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A year ago, my seven-year-old son’s organized extracurriculars included kung fu, gymnastics, baseball, and swimming. Fencing was the furthest activity from his mind. But my wife and I brought him for his first introductory lesson with SF Youth Fencing’s Maître d’Armes, Rob Handelman, at Halberstadt Fencer’s Club in San Francisco anyway. Having fenced on my college’s varsity sabre team (and trained at Halberstadt’s for a time back in… a while ago!), I was eager to expose my son to this martial art. During my son’s first six months of fencing training, it’s fair to say that it was my passion for the sport that drove my son’s participation, not his own. (https://www.youtube.com/… shows the tenor of my son’s first few months at fencing, barely able to avoid tripping over his own feet! He’s the little guy in the center foreground.)
But something happened about six to nine months into his participation with SF Youth Fencing: sabre rattling started climbing my son’s activities rankings. From the bottom a year ago, fencing began a steady climb to the top spot, knocking gymnastics off the list entirely and reducing his baseball availability. How did Rob’s program win my son over?
SF Youth Fencing’s coaching staff, as the name implies, is incredibly child-friendly. The coaches are utterly competent in their craft, but also are marvels of patience, tolerance, understanding, awareness, and organization. Rob and his wife, Connie Louie (Maître de Sabre), are aided by Sándor (Prévôt de Sabre), and a host of paid and volunteer assistants. The students’ parents are also incredibly supportive to each other and to each others’ kids. SF Youth Fencing is a community centered on sabre fencing.
Each session’s instructional program includes a regular progression of warm-up games and functional drills, one-on-one and group instruction, practice and challenge bouts, and warm-down games. Just about any kid can be slotted into the program at any time, regardless of skill level. Progress, especially in the early stages, is primarily self-driven; each kid decides how hard to push, how deep to engage with the program. As kids progress up the skills ladder, the coaches dial up the instructional intensity, but never more than each kid can handle.
There’s also an easy camaraderie among the students. You’ll often find the more advanced students offering practical advice and assistance to junior members, even during bouts with them. For example, during my son’s first introductory lesson, the one unequivocally positive aspect he demonstrated was his speed and agility during the pre- and post-session games. One of the better Y12 fencers sought him out after that first class and assured my son, “I can tell you’re going to be a good fencer.” Whether that prediction comes true or not, I appreciated the sentiment in which it was given and my son rode an early boost in his confidence.
My son’s still climbing the learning curve, but over the last year it’s been a pleasure to watch him proceed through a continuum of humoring his parents (OK, his dad!), to mild interest, to burgeoning curiosity, to self-driven engagement with the program. His bouts now show some promising sparks of creativity and skill, and sometimes sheer joy (https://www.youtube.com/… , my son’s on the far strip, right).
One year later, go ahead and put the question to my son yourself. “Are you a fencer?” He’ll look you right in the eyes and respond, “Yes, I am.”
I cannot say about Rob and Connie’s youth fencing program. Our daughter fenced with them for over three years and I firmly believed she learned critical life-long lessons training and competing with SF Youth Fencing.
These lessons have served her well dealing with new environments (we moved to Italy), her school performance, and her determination on the soccer field. Among other things, my daughter learned:
1. Discipline and Commitment. My daughter is very social and she missed events she dearly wanted to go to but couldn’t because of tournaments and practice. Connie and Rob expect the same level of commitment of their kids that compete (and their parents) as they put into it (actually less…Connie and Rob have put their lives into this program!). When my daughter commits to a team or any other endeavor, she understands what it means.
2. Resilience. It’s painful to see your kid lose and get upset, but seeing them grow and get tougher bit by bit is so gratifying. Particularly for girls, it’s great having a role model and professional like Connie who can help the kids so much in this area. Putting kids in an environment where they will inevitably lose, but provides the support to help them pull themselves back and win is invaluable.
3. Self-control. Rob always sets the right expectations for the kids. As they get older and more experienced, he is always pushing the bar higher and higher, as I would expect a coach to do. As a more experienced fencer, my daughter was put on probation by Rob for not shaking hands with her competitor after losing (the match and her self-control). She vividly remembers this important lesson, which I believe will stick with her for the rest of her life.
4. Physical Fitness. My daughter is drawn to athletics now and I believe fitness will be important to her for the rest of her life. She is happy to have sports part of her daily routine.
5. Persistence and effort. Fencing is not easy and requires an enormous amount of training and competition to achieve a high skill level. My daughter learned there is no shortcut to success, only hard work. Her soccer coach in Italy often noted how much more effort she put into drills and training than some of the other kids, and I attribute that to Rob and Connie’s coaching.
Coaching excellence is difficult. You are in the fishbowl being observed by parents and young athletes alike. Rob and Connie are masters at teaching kids not only mastery of fencing, but valuable lessons that will serve them throughout their lives.
Our daughter has been going to the fencing club. She loves it. We love it. The class starts off with some stretching, aerobic and strength exercises. Then kids break up into groups for their bouts (they wear all the necessary uniforms and safety equipment), hook up on the strips and have their matches. They are rotated through this, and their individual lessons, so the instruction is germane and can be used immediately. Afterwards, there are some coordination games before the class ends.
Rob and Connie are great with the kids. They’re very patient and never seem to get upset. They take no guff or slackers, instead working with the kids as a group so everyone gets to take part and learn. The older kids from the other classes are there to help out also. The lessons and exercises are fun and easy to learn; we even do some of these at home for practice for all of us.
The kids learn the terminology, techniques, and etiquette that are part of this sport. The use of the exercises, games, and lessons are a perfect blend that keeps the kids interested and motivated to continue on. They just started a challenge ladder for the kids, so now there’s more motivation to practice and get better.