Adolescence is a challenging time for lots of reasons. It marks the transition from being a kid to being an adult, but those intervening years are anything but easy on pre-teens and teenagers. Fencing can really help young people navigate this often unbalanced time.
Parents are, quite justifiably, always on the lookout for ways to support their tweens and teens. We want what’s best for them so that they can grow into the amazing adults that we know they will be! Finding outlets like fencing can be transformative for young people in all the best ways.
Let’s talk about adolescence
First off, let’s define what it is to be an adolescent. This time stretches from age 10 to age 21 or so, which is coincidentally the same time that most fencers are getting into the sport and growing through it. Fencing generally starts off around the age of eight or ten, and fencers are fencing through high school and college. Of course, adult fencing is very much a thing as well, but the bulk of fencers start when they are adolescents.
We don’t often think of the early twenties as being part of childhood, but any parent who’s had a kid in college will tell you that young people are still very much developing until their early twenties. Though boys and girls both stop growing heightwise by the time they’re 18, the young brain isn’t done developing until the age of 25.
The gulf between age 10, when puberty starts to get rolling, and age 25, when a person is a fully grown adult, it’s massive. This time is rocked by kids making decisions about their future life. They’re learning about who they are, what they’re interested in, and what the boundaries are for them.
The mental aspect of fencing is a huge part of what we do on the strip. There is constantly something to adjust thanks to the way that fencing works.
Every opponent is different in fencing. Even an opponent who you have gone against in the past has grown and changed in their skill since you previously bouted against them. Fencers must always calculate what they are doing in a match, changing and learning as they go. It’s a fantastic mental workout, and it’s one that adolescent minds can really grab onto and benefit from. This active engagement of all parts of the mind is one of the reasons why preteens and teenagers get so into fencing!
On the other side, fencing fosters mental focus as well. Teenagers especially are just learning how to focus. The practice they get doing this in fencing creates a transferable skill that helps them in academics and their social life.
A big boost for mental health in teenagers that fencing provides is the ability to deal with stressful situations. There is an urgency to combat sports, and to fencing in particular. Though we know that we’re safe when we’re fencing, we are still faced with a weapon. The quick nature of the matches also pushes the stress response. Oftentimes there are situations when there is a little time to score this decisive point. Fencers repeat the experience over and over again, practicing their ability to think clearly and move swiftly and accurately when they are under pressure.
Kids grow by leaps and bounds from around the age of ten. One day, a kid is shorter than their parents, then the next year they’ll be towering over them! It’s truly a shocking occurrence that is natural but also extreme.
All of the physical transformations that a young person goes through during their preteen and teenage years can be disorienting. As much as we parents are looking at them and noticing these huge changes, we have to remember that the kids are living in them. Even though we all went through this same thing, it’s been quite a while ago and we don’t always remember it so pointedly.
Fencing helps young people stay grounded in their bodies. We see this all of the time in our fencing club, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the way that a young person’s fencing is affected by a major growth spurt. Coaches get to walk them through how to accommodate these changes in their fencing. Distance, speed, and tactics in fencing all need to be modified as a young fencer’s body changes.
In fencing, we focus a whole lot on form and movement control. Because fencers are constantly calibrating their technique, they are constantly grounding their physical understanding. This helps adolescent fencers to feel good in their body and to feel in control during a time when that is challenging.
There is also the physical fitness component of fencing. This is a rigorously physical sport, even as it’s a mentally engaging one. We know that physical activity is a great way to even out brain chemistry. The rush of cardio, of which there’s plenty in fencing, floods the brain with blood and calms it all down. This is so, so important for young people during adolescence. They need that physical activity to reduce their stress levels and to even out their mood.
Social skills and support
Every teenager worries at some point whether they are “normal” or not. Everything is changing so rapidly for them, both physically and emotionally, that they don’t know which way is up. These huge changes make it hard for them to believe that what they’re experiencing could possibly be the same thing that everyone else has experienced.
Young people need to be around people who are their own age, of course, because this lets them know that they aren’t alone in this. Fencing is great for building those peer relationships, where adolescents can connect with other youth and find out that they aren’t alone. Going to competitions especially builds the kinds of close relationships that give them space to talk about these things.
On the other side, young people need to be around adults who are not their parents so that they can see examples of what it’s like on the other side. Mentorship in fencing comes from fencing coaches and the staff at the fencing club. Adolescents find other adults who they can talk to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about deep issues either. It can be as simple as talking through a growth spurt with a coach that makes a young person feel like their experience is normal.
Mentorship from older fencers is another aspect of this. Young fencers get to build those same bonds with kids who are older than they are. Again, this goes a long way to giving them social support during a turbulent time for any young person. We have fencers who go off to college and then come back to visit the club. They get to share their successes and the things they have overcome as they transitioned from living at home to being away at college. It’s really helpful for our younger fencers to see that and engage with the older fencer’s knowledge.
This broad spectrum of age that fencers get to interact with in a fencing club is unique, even among sports. It’s a truly wonderful support system as they navigate growing up. It’s also unlike what they find at school, where they’re surrounded by either kids their own age or adults, because in their fencing club all fencers share the same passion and interests and that’s a huge thing.
Boundary pushing and fencing
Teenagers are well known for pushing boundaries. This can be tough on parents, but it’s also a necessary part of learning to be an adult. They have to poke their way through to find out exactly what kinds of behaviors are the right fit for them.
Fencing offers a natural outlet for pushing boundaries for young people. The very nature of fencing, as a combat sport with weapons, gives kids a sense of independence. There is something powerful about holding a sword against an opponent. It helps adolescents feel like they have agency and strength.
There is also something powerful about the way that a parent trusts that young person to hold this weapon. When a parent takes a child to learn fencing, they are saying to them, “I trust you to be safe with a weapon that could hurt another person.” That’s a bit deal! Not only are they allowed to do this, but they are trusted to use that weapon against an opponent in a responsible way.
Giving kids responsibility like this fulfills the same need that they are seeking to fill when they act out in rebellion. Teenagers are often looking for an increase in responsibility when they push the boundaries that their parents set up for them. They feel like they’re ready for more, and they are called to fulfill that sense of independence.
Fencers who compete can build on this same feeling. The individual nature of the sport gives a sense of freedom and excitement. Going up against an opponent during a fencing competition can feel like it has high stakes, setting off that very exciting rush that young people want to have.
This is not to say that teenage fencers don’t push boundaries with their parents. Not at all. The point here is that fencing itself can meet that need for a rush of responsibility.
A screen antidote
Every adolescent today is seemingly glued to their screens. Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, teenagers and preteens use their screens as a way to learn and to socialize. While those things are certainly important, parents are always looking for ways to pull back screen time.
We know that excessive screentime in teenagers is linked to higher rates of depression. This is something we hear about in parenting all the time, and we all want to help our kids stay healthy mentally. Figuring out ways to get those teenagers off of their phones and into the real world is a priority for lots of parents, and for good reason.
Fencing is a fantastic antidote to screen time. It’s physically and mentally engaging, but it’s also exciting for teenagers. When they’re in the club, whether it’s for class, open fencing, or private lessons, their phones are far away and they’re getting a social and physical workout. It’s a great thing for them!
Fencing competitions are fantastic for this as well, though there is a lot of downtime at these events. During that downtime, young people can watch other fencers during in-person matches, instead of watching matches online. It’s different to see things in person than it is on YouTube!
Exposure to the wider world
The end goal of parenting is to support our tweens and teens through these years so that they will become successful, independent adults. That’s what all of this is about. Though they start of relying on us for everything, by the time they finish with adolescents, they should be relying on us for very little.
Fencing is by its nature an international sport that brings people together. Fencers are exposed to a whole variety of people, and it is really wonderful for them to see how others live so that they can grow.
The desire for independence while still relying on adults for guidance is the center of this time in a child’s life. Fencing is a great way to help them learn to regulate their emotions, to navigate the physical changes they are experiencing, and to find a positive social circle that includes both peers and people of different ages.