Take it like a man…

Last week the Fencing Coach wrote a great article on his blog about women in fencing: When the mask is on–Women in Fencing

After reading it I felt empowered and happy to be contributing to this sport as both a Veteran and a female fencer. As the Fencing Coach said: “For every sport or community that is quick to dismiss the participation of women, we need it in fencing, and it is critical to both our individual success and the success of the sport as a whole. The journey of fencing is for everyone, and what a joy it is to take it together.” I see my role at the club as a teacher and mentor, giving advice to fencers of both genders and helping them learn from my experience as a competitor. Both genders have strengths; fencing together benefits both sides. Practicing with male fencers helps me develop stamina and strength; fencing me helps them learn how to outwit the tactical slyness of the older fencer and the danger of rushing an attack.

These thoughts make what happened to me during a Mixed event all the more interesting and presents a different side to having men and women compete in the same events. Some years ago, while competing at a tournament, I was “taught a lesson” by a male fencer. I had eliminated his protege from the competition and made the mistake of taking an 8 to 1 lead over him during our DE. After the break he attacked me like a crazy man, hitting me so hard his blade would bend out of place at strange angles. By the time he tied up the score 8 to 8 I had already asked the referee to ask him to stop hitting me so hard at least three times. The referee just shrugged his shoulders and said it was part of the game. I had to endure seven more hits before it was finally over. I had been beaten.

There are other times this has happened to me and there may unfortunately be others in my fencing future.

But these are not isolated incidents. They happen far too frequently all over the country. Female fencers are physically abused while other people watch and no one does anything about it. If we say anything, then we are scorned and told we are not good enough to play with the boys. We have to “take it like men” or be cast aside as weak and unworthy. Imagine if you had to encounter your attacker over and over again on strip when you know that he will resort to those same tactics if you dare do well against him. We receive the message loud and clear: Stay in your place and lose like a nice little girl or get the crap beaten out of you.

I understand that in our sport hard hits happen. I have myself accidentally hit too hard when I misjudged the distance or when my opponent did something unexpected. But this was excessive. It is damaging not only physically, but mentally. I didn’t want to fence the next Mixed event because I was too scared to join in when I knew it could happen again.

Should Mixed events be eliminated? No. Should we allow women to make complaints against men every time they get hit a little too hard? No. But we need a community who supports every fencer–male and female– and makes an effort to protect them from this kind of attack. You can tell when the hit is excessive, both from the sound and the reaction of the fencer who got hit. Step up and ask the referee to warn the attacker. Stop pretending there’s no problem. Stop expecting someone else to take care of it. Make sure every member of your club understands what an appropriate level of intensity is and to refrain from the impulse of using repeated brute force to intimidate their opponents, be they MALE or FEMALE.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Has this ever happened to you? If you don’t want to make a public comment on this page, you can send me an email at coachkate@cuttingedgefencing.com Thank you for reading this.

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14 thoughts on “Take it like a man…

  1. Amen! I don’t compete much saber for just said reason. However, as a foilist, during the ‘flick’ period, I came off strip with my back looking like I had just come out of slavery. Excessive force is something the referee should be monitoring. However, in saber, that is the greyish line of all. I tell my saber students the best ‘revenge’ against someone who insists on hitting too hard is to hit so lightly, they don’t know they’ve been hit and keep going after the ref calls halt. The mental disintegration as they can’t understand why the ref’s called hold is wonderful to behold.

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  2. I agree there are unnecessarily brutal touches that are made for purposes of intimidation, and I’m confident that good referees can distinguish them from hits with a reasonable level of force. It’s going to take a point of emphasis (not necessarily a rule change) from USFA or FOC to get this consistently (or even occasionally) red carded.

    We get these kind of directives in hockey every season, and other sports have their points of emphasis too. A fencing one might read like this:

    “Referees are instructed to apply the standards of rule t.87.2 strictly and consistently. Touches achieved with unnecessary force or with perceived intent to intimidate the opponent should be annulled (t.103) and the offending fencer penalized by a Red Card (penalty touch).”

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  3. This is exactly why I’m in PT – I don’t want to quit fencing, PT is helping, but I’m worried that when I compete again, I’ll be hurt again.

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    1. Wow. Sorry to hear that someone hurt you so badly you can’t fence for a while. I understand why you would feel reluctant to compete again. Please stay in touch and let me know if/when you decide to try again.

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  4. This is not a concept I look forward to as I increase my tactical knowledge and move up into the more competitive arena.
    My personal issue and question here would be “do I HAVE to take it?”
    Since this hasn’t come up for me yet (your experience this weekend highlighted it) or my daughter, also a fellow fencer, I hadn’t really had the knowledge to question something like this. Kids get wild on the strip but not typically in an intentionally, brutal, violent manner.
    Are there protocols in place to give the fencer who is taking the brunt any power to fight for themselves besides trying to convince a ref that it is happening? Or is it just to forfeit the current bout?
    I see both sides in that when you fence, you open yourself up to taking a few blows and subsequent bruising. BUT to be under the FORCE of another fencer, regardless of gender, is completely disrespectful of the sport and to the opponent. To me, no win, or loss, is worth the beating OR the emotional aftermath. For me, personally, the value of the bout then becomes completely void at that point.
    And as you briefly touched on, there are others watching you. Kids you coach are watching. Other vets are watching. How do you react to something like that while they are watching?
    I don’t claim to have a definitive answer but it is important to me because my daughter watches me and looks to me to learn how to stand up and say something, to DO something, to fight for her integrity and her own well-being – even if that means you step away immediately and refuse to bout that person again.

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  5. Hey, thanks for writing this perspective. as a follow up to the other article “When the Mask is on”, this is an interesting response. as a male fencer, though not one of any particularly high skill level, I would never have resorted to such tactics, but I, too, have fallen victim to larger “bullies”, who know that I’m not that advanced, and instead of using their skill to defeat me, they use intimidation and force. This is especially apparent when I do get a few single lighters because of my distance and point control. The brute force sort of turned me away from competition. It wasn’t common, though, but it did happen enough to be bothersome (and painful!).

    Now , I can’t speak to their exact reasoning for doing such, but I’m sure we’ve been in a similar boat. It’s a tactic. Intimidation is definitely part of a combat sport. Excessive force can happen, and while it’s physically painful, I like to think that if I got better, I’ll be able to outwit the brute force opponents, or maybe do some better manoeuvering with my footwork to at least decrease the force with which I’m hit.

    I don’t know how I feel about this… on one hand, it’s part of a combat sport, and so contact and pain are part of the game. At the same time, resorting to pure intimidation and sheer, brute force is not in the spirit of how the game was created–if I wanted to do that I’d go to the parking lot and play Uncle. I think it’s a matter of attitude. People need to understand and fence in the spirit of fencing. The art and elegance of the game need to be taken into account. Some people appreciate that; others, well, they just want to win and will do so at any cost, including going against the spirit of fencing itself. What’s worse, those people likely won’t care about how they hurt you, and will walk home all smiles with their trophy. Complaining will just get you called a sore loser or weak or something, which doesn’t help at all…

    all I can do is hope that those people will change their attitudes about facing any opponent, and fence more like fencers and less like angry bull(ies)….

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  6. I used to enjoy turning their aggression against them & beating them. Most of those types were easily readable, so I could anticipate their attacks. Of course, that was in epee.

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  7. I have… a few disjointed thoughts in response to this. I am going to post them even though I am not sure I have a conclusion. (for context I am a B rated male epee fencer)

    1) There is a woman who used to fence in my division who was at the time a B rank (At the time I was a U) who had the tactic of the first touch in every bout against a man she would get a groin shot. She would coach other female fencers to do this because it would make men ‘cautious’, which is true, it did make people cautious. I obviously did not appreciate her tactic (especially because at the time she could have easily beaten me without it), however I am not at all sure it should be against the rules… Hit on target get a touch…

    2) There is a C ranked male epeeist who I fence periodically who is an NCAA football player with he conditioning and body one would expect. Most of his attacks are fleches and he intentionally jostles (we jokingly call it body slamming), he is red carded at least twice most competitions (for jostling) and after a 15 touch bout with him, win or lose, I am always hurt in some way (usually large bruises or broken skin) and he has repeatedly damaged my uniform. I very much enjoy fencing him an appreciate the tactical challenge of fencing someone who even with the correct leverage always win strength contests.

    3) If you appeal to the referee to do something and you disagree with their ruling (which is what the lack of action was) you are supposed to appeal to the bout committee, as the fencer if you believe a referee is incorrect about a rule I believe it is your responsibility to appeal or else accept the ruling. (I am referring to the unnecessary force rule thought I do not know chapter and verse off the top of my head).

    So… to try to drag together some kind of conclusion… I think if anyone believes unnecessary force has been used against them and the ref did not card for it they should say something to the ref and possibly appeal. But equally I think there is nothing wrong with big strong people fencing like big strong people even if it causes injuries. I also think that people should not intentionally injure their opponent and yet I do not think there should be too strict of enforcement of this for fear of punishing those who accidentally injure others.

    Hope you recover well.

    Jay

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  8. Kate: this is also an issue in youth fencing, and it should be incumbent on the ref to keep things in hand. I watched a Y14 match many years ago (in MS, the size and maturity differences between competitors can be staggering!) where a much larger fencer was systematically pulling distance or parrying, and then delivering a “Hammer of Thor” overhand cut to the shoulder, delivered from behind his back. After the 2nd or 3rd such hit, the ref pulled a yellow card and said to the bigger fencer “No need to cut him in half.” The behavior modified, but the damage was done. The smaller fencer was cringing at nearly every action and was unable to fence effectively.

    I’ve also watched as men try to intimidate women saber fencers with hard hits. In one club, the ladies banded together to refuse to fence certain folks with a heavy hand. Some guys got the message, some didn’t.

    At the club level, this has to have leadership from the coaching staff–both in discouraging this kind of fencing, and helping folks learn how to deal with and counter it. Not all coaches cover themselves in glory in this area.

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  9. I think it is important to distinguish what you are dealing with. Some hard hitters are decent people who are hard hitters because of incompetent coaching. They may respond to “lighten up – you are actually injuring people.” But there are people in every sport who enjoy injuring their opponents because they are sadists. These will never respond to any rational approach, and only will respect opponents who inflict greater and more painful violence on them. These psychopaths do not belong in this sport.

    But there is a greater fault here. The referees who do not impose the graduated penalties in all four groups of the penalty chart bear direct, personal responsibility.

    The coaches who are club owners and who allow psychopaths to fence in their clubs bear direct, personal responsibility. The coaches who are just coaches bear direct personal responsibility. They are also exposing themselves to significant personal liability if their fencer injures someone. If you fence that way in my Salle, I tell you that it is not permitted. If you don’t listen, I escort you out the door and tell you not to ever come back.

    The clubs themselves bear direct responsibility. If you are in a club or learn from a coach who permits this type of conduct, warn them and then vote with your feet.

    Take your complaints about referee incompetence up the chain, all the way to the FOC if necessary. Hold people accountable. The ultimate of this is the loser who punches his opponent after the bout (yes, it happens, and if someone does that, do not call the referee or the bout committee, call the police, tell them you have been assaulted, and file charges). If you say nothing, you become complicit in ruining the sport not only for yourself, but also for others.

    No fencer should ever have to fear physical injury as a routine, predictable part of our sport. We are a combat sport, but we stopped being a killing combat sport when the edges and point lost their sharp quality. No referee should ever allow a bout to be anything other than a frank, fair, honest contest, and brutality is neither frank, nor fair, nor honest.

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  10. As noted by someone upstream, in Y14, there can be some big disparities between fencer in terms of size/weight/strength, and these differences can be amplified in mixed bouting or competition.

    My relatively small teen daughter — despite being rated, in the top 15 on the NRPS list for her age group, and a multiple NAC medal winner — absolutely prefers to fence women…regardless of their age. I don’t blame her either, nor do I push her to enter mixed tournaments if no single-sex events are available.

    Not so much because she has been the target of extreme physicality on the strip (well, maybe once, very early on, by a beginner who didn’t really know another way…and yes, he was carded for excessive force at that tournament) but more because male fencers aren’t really representative of her competitors at the national level — in their strength or size, but more importantly (and of course I’m speaking generally here), in their style. I’ve seen elite level women fence in person a few times and it does not resemble in the slightest what some men and teen boys do on the strip.

    Like the blog, btw.

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  11. I had the opportunity to observe an Epee DE in a mixed event. Both fencers were teens, one was a young lady who was petite and all of 90 pounds, which included her massive ponytail. The other was a young man, about 60 pounds more and a head taller than the young lady and it was obvious he worked out with weights. He was behind in touches and suddenly it must have occurred to him to try to “muscle” his way through the rest of the bout. He was extremely physical and did knock the young lady around. He won the bout 15-14. When the bout was finished, he proceeded to yell in response to his victory – his face was directly across from the young lady’s mask/face. After many more over-enthusiastic yells, it was time to shake hands with the young lady. Instead of a swift hand shake, the young lady gripped his hand and hung on – she proceeded to tell him the following: “I fenced as well as you – you need to show respect to other fencers” – Wow!!!!!! The young man was in shock – young lady walked across the venue and he followed her (I don’t know if they knew each other) with his arms spread open as if to say “What?????” – she turned and said again “Show some respect” and went to her fencing bag. This got me thinking – perhaps that’s all that’s needed – showing some respect – women vs men, older vs younger, skilled fencer vs not so skilled. At the end of the day, everyone wants to have fun and compete – treating others as you would want to be treated and showing respect for the other fencer(s) regardless of gender or skill level would benefit everyone at a tournament.

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