In fencing, the fencer is the priority, but young fencers are necessarily supported by their parents and their coaches. Both of these stakeholders have an important role in facilitating the growth and development of fencers, but what happens when they don’t get along, their relationship deteriorates, or when they have different ideas about what is best? How about when a fencer pushes back against their coach?
These relationships are complex. It is challenging to keep the momentum going in a positive way, or to change course when things need to change. There are differences in opinions, and this is normal. Issues that develop here can turn into insurmountable obstacles that push fencers to quit the sport altogether, and no one wants to see that.
The truth is that parents don’t always know what to do when conflict comes up. Our first reaction might be to step in because that feels like advocating for your child. All parents have that instinct to protect their kids. It’s a good instinct, but sometimes it can get in the way of what’s best for kids as they get older and need independence. Navigating that line is one of the toughest things for parents to figure out how to do and it is never an easy task to find the right balance.
How can parents and coaches work together more effectively for the benefit of fencers? Here are ten ways to smooth the relationship between fencing parents and fencing coaches.
1. Know what you don’t know
The first way to avoid conflict between parents and coaches is for both to recognize what they don’t know. You don’t have to have all the answers about parenting because you are the parent, and your child’s fencing coach doesn’t have to know everything about fencing because they are a fencing coach.
You don’t have to be an expert on fencing either. Allow your child’s fencing coach to lead them. When we come to the coach/parent relationship from this perspective, we lower the expectation that everyone has to be the ultimate source of knowledge. Take the pressure off! Of the coach, of you, and of your child.
2. You don’t have to like to learn
This is a hard one to realize, but it rings true and it’s important. Your child does not have to like their fencing coach to learn from them. You don’t have to like your child’s fencing coach for them to be the right fit for the child.
Learning to fence is not a walk in the park. It’s exciting and it’s wonderful and it’s meaningful, but it is very hard sometimes. A good coach is going to push your child to do things that make them uncomfortable, that make them think hard, that make their bodies sore after a long practice and that sometimes give them doubts about continuing with fencing. A great coach is going to push them in all those ways while still supporting them and encouraging them.
There may well be days where your child despises their fencing coach. They might complain and fuss, they might pout or they might withdraw. Those things are ok. Your child’s coach might make you uncomfortable if they hold your child to standards that seem out of reach. Take a step back and see if your child reaches them, or if they learn something in the effort.
We live in a world that is so immediately reactionary that it is tempting to think that one misstep or one piece of discomfort is a reason to cut things off. That is not where growth happens. Growth happens when we push through walls, and that is not easy. To get to those places, your child’s fencing coach will have to get them to do things they don’t want to do. That’s a good thing.
3. Talk openly and early
Waiting until there’s a problem is what often causes trouble. We are all so busy that we become reactionary instead of being proactive. Catch up with your child’s coach to introduce yourself. A five minute conversation every couple of months, a friendly email that you send out, or even a phone call can go a long way to building a relationship with your child’s coach.
Fencing coaches work with young fencers on goal setting, and that should be happening even in pandemic times where growth is still an important part of the equation. Talk about those goals with your child and with the fencing coach from the outset, and this can stave off a whole host of problems later.
In these conversations you can also discuss what happens when there is a conflict. Don’t assume that you’ll know how to handle it! It’s better for you to just ask your child’s coach what their expectations are and make a plan for how to address issues.
4. Facilitate fencing coach/child communication
Teach your child to manage their own relationship with their coach. These childhood years only last for a flash, and then they’re gone. We have to look at each day as a step towards facilitating their independence, and the coach/fencer relationship is a marvelous opportunity.
A coach is invested in your child, not in you, and that’s how it should be. Your child’s opinion and ability to advocate for themselves are far more impressive and effective than you stepping in to do the communicating for them.
One way to help this happen is to practice conversations with your child if they’re nervous. For instance, if your child does not feel like they are getting enough bouting time during class, instead of going to the coach and demanding that they get more bouts, talk with your child about how to ask for that. Sit them down and role play what it would look like and how they would react if they got different answers. What if the coach tells them that they can’t get more bouting time? Don’t just work on the words to say, work through how to react. This is a hugely valuable and transferable skill!
5. Pause before competitions
Boundaries are important in any relationship, and one great boundary to put in place is to make it a rule not to meet with or communicate with your child’s coach about issues in the two days before a competition.
Once you are that close, whatever the plan is is what the plan is. Your fencer is not going to change dramatically in the forty-eight hours prior to taking to the strip in competition. This is a moment to let go and trust your decisions, your child’s coach, and most of all your child. Step back and let it unfold, then address issues after it’s over.
Tensions are at their highest before tournaments, especially large tournaments. That edge can spark into a full blown fire if we are not careful. If you have an open line of communication with your child’s coach (see #2), then you won’t need to rush into anything just before a competition. This is important for your child, who will have their own set of big emotions.
6. Appreciate your coach’s humanity
Your child’s coach has a whole life outside of their fencing training with your child. They have family obligations of their own, work obligations, professional and personal aspirations, favorite movies, and foods that they despise. Coaches are just people, people like you and I are people.
Sometimes we can get away from ourselves with thinking that a coach is this superhuman person who can make our young fencer into a perfect athlete. They are experts and they can be huge supports for your child, but they are still human!
Your child’s coach is also coaching lots of other young fencers. Think about all of the things that you yourself are juggling before you take aim at your child’s fencing coach. If you have a problem that you’ve got to address, of course you should address it. However remember that they are people too.
7. Don’t get angry
Passions run high both in fencing and in youth sports in general. We are all adults here, and so we need to show the self control that adults show. Getting angry isn’t grown up behavior, and it’s definitely not how we would want our kids to behave.
This isn’t about you and your child’s coach. This is about modeling for your child. That goes for when your child’s coach is not around as well. Your child is watching you for how to react when things don’t go the way you want them to, and whatever you do in these situations is going to be what they carry with them and do later in those situations. Insulting your child’s coach, belittling them, or cutting down their personality in front of your young fencer is damaging, even if you do it only slightly and even if you do it only rarely.
Your child will not always get along with everyone. How do you want them to react when they don’t? Any conflict, no matter how justified, between your child’s coach and you puts your child squarely in the middle, and that’s not what you want for them.
This same expectation applies to your child’s coach of course. We want positive influences in our children’s lives.
8. Create a plan
In the heat of the moment, it can be tempting to jump up and try to make demands or make things happen. We all feel that sometimes!
If you have a problem with what’s going on in your child’s fencing, sit down and write out so that you can see the moving pieces. Include your young fencer in this technique if you think it’s appropriate. Maybe your child is not growing the way that you want them to and you don’t think they’ll meet the goals or expectations that you have for them, or that they have for themselves. Take a piece of paper and write out what those goals and expectations are, then write down all of the factors that are affecting that process. Sometimes these are related to the coach and their performance, and sometimes they are not. Oftentimes the coach is the person that is right there and so can be a clear and present target for issues that are not actually coming from them. When we follow that same line of thinking, we realize that the coach may not even be able to solve the issue!
The other upside of writing it all out and creating a plan is that it gives you something concrete to take to the coach if they are the heart of the issue. Communicating with your child’s coach about the problems that you are seeing by showing them in a detailed, visual representation can be less aggressive and more effective than trying to talk it out. It’s much harder to get mad at a piece of paper than it is at a human who is standing in front of you.
In the worst case scenario where the coach is still not responsive to your concerns, well now you have a hard copy of what actions you’ve taken and how you see the problem that you can take to the owner of the club. It’s a technique that works no matter what.
9. Advocate wisely
All of this being said, sometimes you do need to go above the head of your child’s coach as you work to get the best thing for your child. Whatever your child’s hopes and dreams are, you of course want to make them happen!
There are also issues of safety or of health, particularly in these pandemic times, that warrant quick and urgent advocacy. When there is bullying or a willful disregard for physical safety rules, those are issues that should be taken to the club quickly. Again, this doesn’t have to be done in an aggressive way.
Don’t feel as though you are overstepping if the situation is urgent or potentially harmful. It is one thing if your child isn’t meeting goals for their fencing growth or if they are not getting along with another fencer. It’s entirely another if your child is being bullied or if they are doing something unsafe. Advocate without apologies in these situations, and feel confident that you are doing the right thing.
10. Remember who’s team you are on
You are on your child’s team! And you’re on it with their coach. Whatever feelings you might have about any situation, whether you feel that something is unfair or that things are not progressing the way you’d like them to, always keep in the front of your mind that your child is what is important here. Otherwise you wouldn’t be around this coach at all!
Whenever you are tempted to push hard against something or to dive into conflict, think instantly about what effect it will have on your young fencer. Will this forward their goals or distract from them? Will this foster better mental and physical health in your child or will it cause turmoil? When you ask yourself these questions, nine times out of ten you will find that whatever frustration you have with your child’s fencing coach can be resolved in a conflict free way.
Let’s end by emphasizing that fencing coaches are far and away awesome people to have in your child’s life. Coaches can become lifetime mentors and transformative figures in the life of your child! Take heart in knowing that your child will learn a lot from their coach, through good times and bad.
Another supportive adult in the orbit of your young fencer is an opportunity for growth and a wonderful thing for helping them to be all that they can be. By putting your child in fencing and managing conflicts that arise along the way, as well as preventing them, you’re doing right by their present and their future.