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At What Age Do Fencers Make the Most Improvement?

Getting better at fencing can be complex and unpredictable. Some days, I feel like I’m not making any progress at all, then one week later everything clicks. Like most sports, progression in fencing isn’t linear, and everyone has ups, downs, and plateaus. In comparison to sports like gymnastics, where athletes typically peak in their teens, fencers often continue to excel well into their 30s. For instance, 33-year-old Gerek Meinhardt is attending his fifth Olympic Games this year.

Despite the peak age being later in fencing, it still seems plausible that progress is influenced by age. During puberty, athletes gain substantial muscle mass, likely leading to rapid improvement. Since the onset of puberty in females is 1-2 years earlier, their peak gains may also occur earlier. To explore the effect of the physical changes of adolescence on fencers’ development, I quantified year-over-year improvement in fencers, aiming to identify the ages at which they make significant gains.

How I measured fencer progress

To measure skill, I used Microsoft TrueSkill, a numerical rating system that updates players’ ratings after each match based on their opponent’s rating and the match outcome. Similar to the Elo system on, TrueSkill ensures higher-rated players gain less from defeating lower-rated opponents and more from beating higher-rated ones. TrueSkill ratings are dynamic and adjust over time based on a player’s performance and the outcomes of matches or competitions.

  • Using outcomes from pool bouts, I calculated the TrueSkill of all fencers who competed at a national tournament from 2012-2020, segmented by weapon and gender. 
  • Then I collected all fencers who competed continuously (in at least one national tournament a year) from their last year of Y12 to their first year of Junior. I picked this age range because I was able to get a sample of about 80 fencers for each gender and weapon, which felt large was enough to be generalizable to the population of fencers.
  • For each season from the first year of Y14 to the first year of Junior, I found the highest TrueSkill rating that each fencer attained. 
  • By averaging out each fencers’ TrueSkill ratings, I could see how fencers generally improved over time.

Important consideration for interpreting TrueSkill ratings

TrueSkill is a valuable tool to assess relative skill among fencers. However, it focuses on how fencers compare to each other, not necessarily their absolute improvement. This can be insightful, but it has limitations. For instance, imagine one fencer does improve between tournaments, but makes significantly less progress than their peers. TrueSkill might show a rating decrease for the fencer with the smaller improvement, even though all of the competitors got better overall.

In short, a decrease in TrueSkill rating could just mean that a fencer improved less than other competitors at the tournament, not that they got worse.


  • Male epee fencers make the most improvement between their first and last year of Y14.
  • Male foil and saber fencers make more improvement during the transition between Y14 and Cadet than they do in other years.
  • Female fencers have the most improvement in Y-14 and diminishing improvement over time; as expected, their greatest period of growth is earlier than that of male fencers.
  • I tried widening the time period and measuring the growth of fencers between Y-12 and Y-14. The sample sizesample size the number of individual observations or data points collected from a population for use in statistical analysis or experimentation wasn’t very large (about 30 per weapon/gender), so it should be interpreted cautiously, but it looked like fencers gained more TrueSkill rating during Y14 than they did transitioning from Y12 to Y14.
  • On average, fencers make substantially less progress as they more from Cadet into Junior. These fencers are moving into either 11th or 12th grade, so school and college applications may be becoming a bigger priority.
  • After a big year of growth for each weapon/gender, the next year sees slightly less growth, but subsequent years show a significant decline.
  • Some graphs weren’t included in this blog post due to complexity, but the rate of improvement didn’t differ considerably between higher-level and lower-level fencers. All of the same trends were observed.


This blog post explored the progression and improvement patterns of fencers across different ages and weapons, using skill quantified by the Microsoft TrueSkill rating system.

The results suggest that the largest improvements generally occur during the middle school to high school transition, which corresponds to middle adolescence, the period where both boys and girls have the most muscle growth. Since boys have puberty about one year later than girls, this could explain why their year of big improvement is about one year after the girls’. This muscle growth could be why Y14 competitors are able to compete (and often dominate) in older age categories. For example, at the 2023 November NAC, there were 4 Y-14 fencers in the top 8 in Cadet Women’s Foil.

Also, fencers show much less progress each year as they get older, with their progress being lowest during late high school years. There are many possible causes for this. One possibility is that with more responsibilities in 11th and 12th grade, such as college applications and AP testing, fencers have less time to practice. Another possibility is that fencers who are focused on recruitment may already be aware of whether they’ve received an offer by the end of their 11th grade year and may not devote as much effort to their fencing afterwards. Lastly, there could be physiological factors specific to 17-year-olds that affect their rate of improvement. Further research is needed to fully understand the “why” behind this trend.

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