Coach Dan verbally adjusts Butch’s fencing stance (elbow in, right arm down, left arm back, feet shoulder width apart), his voice slightly frustrated, like a photographer arranging the pose of a fidgety child. You can tell Butch is trying his best to follow along, but he doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong, what he needs to correct. I know that feeling, happened to me a lot when I was in Butch’s position last year, just starting out and anxious to not only do things right, but also not to do anything wrong.
Fencing’s a tough sport to learn, and while I don’t have a lot of proof to back this up, I think it’s particularly difficult for American kids to pick up. I read this book Coach Dan lent me, it talked about fencing schools in Europe that have been around for centuries, and are still going strong. Coach Dan told me once, he said Europeans started coming to America during the days when firearms were becoming mass produced, so they brought their guns and left their rapiers behind. (“Easier to slaughter Indians with rifles than swords,” Double-J said at the time, which caused Coach Dan to turn away, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.)
But here’s what else I figured out. American sports, almost all of them involve some kind of ball, something you can hit, throw, catch, carry. Most of the skills you learn in those sports revolve around that ball — aligning your body to shoot a basketball in a smooth arc down into the hoop, getting down to field a grounder in baseball, hitting a tennis ball over a net and past your opponent’s racket, passing a puck so it glides rather than bounces over the ice to your teammate, catching a football pass without breaking stride. Then you get to fencing, and suddenly there’s no ball, nothing to focus your attention. Yeah, you have a foil (or epee, or sabre), but it’s nothing like a baseball bat, tennis racket, or hockey stick (you can’t hold it like a club, I remember Coach Dan telling me a lot last year). A proper fencing action is a thrust, not a swing, and you simply don’t do that much thrusting in other sports.
Sometime around your first or second practice, you realize that most of the skills you developed playing other sports don’t translate into fencing. Sure, balance and hand/eye coordination are important in fencing, like they are in other sports, but it’s a different kind of balance (go forward, but not tooforward), a different type of target towards which the eye is to guide the hand.
Fencing’s a tough sport, and seeing Butch stand awkwardly in his en garde stance, I feel glad that I’ve made as much progress as I have this past year.