When I was a freshman in college, I decided to pledge a fraternity. When I look back on my pledge process 18 years later, I think to myself: “what the hell was I doing?” A Cliff Note’s summary of my ZBT Brandeis experience included:
- A hell week in which my pledge class was covered head to toe in food, condiments, egg, peanut butter and fluffer nutter in our armpits, and other nasty things. We were prohibited from changing clothes, showering, entering our dorms, or even interacting with anyone that was not a member of the fraternity.
- Drinking a concoction known as “Fratopia” that included blended chewing tobacco, leftover Chinese food, and whatever other stuff they could find in the fridge of the frathouse.
- Summoned at the whim of the “brothers” to lineups in which we were forced to drop what we were doing, get down to the frathouse, and be subjected to whatever humiliation the “brothers” had on the agenda for that night.
- They even made us eat Boston Market, which was the worst sin of them all.
During that process, there were some “brothers” who I became friends with organically, and others who reveled in the act of hazing just a little bit too much and took on the role too seriously like a Zimbardo Stanford prison guard.
The ones I became friends with I remain close with to this day. The others, I struggled to reconcile the “brother” from the guy who hazed me in a basement as a rite of passage to join his cult.
Joining a frat made me hyperconscious of the forced humility, groveling, and subservience that many hierarchical systems force you to subject yourself to in order to move up a food chain.
This is far different from the ideals of a meritocracy, where perhaps a “brother” is inducted into the fraternity due to good community stewardship, academic or extracurricular achievements, or demonstrated leadership, perhaps via student union or captaincy on an athletic team. Yes, even these measures have elements of subjectivity, but those measures are far superior to measuring a man’s ability to drink Fratopia.
Over the weekend, I was certified a Maestro of Epee (I will not call myself a “Master,” and we’ll get to that in a little bit) by the United Stated Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA). While I didn’t walk away from the process covered in food and reeking of Fratopia, there were elements of the experience that made me feel like it, in a proverbial sense. Just as I had in my experience at ZBT, my experience in the USFCA certification process was divided between a number of coaches hellbent on seeing me (and others) succeed, and some who wanted to stuff my armpits with peanut butter and condiments.
I believe, if I’m not mistaken, I am currently the youngest certified Maestro of Epee currently in the States. This is not a point I make to gloat, but a point I make to identify one of the many opportunities the USFCA has to become “your coaching community” (one of the organization’s slogans) when it comes to building a body of coaches that reflects broader age, racial, and gender demographics.
In complete fairness to the USFCA, many of these efforts to make the organization more inclusive are already well underway. Executive Director Vinnie Bradford has already begun to roll out what the organization is calling “The National Coaching Development Program” (NCDP) which seeks to eliminate much of the subjectivity, confusion, and inconsistencies that exist in the current certification process. A new practical exam format was also rolled out that makes the format far clearer to both the candidate and the examiners. From a process perspective, these are all positive steps in improving what I think should be a bastion of coaching development in the United States. From a cultural perspective, opportunities exist to improve this organization—and it boils down to a simple issue: it’s an organization of “Masters” and “Maestros.”
USFCA’s Cultural Conundrum: Masters and Maestros
I decided, upon passage of the exam that I would take on the title of Maestro, and stay far away from the title of “Master,” one that I believe has a litany of negative connotations to it for a number of reasons.
Though of course, translated from Italian, “maestro” means “master,” the word has been adopted in the English language to mean “a distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music.” This definition philosophically aligns to what I believe the role of the Fencing Coach should be: a distinguished conductor of fencing. A conductor leads, and his musicians follow the direction.
“Master,” on the other hand implies that the coach has dominion over the student, and that by obtaining this title, there is a finality to one’s knowledge. Aldo Nadi wrote in his book On Fencing that “Mask on, the master’s authority must be supreme. He should never be interrupted in his explanations. To this purpose, he should see to it that the pupil is not unduly curious. There is so much to learn mechanically that idle questions of an inquisitive pupil are to be regarded as a waste of time.”
The absolute authority of the Master that Nadi wrote of is antiquated in a 21st century sporting culture that requires more partnership between student and coach, explorations of ideas, and input from the athlete in order to succeed. Then again, this was the same Aldo Nadi who believed that “competition calls for psychological qualities which the average girl simply cannot possess.” He’d be rolling in his grave to know that one of the most badass women in fencing history is now in charge of the USFCA.
The word “Master” also has hurtful connotations to minorities. One of my good friends, a coach of color told me that he would “never let a student call him master, for obvious reasons.” And let us not forget the follies of the now extinct company “Sword Masters” who folded after their owner made public, boldly racist remarks about (then) first lady Michelle Obama.
The word “Master” implies a finality to the coach’s knowledge, as if they have hit the apex of the profession. There are many in the organization who believe that they have. But Fencing, as we know, evolves constantly. The coaches who recognize this (e.g. Aladar Kogler) are able to find sustained excellence in their students for decades on end. Those who are “Masters” rest on their laurels, scoff at innovations and changes to the game they knew, and feel threatened by anyone who diverts from their mold.
I believe, in the present, the USFCA is an organization that’s comprised of Masters and Maestro’s. The Maestro’s (and Maestra’s) seek to explore the academic side of fencing with their colleagues, to promote gender and racial equity in the organization, and to nurture and develop the next generation of quality coaches in the USA. The Masters seek to preserve the status quo, both in organizational composition and pedagogical ideas. And if you don’t want to follow their lead, they have a cup of Fratopia waiting for your consumption.
Moniteur to Prevot: The Fun Part
I began my certification journey for one simple reason: I was bored during the pandemic and trying to fill idle time during Covid isolation. So, on a whim, I registered as a member of the USFCA, took my Moniteur and Prevot written exams in May of 2020…and then I had to wait 541 days to actually take a practical exam. At the time, remote exams weren’t possible, and due to the pandemic, in-person testing was on hold.
The stars aligned, and I had an opportunity to speed-run Moniteur and Prevot in back-to-back weekends in late 2021 without having to drive more than 20 miles. So, I took the opportunity to do so. The first clinic I had was with Peter Burchard hosted at Royal Fencing Academy. It was a great experience, and I met a number of other aspiring coaches and people passionate to learn about Fencing. The energy of the clinic was positive and everyone came away learning a lot about cue improvement across all three weapons.
The next weekend, Nova held a coaching clinic in-house with our coaches and we were able to bring in Gil Pezza (multi-time NCAA Champ, former national team coach, and prolific fencing writer) and Emik Kaidanov (12x NCAA Champion Coach and USA Fencing Hall of Famer). I’m grateful for that experience as well, and that clinic formed a wonderful partnership with Maestro Pezza who has been a fantastic mentor. Though I am somewhat resentful towards Maestro Pezza, for he is usually the biggest slayer of my phone plan’s minutes each month since we often find ourselves getting into deep, friendly arguments about fencing, rabbit holes of pedagogy and the business dealings of the FIE!
At that point, I was warned by one coach: “Prevot is where the fun ends and the hazing begins. It’s the point where most coaches throw their hands up and say ‘enough is enough’ and let their memberships lapse.” I dismissed this warning. Everything had been fun, collaborative, and truly edifying up to that point. I had encountered three Maestros, all of whom had given constructive feedback and critical advice in my coaching development journey. The practical exams weren’t easy, and I already noticed some differences in the consistency of standards enforced exam to exam. That same coach who gave me the foreboding warning told me that “if you ask 10 different examiners how to give the exam, you’ll get 20 different answers.” For people like me who have off the wall ADHD, meticulous planning and preparation for these exams is a must, but when you prepare for one thing and are given something completely different than the guidelines on paper, it makes proper exam preparation difficult.
The next part of the USFCA process was the most rewarding: the thesis. But even that had too much bureaucratic drama and fun sucked out of it by the Masters.
The Thesis Experience: Fun With Numbers
In order to go from Prevot to Maestro (or Master, if you prefer to be a pedant), you’re required to write a thesis, assemble a panel, and gain approval of the panel. While on the surface, this may seem like a cumbersome step towards obtaining Maestro certification, you can really get what you put into the thesis. The thesis is supposed to “advance the body of knowledge of coaching in the United States.” Sane candidates usually submit a 10-20 page research paper. Insane candidates like Bill Shipman, Julie Seal, and Jen Oldham submit 50-100 page tomes with meticulous research on topics like creating youth recreation fencing programs, or teaching kids with autism, or the psychology of fencing.
I chose the path of insanity. It was strange to me that we, the United States of America who put a man on the moon, invented chocolate chip cookies, the automobile, the telephone, the smartphones, the internet, and Kentucky Fried Chicken somehow hadn’t won an individual Olympic medal in Epee since 1924. My thesis sought to answer the question: “why might this be?”
I recalled a dinner conversation with my old coach Mario Jelev: “Americans are still so focused on two tempo bulls***,” he said “when everything is now single tempo.”
I thought this would be a good idea to explore. So I began watching some of the bouts from the Tokyo Olympics and the years leading up to it and documenting touch-by-touch in a spreadsheet how many tempos were occurring per action. My original goal was to get 500 touches in Men’s, 500 touches in Women’s, publish the data, and call it a day.
As I watched these bouts, I thought to myself: “well, I’m already spending an hour per bout combing through these and documenting the data,” so I began to collect more fields per touch. The scope of the research expanded and next thing I knew, I had a treasure trove of data on both our American athletes and our foreign opponents.
It was during November 2021 that the Berne World Cup was happening. Olympian Yeisser Ramirez had made day two of the event where he would have to face world #1 ranked Igor Reizlin. Assistant Men’s Coach Dwight Smith, who had given me some thoughtful input on fields of data to collect texted me from Berne asking how to approach Reizlin based on the data. We reviewed what the data said, discussed how to approach Reizlin, and Dwight translated the data magnificently for Yeisser to use. Yeisser didn’t just win: he went John Wick on him and had a fantastic showing on the day. Thus began the holy trinity of fencing, coaching, and analytics.
I continued my research, obsessively spending every minute of free time combing through bouts, and around March of 2022, I eclipsed the 2000 touch mark. It was around that time that I was officially brought onto the national staff as the Director of Strategy and Data, directly as a result of the work I had done for the USFCA thesis.
I had learned more about fencing in those four months or so of research than I had in nearly 30 years in the sport. My strip coaching improved, my ability to analyze and assess bouts in real-time (and after) improved, and I began to even refocus priorities in the lessons I was giving. I believed I was developing something that could become an asset for the American Fencing community. There was just one problem: the data at that point became property of Team USA, and I had to keep the data and the methodology itself close to the chest in order to protect proprietary information. This unfortunately became a point of consternation for some of the Masters, while the Maestros understood and encouraged the work.
It took about 3 (completely unnecessary) meetings to negotiate between USA Fencing and the USFCA the how and when my work would be published. That was the first moment where I thought about delaying the certification process indefinitely, because at a certain point, I felt that the bickering between the organizations and entitlement to my work was creating unnecessary stress driven by a bureaucratic pissing contest. Eventually, a handshake agreement was made to publish the research after the Paris 2024 Olympics, and that in the meantime, I would share snippets of information with the USFCA (hence the publication of the trends article).
Fast forward a few months later. I’m refereeing at a NAC, and one of the Masters accosted me in the referee rest area like a “brother” in a frat lineup. He began to scold me with a raised voice like I was some little boy and pontificate to me that I shouldn’t be allowed to continue in this process if my work wasn’t made available to the public. I dismissed the aggression; told him it wasn’t his research and it was my call to keep the information private until it wasn’t needed by the team anymore. I appeased him by pulling it up on my phone, letting him peruse the work, and then once again vowing (as I had done to the Certification and Accreditation Board, or “CAB”) that I would eventually make it public. That interaction made me once again feel like a pledge. But, I had come that far, my thesis had been approved by the CAB, and I had one final hurdle to clear: the Maitre Practical Exam. I tripped on that hurdle, fell on the ground, and knocked all my teeth out at once.
USFCA Coaches Academy: or my Personal Hell Week Failing the Exam
I prepared for the Maitre practical meticulously. I created a visual outlining the lesson I intended to give. I reviewed it with about 4-5 Maestros to ensure it fit the bill. I flew to Notre Dame University all bright eyed, bushy-tailed, and prepped as much as humanly possible. Seeing Tommi Hurme (a former national team member and now coach at Olympian Fencing) would be in attendance at the Academy, I reached out to him and asked him to be my student for the exam. He graciously agreed. All my ducks were in order and I was prepared. Or so I thought.
The Academy began amazingly. Andrey Geva, former National Team Coach and Head Coach of Alliance gave a brilliant, multi-day seminar. Though, at numerous points, “Masters” circled by the seminar and simply couldn’t believe the gall he had to teach Epee the way he did, making snarky comments about modern Epee and how it’s diverged from the old ways. Geva of course has produced a number of Olympians, National Champions, National Team Members, and led the women to a World Championship Gold in 2018. It’s safe to say that whatever Andrey teaches works pretty frickin’ well. I learned a lot from Andrey there, and his attendance made the Academy worth the price of admission.
The night before my exam, I discussed the format with a few of the Maestros over dinner. They reviewed my visual once again, said it looked good, and reminded me that the exam would follow a format of:
- The Teaching Lesson- You show a student how to do an offensive action, a defensive action, and a counter-offensive action.
- Option Lesson: You present the student with a few variations and have them respond based on the context of the cues.
Alright, sweet! I was ready to go. Except not.
When it was time for my exam to begin, my nerves were firing on all cylinders. A number of the camp attendees were in the bleachers watching me. That triggered a small injection of anxiety for me.
A panel of a Master and two Maestros sat down to administer the exam, with the “Master” taking the lead. I handed over a printed sheet of paper with the visual of the lesson, and I was immediately told by the Master: “you don’t tell us the themes. We tell you.” This was completely in contradiction with how I’d prepared and been told to prepare. I froze up in that moment and felt my muscles tensing. My voice was shaky and even when it came to the introductory formalities of introducing myself and the student, I could barely speak.
I was told by numerous people: Keep it simple! So we began the offensive action by doing an 8 opposition lunge. I was interrupted: “The instruction is to do an offensive action. And you are doing a parry-riposte.” Thus began a confusing, pedantic argument where I said that a parry-riposte is a responsive defensive action, and the student is initiating the attack on me, and not vice versa. I felt things going south quickly. Really, really quickly.
I finished the option lesson, still thinking this was salvageable but knowing it wasn’t ideal. I thought the physical part of the exam was over, and we were to proceed into orals from there. “Now it’s time for the main lesson,” said the Master. “The f***ing what?!?!” I thought to myself. I had prepared for months for a teaching lesson and an option lesson. And now we were going into some third leg of the exam that came out of left field! So, I shakily muttered something to Tommi. I don’t even remember what. But I proceeded to improvise something that was about as fluid as molasses. It was ugly, and I couldn’t deliver what I needed to do. I felt like an amateur ass-hat self-destructing with a million eyes on me. My cues fell apart, and Tommi’s solid fencing at least made me look like a “Five Below” coach instead of a “Dollar Store” one, but by the end of it, my anxiety had skyrocketed to the point I couldn’t even speak anymore.
I narrowly failed. Deservedly. But the bait and switch hurt badly, and I felt like the Master was hellbent on seeing me fail. To make matters worse, when I approached the panel after deliberation, those in the bleachers began to clap thinking I had made it. I looked up, tears in my eyes, and gave a thumbs down to let those in attendance know that I had failed. The room went silent, and that moment was honestly one of the most humiliating events of my life.
I went back to the hotel, dejected and feeling worthless. The two maestros on my panel picked me up off my feet, gave me some good advice, and encouraged me to try again. I’ll never forget that, and I’m grateful that they were there to boost me when I was down. Julie Seal came to my room, and spent an hour consoling me in my moment of sadness, empathized with my experience and also encouraged me to finish the job.
I got a text from someone in USFCA leadership that night: “You got an old exam format, and we’re not sure why. We’re going to let you re-test here.” I was immediately galvanized and thinking this would be a good opportunity to redeem myself and prove to the coaches in attendance that I wasn’t some fraud. So I went to bed feeling somewhat optimistic for the next day.
I returned to the venue and was approached by another Master. “I don’t know why you were told that you could re-test here. We do not allow re-tests at the same event.” I asked the Master to point me to the specific policy in place that stated that. The answer I got was something to the effect of: “There is no policy, it’s just tradition.” At this point, I was furious. But to make matters worse, Mr. Master that led my panel the day before approached me.
“I heard you got a little anxious yesterday.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“You know what can help with anxiety?” he asked.
“Not really,” I replied honestly, knowing whatever he was going to tell me was not going to help.
“Singing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ to yourself!” he said with a completely straight face. He didn’t disappoint.
One other candidate tested for Maitre at Coaches Academy, and as a result of giving me the wrong exam, they used me as a guinea pig and quickly pivoted the other candidate’s exam to a different format, allowing him to pick his own themes and lesson. He passed.
Here I was, roughly $3000 in the hole from the hotel, flight, and academy cost and walking away failing the mission I set out to do. It sucked. And I wanted to be done. That was enough. This wasn’t certification. It was humiliation.
Finishing the Job
I remained in touch with Vinnie on the regular over the next couple of months. She acknowledged the flaws in the current process and laid out in detail the plans to change the organization’s process with the new NCDP Standards. I hosted a livestream with her where Vinnie discussed the upcoming overhaul with members of the USFCA community.
One of the things that I sensed from that livestream was that people like me had been really burned by the current process. It wasn’t working. It ostracized numerous members of the organization and the junta of the Masters was sucking the fun out of the learning process that the Maestros were trying to implement. What I also noticed, was that more than 50% of attendees on the call were women. These were women who sought to become Fencing Maestras, were more than capable of getting there, but were given an experience in the old USFCA process from the Masters that was 1000x more toxic than I ever got as a white dude going through it. But with Vinnie’s appointment to Executive Director and a new promise of things to come, many of the people who had been alienated by “their coaching community” decided to put one foot back in the door.
I didn’t know Vinnie before Coaches Academy. I knew what a legend she was in the sport, but I didn’t know how funny she was, how big a heart she had, and how she was a mentor to so many in the sport. I encourage you to watch that stream I linked above so you can see the respect she commands in a room and how adored she is by all who come across her.
A few days before the March NAC, Vinnie texted me: “so are you coming to Texas? We got an exam lined up for you.” In the back of my mind, I’m thinking to myself, “oh s*** here we go again.” Fresh off the presses, Vinnie shared with me a new practical exam format that was crystal clear, simple, and allowed for a lot of creativity for the candidate and the student. It was a vast improvement over what was administered in South Bend and a sign that the Vinnie administration was really trying to change things for the better.
I flew in (for another $750 in the hole) and was prepared to give it one more go. I sent a proposed lesson in advance to members of the panel, ensured that this was indeed the format that would be followed, and made sure I was delivering on expectations to the correct exam format.
There were no bleachers this time with spectators. Just a small room off the beaten path of the convention center’s competition room. I was joined by my friend Greg Kaidanov who kept giving encouraging thumbs ups and fist pumps to encourage me. My student for the day was a young man out of Rhode Island by the name of Francesco Savoretti who was extremely gifted, coachable, and fun to work with.
With no frills and a simple lesson designed around the theme of “demonstrate a multi-tempo compound action,” Francesco and I began to cook, and we were iterating the basic action I wanted for the lesson, which was a simple thrust to the hand, continuation to body with disengage off the coach’s parry. By the end of the lesson, we had somehow iterated all the way to a flick to the hand, flick to the foot, recover in 6 and flick to the back with fleche attack. It was ridiculous fencing theater. It was fun as heck, and the panel was in on the fun too. There was no pedantic argument, no telling me to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and no “Masters” scoffing at the joy in the room. Just pure, unadulterated fun in a lesson. This is what the certification process should have been all along. I passed. And when the panel assembled to give feedback after, a panelist remarked “I have no idea how you didn’t pass the first time. That was awesome.”
Constructive feedback was given on my hand cues to elicit a clearer remise response from the student, and I was told to tighten certain foot movement, and even some gear recommendations in order to make the movement of the lesson more fluid. It was helpful, it was actionable, and I learned a lot from a Maestro and two Maestra’s who were clearly wanting me to succeed.
Maestro Eduardo Duarte Olivera, the Head Coach of Duke City Fencing Club imparted some amazing advice upon me at the end of the day. “Corvus oculum corvi non eruit.” These were the words told to him by the legendary Daniel Levasseur when Levasseur certified Maestro Olivera. The translation from Latin? A crow doesn’t peck another crow’s eyes. Maestro Olivera’s wisdom he imparted to me had a simple message that was perhaps lost somewhere along the way of the whole certification process: we are all on this journey together. Very few join the USFCA unless they have the noble goal of sharing their love of fencing and teaching with others. And as a murder of crows, it’s important we remember that as any new coach walks through the door. The last words he told me: “You are no longer a coach,” he said. “Anyone can be a coach. You are a master.”
Where to Go From Here
The last year and a half of going through the certification process has been a combination of rewarding, edifying, and stressful. Feeling these things is natural for any challenge in life, and I did this process because during the pandemic, I needed a new challenge. I needed the intellectual stimulation. And I thought: what not a better way to do it than really tapping into my love of coaching/teaching? Through the process I made a number of new friends through clinics, latched onto a number of new amazing mentors, and learned an incredible amount about coaching. These are the positives I hope anyone can glean from the USFCA certification process.
Whatever negatives I experienced, Vinnie has been extremely receptive to feedback, and I feel that the new NCDP standards, mandatory coach development training, and continuing education plans are all positive fixes to the issue of the “Masters” that are a part of the organization.
In her WFencing article titled “What Makes a Fencing Master?”, Maestra Julie Seal wrote that “…the long-suffering service and abuse that we have been conditioned to believe is ‘just part of the culture.’” Fixing “the culture” that Maestra Seal speaks of begins with me as a new Maestro. I am a crow. Any crow that wants to join my murder, I will gladly mentor you with from Moniteur to Maestro, I will provide constructive feedback. I will respect you. I will do everything I can to empower you to succeed in this wonderful sport. Regardless of your race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or creed, if you want to be a Fencing Maestro, I will help you get there. And you won’t be drinking any Fratopia from me.
 Nadi, A. (1999). On Fencing. Laureate Press.
4 thoughts on “I Am Not a Master: an Assessment of the USFCA Certification Process and a Hope for the Future of the Organization”
Excellent article. American coaching is moving in an interesting direction and I am glad you are a part of it.
Very nice article. Sorry that you had such a crappy initial experience. I passed all three Prevot exams in 4 years. I had two formats for the practical exams. It all depended on which documents you were able to find on the USFCA web site. There was no “main lesson” in any of them, just teaching and options. But then I didnt get a “Master” as an examiner: combinations of Paul Size, John Kraus, Bill Shipman and (a remote) Ron Miller. The variation in format was whether I got to choose the themes or not. For my last one, Foil, I was told the themes for all the lessons, but I chose for the other two. Being given the themes is certainly a lot scarier. Actually for my opening teaching lesson with a given theme I made it all too simple, and was immediately given the feedback that it wasnt at Prevot level. However, I was given the opportunity to do it again, and beefed it up enough for their satisfaction. So the main issue for me (and in one case the examiners) was uncertainty about the format. I think that this has already been addressed with better documents — done before the NCDP push. Wrt how the Prevot/Master exams can be changed in order to minimize variations in examiner expectations, thats going to difficult. A checklist of skills might be step in the right direction, to ensure that everyone gets the same challenges, but that isnt going to address the need for maturity of handling the student, and the flow of the lesson. That needs to be seen and judged. Regards, Dave Brown (WPI & Worcester Fencing Club)
Great, honest write-up which I enjoyed and appreciated very much. Congratulations and best wishes. You will go far.
The Italian language distinguishes between Maestro and Padrone, which, incidentally, both translate as Master in English.
In Italian this is an important distinction because Maestro means teacher (title given to grade school teachers) but also someone who has achieved a level of excellence in certain fields such as music, painting etc; whereas in latin, it denoted instead more a position of power as opposed to the Greek which was more aligned with the concept of teaching and teacher.
Padrone instead denotes a position of power, ownership (see movie Padre, Padrone), which in Italian was also historiically associated with those who exploited laborers and workers; which in an American context could be equivalent to someone who owned/exploited slaves as their in Master.
While in Italian no one would confuse Maestro with Padrone (since they are distinct terms) the equivalent “Master” in English includes both those meanings; hence, the point raised by Maestro Lehfeldt.