Jennie Salmon discusses strategy with foil fencer Anna Novoseltseva. (Photo courtesy of Temple University)
With attention — and television cameras — trained on collegiate fencing each postseason, it’s expected that younger athletes will envision themselves competing at the collegiate level one day. And for these students, that means hoping to attract the attention of a college coach.
But just what are college coaches looking for in a student-athlete? And how do student-athletes enhance their chances of receiving a scholarship, or perhaps hurt their chances?
Temple University head fencing coach Jennie Salmon offers some insights on the subject. Salmon fenced for Temple herself under the legendary Dr. Nikki Franke. She spent four years as the head men’s and women’s coach at Brandeis before returning to her alma mater to take the baton from Franke at the start of the 2022-23 season. She also has more than two decades of coaching experience at the high school and club levels.
The Temple program Salmon inherited has had immense success. This year’s squad captured its 27thconsecutive National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association (NIWFA) title and qualified 12 fencers for NCAA regionals.
Like other college coaches, Salmon tries to recruit student-athletes who will be a good fit with her program.She notes that college coaches looking to identify potential recruits have some hard numbers to look at.
“We look at the USA Fencing rankings,” Salmon says. “That’s the great equalizer in our sport, because throughout the nation, the regional competition is top-level in the Northeast. Not so much in other parts of the country, so, when all the athletes come together at a USA Fencing event, that’s where we’re able to really see how they match up.”
But Salmon looks even deeper.
“I’m looking for athletes who perform well in the pool rounds, because collegiate fencing is five-touch bouts and then we’re looking at athletes obviously who have a consistency in earning strong results at that level,” she says. “That’s the first thing as far as identifying them.”
But a fencer’s record in competition is just one step in the process. Salmon’s evaluation of a potential recruit goes beyond what is on a bout sheet.
“We want to see how they fence,” she says. “How they handle adversity, their sportsmanship, those pieces you can’t get off a piece of paper looking at their rankings. And then the next step is to start the conversation with the athletes, and with the parents, and get to know what their goals are and what they’re reaching for, and if we’re a good match.”
Salmon says it’s important for her to get a sense of a recruit’s passion for the sport of fencing.
“When I have a conversation with an athlete, I need to feel a passion from them for the sport,” she says. “Fencing is an incredibly difficult sport, emotionally as well as physically, and a lot of these athletes have been doing it since they were little.
“And to know that college isn’t a means to an end for them, that they want four more years of this sport, and they have a passion to continue to improve and build. That’s something that I don’t have to hear them say directly, but I am trying get from them as they talk and to see where they are in their sport.
“That’s a big thing I think for an individual sport like fencing. That they’re not burnt out.
A lot of families approach fencing as ‘I want my child to get into the college of their choice based on their fencing accomplishments,’ and I need athletes who aren’t in that category. They want to get into the college of their choice and fence for four years.’”
Salmon believes meeting with a student-athlete’s parents is an important element of the recruiting process.
“We like to sit down with both [the student-athlete and their parents],” she says, “and when I talk to them about passion I need to see it coming from the athlete and not the parent, or as a scripted conversation from the parent.
“And also a big part is getting the athletes that are currently on the team in conversations with the athlete that is considering the team without the coaches who are recruiting the athletes there. So they can also kind of get a sense [of the recruit] and we do consider that an important piece: compatibility with the team.”
Salmon notes that fencers reaching the college level must adapt to the team concept in what is at its core an individual sport.
“I directly ask recruits, ‘Tell me about what you think the team experience should be like and what are you hoping for it to be like?’” she says. “I need to hear from them that they want to be part of something greater than themselves. Which is a huge thing for a fencer for whom everything has been about their own personal greatness; their entire life until they get to college.
“And that’s a fine balance because you want those athletes who are accomplished and have been successful and then you need to be able to work them through not being successful.
“Part of it is just experience and a gut check. Getting to know an athlete and getting to know that they can do that, versus ‘This one’s just going to throw the mask down and head out the door.’”
Salmon derives satisfaction from working with student-athletes who have yet to realize their full potential.
“I am very keyed into potential as well as already-established accomplishment,” she says. “There are some athletes I’m looking at that other coaches may not look at because I feel they have the passion and potential within the program by the second or third year to be able to rise to the level of starting.
Salmon notes there are warning signs that discourage her from recruiting a prospect, regardless of how talented or accomplished they may be.
“One is definitely watching them fence — the sportsmanship piece,” she says. “If they are behaving improperly, yelling at referees, yelling at parents or coaches, that piece is definitely a big red flag for coaches that are looking at fencers.
“Another one is athletes that don’t respond or communicate. I think that is something that unfortunately has gotten worse and worse. With kids maybe not understanding how a lack of response reflects on people thinking [the recruit is not interested]. You want someone who is excited and gets back to you and actually shows an interest in the program.”
Coaches often gain insights into student-athletes from their coaches.
“When a coach can’t give me a very glowing recommendation for their fencer, that’s a red flag,” Salmon says. “Of course, coaches are going to be politically correct in how they speak, but we do kind of understand each other. I’m pretty good at picking up on that.”
Salmon is also interested in how a fencer is regarded within the confines of her own club.
“How they behave in the club is important,” she says. “How they have established themselves within their club culture can be a red flag as well.
“The converse of that is If I see someone at a competition and they’re not fencing and they’re supporting their teammates, cheering and enthusiastic, those types of things are very encouraging to me.”
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