Updated: Mar 30
by Julie Seal
This last February, I had the opportunity to test for my Fencing Master certification in foil. It was the culmination of three years of work towards a goal that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time. I am very grateful that for the most part, I have been congratulated. I was actually half expecting to be minimized. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone who was very supportive.
Accomplishing that goal began in 2019, when WFencing was just beginning with a series of meetings organized by Jen Oldham to discuss how women could be more additive and supportive of one another in the Fencing Community. I was dubious then about how we could do anything more effective for ourselves as a gender, other than the long suffering service and abuse that we have been conditioned to believe is just “part of the culture”. It was in one of these meetings, that she encouraged me to consider my interest in becoming a fencing master. At that time, Jen was the CAB chair for the US Fencing Coaches Association, which is the organization responsible for certifications and testing. She got me in touch with fencing legend Vinnie Bradford who was also active (and now Executive Director) with the USFCA. I thought it was a hopeful start.
Then Covid hit.
We were all stopped in our tracks.
I was determined to use the time to do something, anything productive. I called Vinnie up and basically harassed her with email videos of lessons that I was teaching. She was very patient and gracious with her time. In the light of no other options, I worked through the USFCA's coaching courses remotely. This was a long and hugely frustrating process because there was no protocol in place for remote learning or collaboration then. I took a few tests more than once. Heck, we all were just learning to Zoom. The journey was slow and I am impatient, and not great at going slow. There were many moments that I considered abandoning the effort.
Why did I continue?
I have been fencing for 30 years. I have close to 100 national medals as well as international medals in all three weapons. I have been teaching for maybe 25 years and I have medalists in all three weapons, in many divisions and in most age categories. I own my own club. I know how to help students win. I know how to win myself. I know how to teach an engaging class.
I thought I knew fencing.
But, I began to rediscover some things of great value.
So what did I learn? I learned the basics. I thought I knew them. But, I underestimated their worth. The basics included:
1. ALL THE WORDS.
When we can label something precisely, we can organize it precisely. Words matter because they move our thoughts from approximations to concise visualization. I learned how to use those words to communicate organized ideas to others of all levels of development. I learned how to be thorough. I learned this primarily from Vinnie Bradford, who's other area of expertise (besides fencing) is education. After working so many years taking fencing lessons from men, it is noteworthy to point out that I truly had an epiphany about fencing from someone who never gave me a fencing lesson. Maybe it took a woman, who approached fencing from a completely different cognitive angle to really teach me the value of verbal organization.
2. BEING EVEN MORE PURPOSEFUL - The other big concept I learned was purpose in every instant. I play the violin. I know that the key to music mastery is practicing scales. Scales can be so boring. But therein lies the secret to perfection. The same concept is everywhere. Being a master means always making purposeful decisions as a habit. A clear action has design, and is executed with precision. I have always valued freedom and creativity over being thorough and objective oriented. But now I see that having discipline in every instant means having the power to organize every action at your command. That’s ultimate freedom and ultimate power.
3. ALLOWING GROWTH - One HUGE difference in the way I teach now is to allow more struggle and growth in my students. I have never actually taught that way. Why? When I first started thinking about why, I thought "because that's not how any of my coaches have taught." But that's not true. They have allowed for struggle and growth, BUT they never labeled it as such. Because many fencing coaches don't actually say "You tell me what you think. You come up with a solution," maybe we don't know we are expected to do that. Maybe that skill isn't even on our radar. We are often handed a set of actions that we are expected to repeat and understand their applications. How often do we really let our students discover that they already know answers to the challenges they face in fencing bouts? Coaches are sometimes too quick to point out how we athletes didn't come up with the right answer after a loss, but how often did they demand that we create our own solutions during a lesson? Maybe because I am a woman, it took a few women coaches to say that for me to realize that I have been doing it all along as an athlete. Now I will be able to mentor that skill better in my students.
So now, moving forward, I have a new perspective on everything. One of those new perspectives is about the question: What makes a good coach? My answer is different than before. A good coach is not just the person who can tell you how to win. A good coach:
Collaborates with the athlete about what the athlete truly wants and believes they can do. Belief is the key to success. If the athlete doesn’t believe they can win, what do they believe? Can they get one more touch? Can they be present in the competition?
Collaborates with the athlete about making a plan to get to the goals. This includes schedule, diet, practice structure, competition schedules, etc., but the athlete has to be 100% on board.
Helps athletes identify the “why” in everything they do. This means fencing actions AND just about everything else.
Is a trusted counselor, accountant and reflection of what progress is being made. In essence, a coach is a friend that tells you the truth, when you don’t want to hear it but also when you won’t believe it because of fear.
Is a protector. Athletes are giving everything. Coaches are their first and best advocate.
Coaches are teammates. When athletes win or lose, so does the coach. They aren’t jumping ahead of the athlete for praise and they aren’t lagging behind either. I was so impressed by Lee Keifer’s relationship with her coach. They are clearly old friends. She isn’t his “creation.” He isn’t her father figure. They are a team.
With all of these considerations and more in mind, I am of the opinion that fencing needs more female coaches. We need them at all levels, including the national level. We need them for more than just saying the right thing at a crucial moment in the bout. We need them to say the right things in crucial moments of life. We need them to balance the toxic energy that all sports are swimming in. The world of competition is often abusive. It's the law of the jungle. Sport has become survival of the winners. But maybe we have forgotten that sport is not war. It's the opposite. Sport is friendship, and sacrifice, and the pursuit of excellence, in all things, including respect for one another. We women can do that. Lack of testosterone can have some benefits. As somebody really famous in fencing once said, "Without women, you are only using half of your population resources." *
Fencing is, of course, a warrior activity and because of that we are often left feeling like maybe we aren’t enough of a warrior to play on the big stages. We actually stand aside when bigger, more successful men come along to “take it from here." I am so inspired by coaches that are actually my competitive peers from long ago. Coaches like Jenni Salmon, Ariana Klinkov, Jen Oldham, Daria Schneider, Christine Griffith, and National Epee Coach Natalie Dostert are like superheroes for even having the confidence to apply for the jobs that they now are rocking. I’m inspired by the women pioneers who came before me like Vinnie Bradford, Nat Goodhartz, and Nikki Franke. They are full of wisdom and kindness and are examples of how to teach by building and not by being self-centered or demanding to be worshiped. I’m inspired by many of you female coaches whom I watch work absolute magic on strip including but not limited to Karen Ladenheim, Nellya Sevostyanova, Yuliya Muruhin, Katarzyna Dabrowa, Anna Angelova, Margaret DeLong, Sandra Marchant, and so many, many more. As a referee, I certainly see you and watch you masterfully collaborate with your athletes. I am making a point to get to know you ladies better. I have the deepest respect for you. You have so much to teach. I want to hear you. I want to know what you know.
There are so many qualified women in fencing. It is absolutely worth considering that two of the most respected referees we have ever had from the USA are women (Kelly Koehler and Iana Dakova). Their mentor was Sharon Everson, a woman. The ONLY individual Olympic Gold Medalists we have ever had from the USA in the last 100 years are women (Lee Kiefer and Mariel Zagunis). I maintain my assertion that USA Fencing should look for more women to fill National Coach positions. It astounds me that even some of the ladies who hear me say that are quick to point out that a vagina is not a good enough reason to hire a female national coach. Well, everyone, a penis isn’t a good enough reason to hire either. Let’s put aside such foolish red herrings and really talk about how even we women have been fooled into believing that we can’t head up a national team “because there is probably a man out there that can do it better.” Let's answer the call when it comes. Let's apply for the job. Let's accept the big challenges. We can do amazing things. We have knowledge and power to bring to the table. There are qualified women in fencing. You are probably one of them.
* Vinnie Bradford "Opening Closed Doors to Women in Sports" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtGpEoTHXgE&t=54s