Competitions are stressful, especially big competition like fencing Summer Nationals. It’s easy for kids to let their nerves get away with them and to begin to feel overwhelmed and unhappy – which is never the kind of feeling that we want our young fencers to have. Fencing is an exciting sport, because after all we are doing battle, both physically and mentally.. In fact, one of the most amazing things about fencing is that it is so exciting. Unfortunately those same feelings that make it so exciting can also make it quite intimidating.
First let’s realize that stress isn’t always a bad thing. Our bodies are made to be stressed – and good stress will help you to perform better. That’s right I said “good stress.” So let’s talk a bit about the two kinds of stress.
- Distress is the negative kind of stress that comes when there are too many negative demands. For instance if you’re in a new place (Summer Nationals for example), you’re convinced that you haven’t trained enough, you see so many people in your division or age group and are afraid because they look so skilled, you can feel your stomach grumbling and you’re terrified that you’ll lose and look bad in front of your family and friends. Did I mention that way in the back of your mind you have forgotten every move?You’re in distress. Your mind is overloaded with thoughts, and your body is reacting to those powerful thoughts with a racing heart and a flood of brain chemicals that make you unable to think clearly.
- Eustress is the positive kind of stress that comes from taking on a new challenge or participating in something that you love doing but that involves hard work. You’re in the moment, focused completely on the task at hand, your body is physically peaked and your mind is clear.Eustress gives you that incredible spark that helps your to get to that ultimate focus. It’s the reason that people like to compete. Some people call it the eye of the tiger, but whatever you call it, it’s helpful.
5 Stress Strategies
So how can you help your child to harness the power of stress to make the most of competition? Here are 5 ways to make it happen.
There are so many levels to this, but the main thing is to be perfectly comfortable on competition day. And this is a place that parents can really come in. Make sure that your child has everything that they need. That means their lame is ready, their mask and gloves are good to go, and that their foil is there. Your child should only have to think about the match – all of those supporting details can come from you.
This extends to other things too, like eating. On the day of competition, many kids get so nervous that they don’t want to eat. Eating is essential. One thing that you can do is to make sure that there’s something that they like available. If they have a favorite protein bar or cereal, bring it with you so that you don’t have to go looking for it once you get to the fencing venue. Think about competition morning ahead of time.
Before you leave home, triple check gear and packing. Traveling can be stressful in its own right. Something like a missing USFA Membership card or forgotten equipment can cause so much undue distress, and can quickly spiral an already nervous competitor. Take the extra time to ensure that everything is right with an eye for making your young competitor’s experience easier and more successful.
On the day of the tournament, ensure that it’s all about your fencer. When you’re getting ready at the hotel before you go to the venue, allow those competing to set the schedule and for everyone else in the party to make do around them. This is an empowering move, and shows that the true reason for everyone being there is to support your child. So much of this process is out of their control, and that can be both helpful and also distressing. Allow them to choose the food for the family, where you sit, those kinds of things.
Your child is amazing! Support them to show it.
3. Watch and Read
If this is your first national competition, then be sure that your child has seen some fencing there. The more that your child sees it, the less intimidating it will be. Get to the venue early so that you can see others in action. Things that we don’t know are scary, but then once we see and experience them, they don’t see so scary anymore.
The more that your child is exposed such to high level fencing competition, the less they will have their nerves bothering them about it. You can help them to make the most of it all by seeing it. The other thing that you should can do is to read about it. Understand what the venue looks like by reading about it online and looking at pictures of it. Competition itself is a surprise already, and you won’t be ruining any of the excitement by seeing it all beforehand, in fact your child will be even more excited.
Sharing the experience with others is one of the things that makes competition so fantastic. You can help your child to feel less stressed about the whole thing by encouraging them to interact with their teammates and with others who are in competition. Your kids can make friends with their competitors – that’s one of the best things about this amazing sport. Lifelong friendships can begin at fencing Summer Nationals. Encourage them to talk about how they feel, and that will help to make them feel great about it. They might be surprised to find that other competitors are feeling unsure of themselves! Feeling that they are not alone in being nervous is perhaps the best way for them to feel less nervous.
If your child has a sudden bout of nerves on the day of their event, you can encourage some simple breathing exercises that will help them to slow their heart, focus their minds and relax their muscles. The most effective way to calm an out of control stress response is to breathe in for a shorter period and then breathe out for a longer one. This sends a signal to the brain to let go of feelings of anxiety and stress. One great strategy is to breathe in for a count of seven and then breathe out for a count of eleven. Yes, these are really slow breaths, but this count in particular has been proven to slow down feelings of distress. Sit down with your child in a quiet place in the venue, look at them and hold their hands, or stand behind with your hands on their shoulders, and count the breath with them. In for seven, out for eleven, In for seven, out for eleven. Three or four repetitions will be sufficient, and it’s quite often a big transformation.
The most important thing that you can do is to keep this whole process in context. Whatever the outcome of a particular bout or entire tournament, your child has been in competition! And that’s an amazing, wonderful experience that no one can take away from them. Good luck and happy competing!