Fencing parents, coaches, athletes, and alumni across the United States are feeling the impact of increased awareness of abuse in the sport of fencing and the reporting of it. We are asking ourselves, “What can I do for my team?” “What can I do to help?”
Ending abuse cycles takes work. This article is directed to alumni and current collegiate team members in order to help us all understand abuse, take action, and work toward making our collegiate teams the best experience possible for all fencers.
Disclosure. This abuse and shame cycle not only affects victims, or witnesses to abuse, during their time on the team, but affects athletes long after their collegiate years. Negative press can elicit shame or dissociation in alumni, athletes and sport leaders. Exposure can re-traumatize anyone who experienced or witnessed abuse. Please
note, this article will directly address issues of this nature.
Many American fencers today enjoyed their time competing on NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) teams. The NCAA is a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes. It has 1,098 member colleges and universities and 102 different athletic conferences. According to the USFCA (United Fencing Coaching Association) team standings there are a total of 34 men’s teams and 44 women’s teams actively competing within the NCAA.
Defining Abuse in Teams. Much like a family abuse cycle, a team abuse cycle involves shame and humiliation in order to be maintained.
Emotional and Psychological Abuse targets the feelings and thinking of an athlete or team and can be inflicted by the team leader, or ignored, demonstrating complicity. This type of abuse can cause you to doubt yourself, and perhaps even quit or leave a sport you once loved. Examples of emotionally and psychologically abusive behaviors include, but are not limited to:
Lying. It could be about what an athletic director said about the team, or to cover up for a colleague. Lying is a deliberate attempt to create an alternative reality to avoid accountability or deflect blame.
Derogatory statements made towards an athlete or about others. Calling someone who reports abuse untrustworthy and slamming their character. Calling you lazy or fat. Questioning someone belonging on a team, mocking their performance or results.
Minimizing concerns and invalidating feelings over time. A statement like, “You must be on your period” is an example of gaslighting.
Imbalanced benefits to some members and neglect to others. For example, leaving specific members out of team gatherings as punishment. Excluding team members from emails, newsletters or texts of information relating to team functions, expectations or planning.
Isolating team members from friends, romantic partners, parents or past coaches who you’ve had good relationships with. Some coaches will want to vet their students' romantic partners as a way to exert control or match them with partners they suspect will not object to you being abused.
It is worth noting, fencing is a mental game involving second intention (trickery) and setting traps in order to gain a point advantage. Pre-game hype can involve psychological posturing which is intimidating and meant to provoke an emotional response in order to gain an advantage. The mental and emotional state of a fencer directly impacts performance. A key part of a coach's job can be to build mental resilience. Though some archaic coaching approaches have relied on "breaking an athlete down," such methods undermine a fencer's belief in themselves, and are not only unnecessary, but antithetical to producing champions. It is my personal belief that our community tolerates this practice more than we should because we are a fighting sport, and value toughness.
Physical Abuse in fencing can include, but is not limited to:
Purposely inflicting pain during lessons outside the conditions of bouting. For example, using the fencing weapon as a whip in lesson correction for punishment.
Forced training without protective gear.
Threats if refusal to train/fence while injured.
Controlling diet and nutrition to force weight loss.
Excessive training beyond pushing limits for normal muscle gain or training benefits. They or the team are punished, excluded or humiliated for noncompliance.
Sexual Abuse reported on college campuses is staggering and generally is thought to be underreported on teams. What behaviors have plagued collegiate teams over the decades?
Failure to Report. Rape, assault, verbal harassment by teammates or staff must be reported and investigated to satisfaction and resolution. Failure to report maintains a power imbalance. Since women’s and men’s teams practice together, this dynamic is particularly relevant to fencing teams. Unresolved issues are often accepted and maintained as an extra burden for women’s teams.
Romantic, flirty, or sexual relationships between coach and student. It doesn’t matter if the relationship is consensual or both parties are similar in age. There is a power imbalance. It is detrimental to the team’s growth, and debilitating to the growth and health of individual team members. Some universities have crafted policies directly addressing the impropriety of sexual relationships that involve such power imbalances. However, given that adoption and enforcement is not uniform across institutions, our sport can and should create its own such policies–and actually enforce them.
Grooming. Being overly nice, offering privileges, leading an individual athlete to believe they are special or choosen by sending unwanted or overly personal messages oversteps personal boundaries and is a sign of grooming relating to control. Grooming can lead to sexual abuse or exist as a way to maintain emotional or psychological abuse.
Team Doctors and Trainers Abuse. We’ve heard about Nassar in gymnastics, but have you heard the story about Charlotte Remenyik? She spoke up on behalf of her men’s Division 1 fencing team from an abusive doctor and was silenced.
Group Trauma Phenomenon. Over time, entire teams have assumed a way of thinking is okay. This thinking is often led by a dynamic and fiercely loved coach who views behaviors listed above as acceptable. This is further validated when a university or college keeps or maintains a particular leader or leadership style of abusive patterning, despite things that might be very obvious to individuals not in our sport or to professionals, like parents or non-athletes. Coaches who ‘look the other way’ and allow a team to participate in university-prohibited behaviors is problematic.
Groupthink occurs with the denial of vulnerability. When an entire team is unwilling to acknowledge fallibility and there is a false belief in the absolute goodness of the group, leaders and participants rationalize behaviors in order to minimize damage to perceived strength of the team.
Open Secrets are behaviors known by many people, or where a problematic relationship is tolerated, even though believed to be abusive.
Hazing is any activity expected of someone joining a team (or to maintain full status in a team) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person's willingness to participate.
Signs of Possible Abuse.
Lashing out at teammates unintentionally or internalizing pain alone can be a sign of coping with trauma.
Feeling isolated from former best friends, boyfriend or girlfriend, parents or coaches and past fencing allies.
Experiencing a ‘Ball of Despair’ after a fencing competition, with overwhelming feelings of intense psychological devastation or heightened vulnerability. This demonstrates how the act of competing can exacerbate and reflect life experiences.
Guilt. Shame. Self-blame. Sadness. Hopelessness. Anxiety. Fear. Variations in feelings are normal parts of life, but coupled with losing joy in something you once loved, over time, could be a sign abuse has been present.
Get Support. If you are reading this post and see yourself, or your team, you are not alone. Many abusive behaviors have been quietly accepted across all sports. Our community is waking up. Here are additional sources of support:
The Athletic Director of each team is responsible for the hiring and firing of coaches. You should not feel that you have to go through your coach to talk to or consult with your athletic department.
Title IX exists to ensure compliance of federally funded universities and colleges.
When and if you are blocked, stonewalled, gaslighted, or denied access to university or college resources or privileges, you may need to consider legal advice.
Change Your Response. As competitive communities, we have a responsibility to work together to keep athletes safe. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution, no checklist of procedures and actions that, if followed, ensure the safety of fencers. Acknowledging and recovering from abuse can take years or even decades and often evokes complex feelings and uncertainty about how to report, change or accept what has happened to you or your teammates.
Working together as teammates, across generations, can reduce the chances of abuse. Athletes, parents, and coaches should feel comfortable consulting and getting help when needed. Creating an open, inclusive, and diverse competitive environment is part of this work. If all fencing teams, including both past and present members, help each other lift the burden of responsibility, create accountability, and support each other through the process, we will spur the real change we all seek.
WFencing has launched an Advocacy Group composed of professionals within our sport working to connect and support one another. To consult or connect, contact any member of the Board of Directors or email email@example.com. We encourage readers to post a picture of their team on social media with the hashtag #changetheresponse in an effort to raise awareness.
This article has been reviewed and vetted by varsity fencing alumni from the Universities of California San Diego and Berkeley, Duke, Notre Dame, Stanford, Penn State, Temple, Princeton, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jen Oldham is a practicing fencing coach and club owner in Durham, NC who has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a Maître d'Armes. Coach Jen can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org and competed as a varsity fencer from 1993-1996 at UNC-CH.