In praise of plastic

WDS at Dartington Community Dayby Robin Catling.

From Pirates of the Caribbean, to Star Wars and even Transformers, it seems every other movie poster features a character with a sword; there’s been a slew of TV and online ads featuring Olympic fencers in action, TV shows such as Arrow and the Musketeers keep the skill and the romance of the sword alive. It’s no wonder even the smallest children want to give it a try.

Fencing is a fast, exciting and athletic sport, often called “physical chess”, good for keeping both body and mind fit! As we’ve said here before, the unusual nature of fencing as an individual skill often holds a child’s interest much better than a more mainstream sport, especially if they are not into bat-and-ball team games, lack confidence in those sports or have an individualist streak.

While we always try to stress the sporting side of things there’s no denying that the fantasy element is one of the main hooks of fencing. Who doesn’t want to be Rei, Luke Skywalker or Prince Caspian? The Princess Bride still packs the sofa on a Sunday afternoon after 25 years.

Fencing is also a very easy sport to start at any age. One development in recent years has been light-weight foam and plastic fencing equipment built around a simple, safe programme keep things things simple and relatively cheap to start.

You wil find various suppliers touting foam and plastic kit, either individually or in sets – Aramis, Leon Paul, Plastic Sword Fencing to name a few.

plastic fencingThe plastic Go-Fence, Midi-Fence, Mini-fence and other programmes are promoted by British Fencing and the FIE as a fantastic way to get school and summer camp children interested in the sport.

Properly taught, a minimum age of 6 is perfectly safe (despite the guidebooks declaring a minimum of 8). Anything from primary school to secondary, scouts, guides, Summer Camp and holiday activities is a fair opportunity, not to mention you can even teach adults using this system.

The plastic and foam equipment, make it quick, easy and adaptable. As of June 2017, a 12-set of plastic kit retails for around £580:

12 plastic swords, usually in two colour shells and blades
12 plastic masks, usually in two colour-bibs
12 ‘vests’ or tabards, usually in two colours
1 giant kit bag (and I mean giant)
Programme handbook

The benefits of the mini-fence programmes are:

  • provides, enjoyable and safe fun activity for young kids from 6 years (when well-supervised) or 8 to 15 years old.
  • can be used to teach a group of 12 in a space no bigger than a badminton court – and in good weather, take it outdoors.
  • the programme handbook provides an educational aspect, including a means for assessing student progress and formats for competitions.
  • the weapons and masks are brightly coloured and appeal to children.
  • the teacher needs no previous experience of fencing – but DOES need to read the handbook!
  • provides an excellent springboard for both pupils and teachers to start the sport and could lead on to gaining further qualifications.
  • it’s an opening on a sport that teaches discipline and control.
  • it captures the imagination.

West Devon Swords has been out and about taking plastic fencing to primary and secondary schools, scouts, guides, fêtes and festivals for a few years now. Everyone can compete equally, or just have a good time being (safely) silly.

It doesn’t take long for the four-step intro (stand, move, attack, defend), then you can issue a tabard, mask and weapon; one size fits all, so in thirty seconds they’re ready to fence. No messing with two layers of ill-fitting, sweaty kit, gloves, heavy metal; just the look and feel of proper fencing.

It’s an instant draw, you get the parents and grandparents joining the kids, and everyone thinks they know how to sword-fight. Right?

Doing it right – the pros and cons of plastic

We do emphasise the fencing is a martial art; anything that involves weapons, even floppy plastic ones with a rubber safety tip, needs to be run with a serious concern for safety.

That means constant vigilance to ensure your fencers stay safe.

If the only danger is some over-excited running around and danger of collisions, you’re doing well.

The plastic foils are great as thrusting weapons and very safe as long as you adhere to some basic rules. We treat mini-fence as if it was full metal kit, in that;

  • when not fencing, the point of the weapon remains toward the ground.
  • never wave a weapon at anyone not wearing a mask.
  • control the conduct of bouts – starting and stopping safely, even getting fencers on and off the playing area safely.
  • be very clear about sporting conduct, the objectives of the fencing bout and what is in the ‘rules’ of the game.

Children and adults love rules – you can use these to reinforce all the aspects of safety. Which is important because…

  • Both children and adults will get over-excited, carried away, run, giggle, flail about and generally lose the plot at some time during the session – which is when the risk of injuries increases.
  • The plastic weapons are very safe for thrusting attacks, but they are deceptively floppy. Anyone with poor technique starts flailing about and a plastic flail becomes a very effective whip or riot stick.
  • A plastic foil is, sadly, not a light-sabre. It is a one-handed weapon for thrusting, not slicing and dicing. Cutting actions have to be outlawed from the start.

We say all this because…

Even a small child can lacerate an opponent with a plastic foil, waved with enough speed and force. Small kids love to fence larger kids and adults and pretty soon, everyone forgets their own strength

In good weather or busy events, you find half you fencers in short sleeves and shorts. Which means a lot of bare skin on arms and legs. I’ve seen plastic kit raise whip marks that might have been cause for a court case until we discovered the two fencers were sisters engaged in the age-old sibling rivalry… So we always emphasise that in this game, only the tabard is the valid target.

You might also want to emphasis that the best defence pushes attacks out to the sides and not downward toward the legs or other, ahem, vulnerable areas.

And yes, you can find yourself in need of butterfly stitches after a good swipe from even a foam sword, as one medieval combat instructor I don’t dare name will, red-faced, confess.

So without wishing to scare anyone away, I’ll come back to the opening pitch; foam and plastic fencing provide an excellent start in a sport which a lot of children (and adults) don’t get an opportunity to try. Who knows, we might even discover some future medallists along the way. RC