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Unraveling the Hidden Complexities of Saber Fencing: 7 Fascinating Findings from Yale Researcher’s Study

03/23/2023, 9:45am CDT
By Bryan Wendell

In his groundbreaking study, Alex Greene tries to understand the complexities of movement in saber fencing and how they impact a fencer’s ability to score a touch

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In fencing, the saber stands out for its lightning-fast speed. Saber bouts are so fast, in fact, that the saber is the only one of the three weapons without a running clock.

But what if we could slow down saber fencing to understand the biomechanics behind its movement, timing and strategy?

That was the tantalizing question asked by Alex Greene, a first-year student at Yale University and member of the Integrity Fencing Studio in Chatham, N.J.

In his groundbreaking study, Greene tries to understand the complexities of movement in saber fencing and how they impact a fencer’s ability to score a touch. The study, titled “The effect of joint angle differences on blade velocity in elite and novice saber fencers," has takeaways that should fascinate saber fencers at all levels of the sport. 

1. The Importance of Elbow Joint Angle Change in Blade Thrust Efficiency

Greene’s study tracked the velocities of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and blade tip. The researchers measured the angles at the elbow joint and wrist at the beginning and end of the blade thrust. They found that elite fencers were able to reach the highest peak blade tip speed while performing the fewest degrees of rotation. This insight highlights the importance of optimizing arm movement during a blade thrust to maximize efficiency and, hopefully, boost performance.

2. Arm Placement and En Garde Position

Arm placement is crucial in saber fencing, because it determines the fencer's ability to attack and defend. The research confirmed that elite fencers consistently stood in en garde position with more obtuse elbow joint angles than novice fencers — that is to say, their fencing arms were generally more extended. This finding emphasizes the importance of proper arm placement and highlights the differences in technique between elite and novice athletes.

3. Blade Tip Velocity Differences Between Elite and Novice Fencers

Elite fencers consistently generated higher blade tip velocities than their novice counterparts. While this finding likely won’t surprise many, it’s important to get this statistical confirmation as it further emphasizes the importance of arm movement in saber fencing and illustrates the gap in skill between elite and novice fencers. 

4. Optimal Elbow Joint Angle at Initiation of Blade Thrust

The researchers looked at the average elbow joint angles of elite fencers and determined that the optimal elbow joint angle at the start of the blade thrust is about 110 degrees. This information provides a valuable reference point for fencers and coaches looking to optimize their technique and improve their performance.

5. Wrist Angles and Vertical Distance

While differences in wrist angles at the start and end of the blade thrust were not statistically significant, the study did find that elite fencers raised their hands vertically at the beginning of the action, generating greater vertical distance for blade tip acceleration.

In one example, elite fencers raised their hands vertically at the beginning of the action, which generated greater vertical distance and allowed more blade tip acceleration. In contrast, all members of the novice group initiated the blade action immediately, moving the bell guard directly toward the mask without raising their hands vertically. 

6. Prioritizing Arm Movement Standardization in Training

The study's findings make it clear that coaches should optimize and standardize their fencer’s arm movement earlier in the fencer’s training. By focusing on the standardization of blade thrusts and arm placement, coaches can help their fencers improve their attack success and overall performance.

7. The Effectiveness of 2D Analysis

The research demonstrated that 2D analysis can be an effective method for conducting motion analysis, especially for actions viewed entirely from the side view. This finding provides a viable alternative for researchers who may not have access to more advanced 3D technology, allowing them to still conduct in-depth biomechanical analyses.

Final Thoughts

Greene's research sheds new light on the hidden complexities of saber fencing, revealing the importance of refining and optimizing arm movement for improved performance. These fascinating findings provide valuable insights for fencers and coaches, helping them to better understand the nuances of the sport and develop more effective training strategies.

More About Alex Greene

Alex Greene, the first author of this research study, is a first-year student at Yale University. He’s from Chatham, N.J., and he attended Regis High School in New York City, where he began this research through the Science Research Program with his mentors Xavier Simon and Frank Barona. At Yale, Alex is interested in exploring the interface between research, diplomacy and policymaking. He also hopes to expand extracurricular, leadership and competition opportunities for other students interested in research and public speaking. By publishing his research, Alex hopes to inspire future students to conduct passion-driven research and explore the unexplored. 

Alex is extremely grateful for the Harvard GSAS Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI), a peer-reviewed journal that enables middle and high school students to publish original scientific research. JEI provided revision and support throughout the editing process. He hopes that other high school and middle school students seek out similar academic opportunities in order to gain an early glimpse into the academic research process.

Alex has fenced for nine years with the same club, Integrity Fencing Studio located in Chatham, New Jersey. He is incredibly grateful for the coaching and support he has received from Integrity over the years. Alex has competed at the regional and national levels, and he is a four-time USA Fencing All-Academic First Team member and four-time All-American team member. 

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