WASHINGTON, April 17, 2013 — “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.” — Niccolo Machiavelli
“If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear.” —Unknown
At a certain point in my fencing career, I stopped caring about titles, rankings and the “who’s who” of the fencing world and instead began to focus on my own technique, rigorous training and attention to detail in my bouting/tactics. I stopped psyching myself out before facing higher ranked opponents and developed the confidence and willpower to believe I could beat anyone in my weapon. Sometime during this epiphany, I got an “A” rating. By that point, I hardly cared.
For whatever reason, many fencers hold some sacred reverence for their fellow athletes who possess an “A” rating, which is the highest national rating a fencer can attain. For those who may or may not know, the United States Fencing Association (USFA) ranks its fencers on a scale of “A” through “U” (U being unrated).
I’ve written about ratings in the past, namely, an article about getting students to focus on the mental journey they must take to avoid focusing on ratings and the conversations a coach must have with students to ensure they approach tournaments with a combative mentality. In this article, I hope to challenge the notion that A’s deserve some heightened level of respect than their peers. Allow me to share with you a few anecdotes that illustrate my point:
1. At a recent tournament I competed in, a young fencer in my pool swiftly defeated me. I don’t even know his rating, and yet, his club felt compelled to write a story about the victory on its website. They wrote “[fencer] had a tough pool with the number two seeded A rated fencer, Damien Lehfeldt,….he only had two wins in his pool…but one of them was against the A fencer Lehfeldt!” The little fella who beat me out-fenced me, outwitted me and wanted the win more than I did. I tip my hat to him. Hey wait a sec, why did the club post this on its website? I just looked at the final result of that tournament and he only finished in the top 16 (at a local tournament). The Fencing Coach is not impressed.
2. The Central Florida Division (my old stomping ground) will waive the entry fee of any “A” rated fencer entering competition. It is a practice run by a few divisions in the country. Quite frankly, if you’re an “A” and you’re only competing because it’s free, then you’ve lost the love for your sport. You shouldn’t get any special benefit.
An “A” rating can be won over the course of a single tournament. In other words, luck of the draw on a given day can vaunt a fencer into the range where s/he might earn one. Yet upon getting an “A,” the culture of US Fencing worships the recipient. US National Team member and Junior Olympic Champion Nina Sirico agrees: “I think people ‘worship’ A’s because that is the highest tangible goal they can achieve at the time.
“After a while I’m sure people realize that there are bigger and better things to strive for…a person’s skill level isn’t really reflected by a single letter. It can change at any moment. Consistency matters most. If they earn a rating and aren’t consistent, then maybe they should make that their goal first before striving for larger ratings.”
The greatest thing about fencing is that anyone is capable of defeating an opponent on any given day, regardless of the opponent’s ratings. When my college teammates would give me the “OH MY GOD, I HAVE TO FENCE THIS GUY” spiel, I would remind them that “He’s only a mortal.”
To praise the paper merits of another fencer is to consider oneself inferior to that opponent. Such thinking can only lead to lowered confidence and accepting premature defeat before a bout even begins. It’s a serious cultural problem in American fencing, one I hope will dissipate over time. Don’t worship your opponents. Seek to destroy them.
Damien is a competitive fencer and volunteer assistant coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. Damien was the coach of a London 2012 Olympic Athlete in Modern Pentathlon. He was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team. He is a qualifier for the 2013 Maccabi Games.
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