Teaching sabre fencing to children is very different to teaching it to adults.
Children have few innate skills. Their training program starts with the development of fundamental movements, which can be later combined into a repertoire of useful actions. Children’s sabre is primarily about fun, especially in the early years, to keep them motivated through the large number of repetitive drills which are necessary to build the basics.
In our experience, children need to have careful and structured progression through the fundamentals to avoid developing bad habits or perverse incentives that may stunt their future development as sabreurs. In most sabre programs, children start at age 8 and develop their first competition-ready repertoire at around age 15. The typical age at which children begin competing against adults of equivalent experience successfully is around 17 or 18.
In contrast, adults know a lot. They already have large repertoires of both fundamental and advanced movement skills. They know conceptually how things fit together. Adults learn sabre by adapting skills they already know and fitting them into a new framework.
As a result, adults learn sabre quickly but imperfectly (see the 50-week course). Children learn sabre slowly but typically achieve greater mastery in the long run.
Children’s sabre training is roughly divided by age and ability. These can differ dramatically for each individual. The older the child when they start sabre, the more their training approaches that of adult training, because they will have more skills from other activities that they can draw on.
Typical progression for a child from movement to basics to a style
Ages 5-7 (“Grade 0”): Five is usually the earliest age for a child to start sabre. Depending on their physical size and coordination, they may start in private lessons with an instructor to build coordination. The child should join in the group classes for the next category at the earliest possible opportunity. The bulk of the training at this stage is for the child to be able to move on command and follow simple instructions. It is not important for the child to learn anything sabre specific at this age.
One lesson a week is usually sufficient at this age. Progression to the next grade is automatic with age.
Ages 8-9: (“Grade 1”): Most (but not all) top sabreurs start at this age. Children in Grade 1 play as a group with games, drills, and simplified sabre bouts. Emphasis is on fun and footwork fundamentals. The games are energetic and require the child to effect rapid changes in acceleration and direction. Distance games – hitting, dodging, catching – are useful. Many children at this age are adverse to hitting and lack combat instincts. This is normal and needs to be gradually developed and controlled through games.
Drills should be simple and designed to build fundamental footwork skills:
- advance in engarde
- retreat in defensive stance
- jump back
- advance step
- double retreat
- advance lunge
- retreat jump back
The blade is not important at this stage. Most sessions should only use foam sabres for bouting. Foam sabres are light and unwieldy. This is intentional, and forces the child to use footwork to win bouts.
Absence of blade actions simplifies refereeing. The child must be able to referee basic bouts, with hand signals, and learn to intuitively sense when one person has hit in time, that is, can sense the difference between an attack-counterattack separated by more than 170ms and one that is not.
One training session a week is fine at this Grade. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U11 grading competition where the child will be assessed for their ability to execute the above footwork actions and referee actions in the absence of blade-work. It typically takes around 6 months to 1 year of training to go from Grade 1 to Grade 2, and 2-3 grading competitions.
Ages 10-11: (“Grade 2”): At this age children are beginning to develop combat instincts. Games and drills are the same as Grade 1, and are run as a combined group. Grade 2 is separated for bouting in whites and either mini-sabres or full-sized sabres depending on physical size. As a general rule, the sabre must be light enough for the child to make hit and parry actions with the sabre without over-commitment.
During the bouting phase of the session, the child should learn how to referee with blade actions and incorporate footwork fundamentals with changes in timing for the 4m zone, i.e. the ‘basic combo’ or ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game:
- Attack short with advance lunge (“rock”)
- Fall short with check retreat/jump back (“paper”)
- Attack long with advance, advance lunge (“scissors”)
One training session per week is fine at this Grade though two may be useful. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U13 grading competition where the child will be assessed for their ability to execute the above footwork actions and referee actions with blade-work. It typically takes around 1 year of training to go from Grade 2 to Grade 3, and 2-3 grading competitions.
Ages 12-13: (“Grade 3”): Serious sabre training begins in Grade 3. The games remain energetic but now incorporate additional and changing rules which the child needs to be aware of when playing – this prepares them for the tactical flexibility they will need when dealing with referees at competitions. The drills now incorporate both footwork and bladework in partner drills, for basic actions that are not reliant on execution within the cut-off time of 170ms. These include:
- Direct and indirect attacks to head, chest and flank.
- Parries 3, 4 and 5.
- Fall short, takeovers and march.
Focus is on good technical execution, at the correct distance and with the right rhythm. Tactical awareness, which at this level is mostly about knowing how to set up specific actions and react to the opponent, is desirable but not crucial.
Bouting at Grade 3 is in whites only. Whites encourage the child to try good sabre actions such as parries and indirect attacks, rather than attempting to force actions such as remises through superior size and strength. This is especially important if the child is in a class where there are significant size disparities between individuals. Bigger children must be penalised for using strength to mask poor technical execution; smaller children should be encouraged to attempt correct but difficult actions, e.g. parries, which work against stronger opponents.
We typically recommend two training sessions per week at this Grade. Progression to the next Grade is by performance at a U15 grading competition. The child is assessed for good refereeing fundamentals and correct execution of the basic blade-work actions. Depending on the child, it can take anywhere from 1-3 years to progress from Grade 3 to Grade 4.
Ages 14-15: (“Grade 4”): Children at this age typically undergo significant physical changes which can adversely affect their coordination and distance. Games and drills are shared with Grade 3, but bouting is segregated and we train the children in electrics. Electrics are used to provide timing feedback: as the child grows bigger and attempts actions with greater strength and speed, the electrics ‘lock out’ actions which are too big or too wild, e.g. wind-ups during the attack or over-commitment in parries.
14 is generally the earliest age at which we encourage children to participate in external age-category competitions (U15, and in some situations, U17). Participation in younger age categories is discouraged, because the easiest way to win in those categories is to be bigger and/or to know one or two advanced techniques for which the opponent may not have a counter. These competitions encourage the child to focus on these techniques and discourages them from building fundamentals that are important for their future development.
Progression beyond Grade 4 can follow either the recreational or the competitive pathway. Most children participate in sabre recreationally and will automatically age out of Grade 4 into adult recreational bouting. This is fine and we have many alumni of the children classes who continue to fence sabre recreationally as adults: within the club, at university, and in clubs here and overseas.
A small proportion of children pursue the competitive pathway and seek entry into the cadets. Progression into the cadets requires the child to have completed the full adult course (50 weeks) and passed the grading and bouting requirements. The adult course provides the child with the context for competitive sabre and exposure to the full repertoire of sabre actions. This repertoire is later used as a base from which to select specific skills to create the child’s individual move set, or style, as a specialist sabreur in the cadets squad.
Two training sessions per week minimum is required to progress into the cadets, and most children who successfully progress have three or four training sessions.
Ages 16+: (“Cadets”): Cadets train in squads, organised into teams of 3-4 similarly-skilled individuals for both training and external competitions. Each individual cadet is coached on their unique style, and exposed to many different opponents to test and hone their move set. Actions may be added or removed from their repertoire by the cadet on a regular basis, especially in the early days, in consultation with their coach. The cadet is expected to ultimately settle into a final style after 1 or 2 years.
Two training sessions per week minimum is required to maintain membership in the cadets, though success is rare without three or more training sessions per week. Most, but not all, cadets will also undertake 1:1 private lessons with a coach during this phase of their training to further work on their individual style. All cadets participate in external competitions, starting with local state competitions and progressing to age-category and open A-grade internationals depending on ability and commitment.
Sydney Sabre teaches an austere style of sabre by international standards which is heavily influenced by the Korean and German training programs due to the similarities between the competitive environment for those teams and sabreurs in Australia posed by being geographically distant from the global centres of sabre fencing.
European and American sabreurs are typically able to train 2-3 times per day, 5-6 days per week with many local A-grade competitions. This is not possible for virtually all sabreurs in Australia. The Koreans share our geographic isolation, to some degree, and the Germans are restricted to training only a single session, 5 days per week by academic commitments.
We have adapted their styles into our own. The style emphasizes small repertoires of simple actions backed up by protective reactive moves, and eschews the complex 2nd and 3rd intention actions that are the hallmark of European styles such as the Italians or the Hungarians.