How do we teach fencing at Hatherop?

At one time or another in our lives, we’ve pictured ourselves duelling with a light sabre or a character from Pirates of The Caribbean, Robin Hood, Game of Thrones or any other film where sword fighting is prevalent. At Hatherop, harnessing that inner Jedi and having fun is how fencing is taught.

The History of Fencing

Swords are as old as the pyramids. Hieroglyphs have been found of Egyptians practising sword strokes with wooden sticks. During medieval times swords became bludgeoning weapons as they sought to counter ever thicker armour, but it was in the 16th/17th century that the point of the sword became important as it targeted joining points of armour where straps holding the armour gave areas of weakness. Fast forward to 1896 with Baron de Coubetin’s first Olympics, the sport of modern sword fencing was born.

Meet Mr Neil Bromley

My first fencing teacher told me this story when I started aged 7 and initially it was the only sport I was interested in. Over the next 18-24 months my interest and ability in fencing took off and by experimenting on the sports field, I found by slightly applying my fencing technique I could pass a rugby ball, hold and use a hockey stick and cricket bat properly and so became useful at these sports too. That is why I believe in a breadth of sports and interests as we never know which one holds the key to improvement and perhaps the one sport that is natural for a child.

In my experience, when teaching children whether in sport or academics, I believe there are those who need to feel part of a team and receive external recognition when they achieve in class or do well on the sports field. There are others who have an internal drive which tells them they are doing well and challenges them when they can do better. I fall into the latter category and having that internal motivation, taking notice of what my body tells me and listening to intuitions has served me very well.

Fencing often suits children who are not outwardly sporty, who enjoy solitary activities as well as team ones and who can actively listen and change tactics very quickly to their own advantage. For me such recognition and celebration of both the individual and the team, sets Hatherop apart as a school. At the heart of everything we do, children understand the need to play, practice and when the time is right for each of them, to then perform.

How is fencing introduced at Hatherop

When Prep 2 and 3 children are introduced to fencing through the use of foam and plastic GO FENCE swords, emphasis of learning is placed on stance, balance, correct movement and persistence. Fun games teach them how to move deftly and efficiently as they begin to understand the importance of technique when hitting with a foil point in the chest. Within their first lesson, they have a sword in their hand and will have had their first sparring session with a friend.

Over time, they see how small movements, patience and strategy work together to score the all-important hit. Friendly matches with other schools nurture a competitive spirit alongside local competitions held at surrounding prep schools over the course of the year. These events help children and parents alike familiarise themselves with the format of competition in later years in order to dispel any feelings of being overawed when children compete at a higher level.

Prep 4 sees a migration to metal swords and full protective clothing.  With a solid foundation behind them, new blade strokes are taught and old ones revised and honed.  Epee (whole body target) and sabre (top half of body target) are introduced as children experiment with which discipline feels best for them.  Children are encouraged to challenge themselves attending county, regional and national events, safe in the knowledge that if they score one hit, then they will have done better than their coach did in his first competition! 

A mental skill as much as a physical one

We also evolve mental thinking in the sport – at the end of a bout, a fencer only needs to be one point ahead to win, so sometimes a duel is about getting and maintaining a lead. There is no point rushing in head long without a plan of attack or a plan of defence which then becomes attack. So strategizing is important. Stamina both mentally and physically is also crucial. Fencing competitions have periods of high activity followed by lulls until the round of bouts, so fencers need to know how to relax and then quickly become alert, ready to fight in their next match. It can be very draining going to the well repeatedly, especially as the competition gets harder with each successive bout. Flexibility and core strength help, so fencers can lunge to score hits, and if they miss, can get out of trouble quickly too.

We also look at how perceived weaknesses can become strengths. For example, people may think being tall is an advantage, not so, with the right learning, shorter fencers (who naturally have a smaller target) will simply aim to get close to taller people so they can hit and the taller person has to resort to jabbing. So, any advantage one fencer believes they have, can be turned into a disadvantage against another fencer. Having the mental ability to get your opponent where you want them and the physical ability to then hit them, makes it a very demanding and hugely fun and exciting sport.

Gradually children start to control lessons, asking how to overcome a particular move or blade stroke so they can add this to their repertoire.  This shapes their learning and puts them in a better position when they come across that tactic again.  Tactical and strategic games keep them thinking and regularly fencing different children ensures they can use the full range of their knowledge in sparring. 

This approach has far exceeded my expectations at Hatherop. My original plan when I joined the school was to help children get to regional and perhaps national final events. Within a few years the school proudly saw regular medals at regional and national level with our first pupil to be selected for the England team last year. Children attain national finals at the younger end of their age range and our first national school team (girls foil) secured silver at the championships last year. As if that is not enough, we have children wanting to become nationally qualified referees to preside younger age groups. Outstanding results for a compact prep school in the Cotswolds!

I am hugely proud of all the fencers here and look forward to nurturing future generations of pupils as they seek enjoyment with a sword or a passion to be the very best with a blade in their hands.