Cultivating a team culture of openness and support, the UP Fencing Team is definitely giving athletes the right platform to develop.
When one thinks of a team sport, fencing is likely not one that comes to mind. For one thing, fencing is an individual sport, and for another, it isn’t exactly the most popularly played sport. However, upon meeting and getting to know the Fencing Varsity Team of the University of the Philippines, it would be easy to mistake them for a team of athletes who all compete together rather than against each other in one-on-one combats.
“Even though it’s an individual sport, we help each other and give each other advice about playing styles and different kinds of problems,” Team Captain Vincent Noah “Vince” Lim shared with The GAME.
Although fencing is admittedly very niche, especially as it has its own set of unique terms and rules, the UP Fencing Team has made it seem just as inviting and open to all as any other sport.
Inside UP’s training program
The UP Fencing Team is comprised of representatives in all three fencing disciplines which use different kinds of blades. The first discipline is foil, wherein the target is the torso, not including the arms and legs. Secondly, there is the épée discipline, wherein the entire body is the target. Finally, sabre targets the entire body above the torse, including the head and hands.
While the differences between each fencing discipline sound simple enough, each one actually has its own specific set of rules and moves. Thus, UP’s Fencing Team’s coaching staff has to prepare their entire roster of athletes for all disciplines.
All fencing athletes in UP are required to train at least three times a week. For foil and épée, the training schedule is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, whereas the sabre team trains on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
Head Coach Allan Dator, and a former player himself, explains that a normal training session typically begins with a warmup sequence and some conditioning exercises. Following this, the athletes then break out into group lessons or one-on-one sessions with the coaches.
“If you go straight into playing, sometimes, you might have the tendency to develop bad habits,” Coach Allan shares. “So we focus on teaching proper technique and movement.”
Assistant Coach Arvin Baccay further explained that fencing as a sport is like a combination of gymnastics and ballet — power and grace are part of the game, and the players need to develop the right movement patterns to perform well.
Once the lessons are through, that’s when the fun really begins — the athletes get to take turns on the piste (the playing area in fencing) competing in bouts with one another, which is what many of them consider to be the most fun portion of their training sessions.
“Our training starts at 5:00 PM and ends at 9:00 PM, but sometimes, we extend kasi gusto pa namin mag laro,” Team Captain Vince expresses.
Well-rounded student athletes
Being an athlete for the University of the Philippines entails that you cannot take any shortcuts and you do not get unique exemptions from class requirements, even if you represent the school for a certain sport. This means that even though their student-athletes train for four to five hours on training days, they are still expected to maintain their academic standings just like any other student.
“This is one of the things I admire most about our players,” Coach Allan says. “They have the capacity to strike the balance between training and academics.”
The responsibility to maintain this balance falls on the athletes. The coaching staff emphasized that they keep their focus on the fencing training program solely and simply rely on the players to be open about their needs and concerns as both athletes and students if they ever face any conflicts in their schedules or priorities. “Communication is very important,” Coach Allan asserts.
But balancing academic requirements with training sessions and competitions is easier said than done, especially when you’re transitioning from being a high school student.
“College life is a new experience,” Luiz Buentipo, a freshman in UP and a rookie on the team, shares. “Since nawala ‘yung strictness ng teachers here sa UP, medyo nabitawan ko ‘yung academics ko kasi masyado ako nag-focus sa fencing.”
And Luiz wasn’t the only one. Indeed, adjusting to college life can be tricky, especially for student-athletes. Learning new things on the academic side is already challenging enough, so taking on a sport, especially one that might be new to you, is an added task. This is something that first-time fencer and UP freshman Luiz had to face in his first year.
But in this regard, the UP Fencers are fortunate because their coaches and the entire training program as a whole are very open, even to beginners of the sport. But the UP fencers shared that with time, they eventually were able to get into the groove of things.
Open to all
Given that fencing is not an activity or hobby that many young athletes would be quick to try out, Coach Allan and Coach Arvin both admitted, “The hard part about being a fencing coach is that wala kaming masyadong na-rerecruit na may fencing background.”
But despite this challenge, it is actually the coaches’ openness to beginners and proactive initiatives that have helped build a competitive team. “Wala kaming ine-exclude,” Coach Arvin asserts.
The coaching staff shared that they invite anyone with an interest in fencing to join the UP Fencers in their training sessions to learn more about the sport, get a feel of the movements, and, if they are willing, improve. By providing open opportunities for beginners, they have been able to develop players and help them gain enough fencing experience to join the tryouts to be an official member of the UP Fencing Varsity Team.
“Kadalasan, may mga seniors sa high school na lalapit sa amin na walang background, at nakikisali sa training namin at tuturuan namin just in time for tryouts,” Coach Allan explains.
Freshman student Luiz was one of the beginners who had just recently turned to fencing. “When I first started, sobrang panget ng feeling ko. I didn’t know how to do stuff, I didn’t know where to start learning,” he admits. “But now, since I have the constant support of my coaches and my team, I know who I can go to for guidance and I’m really starting to enjoy fencing.”
And it isn’t just the coaching staff of the UP Fencing Team who cultivate this culture of openness — it is the entire team as a whole.
Teammates through and through
When CJ Otadoy, a freshman at UP Diliman, was asked what his favorite thing about being part of the UP Fencing Team was, he responded, “Not being alone in anything that you do.”
This encapsulates the bond between the UP Fencers in one sentence. Each of the players that we spoke to all shared the same sentiment — that this team has a family-like bond.
“What I love about my team is that whenever I ask them what’s wrong with my game, they reply, and sometimes when they ask me, I also reply with what I know,” Team Co-Captain Nikki Manalastas shares, emphasizing the team’s culture of support.
This is definitely helpful, especially with some beginners and newbies on the team who are still learning the ropes and hope to get as much guidance as possible.
But apart from just helping each other out on the piste, this team also shares a closeness outside of the training and competition setting. Many of them expressed that outside of fencing, they also spend time together in between classes or during meals.
And it isn’t only the players who share this bond — the coaches are a huge part of this too. “Our relationship [with our coaches] is very close,” Vince explains. “He’s the type of person who always tells us that if we need anything, we should tell him, especially if we are struggling with something. He’s very fatherly.”
The feeling is mutual. Coach Allan also expressed that he sees his players as his kids and is always encouraging them to feel open in the team setting, whether it’s about matters related to fencing or not.
“Ang fencing, parang naging second family na,” Coach Allan shares.
Fostering this kind of dynamic definitely played a huge role in the positive views that every player and coach has about their team, which, in turn, motivates the athletes to train hard, perform well, and ultimately, help grow the sport.
Reaching new goals
Indeed, the culture of the UP Fencing Team is a dream for any student-athlete. But both Coach Allan and Coach Arvin shared that they have bigger hopes and dreams, not only for the team but also for the entire sport as a whole.
Coach Allan, who was a fencing varsity member of the University of the Philippines himself, has been in the sport for a long time and is happy to see the sport growing here in the country, with several fencing gyms and new training programs opening, and he is happy to see himself as a part of that development and hopes to do more.
Given their struggles in recruiting players who already have previous experiences in the sport, the UP coaching staff is hoping to help develop more athletes from a young age. While they are still in the process of turning this dream into a reality, they hope to focus their energy on a grassroots program that may develop talent for the UP team, and perhaps, even for the country.
Speaking of their goals as coaches, Coach Allan expresses, “Of course, we hope to develop national team athletes.”
Emphasizing the importance of grassroots programs, both coaches further explain that this is why they maintain a sense of openness in their team. They hope to attract more players into the sport so that, hopefully, the Philippines will have a talent pool strong enough to go up against some of the best players in the world.
And given the UP Fencing Team’s family-like bond, the culture of support, and their impartiality to beginners and advanced athletes, this is undoubtedly already a great place to start.
Photography KIM SANTOS
Art Direction KARLOTA TUAZON
Shoot Coordination TONI MENDOZA
Special Thanks JUANCHO SESE
Shot on Location UP DILIMAN – COLLEGE OF HUMAN KINETICS