What the fencing community can learn from the firing of Mike Rice

Mike Rice was dismissed from the Rutgers basketball program. What can a niche sport like fencing learn from this story? Photo: Disgraced Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice AP

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2013 — On April 3, 2013, Rutgers University fired basketball head coach Mike Rice one day after ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” published a damning report on Rice’s long string of physical, verbal and emotional abuse towards his team.

The video from “Outside the Lines” is difficult to watch. Throughout practices, Rice is shown shoving players, punching them, at one point hurling a basketball at a player’s head and still another ball at a different player’s genitals. In another part of the video, he screams at a player, “You f**king fairy…you’re a f**king fa**ot.” These are only a few of the items on the laundry list of abuses Rice imposed on his players.

In a perfect world, a coach not only serves as an athlete’s teacher. S/he will serve as an athlete’s mentor, role model, spiritual advisor, and someone who will enhance the character of each individual they encounter. The path that Rice chose to take as coach will accomplish none of these things.

In the niche world of fencing, the coach-athlete relationship is far different from that of a team environment as the coach must understand the psychology of each individual in order to fully maximize his or her potential. This is a large part of the reason why the coach-athlete bond in fencing is so akin to that of a parent-child relationship.

Tough love is often necessary in fencing, as it is in any sport and as it is between parents and their child/ren. Tough love, however, must never equate to the same emotional abuse doled out by Rice. A parent wrote to me two weeks ago, explaining that his child’s coach was a “great” coach, with a few caveats: He thwacked him in the leg with a blade regularly for failing to learn actions, he screamed in his face during tournaments and he often called him names I can’t repeat in this column. He asked for my advice, and it was simple: leave.

Long lasting bonds between a coach and student are not formed with fear as the catalyst. Five-time world champion Peter Joppich recalled his coach Uli Schreck fondly, “Uli Schreck is the most important person in my fencing career. We know each other and have worked together for more than 17 years….I’m very thankful for having him as my coach. We also have a good relationship outside the sport and respect each other.”

Three-time NCAA first team All-American Jonathan Yergler spoke about his coach, Mario Jelev, saying, “Mario…is like having another dad. He’s been great at pushing me to work harder and achieve more than I otherwise would have been able to.” Being a student of Jelev, I can attest to the same.

Call it corny, call it a cliché, but love from coach to student is a precedent for yielding successful results. The Rutgers University Basketball team will not look back on their days with Mike Rice fondly as he acts like a raging lunatic, who should never work with athletes again. One need not look beyond his team’s body language during his temperamental tirades to see why this is true.

While Rice-like abuses in the fencing world are (mostly) uncommon, they’re out there. For parents to receive the best return on their investment in their child’s fencing, they should find a coach whose relationship is driven by love, whether it’s benign love or tough love.

If you’re working with the Mike Rice of fencing, then walk out the door and find a coach who ten years down the road will be viewed with the same fondness with which Joppich and Yergler view theirs.


Keep up to date on every touch with Damien Lehfeldt, The Fencing Coach

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 is an A-rated epeeist and was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team.



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Damien Lehfeldt

Damien is a fencing coach and competitor at the DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is the coach of a 2012 London Olympic athlete in Modern Pentathlon and a member of the gold medal team at the 2012 North American Cup. Damien has coached multiple national finalists and Junior Olympic medalists.

Damien is the owner of TheFencingCoach.com, a fencing blog designed to share training tips, leadership philosophies, and best practices in coaching. He is an “A” rated epeeist and foilist. 

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