Well, until the Men’s Team Foil event, I was getting very depressed about what I was going to say in this article. Until that point, it was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. All the individual events had come and gone and GBR had won only ONE fight against a foreign fencer.
The gloom lifted a bit for me when the Men’s foil team came out and, to their credit, turned what may have been perceived as a walkover for the Italians into a real scare and capped that off by beating the French. True, the Italians may not have fenced up to their usual standard and may have been caught out by complacency and true, the French have been having a disastrous Olympics but a win is a win and the Foil team are to be congratulated for what they did achieve.
Nevertheless, despite all the funding, despite the benefit of all those wild cards and despite all the ‘Experts’ in charge, it remains a fact that these were our worst results since the modern games began.
The fencers in question had barely shaken hands before the post-mortems began on the fencing grapevine and the inevitable “This is how I think we should put things right” speeches from all and sundry. Instead of going down that route, can I suggest we look first at what has been working for the successful nations?
ITALY In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, I happened to be sitting beside Antionio Fiore, president of the FIS (Federazione Italiana Scherma) Medical Commission, and I took the opportunity shamelessly to pump him for information about how the Italians were going ahead, and he described a programme that boiled down to levels of funding we can only dream of and putting the coach/athlete partnership at the centre of all the decision making procedures. The job of the coach was to be entirely focused on the development of the fencer, bringing in the experts he chose (psychology, fitness, nutrition etc.) to support him in this.
Did it work? Well, in London 2012, they won all the Women’s foil individual medals and the team gold. They also won the men’s foil team gold, plus a handful of silver and bronze medals which puts them at the top of the fencing medals table. Even so, I’m sure they will agree with me that their results could have been better and that performance overall has slipped recently in some respects, particularly in the sabre. Seven medals may be far beyond what we could have dreamt of, but with the quality of Italian fencing, I feel they could have achieved much more.
KOREA Next down the medals table came Korea, much to everyone’s (misplaced) astonishment. They have been making steady progress over the years and we need to be paying much more attention to how they are doing it. It is clear that they have a good infrastructure and funding in place – you can go to the sport university there to train as a coach, and they have sent some coaches abroad to improve their skills. However, a remark from the head coach Lee Wook Jae, in a recent interview struck me deeply:
"It is Korean style. We worked very hard on footwork, to have speedy legs because our opponents are slower."
Why did that remark have such an impact on me? Because in this country, every time we have a disappointing result, the cry goes up “We need to get foreign coaches in!” and yet here is a country where fencing was until recently relatively unknown, getting to second place on the medal tables with all home grown coaches standing by the piste.
This points to the one thing we don’t do. We refuse in this country to train our fencers according to the kind of people they are. There are too many people convinced that all we need for success is to graft some foreign fencing system on to our own. No one seems to notice that it fails time and time again. We cannot overlook the cultural differences between one system of coaching and the other. I have seen an Italian coach take the epee out of his fencer’s hand and hurl it across the hall in disgust because of some tiny error she had committed. I have seen Emil Beck (Germany) physically drag a world class fencer out of a venue, and send him to the bus stop with instructions to find his own way back to Germany (for the sin of being knocked out in the first round), I have seen an Russian coach punch a lad in the face for forgetting to bring a spare mask wire to weapon control, and I have seen a Chinese coach give three girls a punishing two hour warm-up of continual repetitive drills at a World Cup Competition (the girls went on to finish in 1st, 2nd and 4th places).
It is not in the nature of the British fencer to cope well with that kind of coaching, yet all those were all world class coaches who have achieved world class results. I have also known Polish and Hungarian coaches who came here and gave up in despair because they could not get British fencers to approach the sport in the way they were used to back home. I am not standing in judgement over one or the other, simply stating the obvious truth that the Koreans have used to their advantage – you need a system of coaching which understands and works with the strengths of the individuals in it.
The excuse (which I find nothing short of slanderous) is that we cannot do this because we have no home grown world class coaches. This is so often said, that many fencers take it as being true, but it is simply a symptom of the complete ignorance of the sport that pervades among the people that purport to practise and teach it. Just consider the following:
BAF Coach with outstanding world class success
Prof. Sue Benney – Philip Marsh, junior world champion epee
Prof. Andrew Vincent – Jon Willis: 1st Heidenheim Pokal World Cup 2007 1st Kish Island World Cup 2010 2nd Challenge Sydney World Cup 2009 5th Glaive de Tallinn World Cup 2010
Andy Hill – who was Corrinna Lawrence’s coach up to her first European medal
These are all BAF coaches, trained under the BAF system which some, who think of themselves as belonging to the higher rungs of fencing/coaching in this country, claim doesn’t have any success.
With all the coach bashing that’s go on during the most recent Olympic cycle it’s a wonder we have anyone willing to coach. Coaches in this country are generally treated appallingly and with almost no respect. In the main they receive little of no help in any form no matter how good their fencer(s) results are. Example – when Jon Wills won the Heidenheim World Cup, our then Performance Director never acknowledged the achievement of Willis’ British coach Andrew Vincent. Had he done so and had Andrew Vincent been given the help and support his foreign counterparts receive in for example France, Italy and Germany how much more could Jon Willis have achieved? I know that no one in British Fencing ever contacted him to ask him how he had done it or asked for his input in developing better coaching at that level.
The immediate assumption on all sides that the solution to the problem would be to change our coaches just reinforces the old adage – a fencer who wins is a blo@*dy fine fencer, a fencer who loses has a cr@p coach.
Consider also the Russians who brought in the very successful French coach Christian Bauer to improve rebuild their fourth place ranking at Beijing. Result? Exactly the same result at London 2012. Their results were much better than ours, but not much improved by importing a foreign system. He was simply unable to reproduce the success he had had in earlier years coaching an Italian fencer.
Over the decades we have ignored the knowledge and achievements of British coaches and British Fencing Masters and have invited numerous foreign coaches to try imposing the philosophy of their country of origin upon on British fencing. The only person it appears to have worked with is Richard Kruse. However, it could be argued that Ziemowit Wojciechowski in this case had one advantage that almost no other coach of an elite fencer in this country has been allowed – he has been allowed to keep his pupil. Kruse has been working with Wojciechowski since he first picked up a sword as a 7 year old beginner. This is totally at odds with the present party line as concerns the coaching of elite fencers in this country. The fact of the matter is that as soon as a pupil starts gaining success, the first reaction of the BFA is to try to remove that pupil from the coach by any means possible, whether it be by demanding that the fencer race all over the country for squad or Academy training, or by informing the fencer that he or she ‘must’ work with an appointed coach or face de-selection.
I have seen this happen time and time again at all levels of the sport and rarely if ever has it resulted in better success for the pupil. Quite the opposite – for many, the interference of the powers that be and the changing of coaches has resulted in a disastrous plummeting of results for the fencer who can go from the top of the rankings to complete obscurity at the speed of light. Sadly, often the only person who knows and remembers is the coach he or she was taken away from.
It was interesting to see the interview with Rebecca Adlington after winning a bronze medal – she trains with her own coach at a small local swimming club, and after the Olympics, she intends to go back there. I wonder if her governing body will try to interfere.
The vast majority of coaches, both professional and amateur, do what they do for the love of the sport. Any remuneration they receive rarely matches up to the amount of work they do or the training they’ve done. All over the country I see volunteer coaches struggling against the odds to make clubs work and I see professional coaches who have dedicated themselves to providing the best possible service to the sport and who seem to get nothing but obstacles put in their way by those who should be helping them. With the rocketing cost of fuel and venues, it is a miracle they keep going, and often it is no thanks to those at the top of fencing. Indeed, quite the reverse is often true – coaches constantly are constantly told they must jump through this and that hoop in order to be recognised by the BFA.
So, what do we need? I am going to suggest something very simple. To my mind, we need to start by doing the following:
Support grassroots and beginner coaches in their attempt to broaden the base from which future champions will emerge. One may often wince to see what goes on in some fencing clubs in terms of less than perfect coaching, but the fact remains that these people are getting fencers in through the door. They need to be encouraged and supported. One of the best things the national organisations could do would be to campaign to reduce the costs of venue hire and to help coaches with the practicalities of setting up. We need to make every effort to reduce the number of obstacles and hoops in the way of setting up fencing clubs around the country.
We need to trust coaches to want the best for their fencers and help them to become the best coaches they can be. Their contribution to a fencer’s success needs to be recognised and supported and the relationship between the coach and the successful fencer needs to be protected. Coaches should be given the opportunity to develop and enhance their skills without fear of undue interference and I maintain that they should be able to choose the system, BAF, BFA, or other or any mixture of these which suits their own needs best without being shoehorned into ANYONE’s idea of what kind of coach development they need.
Senior coaches should be encouraged to run courses and sessions where they can share their skills with those who want to learn, without being moaned at from the side-lines. The more coaches we have with sword in hand, in clubs, the better. Fencers vote with their feet – leave them to do that and the better coaches will succeed and hopefully the others will be motivated to work harder.
Fencers need more experience of fencing against the very best. Meeting the elite every once in a while at competition is not enough. They need to be given opportunities to travel abroad to fence the best. Mo Farah (10,000m Gold medallist) is on record as saying that prior to the Olympics, training in Britain didn’t work for him so he move with his family to Oregon USA. Some of the top European distance runners are setting up a base in Kenya to training alongside the world’s best. How often do our best fencers get to train alongside Europe’s elite fencers? The answer is all too infrequently.They only really get to experience the better fencers in the world when they face them in competition
We need to encourage more coaches to attend the senior competitions in this country and abroad if for no other reason than to watch and learn
As much as I don’t like to admit it, in this country we are involved in a small sport. At every level and in every aspect of our sport there are simple too few fencers, coaches, administrators and officials etc. It’s time we all started to pull in the same direction. The future of fencing in Britain depends on it. We cannot afford to be complacent – if British Swimming, in spite of its Olympic medals now faces funding cuts and the restructuring of its coaching programme as a punishment for its ‘underperformance’, we have to be ready to expect some very hard times indeed.
At all levels, we have some damn fine coaches in this country, why don’t we give them a chance and give them the support they so desperately need?
Philip Bruce President BAF
Congratulations to our Colleagues at London 2012 On behalf of the Academy, I would like to congratulate our fellow coaches internationally for their results at the Olympic Games. It is an incomplete list – the fact that this information is so hard to find only reflects the lack of appreciation that so many coaches receive.
Stefano Cerioni (coach of Elisa Di Francisca ITA, women’s foil gold)
Giovanni Bortolaso (coach of Arriana Errigo ITA, women’s foil silver)
Giulio Tommassini (coach of Valentina Vezzali ITA, women’s foil bronze)
Mariusz Piasecki (father and coach of Bartosz Piasecki NOR, men’s epee silver)
Somlai Bela (coach of Aron Szylagi HUN, men’s sabre gold)
Leonardo Caserta (coach of Diego Occhiuzzi ITA, men’s sabre silver)
Vladimir Diatchenko (coach of Nicolay Kovalev RUS, men’s sabre bronze)
Andriy Orlikovsky (coach of Yana Shemyakina UKR, women’s epee gold)
Manfred Kaspar (coach of Britta Heidemann GER, women’s epee silver)
Yong Yul Kim (coach of Jiyeon Kim KOR, women’s sabre gold)
Dmitry Glotov (coach of Sofya Velikaya RUS, women’s sabre silver)
Stefano Cerioni for the men’s and women’s foil team gold
Oleg Matseichuk for the men’s team foil silver JPN
Daniel Levavasseur for the women’s team epee gold CHN
SHIM Jaesung and Lee Wook Jae for the achievements of the Korean team – bronze for men’s individual foil and epee, gold for men’s team sabre, gold for women’s individual sabre, women’s team epee silver and women’s team foil bronze.
Roberto Sobalvarro for the women’s team epee bronze USA
Ulrich Schreck (coach of Peter Joppich GER, men’s foil team bronze)