“When you are not practicing, remember, somewhere someone is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win.”
On paper, the USA Fencing season begins with the October NAC and culminates with the mega-event that is Summer Nationals in July.
The three-month window in between might well be the amplest opportunity for the refinement of actions, cardiovascular conditioning, and a chance to reset goals for the upcoming season. But to treat this window as a prolonged break is a recipe for disaster in the upcoming season.
Too often, I see parents pull their kids out of the club for the entirety of summer. Perhaps, for the casual/recreational fencer, this is okay. Maybe they want to go to sleepaway camp, or, understandably, the parents want to vacation somewhere. Rest and relaxation are natural goals for any fencer at any level, even the most hardcore competitors. The most elite clubs will shut down operations, often in August to allow both the coaches and fencers to recharge.
But to sacrifice a whole summer during the mythical fencing offseason is to lose an entire quarter of a year that the world’s best fencers are using to improve and prepare for the next year. There is no linear, right or wrong way to use the offseason, but I’ve outlined some suggestions below.
Things to do in the “Offseason”:
- Seek out Summer Camps- These are wonderful opportunities for your athletes to be exposed to high level coaching outside their own club and receive different ideas and schema they can adapt in their fencing. When held at an NCAA Fencing Program, the camps also allow for the coaches to unofficially scout talent and begin building relationships with prospective athletes. They are a wonderful use of time and are a must. And most importantly, your athletes will make new friends!In fact, two of my groomsmen were fellow UPenn Fencing Camp campers.
- Get Svelte/Swole/Sick Gains- Particularly in the Cadet years, I’m always amazed to see kids who enter the offseason all gangly and gawky and then show up at the Fall NAC’s looking like The Incredible Hulk. When a fencer is no longer constrained their academic demands, enlisting a personal trainer (or spending some time in the weight room in general) is a great way to get a leg up on their competition. Improving cardiovascular endurance is a must, and while rest is of course important, you want to hit the Fall season in optimal shape.
- Take Lessons- As a championship event, Summer Nationals is the ultimate proving ground for American Fencing. Nationals will also provide both the athlete and coach with a gauge of what’s working, what needs improvement, and what needs to be thrown out with the baby and the bathwater. The post Summer Nationals period is critical for working with your coach to begin making changes prior to the upcoming season so that when the first NAC’s happen, there is no “ramp-up” period, so to speak, but your coach’s refinements are implemented and ready to go. And to be a little more direct: leaving your coach’s lesson schedule for an entire summer will not provide a guarantee they’ll be able to accommodate you upon return, especially if there’s a waiting list on a busy schedule.
- Drill, and Focus on the Finer Details- If classes at your club are suspended, find some drill partners who will be willing to come in and work with you. Focus on the finer details and hone in on technicality. Tighten your parries and your oppositional bladework. Work on footwork together and provide mutual feedback with a focus on constructive criticism and attention to detail. If you want ideas for some drilling inspiration, check out the FencingNuts Instagram page.
- Watch Tape- In my current role, I spend 10-15+ hours per week watching tape. It’s a great way to study our opponents, take notes on them, and develop strategies that could assist in their defeat. Watching tape of yourself is a good way to get a bird’s eye view of some of your follies you might be unaware of in the heat of a bout. Watching tape of high-level international fencing might inspire ideas and creativity. Watching tape of your opponents is a good way to build a tactical plan for them for the next time you meet on the piste. Invest time in the offseason to watch YouTube and study (CyrusOfChaos, Fencing Vision, FIE Official YouTube are musts).
Remember, taking a little break to physically and mentally recharge is only human. Taking off 25% of the year away from the club is all but a guarantee your next season will result in a slow ramp-up and imminent defeat while you get the rust off. Be prepared, be ready, and be in shape, because if you’re not, your opponents will be.