All fencers want to do their best. That’s a universal truth, and it’s a driving force behind why they do this to begin with, to get better and to ultimately win their matches. Of course winning isn’t the only thing goal here, but improvement is always a focus.
- Improvement a good thing.
- Pressure is a bad thing.
- Outside pressure is an ugly thing.
Let’s talk about that.
Perfectionism in fencing – the GOOD
The good aspect of perfectionism in fencing is that the desire to be perfect can manifest in a focus and drive to get as close to perfect as possible. Perfection is an unrealistic ideal that’s by definition impossible for anyone to master, there are far too many variables that are out of your control on the strip. However by striving to be perfect, some fencers can see themselves grow beautifully.
What are the good aspects of perfectionism in fencing? Here are some to make you think:
- Work ethic
- Commitment to goals
- Willingness to learn
- Openness to constructive criticism
- Bouncing back from loss
- High expectations
When you reach for the stars, the worst that can happen is that you land on the moon. Landing on the moon – that’s a pretty big accomplishment! If a fencer works hard to get their footwork perfect, for example, then they might practice those movements again and again and again until they can replicate the form in just the right way. They’re going to keep at it until they get it perfect and it becomes ingrained in their muscle memory.
Fencing is a fast-paced sport. In order to be successful, a fencer must repeat their movements over and over again until they can do them without even thinking about it. They’re essentially training reflexes into their bodies. Fencers who use perfectionism in a constructive and positive way do those movements over and over in search of getting them just right.
The key to positive perfectionism in fencing is for the fencer to recognize what they have control over and to strive to do those things perfectly.
Some ways that working towards perfectionism can be healthy for fencers.
- Perfect training regimen
- Perfect amount of sleep
- Perfect power eating for health
- Perfect listening to the coach
- Perfect supporting fellow fencers
- Perfect balance!
Note that NONE of those include perfect winning record! The other big part of this thing is to remember that while a fencer might strive for perfection, they must not tie their value as a fencer or as a person to being perfect.
Perfectionism in fencing – the BAD
Unfortunately, many young fencers put far too much emphasis on their quest to be perfect. They put so much emphasis on the quest to be the perfect fencer that they lose sight of the real joy in the sport and take down their own self esteem.
Unhealthy perfectionism is very often outcome oriented instead of process oriented. That means that a fencer focuses on the outcome of a match or a tournament, which they ultimately cannot completely control. What fencer must focus on instead are the things that they have control over, namely their practice techniques and their focus during the match. A major thing that fencing teaches us that carries over into the rest of life is that we cannot be in control of everything in life! Your fencer might be put against a much more dominant opponent early in a tournament and get eliminated. They might sneeze at a crucial moment in the final bout for the podium and so lose a point. There are a thousand things that can go wrong, a thousand things that are totally out of anyone’s control.
There are some common traits of perfectionists in fencing.
- Overly critical self-evaluation
- Setting goals that are too high
- Feeling like a failure if they miss their goal
- Decreased self esteem
- Higher levels of anger
- Increased likelihood of leaving the sport
Parents should know that high levels of perfectionism in fencing, or indeed in any area of life, are extremely detrimental to the overall psychological health, especially of children. Young athletes can experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and body image dissatisfaction.
No one can control everything all of the time. Life doesn’t work that way. Fencing certainly doesn’t work that way. Perfectionism in fencing only sets young fencers up for failure – failure and heartbreak.
Perfectionism in fencing – the UGLY
The ugliest perfectionism in youth sports doesn’t come from the kids themselves, it comes from adults. Really, this is where things get nastiest, because adults should be there to support kids and to foster positive growth both in the sport and in their overall health and development. Outside pressure from parents is a major culprit of unhealthy perfectionism in fencing, and it’s just not pretty.
The push for perfection among young fencers by parents who are overzealous about this wonderful sport can leave them bitter about fencing. Some reasons that parents get carried away with perfectionism are:
- Living vicariously through their child.
- Wanting the best for their child
- Seeing the medal/podium as the goal
There is NEVER a reason for a parent to get angry at their child for what happens on their strip. Parents should only ever offer constructive criticism to their young fencers, never a demand of some aspect of performance. The most successful fencers are whose fencers whose parents supported them, but didn’t make them feel bad when they messed up.
What’s tough to think about is that many parents push perfectionism on their kids without even realizing it. They intend to guide their children towards being their best, but when kids hear the words, they internalize that their parents want perfection.
Perfectionism in fencing – the SOLUTIONS
What can be done about the problem of young fencers putting a too heavy emphasis on the idea of being perfect on the strip? There are things that parents of fencers can do to help curb perfectionist tendencies and support a balanced view of the sport and of their fencer’s expectations.
Watch for perfectionist language
If you catch your young fencer making comments like “I don’t need to get any touches scored against me in this match”, or “If the other fencer score against me then I’ll feel terrible”, or “I have to get first place at every tournament this season.” that signals that they have an unhealthy view of perfection.
What to do – Help your child make more manageable goals that they have control over, like taking notes on their coach’s advice or improving their flow during the match.
Set goals with the coach
Fencing coaches are YOUR resource for getting training right, and that includes perfectionism. Talk to your child’s fencing coach about setting real, concrete goals with them. Encourage your young fencer to keep a fencing journal so that they can see their progress across time. Seeing that growth will help your child feel better about how well they’re doing!
Focus on the fun
Fencing is FUN! That’s just the truth of the sport. Stepping onto the strip and fighting with swords is a rush, a joy, and a thrill. Every time. The more that your child enjoys the sport, the better they will perform because they’ll be more invested in their practice and in their hard work – without having to use perfectionism to get there. Encourage your child to list the reasons that they love fencing, and you should list the things about fencing that you see them enjoying as well.
Use positive language
As a parent, you set the tone for how your child copes with challenges. If your Y10 fencer loses a match at a competition, be careful not to show them that you’re upset about it! The more positive language that you use with your fencer, the more positive self-talk they’ll have. Be aware of your influence on your young ones.
Elite fencing athletes tend to lean towards perfectionism, but they learn to use that tendency towards it during practice and then to trust their training on competition day.
Fencers tend to be high achievers in all areas of their life – academics, extra-curricular activities, etc. There’s nothing at all wrong with being a high achiever, and in fact it’s a very good thing to reach for the highest heights! But it can be a short trip from being a high achiever to crossing into negative forms of perfectionism. What we want to see is fencers getting that balance of working hard, creating goals, growing, and having FUN on the strip!