No one likes to lose, but it happens. It’s important to face this reality head on when it comes to parenting an athlete. Your child winning their first fencing competition is not impossible, but it’s very unlikely. As a matter of fact, your child may not win a bout their entire first season. That’s quite common with first-year fencers, especially if they start in a more advanced youth category, such as Y14 and even Y12. The “wins” will come slowly as your child starts scoring a few points, and then more points, always getting closer to that first real win.
Ultimately, your child will have to learn to deal with loss on their own: you can’t do it for them as much as you’d like to. Like I said in a recent post, when helping your children cope with loss in the moment, “… it’s more about what you shouldn’t do rather than what you should do.” Well, when setting expectations, I think there’s a bit more room for active parenting in that you can help your child learn that it’s not always about winning and that achievements take hard work and sometimes slow progress.
First, it is important to remember your role in your child’s fencing journey. You are there for support. The coach’s role is to teach and to guide. Talk to the coach about what kinds of goals to set and make sure to stay synchronized. If the coach has already set expectations, you need to understand exactly what those expectations are. For example, if the first tournament for your child is a SYC, chances are this tournament will be tough. It’s likely that your new fencer will get one of the last places (again: it’s okay!). However, in a smaller, local tournament, the outcome will likely be completely different.
With the coach’s plan in mind, talk with your child about what the targets should be. Never set goals in terms of winning. Take the focus away from the competition as a whole and place it on how your fencer performs in terms of trying techniques, making a good move, or maybe earning two points in this bout when they usually don’t get any touches. With the right expectations, a positive mindset, and a lot of practice, your child will reap all the benefits that fencing has to offer. So how can you help?
1. Be specific. Help them to set specific goals based on what your coach teaches. Resist the urge to use fencing jargon if you don’t understand it and instead rely on the coach’s input. Discuss it with the coach in a three-way conversation, or simply ask your child to tell you about the elements of offense/defense to focus on at the competition.
If your child is an epee fencer, the coach may encourage them to score with a fleche attack, a successful counter attack, or doubles on opponent attacks. An epee fencer’s target should be one or two things that they can do in the competition. Then you, as a parent, can praise them on the details instead of the overall outcome.
If your child is a foil fencer, think about the elements and techniques in classes and lessons. Even an off-target parry/riposte can be considered good progress. They haven’t scored, but they are on the right track. In foil fencing, the referee explains what action happened when the action stops. You can try listening to the referee to understand which fencer scored. Then after the bout, you can say, “I heard the referee announce that you scored twice with parry/riposte—that is what you wanted to practice, right?”.
2. Be realistic. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing more detrimental to your child’s progress than being afraid of failure. Challenge is good. Failure is a part of life, but one must learn to get right back up again. If a goal is too challenging, your child can get discouraged and give up—learning to cope with failure by quitting.
Sometimes we push our children too hard. We want them to be good fencers. We want them to be great fencers. But most importantly, we want them to learn and have fun. Help your child develop fencing skills in a positive and relaxed environment. Encourage them to practice footwork or other essential skills—achievable goals that ultimately lead children to enjoy the sport and become better fencers.
Sometimes our children push themselves too hard. Try to understand your child’s goals and decide if you might want to calibrate them. In our case, my son Adam is very competitive. He goes to every competition determined to win or at the very least make it to the podium. As a parent I admire this determination, but I also understand how unrealistic it is based on where he and his competitors are. One of my goals is to try to calibrate his expectations without discouraging him to dream big. Trust me, this is not an easy task, but I try to guide him in a positive direction as best I can.
3. Keep track. Find a way to measure and keep track of progress. Don’t rely heavily on score sheets from judges. A goal doesn’t have to be quantified to be measurable. You can measure your child’s fencing goals by gauging performance and overall feelings of confidence with certain techniques over time.
Last week some of our young Y10 foil fencers went to the Bay Cup Y12 competition. While the pure results aren’t exactly impressive, these boys and their parents told me after the competition that they felt a huge improvement in their fencing. They measured this improvement with something intangible—a feeling of confidence, an ability to execute elements learned in practice and private lessons, an ability to cope with anxiety and fence against a stronger opponent. Medals are nice, but after this tournament I was happy because feeling yourself improve and learning to master new skills is how you learn. The medals can come later.
4. Celebrate. Once you set a goal, make sure to celebrate when it’s reached! No matter how small the goal, it’s important to recognize the accomplishment. I suggest steering clear of monetary or gift-type celebrations (I won’t go too far into my parenting philosophy here), but simple acknowledgment can be enough if it’s purposeful and sincere. Or perhaps a dinner to your child’s favorite restaurant—something that helps you to share in the accomplishment as a family is always nice!
One last thought—it is important to always remember that competitions, especially at the beginning of your child’s fencing career, are supplemental to the training process. Help your children prepare accordingly. Emphasize that competing helps them learn and grow. The focus isn’t about winning or losing. The only outcome we should be paying attention to is becoming a better fencer. The less your child fears losing, the more he or she learns and grows!