencing?
Despite having roots based in swordsmanship, fencing is a modern Olympic sport that has grown from its historical genesis. Fencing takes place between two competitors, and is largely based on striking your opponent with a blunt weapon while avoiding being hit yourself. There is a significant breadth of rules that govern when and how hitting an opponent scores a point that varies between the three weapons: Foil, Sabre, and Épée. This creates unique strategies for each weapon and little crossover of style between the three disciplines.
What makes fencing unique from other sports?
Below we will lay out the qualities of high-level fencing that, together, make it exciting and different from many other sports.
Fencing is a sprint, not a marathon. Fencing demands explosive acceleration and even long individual touches and exchanges do not usually last longer than 30 seconds. Being able to maintain complete focus during short periods of explosive movement is key to success.
Additionally, in terms of the length of the events, the most fencing time you can have for a bout is 10 minutes, assuming that the bout goes to full time. Those 10 minutes are broken up by two 1 minute breaks. Compare this to an Olympic triathlon, where competitors average about 3 hours without any breaks.
Topline: Fencing requires shorts bursts of explosive acceleration.
Fencing has a long traditional history as an Olympic sport. It was one of only nine sports to be featured in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Fencing is as deep-seated in the Olympic tradition as is wrestling or gymnastics. As young fencers begin to fence and become more competitive, the Olympics is the final dream of each young competitive fencer; it’s the highest level of achievement in the sport.
Topline: Fencing has a seasoned history as one of the original nine sports in the modern Olympics.
Your success or failure in fencing will depend on your ability to overcome your opponent both physically and mentally. The quality of your decisions always depends on what your opponent is doing, and so being a good fencer means being extremely observant and good at recognizing patterns in your opponent’s tactics. This is made even more difficult because how your opponent responds to you will also depend on what you’ve been doing earlier in the match (as both fencers are always trying to adjust to the other’s style and strategy). This is the reason that fencing is often called “physical chess.” It is, at times, a deep mental battle between two fencers.
With this said, success in fencing requires immense mental fortitude because being even a little off your game mentally (whether because of nerves or lack of focus) can affect your ability to adjust to the current state of the match and have a huge negative impact on your performance.
Topline: Fencing is ‘physical chess’ and having a strong mind and mental fortitude is very important.
Inclusive and friendly
Fencing is often referred to as a “niche sport,” because it is popular among a relatively small, but passionate community. This gives it some unique advantages. Most people in the community are eager for fencing to grow and to share their love for the sport, so are very welcoming of newcomers. Also, because of the size of the community, it’s not uncommon to start recognizing many familiar faces after attending only a few competitions. As a result, most fencers and coaches are quite happy to help each other out, whether it be sharing tips or lending equipment.
Topline: The fencing community is very friendly and welcoming, towards newcomers and veterans of the sport alike.
Not a pure combat sport
While fencing shares many qualities with martial arts, the sport is not about who can hit the hardest or who can take a punch. Strategy in fencing is more important than strength. It’s also one of the safest sports in the world. The equipment is set to strict safety regulations. Masks must pass ‘punch’ tests to ensure they will protect athletes from injuries, and at the international level, the jackets have kevlar woven into them. Fewer injuries occur in fencing than in table tennis or badminton, according to one study. However, this doesn’t mean you won’t get bruised every once in awhile, so be aware that while you won’t get injured very often, you might get poked a few times.
Topline: Despite hitting each other with swords, fencing has one of the lowest injury rates among Olympic Sports.
This one is obvious but it’s worth saying. There are never more than two fencers on the strip, so success is always about one fencer beating another. And while you also represent your coach, club and your country, it’s still only you that takes home the medal.
Even during team events, failure and success rest entirely on the shoulders of the sole athlete who is fencing (the format for fencing team events is best described as a relay race, sort of like in swimming).
If you’re individually minded, this might work for you. It is one of fencing’s greatest attributes to a lot of fencers. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that you will undertake the journey as an individual.
Topline: Your success or failure depends on you.
In most films, sword fighters clash their weapons together over and over. But unlike in the movies, fencing touches are usually very quick and efficient. A fencer’s blade will rarely touch his opponent’s more than two or three times before a hit is scored.
Additionally, fencing is a modern sport that uses modern equipment and technology that is distinct from the various practices that gave birth to it. You won’t find dueling or horses anywhere near a fencing piste.
Topline: Fencing is a modern sport that is distinct from the movies or from dueling traditions.
Elite College Sport
Fencing is a sport with a very intense college scene. While in some other sports, the NCAA amateur rules prevent the highest level of play in college (as athletes that are paid for the sport are not allowed to compete in the NCAA), the lack of a true professional scene in fencing means that the absolute highest level of competition showcases itself at the NCAA college championships.
Additionally, unlike some sports, the best fencers in the country will go to top universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and Northwestern. These schools are very strong in competition at the NCAAs - 3 out of the last 5 team championships were won by Ivy League schools. If you’re interesting in learning more about NCAA fencing, check out our complete guide to NCAA fencing just below.
Topline: Fencing is a top sport among some of the best universities in the United States.
The challenges of fencing
Here, we lay out some of the challenges of fencing.
Steep Learning Curve
Fencing is harder to pick up and start doing than many other sports. While you can pick up a ball and (more or less) start shooting baskets, learning the basic movements required to fence against another beginner can take a lot of practice.
Additionally, the rules of fencing, while not necessarily more complicated than other sports, must be learned in detail before it is clear how you score touches.
Topline: Fencing takes a good deal of practice to get into and actually start fencing
Fencing can cost significant amounts of money to get into. Many clubs will be able to offer you equipment as you’re starting out, but as you get more serious, you’ll need your own equipment. A full set of fencing gear will cost you hundreds of dollars, at the least. This equipment does not last that long, and you’ll find yourself replacing it pretty frequently.
Coaching fees are also very expensive: since fencing is such an individual sport, to get better faster you need to work with a coach one on one on a fairly regular basis. This adds up over time, much more than group classes can.
Additionally, since fencing is a less common sport in the US, often there isn’t a strong local tournament scene. This means you’ll have to travel to compete to continue to improve.
Topline: Fencing demands pricey equipment, coaching fees and travel
Any long time fencer will tell you that they’ve had times when they disagreed with what a referee has called, whether in their own bouts or others. This is part of the sport. While there are clear rules, each time you fence, you must be prepared to adjust to how those rules are being implemented in your match. Fencing referees have much more power to determine the outcome of the match than in many other sports. And these referees do not all interpret the rules in the same way. So, as a fencer you have to be willing to adapt to your referee and accept that it’s not always going to be as clear cut as other sports (e.g. the ball is in the basket, the football is in the end-zone, etc).
This is not to say that most referees, especially at national and international levels, do not do an excellent job (the key characteristic of high-level referees is their consistency), but it's extremely important to keep in mind that even the best referees are human, and their ability to see and determine what is happening is a major factor in any match.
Topline: Fencing requires a referee to correctly interpret which athlete has scored, a requirement that often leads to immense subjectivity in the sport.
We hope this clarifies some of the unique aspects of the sport for those that are just getting into it, or for those that are merely interested but aren’t sure if it’s right for them. Here’s a quick recap of the most important topics we covered:
Fencing is for you if you:
- Enjoy sports that require short bursts of strength and speed
- Like mental challenges or games
- Harbor hopes of competing in college or the Olympics
- Prefer that your success is defined only by you
- Are looking for a community that is as friendly as it is competitive
- Want to ‘fight’ your opponent without much risk of injury
- Don’t mind that the sport can be a little subjective
- Are willing to invest a good amount of time and resources to improve