14th February 2014
Worthing's newest épée club, despite only opening in March, has quickly become a roaring success. But how and why? Graihagh Jackson went to investigate.
“Sunday sessions are really hard to get people to come to en masse,” Rob Parsons is telling me. That is, until he spots a few unfamiliar faces walking through the lobby. “There’s lots of new people turning up today,” he exclaims, craning his neck to get a better look. “That’s a bit nerve-wracking because we don’t have much more kit to spare.”
Rob Parsons is Head Coach at Worthing Fencing Club and began coaching 5 years ago after a chance meeting with Steve Paul. Rob had always been in the trade of fitness, working as a personal trainer, but when it came to fencing, something just clicked. After just one session with Steve, he knew. “I said to Steve a) can you teach me to be a fencer and b) can you teach me to be a coach?” Within a few months of that fateful day, Rob became a fully-qualified coach. He now teaches over 200 people every a week on top of coaching at Worthing every Sunday.
Rob and I follow the newbies down the corridors of Durrington High School and into the gym hall where adults and teenagers alike are darting around shooting hoops with a shuttlecock. At the other end of the court, little ones are shrieking in delight as one of the dads chases them in a game of tag. On the sidelines, proud parents sit, nattering away. In all, nearly 30 people have turned up to fence, aged from 6 to 66 and everyone is mingling with everyone: young and old, boys and girls.
This mixed, friendly and social mentality has been key in the club’s growth, says Rob. “I’ve always thought that within reason, how you teach and the vibe of the club is more important than what you’re teaching. Not in terms of champions, but in terms of numbers and retention.”
Simon, Chairman of the club, couldn’t agree more. A few months after setting up, friendships are beginning to blossom beyond the Sunday sessions, which is something Simon is keen to encourage. “We’re trying to get something organised for later in the year where we can have it so we can cater for all ages. We’ve got an AGM coming up as well, so we’re thinking about combining to the two. We may just go to a country pub for a carvery - a relaxed affair.”
It’s this leisurely and social spirit that thirty-something Taryn, fencer of 5 years, especially likes. “It’s so accessible and everyone has a really relaxed attitude,” she tells me whilst the others limber up with a game of catch. Taryn’s not so keen on the warm-up, though. “It’s a bit jarring for me,” she admits. Noticing Taryn’s absence, Rob scoots over on the bench beside us and asks how he could make the warm-up better. They chat for a while and agree that next week, they’ll try something different, maybe laps even, and with that, she joins the rest of the group for stretches.
Spending time with the members of the group is important, says Rob. At the end of every session, he sets aside half an hour specifically for this purpose. Today, half the room is clamouring for his advice; some ask about their foibles, others are nervous about their first fight next week. Regardless of the nature of their queries, they all listen to Rob’s answers with great fervour. You can tell that his opinion is esteemed.
But Rob’s not just giving advice, he’s looking for some too. “We let them run the club through us. It’s not our club, it’s their club.” One of the kids asked for sweets after the sessions and Rob’s response is, ‘Why not?’
“We keep asking them, we keep changing it. Every couple of weeks, there’s always a new twist.”
This Sunday is no different. For the first time, seven-year-old Thor teaches a footwork exercise with some gentle encouragement from Rob. At the wiggle of Thor’s fingers, all 28 fencers bounce on their toes or sprint to the other side of the room with the lift of his right arm. Afterwards, he gives his father a sly low-five before suiting up with the rest of his friends.
This is one of the many ways Rob has adapted to informal feedback he gets from these chats and in the future he wants music, a tea, coffee and biscuit table as well as a little TV playing Olympic fights to provide inspiration to those off-piste. In some senses, though, this has also been a bit of personal undertaking, admits Rob. “I want to be able to say, ‘I did that’ and to make people realise that fencing is not what they thought it was.”
As a non-fencer watching the more experienced members of the group fight, in their pristine white jackets and breeches, I can see why fencing might seem daunting. These guys are mercurial with their attacks. It is a martial art, after all, and then there’s the challenge of being lunged at with a pointy and potentially fatal object.
Simon tells me that to score, you have to apply enough pressure which, if the blade were sharp, would be enough force to penetrate the skin by 4 inches. One of the girls assures me it’s not so bad. “You do tend to come away with bruises but if I was scared of that I wouldn’t be doing it.”
It appears that I’m alone in my attitude because the club is growing and Simon is confident that it’s because they’ve got the right mix of ingredients to ensure that the club is as welcoming as can be, despite the ‘stick ‘em with the pointy end’ game. “I think the adults probably feel intimidated in taking up a martial art,” admits Simon. “It’s a fighting sport but we’ve tried very hard not have that pompous feel. We have people from 60 to 6 years old and I think the more of that you get, the less intimidating it is.”
Part of what both Simon and Rob want to achieve at Worthing is to remove the misconceptions of the sport being snobby, pompous and costly. “One of the things I decided to do right from the start is break down those barriers - fencing’s not posh, fencing’s not expensive and fencing’s not for snobs,” avers Rob.
Armed with numerous electric épées, under plastrons, jackets, gloves and masks, Rob makes fencing unbelievably accessible to beginners who needn’t worry about forking out for new kit. Plus it’s a mere £6 for 120 minutes of fighting.
“We also don’t have a long history as a club so we don’t have any of the baggage that might go with that,” Simon adds. “We’re in a sports hall. We don’t have any hard and fast rules. People can just come along and join in.”
Because of these misconceptions, though, often people don’t think to give fencing a Google. Until someone comes up to you and says ‘this is what fencing is all about,’ most people have no idea, says Rob. “So I decided to take fencing to people.
“I go into schools' assemblies for 5 minutes with my kit and my portable scoring box, I get wired up and I hit things - the wall, my foot, whatever - and after 5 minutes, I ask who wants to fence and nearly everyone puts their hand up.”
From staging fights in assemblies then on to PE lessons and after school clubs, it has meant the club has seen a steady climb in numbers of young people engaging in the sport. In fact, club members have doubled in recent months. “I think it’s that Rob has a very strong presence in the schools around here,” Simon remarks, as we watch Rob instruct a group of kids where to poke their peers. “He’s really good with kids. They love him and don’t feel intimidated coming here.”
Bronwyn, aged 18, has been fencing for a few years thanks to Rob. “I did a taster session with Rob and then started a regular class after school on Thursdays,” Bronwyn smiles shyly. Before she started fencing, Bronwyn used to ride horses and race old cars around a dirt track but since that taster session with Rob, she’s been hooked not just on fighting, but on coaching too. “Rob’s set me up with some classes where I teach eight-year-olds, too.”
The other side of the coin is that the mums and dads who come along to watch often end up signing up for a few classes. “We’ve got three sets of parents that started out that way. We get them every which way,” Simon chuckles mischievously. What this proves is that taking part in fencing is something anyone can do: kids, parents and even grandparents.
In a few months Bronwyn will be leaving Worthing altogether to study prosthetics at the University of Salford. The brain drain is something Simon is all too aware of. “The trouble is, when they get to 18, they leave for university. We lost two recently and soon, Bronwyn will be leaving too.”
Bronwyn might be leaving Worthing but it doesn’t mean she’s leaving the sport. “I’ve already checked to see if there’s a club at the university,” she laughs bashfully.
It seems that nothing is going to stop Bronwyn from a good duel. This seems to stand true with everyone here; although there have been breaks of several years or more, fencing always seems to be something they all come back to. The winning combo here at Worthing is a sense of belonging to not just a club, but to a community. Evidently, there’s something about battering someone in a friendly and social environment that they just can’t get enough of.
Words by Graihagh Jackson