Customize your Communication: Columbia fencing’s approach to coaching

(Ben Goldsmith)

(Ben Goldsmith)

Several posters hang against the back wall of the fencing gym, located in the basement of Dodge Fitness Center. Etched onto each are phrases, mantras written in Sharpie against a plain white backing.

The gym is a state-of-the-art facility tucked between supply closets and training rooms. Metal strips run the length of the gym, occupied by fencers locked in a bout. The floor—the first of its kind to ever be installed—is blue and springy to reduce the wear-and-tear on a fencer’s body (repeated lunging is tough on the knees). Head coach Michael Aufrichtig, sporting a neon-green Columbia fencing shirt, paces between the strips, calling out the time to fencers.

And yet it is these posters—caught in stark contrast to the stunning newness of the gym—that grabs ones attention.

The signs display the five philosophies utilized by Aufrichtig when coaching Columbia’s fencing team. The most interesting of the posters reads: “Customize your Communication.”

It’s not immediately clear what this means. Fencing does not appear to be a sport that relies heavily on communication between teammates during competition. No one calls any plays, no one yells across a field or court to pass a ball or set up an opportunity to score. But communication between fencers is crucial to securing a victory in any given bout.

When you go to a fencing meet, particularly a Columbia fencing meet, you might notice that a coach rarely calls a timeout. Aufrichtig and his assistants roam the gym, watching various fencers and interjecting as needed. But quite simply, it’s impossible for them to be everywhere all the time.

Bouts are spread out across the gym and occasionally even across multiple floors of the same building. Thus, fencing  necessitates that teammates coach each other, interrupting bouts themselves to give advice or encouragement.

A timeout is an intimate moment between fencer and teammate. There is no team huddle, rather all the attention is focused on a single fencer and the bout at hand. For the timeout to be effective, it has to be done right. It has to be, as Aufrichtig might say, customized.

When discussing the personalized nature of coaching in fencing, Aufrichtig notes that how something is said is just as important as what is said.

“If they hear what they want to hear, it might be the same message,” Aufrichtig said, “But if they hear it in the way they want to hear it, they’ll respond more positively which helps them perform better.”

Senior sabre captain Ilana Solomon prefers positive reinforcement delivered by a teammate. Senior epee captain Jarett Poliner likes direct technical instruction, perhaps even tough love. Communication strategies differ for every fencer and no one on the team takes the preferences of others personally because who delivers the advice can mean the difference between winning and losing.

This was the case at the Ivy League Championship meet in February, when Solomon fenced a key bout against Penn and dropped the first three touches.

“I called timeout on myself, I was just like ‘I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Solomon’s teammate, junior sabre fencer Alexander Walker, approached the strip to talk with Solomon.

“I just like what he says, it’s nothing new, but he just says it in such a positive way,” said Solomon of Walker.

Walker tailored his advice to both the tactical and the emotional: “Calm down, take two steps, slow down and when you go forward, you’ll be able to see what happens.”

To someone who is unfamiliar fencing, it may seem like basic, even generic advice. Yet sabre bouts are extremely quick, with touches scored in seconds, punctuated only by quick flashes of a blade hitting a lamé. Taking a step back, even waiting a second or two, can make all of the difference. Walker’s words provided Solomon with the confidence necessary to succeed.

“With his advice, I was able to win the bout. I knew I was supported by my team, but he gave really concrete advice to go forward,” said Solomon.

Members of the fencing team coach each other with such success because of the open line of communication Aufrichtig established and the emphasis placed on the fencers being honest about what they need to succeed. The squads (men’s epee, women’s epee, men’s foil, so on and so forth) meet regularly to discuss how they function as a unit and what each individual prefers when it comes to timeouts and strip coaching.

Certain fencers have preferences not only when it comes to what is said, but who says it. Every Columbia fencer, however, must learn how to strip coach and call a timeout.

The input of all teammates is valued, regardless of the number of years the player has spent on the team, according to Poliner. It can be intimidating for a younger, more inexperienced fencer to call a timeout for an upperclassman. But the input is no less valuable because of who it is coming from.

“At the last home meet, a freshman called a timeout for me…” said Poliner. “But we don’t really question it. It’s not like ‘oh not you.’”

In learning how to coach and support each other, members of the team acquire knowledge on one another that, in some cases, makes them more equipped to offer guidance than a coach. They understand the emotion and frustration experienced on the strip, they witness each other in all types of competitive situations, and often they’ve even fenced the person their teammate is competing against.

It is not typical for a collegiate fencing program to include such a large amount of teammate coaching. But Columbia is not your average team.

“The way we operate as a school, 99% of the time your timeouts will be from a teammate,” said junior epee Giana Vierheller.

This is all, of course, by design. Aufrichtig practices these moments of communication between fencers to ensure that athletes are set up to succeed when it really counts.

“We practice it in practice, but we practice it even more in competition, so that when Ivies come or the NCAAs come we are ready for it.” Aufrichtig said.

SportsMaddie Covino