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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

A Fencing Parent’s Guide to Grooming an Elite Athlete

A Fencing Parent's Guide to Grooming an Elite AthleteWhere does greatness come from? Does it come from natural talent? Or the right teacher? Or a hearty work ethic?

The truth is that greatness doesn’t come from any one thing. As parents, we want to give our children the best and most opportunities that we can. And that’s a tough job. Not only are we responsible for teaching them, nurturing them and giving them a loving environment, but parents of athletes also find themselves being charged to motivate, train and guide their children through the challenges of high level performance.

The challenges

The pitfalls are many when it comes to parenting an elite athlete, but keep in mind that you aren’t in this alone. There is guidance, and there are solutions for many of the problems that feel overwhelming. We’re going to lay out some of the common challenges that parents of elite fencers face, then give you guidance for how to address them.

Tough Questions

Youth sport is more and more complex and competitive all the time. As fencers, we are confident in our sport and excited by the nurturing that we feel from the community. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or that we as parents don’t constantly think about the challenges that we feel and whether we are doing the right things.

Here are a few questions that we find ourselves as parents asking:

  • Am I pushing too hard?
  • Am I not pushing hard enough?
  • Will my child grow up to hate fencing?
  • What happens if my child fails?
  • How will this affect my child’s adult life?
  • Who are we doing this for?

There aren’t easy answers to any of these questions. What we can say is that if you’re asking these questions, then you’re invested in your child’s fencing for the right reasons. Fencing is about more than medals or points, a notion that we’ll come back to again and again. But that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong as a parent to groom your child to be an elite fencer. There’s a reason that we hold up elite athletes as heroes, and they offer a whole list of qualities that are well worth the praise (more on all of that later).

Balance Challenges

Balance is hard to find in high level sports. Kids have to balance school and other activities, while still making time for training and competition, not to mention downtime and family time. It’s hard to overestimate the amount of time that it takes to get to the top, but it is completely possible to get there without having a negative experience.

Though this sounds like a place that parents will feel over their heads, you CAN do it! It takes creativity and flexibility, but this is an area that parents can really support their young fencers.  It’s important to think of balance as an opportunity for families, because it’s a lesson that carries over well beyond fencing and into life.

Financial Challenges

Finances are another issue that can get in the way for families. Parents want to give their children every leg up, and it’s tempting to think that the most expensive gear will give your child that edge that they need. Good gear is important, but great fencing teachers can help families to make it work with the resources available. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that grooming an elite fencer involves a considerable financial investment.

Competition, training, gear and more all add up. Often families have to make sacrifices in other areas in order to support the travel and other costs that are involved in elite sports, and there are decisions that can be challenging along the way.

No one can tell your family what’s right in this area, but do know that you’re not the only family to be presented with this challenge.

The Foundation – Growth, Motivation, Environment, Balance and Mindset

What most people don’t see is that elite athletes don’t get there on their own. High level competition is more than just a talented athlete – it’s the summation of a wide support structure. The right support is key to success, a support that’s firmly rooted, broad in nature and there for the long haul.

There are basic elements that are common to all elite athletes, a foundation that helps them to get not only training right, but the whole picture of fencing and life. Each of these is a building block towards the brighter future that’s ahead for young elite athletes, giving them the leg up that they need to do more.

Growth

The way to ensure that your young fencer gets what they need is to grow their support system as they grow in the support. The higher up the ladder of competition your fencer goes, the more of a structured support system they’re going to need. It’s essential that parents keep widening that base as their child gets more and more involved.

The easiest place to see this is with training time.  A child might start off with a beginning class when they’re first getting into the fencing, but the more committed to and invested in fencing they become, the more time they’ll spend at the fencing club. That time commitment only grows as the level of competition increases. Truly elite athletes, the Olympians and the National Champions, not only train on the strip but also cross train for fitness in addition to their fencing time.

Competitions grow too, starting out locally and then progressing to be further and further afield. Fencers can take this just about as far as they wish to, with international competition opportunities for fencers who work hard and are committed. The support system has to stay ahead of the needs of the fencer as they grow, and it’s something that parents must necessarily anticipate.

Tip for parents: Talk to your child’s coach about not only your child’s current needs, but also about their needs in six months or a year. What does the future look like and how do you need to prepare for the next step in your child’s fencing development?

Motivation

Another word that we could use for motivation is drive. While there might be a desire within your child to do something, like say compete in the Olympics or win a medal at Nationals, without motivation that dream will never have a chance of taking shape. This is a key building block for fencers because it propels them forward, pushing them on towards the next step and the next step.

What’s really neat about motivation is that it’s an area that’s been heavily researched, and also that there are ways that parents can help their kids to learn the right ways to be motivated.

For long term motivation, you have to help your child develop an intrinsic (inner) drive to excel. Extrinsic (outer) motivators are not going to work. What this means is that you can’t “make” your child perform better in the long term with either punishments or rewards. What you can do is foster an inner drive.

How? Here are some ways to do it.

●    Create training goals instead of achievement goals.

For example, rather than saying to your child “You really need to work hard to win this next match,” you might say “Let’s set a goal for you to attend two training camps this season.” This also keeps there from being an undue burden on your child. No fencer (no matter how great they are) has complete control over winning matches, but every fencer has control over how well they train.

●    Encourage autonomy.

Be there for your child, but don’t smother them. Step back and allow the coaches to nurture in the ways that they need to, and resist stepping in at every turn. The more trust you put in your young fencer, the more surprised you will be by how much they are able to accomplish. Autonomy is key to intrinsic motivation.

●    Focus on learning.

Ask your child what they learned at practice or from a match rather than focusing on how they did.

●      Look for the bigger picture

Fencing isn’t just about fencing! Encourage your child to see the life lessons, the bigger picture in this process. Always keep in mind that your child is working not just for medals but for life lessons.

Tip for parents: Your child is going to model on you more than anything. It’s critical that parents of elite athletes have their own motivation in the right places if their child is to develop the kind of inner, long lasting drive that will carry them through.

Environment

The importance of having a stable and loving environment cannot be overstated. Home has got to be healthy if a healthy athlete is to grow out of it. That goes for the training venue as well.

Parents of elite athletes are responsible for giving them as much stability and nurturing at home as is possible. If a young fencer is to overcome the challenges that they face on the strip, then they need to be able to focus on those. Now that’s not to say that home has to be a perfect place all of the time, because one of the things that makes families perfect is that they are imperfect! It also doesn’t mean that elite athletes should be exempt from chores or duties at home in favor of training, but it does mean that parents need to work consciously to create a loving and stable home environment and to recognize how important that is to their young fencer.

This also goes for the fencing club and the coaches. Loving and supportive clubs that train with a positive and healthy mindset are the places that produce the best athletes. Fencing is a sport of heart, even though it’s shown through a sword! Parents of elite fencers are charged with making sure that their child is offered the kind of support and kindness within their training that they find at home.

Tip for parents: Keep an open dialogue with your child’s coaches – don’t be afraid to ask questions and to advocate for your child. Do however keep in mind that your relationship with their coach is a big part of their environment, so work hard to keep it as positive as possible.

Balance

No one can do one thing all of the time and be happy, NO one. No matter how much your child loves fencing, no matter how committed they are to getting to the top, they still need to make sure that their lives have a sense of balance.

This is really where parents come in.  Make sure that your child invests in outside opportunities. This includes maintaining good grades in school as well as fostering good friendships. Encourage other hobbies, even other sports, whatever sparks your child’s interest. These are places that your child can take a “brain break” from fencing in order to keep competition in perspective. Fencing is absolutely amazing, there’s no doubt of that, but it’s not healthy for anyone to be completely consumed with any one thing.

On off weekends, do things together as a family. Carve out holiday times and vacation times. This is a great way to  show your child that, while you’re incredibly proud of their accomplishments on the strip, you value them no matter what.

What’s really amazing is that finding that balance will actually make your child’s fencing better! That’s right, encouraging your elite young athlete to take time off will help them to focus and appreciate their fencing all the more. This aspect of grooming high level athletes is so important! The greatest fencers keep life balanced.

Tip for parents: Open a dialogue about balance with your child. Ask them to name at least three things outside of their sport that make them happy, then discuss how they can participate in those while still practicing fencing. Don’t forget to explain how staying balanced will actually help their fencing!

Mindset

How you think about success? Is it something that someone is born with? Does it come from hard work? We started out talking about how elite athletes are really a combination of many things, and that’s true. Parents have to encourage their children to see the complexities of becoming successful, to have a mindset that realizes that it is not just one thing that will get them there.

Young fencers who are naturally talented and whose innate abilities are over-emphasized will begin to question their self worth if they fail. Parents need to help them to strike a balance in this area, to learn to understand that should they not perform perfectly that it’s not a problem with the essence of their person. Another reason that it’s important to shed the mindset of “natural talent” is because it can lead to athletes who think that if they work hard then it means that there’s something wrong with them. Why would a naturally gifted person have to work so hard? It must mean that they are flawed in some way right?

What we want to foster in our young fencers is a mindset that’s focused on growth. This allows them to see failure as a place to learn. Not succeeding doesn’t mean that they can’t grow or that they won’t grow, it only means that this is one setback in a longer arc of moving forward. They don’t mind being corrected because they see it as the chance to get better, to grow as fencers. With this mindset, there is no such thing as being a failure, because a moment of weakness or a misstep is really just the chance to get better!

Tip for parents: Help your young fencer to keep the growth mindset by offering them praise and support for the process. For instance “Your footwork has really improved, I can tell that you’ve been practicing.” or “Great job with that bout, you look much better than you did last time.” It’s important that you do this especially when your child loses a match, because it will let them know that it’s the growth that’s important to you, not the outcome! That will make them all the more ready to take on bigger challenges.

Enjoy fencing!

More than anything else – more than the right coach or the best set of goals, is that young fencers and their families have fun with this sport.

That being said, it will cease to be fun for your child for short periods. That does not mean that it’s the time to give up, nor is it the time to crack the whip and push children harder. When things get stressful and not fun, take a break and allow your child to sleep in or to take an afternoon off (balance is so important!). Burnout leads to all kinds of trouble, and can lead young fencers to leave the sport when they don’t need to! If you as a parent are feeling overwhelmed or too intense, reach out to other parents and to coaches, who can offer you support and remind you of why fencing is wonderful. Sometimes young fencers need reminders too, and there’s no reason not to pull out the scrapbooks or videos of favorite matches to ignite that spark again.

The best thing that a parent can do is to watch for those cycles of stress and allow their child a break before it becomes too much. That way they’ll be ready to jump back in and achieve their goals. All while having great fun!

No one is going to get to the top of the pyramid if they aren’t enjoying it. Elite fencers truly enjoy it! They love doing it. We love fencing because it’s exciting, it’s enriching. Fencing is so much like life, it teaches us so many lessons. For elite fencers, those are lessons that can propel them to great heights and can be great for the whole family.

Good luck!

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