Why Fencers Yell (and Why People Should Stop Being Whiny Babies About It)

Originally posted on Tim Morehouse’s Fencing University. Re-posted on thefencingcoach.com with Tim’s permission

“There’s a fairly strong inverse correlation between people who don’t like yelling and fencing skill.”

-Nick Johnson

Fencing has a unique dichotomy that distinguishes itself from other Olympic sports: on the one hand, it’s rooted in the values of sportsmanship and respect it shares with other sports; yet, on the other hand, it’s a combat sport that isn’t far removed from an era in which the objective was to draw blood and/or kill your opponent.

In the most intense and exhilarating bouts, there are only but a few moments between the nail-biting denouement to when the competitors are ordered to remove their masks, return to their en garde lines, render a salute, and shake hands. The rules of fencing are codified in ways that force us to stay within the crossroads of civility and combat. When we leave the crossroads and traverse that thin line into barbarity, we’re met with cards of varying penance.

Throughout a bout, our coaches instruct us to strategize our plans of attack with a clear mind, plotting the next touch with the foresight of Kasparov, and ending the action in that small window with the same brutal assuredness of a Mike Tyson uppercut. Conversely, a fencer who plots his next touch with the brain of Michael Tyson and the brutality of Kasparov is likely to end up with a touch against. Put simply, a bout cannot be won unless a fencer can wear the hats of a strategist and a warrior, able to switch between both in the blink of an eye.

Among elite fencers, there is an inherent understanding and reverence of the fencer’s duality and his/her temporary traversals into a warrior’s mindset. The flamboyant theatrics, the hard hits, the erroneous protests, and the celebratory yells are almost always forgiven immediately following the salute, as they are able to find mutual respect for their opponent in the fervor of a bout.

Despite the success of the fencers who embrace the traversal into the crossroads, many members of the fencing community maintain an irrational expectation for others to veer away from it, bemoaning those who conduct themselves in any manner but the milquetoast vision of an athlete they gleaned from a Nick Evangelista book.

“Gee golly willickers, I can’t believe all the yelling!” They say.

“How rude and unsportsmanlike! Back in my day we couldn’t take selfies and we needed a dark room to develop our photos!” They say.

“Mommy, please change my diaper!” They say, at the tender age of 25.

Yelling is, and always will be a part of our sport, a means to assert confidence, energy, and power, and release tension throughout a bout. To understand the psyche and rationale behind yelling, I interviewed Olympians Ivan Lee (US Men’s Sabre), Dan Kellner (US Men’s Foil) Tim Morehouse (US Men’s Sabre), and Olympic hopeful Eli Dershwitz (US Men’s Sabre).

The underlying consensus among our present and future Olympians was this:

  1. Yelling is okay and within the bounds of sportsmanship and the rulebook
  2. It’s necessary (in certain cases, Lee opined)
  3. It’s about the energy and passion it delivers to the piste
  4. There reaches a certain point where it becomes excessive and obnoxious

“When I fenced, my coach, Simon Gershon, always told his students to, ‘Give voice’ or ‘Voice’ with our touches, meaning that we should yell. I still tell my fencers the same thing,” Kellner said. “Every bout, especially a direct elimination (DE) is a metaphorical fight for your life. You win, or you go home. Why wouldn’t you give it everything you have?”

Ivan Lee, an Olympian on the 2004 U.S. Men’s Sabre Squad agreed. “Yelling in fencing is absolutely okay. Nothing wrong with it. Fencers yell for different reasons. Some yell because they’re genuinely pumped for competition…others yell in an attempt to convince the referee they won the touch.”

Olympic hopeful Eli Dershwitz agreed, citing the influence of yelling on referees and judgment. “Yelling convinces the referee you believe it’s your touch, and anyone who says it doesn’t has no idea what high level fencing is like. As we continue our Olympic qualification cycle, the stakes are high, the tensions are higher, and it should be an acceptable way to inject passion into our sport.” Dershwitz added that yelling wasn’t “…for the old-fashioned classical fencing supporters who continue to hold the sport back.”

Olympic Silver Medalist Tim Morehouse, no stranger to yelling also saw yelling as a necessity in the bout. “When coaching, I always feel like it’s important to get a student to yell when they land a touch. It shows me they are not self-conscious when fencing. Similar to how a martial artist or a Tennis player makes an odd noise when they hit the ball, yelling in fencing gives you a  bit more power or full release when you are striking.”

So how much yelling is too much yelling? “Fencers who yell during every sequence for the sake of it don’t come across as properly educated in the sport, and are very annoying to watch. As a fencer, I made it a point to only yell when I was really sure the touch was mine. Of course, I had my own style, but it was very strategic,” added Lee.

Despite its social acceptance among most fencers, the minority who express their whiney lamentations over yelling remain vocal, armed with their clubs at the ready to continue their assault on the dead horse they created. 

“I think it’s a generational shift that’s going to take some time,” Kellner said. “People hated when women’s tennis players started yelling; now it’s normal. Bat flips and other celebrations in baseball are becoming more common place.”

Kellner concluded: “People have an idea in their head of what fencing “should” be, and when the reality is different, they get offended. Our sport may have started off as gentlemanly, and of the royal court, and we keep some of the remnants with the saluting and hand-shaking, but today fencing is a combat sport, emphasis on combat and sport.”

Indeed, people have an idea of what fencing “should be,” but like Lincoln Chaffee’s vision of what America “should be,” no one really listens or cares. For those who continue to express their gripes about yelling, I offer the following link to the Amazon Baby Registry so we can throw you a diaper and a pacifier.

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