The Expert’s Guide to Youth Fencing: Coach Yury Gelman’s Tips on Training and Competition Frequency

The popularity of youth fencing has grown exponentially in recent years, with parents now seeking advice on the best training and competition frequency for their children. However, with varying opinions on the matter, it can be challenging for parents to determine the most effective approach.

We have consulted with Coach Yury Gelman, a renowned six-time Olympic coach, who specializes in training young athletes starting at ages 8-9 and guiding them towards becoming part of Olympic and National teams, as well as highly selective college varsity teams. Coach Yury has provided a quick guide to help parents and fencers navigate this challenging terrain.

How often to train

Yury recommends that young individuals interested in competitive fencing should begin between the ages of 7 and 13. During this period, it is important to focus on establishing a strong foundation in technique, footwork, and bladework. Such a foundation can be likened to a house built with quality materials, ensuring that it can withstand the test of time. Concentrating on mental preparation and gaining an understanding of the sport’s intricacies is also crucial to a fencer’s success.

At the age of 7 or 8, students should practice once or twice a week. As they progress and reach the ages of 9 or 10, it is recommended that they increase their training to two or three times a week. It is noteworthy that, except in the case of a child with learning disabilities or special needs, it is unnecessary at this age to train more than 3 times a week.

Olympic medalists such as Dagmara Wozniak, Keeth Smart and Daryl Homer took a maximum of 4 lessons a week only when training for the Olympics. Students need more time for open bouting and to practice what they are learning in their lessons with other fencers instead of with their coach.

In Yury’s 31 years coaching in the United States, he has seen many talented students practice too much from a very young age resulting in overtraining injuries who ended up dropping the sport.

How often to compete

While competitions are essential to motivate children, participating excessively in youth tournaments can be counterproductive. Coach Yury discourages frequent competition, as it does not necessarily predict future results that are significant for college admissions, national team selection, or Olympic selection. Instead, students should approach competitions like exams, preparing thoroughly beforehand.

At the Y10-Y14 level, attending competitions no more than once a month or every two months is optimal, with competing in more than two events in any one tournament highly discouraged. Students should always participate in their primary age category first and move to a higher or older age group for a second event once they are consistently placing well in their age group.

Competing in three or more events in one tournament and attending tournaments several times a month can destroy a fencer’s technique and confidence. When fencers compete they often dont use the best technique and try to win at all costs. This ‘bad technique’ that gets developed needs to be corrected during practice. Not leaving enough time between tournaments does not allow for the coach and fencer to correct this technique leading to developing bad habits in the future.

At the youth level, results are relatively insignificant and only serve as practice and a confidence booster. Maintaining a strenuous training and competitive schedule from a young age of 8 until college can lead to burnout, injuries, and dropping out of the sport.

Recruitment for college

The universities that recruit fencers for their teams usually take into account the results from the Junior categories, while the Cadet level is seldom considered. As a result, it becomes necessary to increase the training frequency to four to five times a week during these crucial years (14+) but not before. It is at this age only when a fencer’s technique is stable that they can compete more often.

In fencing, the junior category typically refers to the age group of fencers who are 20 years old or younger. This category is also sometimes referred to as “under 20” or abbreviated as “U20”. Junior-level competitions and events are usually separate from those of senior-level fencers, who are typically over 20 years old, although some competitions may allow fencers from both categories to compete together. Results in the junior and senior category are the most important for fencers who aspire to compete at the highest levels of the sport.

Coaching at events

Having coaches present for young athletes during tournaments can be highly beneficial, but it is crucial to instill a sense of independence in fencers as they develop. It is important for fencers to be able to warm up and make informed decisions without constant supervision from their coach during competitions. Remote control coaching, which limits a fencer’s ability to think independently, should not be encouraged.

The coach’s primary role during tournaments should be to provide mental support for their fencer and ensure that the referee is making fair decisions without being swayed by the other team. By prioritizing their fencer’s mental well-being, coaches can help to create a positive and empowering atmosphere for young athletes to grow and develop in their sport.

Parent involvement

To ensure a positive and healthy sporting environment for their children, parents must prioritize providing support, serving as positive role models, and demonstrating good sportsmanship. It is essential to avoid forcing children to participate in sports they do not enjoy or pushing them to compete excessively beyond the coach’s recommendations.

It is never acceptable to punish children for poor tournament results, as such actions can severely damage their psychological well-being and create additional pressure during future tournaments.

To enhance their children’s performance, parents can consider recording tournament bouts and encouraging fencers to review the footage with their personal coaches, thereby identifying specific areas for improvement. However, it is crucial to respect the coach’s expertise and leave the training process to them.

If their child is passionate about the sport, parents should educate themselves by reading the Athletic Handbook and connecting with experienced parents for additional information on the rules and competitions.

Coach selection

When it comes to selecting a coach for their child, parents typically assess the coach’s performance history to gauge their level of expertise. Nevertheless, the most crucial aspect to consider is the relationship between the coach and the fencer – it is imperative that they share a good rapport and the fencer feels comfortable and trusts the coach.

Parents must wholeheartedly trust the coach they choose, rather than constantly questioning their techniques and recommendations. Any hesitations or doubts about the coach’s abilities could indicate that they are not the right fit for their child.