Note -- this post is the third in a series by the WFencing Allies Committee. Each post will feature a different guest author. Check out the Allies Committee page for more.
I am the head coach and owner of a small club in a small town in Western Massachusetts. I am a middle-aged, cis-gendered, hetero-sexual, Asian-American male with 30+ years in fencing. My club has a total membership of about 45 fencers, at the moment, with a gender split of about 44% male, 56% female. (The USA Fencing membership, as of Jan 2023, is about 65% male, and 35% female.)
As Jeff Kallio writes in the previous installment of this blog, small (or covert) acts of allyship and modeling desired behavior can have a significant positive impact on the culture of the sport. Ultimately, big acts can and should lead to changes on a smaller scale that continue to make the fencing world a better, more inclusive, more inviting place for girls, women, and everyone else.
My membership numbers suggest women and girls do not avoid my club, so are comfortable here. I asked several of my current and former members, and their parents, for their thoughts on what makes our club welcoming and inviting to women and girls. Their responses suggested that they feel seen, heard, valued, and safe at my club. Here are some of the things that I do.
On making people feel seen. I greet them at the door by name. I make eye contact. I ask them about their days and chat with them about things outside of fencing. I say something when I notice they’ve changed their hair color, or they’re acting out of sorts (which means I have to have a sense of what “normal” is for them). I mention when I notice a change/improvement in someone’s fencing (and yes, occasionally, I tease them when I notice they’re still making a fencing mistake we’ve worked on before).
On making people feel heard. I use their pronouns (when I screw them up, I apologize at the same volume). I respond to emails and texts. I handle complaints by having direct, frank conversations with all involved parties. I invite people to ask questions, and I answer them.
I often start lessons with a question like, “So, what do you want to work on? Anything in particular you feel needs work?” Then I address those concerns in the lesson.
After tournaments, I conduct “post-mortem” interviews with those who competed. The whole class is involved in this conversation/interview. We discuss what they learned, what to work on in the immediate future, and what the highlights of their day were (fencing or not). I want to hear from everyone, not just those who “did well.”
On making people feel valued. When I need people for demonstrations, both in classes and for outside exhibitions, I deliberately reach out as often to girls and women as I do boys and men.
I take everyone seriously. I give the 42-year old beginner mother of three the same attention and energy as I do the male cadet athletic phenom. Why shouldn’t I? I have no idea which beginners will turn into my top fencers, or most dedicated members.
In classes, I lean heavily on peer-to-peer activities and feedback. I’ve established, and insist, that everyone has something to offer, and something to gain from every other person. We end every bout during classes and open fencing with “brain dumps”: short conversations between the fencers wherein they discuss the bout they just fenced, ask each other questions, and offer each other insight, tips, suggestions, or other feedback.
On making people feel safe. How can you make people feel trading blows with swords is fundamentally safe? By creating an environment where both the physical and psychological aspects of fencing are nurtured to everyone’s benefit.
Any time I see fencing that is creating fear in another (excessive use of strength during actions, etc.), I redirect the offending fencer toward other solutions or skills. We cherish those touches we score that the opponent does not feel or see!
During structured bouting in classes, I consider both the assigned tasks and the pairings. Both or either can be adjusted to create a mutually beneficial practice session. During coaching timeouts, any advice given is said aloud for both to hear -- it is a tool for improving the fencing, not for swaying the outcome.
Our “brain dumps” also immediately turn a competitive exchange into a learning exchange. This is where opponents become trusted teammates and friends.
I travel to as many local competitions to support my athletes as I can, with a special effort for fencers’ first tournaments. I’m there for them. When they return, the tournament post-mortems create a welcoming atmosphere… you’re back among trusted friends.
On showing the potential of being seen, heard, valued, and safe. The assistant coach at my club is a woman. She’s outspoken. She teaches (with me, sometimes) the most important group at the club: the introductory level students. She competes. She’s a product of our club’s programming, as well as an integral part of it.
Allyship is about using one’s powers, position, and opportunities to allow others to be seen, to be heard, to be valued, and to feel safe while making their contributions in what might otherwise be an unwelcome environment. My club is a small place, but it’s a place where I have the power and opportunity to be an ally. I can do this every day. So I do.
Author Taro Yamashita is the owner and head coach at Riverside Fencing Club in Hadley, MA. An accredited Prevot d'Epee with USFCA, his students include multiple veteran national champions and members of multiple USA Veteran World Teams.