The common view is that a fencing coach is someone who teaches fencers to fence, and trains fencers for competition. That is certainly true. However, the scope of the impact of coaching is broader. It includes preparing athletes, creating a positive image of the sport, building the knowledge base of those who will become referees, and giving future coaches the skills they will need. A coach is much more than a mobile target for lunges.
A good coach prepares fencers to achieve at the highest level possible for the innate ability of the athlete. This requires the ability to teach techniques, tactics, and strategy, instill in the fencer the basic ethics and good sportsmanship of the sport, and to train the fencer’s body and mind to perform efficiently in competition. A good coach can only produce what the raw material that walks in the door permits. High performance requires the right genetic makeup, the willingness to train the mind, the desire to train and to win (two different things entirely), and the ability to devote the time and resources needed for success ca intermediate coaching. However, a good coach can prepare a fencer with even limited ability to fence to the limit of his or her potential.
But this is not the total charge of coaching. Coaches also help shape the perception of our sport. When they run clubs that meet current standards for sports facilities and are welcoming, they create a positive image of our sport. When they teach beginners to appreciate the sport, even if the beginner does not wish to continue it, and when they advocate for the sport they are helping to build the public support that is vital if fencing is to grow. But if they discourage beginners or relegate them to an intermediate fencer, engage in unethical practices, or run clubs that are disorganized and grubby, they send a message that helps keep fencing a minor sport.
Most referees were once fencers. If the fencer did not learn the rules of the sport as a fencer, they can be a referee without knowing the rules. If the fencer’s knowledge of fencing technique is minimal, they can interpret a clearly formed sabre parry 5 with immediate riposte as a stop cut, or a beat with the tip of the blade on the guard as being the attack that scores, rather than the attack that was parried. If they don’t know that a failed weapon at test results in a yellow card, they will happily let one fencer present five weapons and a body cord that do not work and still start the bout at 0-0 (that fencer should lose the bout on penalty cards 0-5 without even fencing). And if the fencer was never taught basic ethics, as a referee they will gladly call all two light calls as a touch for their club members.
There is nothing more destructive to good fencing than bad refereeing. Bad referees deprive the fencers of an even and predictable ground on which to compete. And bad refereeing starts with coaches who do not teach their students the rules of the sport, how techniques and tactics work, and the basic standards of good sportsmanship.
Most fencing coaches start out as fencers with no real intention to become a coach. Suddenly they find themselves someplace there is no fencing, and to have someone to fence they have to start teaching people how to hit and keep from being hit. Or the coach leaves the club, and the fencer with the most experience becomes the coach. Many good coaches have evolved that way. But if the fencer turned coach lacks a solid grounding in the technique, tactics, and theory of fencing as well as the broader knowledge of conditioning and training methods and sports psychology, the students the new coach develops are only as good as the knowledge base passed on from the coach’s coach and their native ability. Good coaching at the start and throughout a fencer’s competitive career sets the baseline for that fencer’s development as a coach. Less knowledgeable coaching sets a lower baseline.
The bottom line is that good coaching builds a positive image of the sport and produces good fencers. Good fencers in turn have the potential to become competent referees allowing good fencing to happen on their strips. And good fencers have the knowledge base to themselves become good coaches. It all starts with a knowledgeable coach with good teaching skills, the ability to plan and conduct training programs, and a solid understanding of athlete preparation. This does not come by accident – it requires hard work and dedication well beyond the financial rewards or athlete competitive success most coaches will see. But if you are going to coach, your attitudes, skills, knowledge, and abilities set the stage for the next generation of fencing.