Dear USA Fencing Board of Directors,
The push and pull of the responsibilities of USA Fencing is significant, particularly as our sport has grown and of course through the massive challenges of the pandemic.
It’s critical that we look out for the future of our sport, and that means looking out for our youngest competitors. Youth fencers who compete early get a head start, making the road to the highest levels more attainable and, importantly, less stressful along the way.
A few days ago, I wrote a post about the current motion to cancel Y10 and Y12 national fencing competitions that was placed before the board back in October. In it, I encouraged our readers to reach out to their board members and to sign the petition urging the Task Force to recommend that these competitions remain in USA Fencing.
Direct harm to fencing
I’m compelled to write to USA Fencing directly because of the inspiration that I found at the NAC I attended this weekend. Here in Salt Lake City, the body of USA Fencing was well represented, with a broad range of Div 1, Juniors, and Cadets coming to compete alongside their coaches. I stumbled into an overwhelming number of conversations with coaches, who, without exception, were deeply concerned about the potential of Y10 and Y12 national competitions being pulled.
The current move by the board of USA Fencing to potentially cancel these youth events in both March NAC and Summer Nationals is a shock. From the perspective of members, it’s completely come out of nowhere. From the perspective of coaches who train children on a daily basis, it is a direct and inevitable harm to the US fencing and their clubs.
The mission of USA Fencing
The stated mission of USA Fencing, which comes directly from the 2022-2023 handbook, is this:
“The mission of USA Fencing is to serve and foster the growth, participation and development of domestic fencing at all levels and to achieve sustained international success.”
Let’s break this down. The final goal is to achieve international success, and for that to be done in a sustained manner. It’s not just about getting to the top, it’s about consistently getting to the top year over year.
“. . . to serve and foster growth, participation, and development. . .” is the section that really hits home for this issue. How can our Y10 and Y12 fencers participate if they are excluded from national competitions? How can they grow to their full potential if they are not able to compete at this level? How can they take the next step in their development if they are not able to push higher?
Without the ability to develop these athletes through the pipeline that we have worked so hard to establish, we would not have the international competitors that USA Fencing rightfully heralds with pride. Zagunis, Meinhart, Kiefer, Chamley-Watson, Massialas, Imboden, Itkin, sisters Hurley – these fencers, who are now our biggest pride, all started fencing nationally when they were young.
At the Olympic level, we know that these fencers are able to stand up to the international competition with strength and ingenuity. They didn’t start winning Olympic medals or World Championships at 10 or 12 years old. However, they did start cutting their teeth on the highest-level competitions available for them at this age, at the national-level events. There is no way to bypass this stage of development and get to that magic point where age and experience cross paths at the Olympics or the World Championships.
It takes five, six, or even seven years to develop the competitive chops to fence at the first international level, which is Cadet, and then continue to the Olympic level. Lee Kiefer won her first Cadet Worlds medal in 2008 when she was 14 years old, the age the current motion proposes only to start competing nationally! And in Tokyo Olympic Games, she made history by becoming the first American foil fencer to win Gold. Mariel Zagunis, our most decorated fencer, won her first Cadet World Medal at age 15, and four years later, she brought home our first Olympic Gold medal in 100 years.
These American Olympic titans are precisely what USA Fencing’s mission is to build, but now there is a proposal to cut the support system that helped our champions fulfill that mission.
Fencing’s biggest competition
The argument at the heart of the push to discontinue national Y10 and Y12 events is that these are not developmentally appropriate and that youth should explore lots of sports before they start specializing. There is some research out there that they are relying on that’s not conclusive at best, concluding in some recommendations suggesting that kids don’t specialize too early. There is of course no research on fencing, as we are such a niche sport, so these are relying on the high pressure situations in sports like football or competitive gymnastics. To say that those recommendations are appropriate for our sport, which is very different in terms of mental and emotional load as well as physical stress, is flat-out inappropriate.
And this argument is one of the most self-destructing for our fencing.
Our biggest competition as a sport is not between this club and that club. It’s between fencing and other sports.
Parents and kids don’t see a reason to train if there’s no goal, and going to a regional or local competition is not an adequate goal. The sport is too small for that. When parents don’t see a reason for them to really engage until age 14, they won’t bring their children. Our sport, because it is a youth sport, must appeal to parents as much or more as it appeals to kids. They need to see a reason for them to be doing this now, not sometime in the future. Parents need to see a roadmap before their children hit the high school age of 14. Otherwise, they will take their kids somewhere else that does have a more robust youth sports system.
Soccer, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, and American football – they all have a huge advantage over fencing already. When we remove the national competition possibility, we will see parents take their kids elsewhere. Then by the time kids are making their own decisions as teenagers, it’s much harder to get them into the door. Those kids are now invested in other things because they were there at that younger age.
By taking out our pipeline, we won’t just hurt our clubs and the breadth of our national competitors, but we will also destroy our international level of competition. We won’t have the talented athletes to compete in those levels because they never came in the door in the first place. They found their sport elsewhere when they were in elementary school. They didn’t make it into the system because we, as a sports body, didn’t offer them the opportunities they needed to grow.
Mental health and national youth competitions
The logic for canceling national youth competitions is, in large part, the desire to keep kids from experiencing a lot of mental anguish that they don’t need to have.
Here’s the problem with this thought – we rise to the level that we have the opportunity to rise to. A regional competitive loss feels huge for a kid. Even a local competition can put kids under more pressure if they aren’t used to it. It’s about acclimating to that level. The national level is not different in that respect.
The other problematic piece here is the hard line that losing is a bad thing. We write this on our blog and tell it to our students all the time – losing is more valuable than winning. Kids learn from losing, even though it can be rough on anyone. Yes, they will be upset if they don’t win a national match that they have worked hard for. Wouldn’t anyone?
It’s appropriate and healthy for children to show their emotions when they are upset. When we don’t give our kids a chance to go for big goals, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop resilience. We want our children to grow up with resilience, and developing resilience comes from experience. When they are in a strong, supportive environment like a fencing club, they are in the perfect place to have a soft place to land when they do fail.
Summer Nationals is the holy grail for kids. Not only that, but it’s a huge area of growth. They find something that motivates them to work hard and devote themselves to something they are passionate about. They take lessons, attend classes and sign up for camps. As parents, when we see in our children that spark of passion, we would do everything to nurture that.
I’m a father of four children myself, all of whom have competed at the national level every year with the only exception being COVID. For my kids, the growth over the last eight or nine years in these competitions has been tremendous and positive. It’s shaped who they are in the best ways.
My sample size is a big one, well beyond my own four children. Our club has seen thousands of children come through its doors, and I can tell you that national competition is one of the biggest motivators for kids. Without exception, kids return with pride and excitement. Even just wandering around looking at their heroes and being able to compete alongside them, no matter the outcome, is formative. It’s about the experience of being there, not just winning or losing.
It goes beyond the competition. Kids work in training camps to develop their skills ahead of these competitions. Several kids from our club, including my own, have trained with Greg Massialas in the camps organized by the Men’s Foil National team during the nationals. Competing nationally gives them the motivation to participate in training that enriches them and builds relationships.
One of the arguments of the current motion is family budget consideration, and the relief families will have with national-level youth events cancelations.
Canceling national competitions won’t change that because the United States is a big country. Even with regional tournaments, it is often necessary to fly to get there. Very few places are within driving distance, and even then, the expense is substantial. Now we’re asking our youth fencing families to attend more regional competitions until their kids become Y14? This places more burden, not less, both financially and developmentally.
We must respect the families of our fencers enough to let them make their own decisions about juggling their finances in this respect. Trying to make these decisions for them smacks of paternalism.
None of this is to say that change is not a good thing.
It’s appropriate to develop our youth fencers by building more experience into their process before they head off to the national competition. For example, USA Fencing might require a more stringent qualification process to attend March NAC or Summer Nationals. This way, when youth fencers come to National events, they are not totally inexperienced.
There are certainly ways around these problems that don’t involve gutting our youth fencing system.
Change is not the problem, it’s the method of change and the reasoning behind it.
As I said before, our biggest competition is not with other clubs. In fact, I want to see others thriving because that makes the whole sport better for my fencers. We want clubs to be able to attract young people. We need clubs to be there to develop good competitors so that our fencers can grow, nationally and then internationally. We all believe in the ability of fencing to do good for young people.
There is no other sport that gives this kind of opportunity to young people. It’s one of the things that makes fencing special, and it’s something that we must be willing to fight for.
Instead of scaling back our youth programming, we should be increasing the reach to our youngest fencers. I am a big proponent of Y8 competition growing and improving. When we offer these kinds of opportunities to our kids, they become fencing natives, embedding the positive aspects of the sport into their worldview and finding a place where they belong. In a world where kids are too often lost without a compass, with technology constantly changing and harsh realities constantly encroaching on them, fencing is a place where they can find meaning and community.
A direct request to the committee
While it’s certain that everyone who is pushing the discontinuation of these events has the best interest of fencing at heart, this idea is very, very disconnected from the fencing that’s happening on the ground.
My first request is that each of the ten people on the task force reaches out to five different (but big) clubs and ask for their input on this before moving forward. Talking to fifty clubs would offer a broad base across the country of people on the ground who have been successful at growing youth fencers in the day-in, day-out hard work that it takes. 90% of club membership is youth fencing, and we know what is happening here.
Talk to coaches. Talk to owners. Ask them – what drives your fencers? What drives their parents? What is working for you? What do you think about this potential change? Don’t just look to the board members, who are by and large only around these young people at large competitions. Our fencing clubs deserve that much, to be heard on this issue that will directly impact them.
Secondly, I ask that you look at the mission statement of USA Fencing. This is what has helped our sport to grow so amazingly in the last decade. USA Fencing has achieved so much, and we can only keep going if we maintain the holistic growth and development mindset that got us here. I wrote a whole book about this, how the competition structure from the national level down has been one of the reasons for America’s rise on the international stage. Gutting that for our youth fencers will devastate our ability to compete.
If you look at the mission of USA Fencing and you talk to the clubs, you’ll see echoed in their words the same things that I’ve written to you here. To make this decision without the input of clubs and coaches is irresponsible and breaks the bond that we have between us.
Fencing is a sport, but we are a sport that is driven by and supported through community. Our leaders should listen to the people who this organization is meant to serve and who are looking out for the best interests of the kids who they work with every day. Though the hearts of the people who are pushing to cut Y10 and Y12 might be in the right place, their sense of protection for our youth fencers is misplaced. Rather than protecting them, the choice to take away these programs will do harm to them, now and in the future.