Learning Fencing
August 11, 2008 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Bitten by the olympic bug, I am interested in taking up fencing. Fencing questions inside. (Suggestions for other unique non-team sports are welcome)


I am 23, 6'-3" lean and in good physical condition. I need to participate in a physical activity as a distraction during my upcoming thesis year and would like to be able to carry over in a future 9 to 5 lifestyle. Fencing seems very appealing, but...

Does fencing fit in to a once, maybe twice a week hobby, or is it more of a time/lifestyle commitment?

It appears that I am past the prime of learning how to fence. Is it too late to learn, or should I take up a "lifetime" sport like golf or tennis?

What is the learning curve? Are there even tournaments for "older" people? I see a lot of "I used to fence in college" kind of thing.

Anything else related to how fencing would fit in to a lifestyle, not so much of what are the different types of fencing or what equipment I need to buy kind of information. Also, I live just down the street from the Cincinnati Fencing Club, which appears to be a credible organization.
posted by comatose to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I fenced competitively for six years. If you want to fence once or twice a week, that's fine. If you want to make it a lifetime sport, that's great too. It can work either way.

You're definitely not past the prime of learning to fence. Anyone can do it. It's an extremely aerobic and tactical sport, like boxing or martial arts, with more emphasis on speed, agility, reflexes and skill, and less on brute strength.

The learning curve is about the same as with any other sport. You'll start with footwork, learning the rules, and eventually move on to blade work. Eventually you'll fence against other people in your class or "salle" (dojo), and when you're ready you can enter a tournament.

There are tournaments for "older" people. Most tournaments are open but separated by gender. Some will have a "masters" division. Don't worry about it. When I was 18 I got my ass handed to me by some dudes who were over 50.

It's a great sport. It'll condition you (tournaments can start at 8am and wrap up 12 hours later). The best fencers are constantly moving around, playing with the distance between themselves and their opponent, making feints, setting up attacks, luring attacks. It's much closer to boxing than it is to "I shall thrust here sir!...and then parry you like such! Ah hah!". It's more like float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:47 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think they key would be to check out the club and see if they have a subset of recreational fencers and/or classes/practice times that would fit in with your level/committment. Most places let you watch a practice.

Fencing is definately something you can pick up as an adult (I learned in college). It did take awhile for it to "click", but I'm not a quick-learner in sports. The lunges/footwork uses specific muscles and it takes a few practices to get your body used to it, so be patient at first.

Note: I haven't fenced in 5 years (since college), so I'm also interested to see what if any post-college recreational fencers can add more. I'm considering going back to fencing as a hobby. I know I couldn't practice enough to be competitive now (that was a 9 hour/wk commitment in college).
posted by ejaned8 at 10:05 AM on August 11, 2008

I'll echo what Spike said.

I fenced in high school, and have been debating picking it up again. The club near my house has sent people to the olympics, and they make it very clear that a large number of people who take up lessons there are the 2- or 3-times per week crowd, and at least half are your age or older.

To address the equipment question, the club likely supplies it for the novices, and you can buy through them or other retailers when you get more advanced and want your own stuff. The coaches should be able to give you any advice you need.

And as a bonus, to answer the AskMe your future self will write: Yes, your leg muscles are supposed to hurt that much. And yes, they will hurt less with time!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:09 AM on August 11, 2008

Is it too late to learn?

Jujie Luan is 50, and still competing in the Olympics.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:11 AM on August 11, 2008

I fenced when I was younger, and there were plenty of people who were your age now who just came once a week, and plenty who took it up at that age. You're probably not going to make the olympics, but to get proficient and have fun, with the possibility of some kind competition, is definitely possible.
posted by gregjones at 10:13 AM on August 11, 2008

I've fenced non-competitively for around seven or eight years now. I've been part of a few beginners clubs that get together once or twice a week and do drills/practice. It's definitely hobbyable; it's really fun, actually. The other people in my class range from teenagers to college students to parents, from people who are half my age to people who are twice my age. I'm 22, so being 23 is definitely NOT "past prime."

The learning curve varries. It depends on who you're fencing against, honestly. I'm trying to offer a contrast to the competitive mindset that spike is describing. As people said, you'll want to find the recreational classes/practices. The curve to get started? A class or two. The learning curve before you start scoring points? A number of weeks. The learning curve before you consider yourself good? a year or two. I don't know how long it takes to get to super-competitive-amazing ability, but there's always more techniques and strategies and styles to learn.

You want to start with foil, and you want to be decent with foil before you move to another blade. And also a second to what NotMyselfRightNow said. And I'm trying not to just explode a wall of text of advice for beginning fencing. MeFiMail me or something if you want more details/have additional questions.
posted by Galt at 10:20 AM on August 11, 2008

Fencing sounds like a very good fit for you and for what you want. I recommend it.
Once or twice a week is enough to get you into competition after a while - and not coming last :-)

IMO, the only drawback it has is that (like most sports) it's not useful, beyond the usual health and recreation benefits of sport - it's not one of those dual-purpose sports that can be directly applied elsewhere in your life, such as dance, or a martial art that works for self-defense, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:27 AM on August 11, 2008

I can only answer your first two questions because I never tried to fit fencing into a lifestyle. I should get back into it, though. Thanks for the reminder. ;)

1. You can fence as much or as little as you want. It's still great fun either way.

2. As far as I can tell, the only valid reason not to take up fencing is that you tried it and chose not to pursue it. Taking up golf or tennis instead is a subconscious attempt to avoid having as much fun. ('Tis my opinion only; no offense to golfers or tennis players.)
posted by kidbritish at 10:35 AM on August 11, 2008

IANAFencing Master, but my husband owns his own fencing club and goes to Coaches College every year (none this year in an Olympic year!).

You sound like you will be a perfect fit--fencers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. At 6'3", and lean, you scream epee, so do not be surprised if a coach tries to steer you in that way. (I know you did not ask for weapon description, but you should be forewarned that with your build, epee will more than likely keep coming up).

Mr. Oflinkey laughed when I read the "too old to start". Not even close. Fencing 1-2 times a week is not at all a problem as long as you are PATIENT with yourself. This isn't a race, right? This is fun.

He thinks the learning curve is comparable to other sports with one special note: Learning even the most basic techniques can take some time and a few sessions, so depending on the coach you many not actually fence anyone (other than a hanging tennis ball or a dummy) for quite a while. Coaches are mindful of this and that people want to cross steel, but it is like a musical instrument. It takes some time. But because it is sop technical, it has that certain appeal for people who like things precisely because they are technical and intricate.

Events for older people-- well, you aren't really old in the fencing world, but anyone above 14 can compete in open events. Once you get what fencers think is older, you get into veterans events-- over 40, over 50 and over 60. See all the time you have!

Mr. Oflinkey does not know too much about the Cinci scene, but the Columbus scene is the one he is more familiar with. Columbus is some great fencing, so more than likely there is bleed-over. You can get in contact with Columbus people and see what they have to say about Cincinnati.

If you have more technical questions you can MeMail me and I will pass it along to Mr. Oflinkey. Good luck! Fencing is fun and there are some wonderful people involved with it at the national and international levels.
posted by oflinkey at 10:49 AM on August 11, 2008

There is a guy in my son's fencing club that started a few years ago at age 70ish, so you are fine at 23! My son is 14. One of the really cool things about fencing is that a 70 year old and a 14 year old can compete on equal terms. The local fencing clubs will run regular beginner's classes in which you will be able to borrow their equipment for the class. Also, as a member of a club you can usually use the club's equipment on site. So don't worry about spending any money on equipment yet. Usually you have to buy your own glove and plastron (chest protector) but they will take care of that in class with a group order using the club's discount.
posted by COD at 11:01 AM on August 11, 2008

Fencing is brilliant! Starting "late" is only a problem if you are in it to win competitions (which you don't seem to be), as you'll inevitably bump into someone who's been fencing since the age of 6. It'd take quite a few years before you got up to the standard of people your age.

I've been fencing for 7 years, twice/thrice a week. It does tend to spread out into weekends, especially if you get into the competitive side of it, but if you don't want to go to competitions there's no need to.

Oh, and it's not cheap (at least not in the UK). It costs about £300 to get all of your kit, and parts continually need replacing. You can rent from a club for a few years to get your bearing though.
posted by katrielalex at 11:04 AM on August 11, 2008

I fenced for quite a while despite never being particularly good at, and had a great time. As other have said your certainly not too old to start, and fencing a couple times a week would actually put you ahead of a lot of people I know who consider themselves fencers. Go to a club and give it some time and you’ll probably have a blast.
But to make a suggestion of another great solo sport: rock climbing. It can be competitive or not and has perhaps the opposite timing and skill set to fencing. It also fits in with just about any schedule, I started rock climbing in college (the climbing wall was right under my office) while writing my thesis and it carried over into 9-5 just great.
posted by French Fry at 11:05 AM on August 11, 2008

I haven't heard anything said about the negatives, so I'll just pop in to point out that I found it extremely hard on the knees, hard enough that I gave it up. A friend of mine who fenced competitively for a few years has taken to calling it "the sport of idiots;" he has lifelong knee problems he attributes to injuries sustained during fencing training.

Despite that, I found it fun and a great aerobic workout.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:26 AM on August 11, 2008

A not so minor point about the cost of equipment. Europe requires FIE (the international fencing org) certified equipment for competitions. The US does not. The price mentioned above from the British fencer would only apply in the US if you were outfitting yourself with FIE equipment. A basic beginner's kit for electrical fencing is usually sold as a package in the $120-$150 range. If you find you are going to fence 2-3 times a week I would recommend skipping the intro level weapons and getting higher quality. I spend a lot less time repairing faulty tips now that my son is using German tips and a near FIE quality blade.
posted by COD at 11:41 AM on August 11, 2008

If you are going to use club equipment, I'd suggest buying your own glove at a minimum. Your own foil and mask are great, but there's something a little less disgusting about slipping your hand into a salt stiffened glove knowing it's your own sweat that made it that way.

Also, I pick up my foil about once ever other year and "drop in" on the college club. Small clubs are desperate to have new people they haven't fenced 1,000 times before.

If you have any martial arts background, you'll find the footwork to be similar.

As for learning curve, there isn't any reason you can't be fencing by the end of your first night, just don't expect to get good at it for a while.

I'm well below average in this sport, but I enjoy it. I'm 38 and picked it up in college. I own my own equipment, so that makes it easier to do it when I feel like it.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:23 PM on August 11, 2008

Chiming in to agree that you shouldn't worry about your age. I took a fencing class a few years ago, at 35, and managed to do well enough. I haven't kept with it, but it was a lot of fun.
posted by jon1270 at 12:53 PM on August 11, 2008

I had a couple fencing classes in college, and I never quite got the hang of it, which was kind of a bummer for me, as I was very into the idea of it... I found it to be very mental in a way, kinda like a chess match (as cliched as that sounds). I wasn't able to think fast enough to do the moves/counter moves. It is a martial art, i.e., combat, like karate.

I found I enjoyed racquet sports more, and got a better workout. Table tennis can be a blast, if you're playing at a high level. Racquetball is good, too, if you've got access to a court.

But shoot, if you've got a club down the street, go for it.
posted by Bron at 4:10 PM on August 11, 2008

I fenced a bit in high school and college. I think one of the major disappointments I had when I took up fencing at the college level was just how quickly the matches ended and how haphazardly the points could be achieved. The speed and some of the formalities (particularly right of way) can quickly take the fun out of matches. Additionally, you'll find that the sensitivity of the electronic scoring means that you can get a "hit" by barely touching your opponent. For me, it was the electronic scoring that completely ruined the spirit of the sport. Opponents would frequently game the system and get points that, in a "real" dual wouldn't even cause a flesh wound.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:56 PM on August 11, 2008

Ah fencing! What everyone has said here rings true. Please check your preconceived ideas about age and fencing at the door.

Assuming you take it up, at some point, a 14 year old girl is going to absolutely -kick your ass- on the piste. (Competitive fencing is gender segregated, but training is usually mixed in my experience). Do NOT beat yourself up about it. She probably has 5+ years of experience on you. You'll probably also be beaten up by some old guy who wheezes and looks like he is about to collapse on the piste. Don't be fooled. No one will think less of you, because winning has everything to do with your experience and how much you train, and less to do with how old you are now. I have met many people who have started fencing both as a child and as an adult. You will probably find yourself fencing against a wide age range, and can learn from both the wisdom of the older fencers and the crazy tricks of the younger fencers.

One thing I love about fencing is how age seems to stop mattering. I have never had closer friends with a greater range of age.

As far as commitment goes, I know a lot of fencers who a 'recreational' and show up once or twice a week. There are others that fence once or twice a week but then also volunteer with tournaments/armoury etc. And there are always hard core competitors. There are a lot of people who are passionate about the sport and have comfortably integrated it into their 9-5 lifestyle to varying degrees.
posted by billy_the_punk at 3:06 PM on August 12, 2008

some of the formalities (particularly right of way) can quickly take the fun out of matches.

Oh yes... about that. That's why I hated foil and loved epee. Try all the weapons, if you get the chance.
posted by kidbritish at 8:26 PM on August 12, 2008

Opponents would frequently game the system and get points that, in a "real" dual wouldn't even cause a flesh wound.

If some kind of connection to "real" dueling is important, think Shakespeare/Hamlet and poisoned blades - even so much as a scratch would be fatal. 500 grams minimum pressure on a sharp tip would be more than a scratch.

some of the formalities (particularly right of way) can quickly take the fun out of matches.

This is a bit of a contradiction. In a "real" duel, hitting your opponent is much MUCH less important than avoiding getting hit. If you score a hit on him but get killed in the process, that's not 10% success, that's 100% fail. But in sports, people naturally want to score points. So rules that give an attack right of way until it is parried is a blunt instrument to hammer some "real" dueling technique into you - that scoring points comes second - that your first priority is foremost and always to not get hit - to deal with each and every attack that comes your way, and not overlook them in your haste to get some hits yourself.
Once they've learned that lesson to the core, most people move to the weapons where the rule is not applied. :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:38 AM on August 15, 2008

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