There’s a common idea that getting kids to go to beginner fencing summer camp is about creating the next generation of great fencers.
It goes something like this:
A parent sees a flyer (or reads a blog) and thinks “Hey, this would be a great thing to try, and who knows? Maybe they’ll love it.”
The kid comes into the camp with wide eyes and picks up a sword, then they fall in love with fencing.
Soon enough, they’re enrolled in classes and have found their passion for the sport. They start taking private lessons and competing.
Fast forward a dozen years and they’re marching in with the United States at the Olympics.
Here’s the thing – beginner fencing camp isn’t about building the next generation of great fencers. Sure, we see kids jump into the sport after having done fencing summer camp and go on to become serious fencers, but that’s not at all what they come for.
Here are five ways that beginner fencing camps build strong kids.
Let’s use an analogy that we all have experience with. Imagine you’re driving in the rain. The windshield wipers are fanning across the windshield furiously, with large drops plopping in your view so fast that the blades can barely keep up. Traffic is heavy and you’re having to watch out for cars that keep pulling past you. There’s that wiggly feeling under the steering wheel that tells you that the tires are barely gripping onto the asphalt. The glass in front of you oscillates between being clear and fogging up, so you have to keep turning the vent at the top of the dashboard on and off.
This situation requires all of your focus and concentration. The people are driving fast past you, and you’re having to watch out for cars constantly. You know that you must point your attention to driving to keep the people in the car safe.
Anyone who has been a driver for any amount of time will tell you that it all becomes automatic after a while. When you’re first driving, you worry about everything and overthink every turn of the steering wheel. With time, you don’t even think about it. You are just present in the moment and trusting your body and brain to react correctly.
You learned to drive automatically by doing it again and again for many hours and in countless different situations – heavy, slow, or completely stalled traffic, different times of the day, from night moonless hours to bright days, you had been driving in the rain, snow or in many other weather and road conditions, you been in different cities or even countries, on 5-lanes highways to a poorly maintained country-side road, you had been driving different types of cars with different types of passengers, you had been driving being tired, sleepy, or angry, and many more variations.
In fencing, you have to learn to do that same thing. In the context of a fencing match, your brain is that person in the car. You have to learn to trust your body and brain to take over without you overthinking it. There is a constant talk in sports about “finding flow”. Dropping into the moment and being fully present during a match is a skill that’s developed over time and with a lot of training in different situations. It’s an important skill to develop because it allows us to maximize our mental agility without distraction and to bring our skills to the surface exactly when we need them.
Competitive fencing necessarily involves a good bit of travel. In that way, it’s like a lot of other youth sports.
We’re a niche sport and one of its characteristics is that the distance between competing locally to competing regionally and then nationally is very short, unlike in such mainstream sports like tennis or basketball. Though we’re growing consistently over time and there are many local tournaments for fencers, growing in skills inevitably requires going to larger competitions, and competing at the regional and national levels will always involve a certain amount of travel.
Travel is shown to help kids become more adaptable and resilient, besides exposing them to different cultures and ways of living. Even domestic travel exposes kids to different cultures within the United States. Salt Lake City is not the same as Atlanta! The everyday life of people in various parts of the country is very different, and there’s nothing like visiting those places to help expand the worldview of young people.
Forty one travel tips for fencing families
Though we know that travel is great for kids, and we know that fencing competitions are a fantastic way to facilitate that travel, that doesn’t mean that it’s a walk in the park. Taking kids to competition, either by air or by road, is stressful for everyone. Luckily, there are things that we can do to mitigate that stress on kids and on parents.
Maybe you’re an expert at traveling for fencing tournaments because you’ve been doing this for many years, or maybe you’re new to fencing and the excitement of traveling for competitions. Either way, you’ll find some new ideas here to help make the whole process easier and more enjoyable for everyone.
For the most part, the things in our lives only have as much power as we choose to give to them. When you face an opponent, you have options about how much weight you give to that opponent.
What you bring to the match is not just about your skill and technique, it’s also very much about how you perceive your opponent. If you think that it’s impossible to win against an opponent because they are bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced than you are, then you’re probably going to lose. Even if they are all of those things, you’re not going to fare any better against them because you focus on those dimensions.
On the other hand, if you can disentangle your perception of the opponent from the actions that you’re taking, you have a much better chance of winning against them. Even if you don’t win, you’ll have a much better bout that shows your skills and in which you level up.
The physical component to fencing and athletics in general is certainly important, but the mental component is a driving factor of the physical reality. One goal that we must have in fencing is to control the automatic response that our body and brain has to the outside stimulation. In this case, we’re thinking of a much better opponent as that outside stimulation.
Here are the last place Junior fencers in each category.
Women’s Sabre – Elizaveta Shvets of Israel and Carla Hernandez from Equador at #125
Men’s Sabre – Mathias Planckh of Austria at #152
Women’s Foil – Sofia Tsoneva of Bulgaria at #148
Men’s Foil – Michael Jones of Antigua and Barbuda at #180
Women’s Epee – Maysa Guerreiro of Angola at #160
Men’s Epee – Nathan Ra of Cambodia and Al Yacine Ouro-Agora of Togo at #208
Strictly speaking, these are lowest ranking Junior fencers at the Cadet and Junior World Fencing Championships in each category. They’re last place.
Here’s the question – does that make them the worst fencers?
Where you measure from matters
The worst fencer at the Cadet and Junior World Fencing Championships is still a fencer who made it that far. In the country that they came from, they would rank among the best fencers. To get to the World Championships, they would have had to be among the highest-ranked fencers in their country.
When you look at these fencers in the context of the global stage, when you measure them from the top of the top and only through the lens of that single competition, you perceive them as the lowest ranked. When you measure them in the context of their national stage, you perceive them as the highest ranked. The “worst” fencer (which is a harsh term) at the World Fencing Championships, was probably the best fencer at their national championship.
Who is the worst fencer?
I recently saw a post by Seth Godin, a motivational writer who I find consistent inspiration from.He’s always giving me food for thought. Oftentimes, his writing is about how we are able to put things in perspective, and how that perspective can help us to achieve.
The following is adapted from one of his pieces.
The worst fencer in the country came in last place at Fencing Summer Nationals.
Wait, that’s not true.
The worst fencer didn’t qualify for SN.
The worst fencer in the region didn’t get a podium finish at the regional competition.
Hold on, that’s not true.
The worst fencer didn’t drive from their town to the regional competition.
The worst fencer in town came in last in the club tournament.
Actually, that’s not true.
The worst fencer didn’t even enter the club tournament.
The worst fencer is at the bottom of the class.
Well, that’s not true either.
The worst fencer never even picked up a sword.
No matter how you place in competition, no matter what level that competition is, you are still ahead of the others who never even picked up a fencing sword.
It’s so critically important for us to understand that rankings and ratings have meaning, but they are only useful when we look at them with the right perspective. Fencing is not some isolated venture. All of the ways that we measure ourselves happen within the wider context of who and where we are competing.
In the end, there will always be someone who is further up the path than you are, and there will always be someone who is behind you on the path. It does us no good to put our value based on any ranking, no matter how high.
If the fencers competing at the World Championships spent all of their time and emotional energy thinking how they were at the bottom of the rankings in that one competition, they would miss out on the incredible accomplishment that it is to have qualified at all and to go to Dubai to compete.
If you spend all of your time and emotional energy thinking about how you are not at the top of whatever competition, you will miss out on the incredible accomplishment and privilege that it is to be fencing at all.
Every fencer is on their own path. Every path is one worth celebrating.