Fencing, like any competitive sport, is a rollercoaster of emotions. Victories can elate fencers, filling them with a sense of accomplishment and pride. However, on the flip side, defeat can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for young athletes who may struggle to control the intense emotions that come with losing.
We’ve seen this recently in large competitions, and it’s always troubling when it happens. It can have serious consequences for everyone involved, and things can reach well beyond the player involved, as we saw with a recent incident at the Pan American Games that could keep the U.S. Men’s Epee Team out of the Paris Olympics.
An outburst at the Pan-American Games
Curtis McDowald, a 2020 Olympian representing the U.S. men’s épée team, had serious trouble controlling his emotions during the Pan-American fencing championships in Lima, Peru in June.
Following a crucial loss in the semifinals against Colombia, McDowald received a red card on the decisive point. Frustrated, he stormed off the competition strip and expressed his anger by kicking and damaging a free-standing banner nearby. We’ve seen it before in other competitions with other fencers, and though we can understand the emotions, the consequences of these actions are serious. Another member of USA Fencing attempted to calm him down amidst the heated moment.
As a consequence of his actions, McDowald was shown a black card, resulting in a complete disqualification for the U.S. men’s épée team. This disqualified them from participating in the bronze-medal match and dealt a severe blow to their chances of qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. Prior to the incident, the U.S. men’s epee team held a strong position to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
In response to the incident, USA Fencing expressed disappointment in Curtis’s actions, acknowledging the harm it caused to Team USA’s Olympic qualification prospects. The national governing body revealed that McDowald had been removed from the Pan-American Championships team following a hearing. As a consequence of his actions, he was also ineligible to compete at the 2023 Fencing World Championships.
His actions have highlighted the importance of sportsmanship and maintaining composure in the face of defeat, as emotions can have significant consequences on an athlete’s career and their team’s prospects.
As coaches, parents, and mentors, it is crucial to teach young fencers how to control their emotions in the face of defeat, fostering resilience and empowering them to grow from setbacks. These are important life skills not just for right now in their pursuit of sports, but for their whole life as they have to learn how to control their emotions in all kinds of situations.
We want to grow a group of young people who can interact in healthy ways by handling their emotions effectively. It’s important for them and it’s important for society as a whole. Finding effective ways to support young people when their feelings are too big for them is a great way to help our fencers. Learning emotional control and how to cope with losses in a constructive way will help your fencers get to the next level on the piste and off.
But how can we do it? How can we learn from these kinds of incidents and show our kids that they don’t have to respond with this kind of outburst? Here are some effective strategies.
A new school year is a busy time of year for families that’s full of excitement and new beginnings. Kids are starting new grades in school with new teachers and new classmates, and everyone is full of energy after the summer.
This time of year is also when extracurricular activities get going, and choosing which one is right for children is both exciting and daunting. Fitting it all in and knowing how to effectively plan out time and commitments can be difficult. We don’t want to overload our kids with activities, but at the same time we don’t want them to miss out.
Fencing combines athleticism, strategy, and a touch of elegance, making it a thrilling and engaging extracurricular for children. Competitive fencing is certainly an option, but beginner fencers who have never tried the sport before don’t jump into the deep end – they just dip a toe in.
If your child is considering fencing this fall, this blog will give you everything you need to know.
Understanding the Thrill
Fencing is a sport that involves dueling with a weapon. Sword dueling is an exhilarating and enjoyable activity that brings with it a sense of comfort and excitement. Unlike other sports, where players are bound by various rules and equipment, dueling with a sword allows for a thrilling and immersive experience.
Imagine standing across from your opponent, the weight of the sword in your hand, and the anticipation of the bout ahead. The world around you seems to fade away, leaving only you and your opponent in a dance of skill and strategy. As the duel commences, your senses heighten, and each movement becomes crucial, requiring precision and quick thinking.
The beauty of sword dueling is that it welcomes participants of all ages. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned duelist, the joy lies in the act of wielding a sword and engaging in a friendly clash. Beginners need not fret about choosing a specific weapon; it’s the thrill of the fight that matters most.
If your child picks a stick and imagines it’s a sword, if your child thrusts into you or their friends with pool noodles, then fencing is a sport that most likely they would love. And then you should learn what’s the next step and what this sport will give your child, as well as what preparations to make for your child to pursue this beautiful sport.
Keeping momentum in the summer for youth fencers can be crucial for their development and performance. If you don’t keep working on it, then those skills you’ve invested all of that energy into developing will dull with time. Coming back into the full swing of things in the fall when school and other activities are all going will be that much harder, making the road forward more challenging than it needs to be.
For fencers who are qualified for Fencing Summer Nationals, maintaining that momentum is easier, because they’re pouring themselves into their preparation for the big tournament. Most fencers in America aren’t there yet, and the national championship is naturally selective in its participation. That leaves a huge swath of competitive and recreational fencers out there who don’t have a major competition to keep them focused and going.
How can fencers maintain their progress during the summer months without competitions to motivate them? Here are some ways to make it happen.
Being specific makes all the difference
Work with your fencer to set clear and achievable goals for the summer. This is something you can define with their coach, but it can also come a lot from your fencer and what they feel they need.
Goals could include improving specific skills, increasing strength or endurance, or participating in summer competitions that aren’t part of USA Fencing. Keep in mind that competing outside of the qualifying paths is still incredibly helpful. Go for things that are as challenging as possible, but also realize that summer training can be less intense and more fun. Setting goals to participate in specific local or even intramural competitions can keep things light for the break while also pushing them forward.
Setting targets will provide direction and motivation throughout the season, but keep in mind that you don’t have to be harsh or incredibly rigid. Structure that works for youth fencers works best when it accommodates their needs. Given that, you will be happy if you develop a structured training plan that outlines specific activities and workouts for your fencer to follow during the summer. This plan should include a combination of skill development, physical conditioning, and rest days. Having a plan in place will help your fencer stay focused and organized without feeling boxed in.
Encourage your fencer to continue practicing their sport regularly in their club, even during the summer break when things are looser. Consistent practice will help them maintain and enhance their skills on the strip. This could involve working on individual drills, participating in open fencing, or attending fencing camps or clinics.
That last one – camps and clinics – is really important for the summer because it’s an unusual time with opportunities that you won’t often have. Take advantage of the possibilities during the summer that kids can’t get during the year. Summer camps are a unique way of building camaraderie but also building skills and having fun. They’re lower pressure than competition, but the skill development is real and impactful. Fencing clubs often bring in special guests during the summer, allowing kids to train with a different and valuable perspective.
You never know where fencing connections will come from, and I just had one come out of nowhere. It’s one of those things about fencing that makes it extraordinary.
Recently I had a discussion with NYT Bestselling Author Douglas E. Richards about my newly published book, Breaking News of Tomorrow. I love Richards’s sci-fi and technothrillers, in particular, I recommend his book Wired, a great summer read for anyone looking for an engaging summer read. If you read my book, which is a technothriller/political thriller, you surely understand why Richards’ writing fascinates me so much.
We started off talking about our writing work, but then Doug brought up his son, a fencer! He spent countless hours in fencing tournaments and at his son’s fencing gym, watching his son practicing and competing. In fact, he’d been a fencer himself. Not only that, but Doug dropped into the conversation that he’d written a young adult novel about fencing.
This was one of those little revelations that just blew me away. Having read and absolutely loved about a half dozen (if not more) of his books, I was completely astonished to discover that one of my favorite writers was a seasoned fencing parent, a fencer himself, and even wrote a middle-grade thriller that involves fencing—two worlds colliding in the most wonderful way.
As soon as we got off the call, I immediately hopped online and purchased the book, The Devil’s Sword. A few days later, when it arrived, I put it to the top of my reading stack, diving in the minute it came through the door. One of my favorite things in the world is to get a new book with a premise that I can get excited about.
A fencer’s review of The Devil’s Sword by Douglas E. Richards
Here’s my spoiler-free review of The Devil’s Sword. You’ll get some basics here, and you’ll get my opinion, but the major plot points that are important for the reader are left out so that you can experience it for yourself.
Usually, I am skeptical about books with fencing – most of them depict fencing as inaccurately as Hollywood movies depict sword-fighting scenes. In most books and films, fencing is usually just a fleeting activity, a nice addition that shows a character’s personality or gives a setting for the plot to move forward, but often it could easily be removed from the story and doesn’t have much meaning. This is frustrating beyond belief, because I always want to have more than the usual plug-it-in-character device that media has for fencing.
To my huge surprise, that was not the case with The Devil’s Sword!
Doug’s personal understanding of fencing is crystal clear thanks to his vivid descriptions and accurate portrayals of the fencing world. He is a writer who obviously knows what he’s talking about. There’s no way that someone on the outside would be able to do the in-depth kind of writing that we see in this book. The meticulous attention to detail in depicting weapon checks, pools, DEs, and bouts rang true immediately to my experience. This is totally different than most of the works out there about fencing, and it was refreshing to see. It was real fencing tournament! Sometimes I even had a de ja vu – explanations of weapon check, pools, DE’s and bouts were so truthful and detailed that I caught myself thinking that this is a fantastic introduction to fencing.
In this book, fencing is the central theme. You cannot take it out, like you cannot take out Jedi from Star Wars. The main characters are fencers at heart, and the whole plot spins out from the world of fencing. What’s more, the plot itself is woven in with the whole world of fencing in terms of the themes and metaphors. It’s unlike almost anything I’ve read.
Three fourteen-year-old foil fencers in San Diego are invited by their coach to attend an RYC in Las Vegas, held at the highly secure Nellis Air Force base. They don’t know it, but the base is home to a top-secret military defense project. While there, a rogue faction of Black Ops agents turn the weapon into a dangerous offensive weapon called “The Devil’s Sword”. And international arms dealers are after this piece of tech with the potential threat to take down the entire country. The young fencers must use their wit, stamina, intelligence, and fencing skills to help them stop the internationally woven threat and save everyone from looming disaster.
The plot fits well within the action/thriller category, with tons of twists and turns that are exciting but also believable. Though it’s definitely targeted at young adults, it’s well-paced and engaging enough for someone well past their teen years to enjoy.
The RYC is actually the mechanism that allows the villains to get their foot in the door and make their play against the lead scientist. The book does a great job of integrating the real world of the fencing tournament into the action-adventure of the plot. There are excellent depictions of the fencing competition, and it’s fun to imagine how this experience would go if it were to happen at one of the real competitions we attend! Every fencer who has been to a regional competition will see themselves in the characters and events. It’s a huge plus factor to the book. In fact, the depiction of the fencing event and everything surrounding it is so accurate that for the fencers this book would feel right at home.
As the coach says at one point in the book – going to Regionals is a totally different experience!
Especially for young adult readers, the story and writing style will keep them engaged and reading along throughout. It’s a great way for them to see themselves in a piece of literature. It’s important that they are able to find reflections of their experiences in the texts that they read – it helps them to understand their importance in the world around them.
For your child’s summer reading, or especially as a book to take with you for the trip to Arizona for Summer Nationals, The Devil’s Sword is a fantastic book. Highly recommended! Prepare to be enthralled and transported to a world where blades clash, secrets abound, and the fate of nations hangs in the balance.
Now for the real question that we need to know – when is Doug going to be releasing the sequel? We need more great fencing-related books like this one in the world, especially since the nation’s top secret is promised to be revealed in the next RYC!
Building trust in your skills is a crucial skill for young fencers to learn to perform their best. Often, we see kids who come to class, work hard, enjoy the sport, but then they struggle to believe that they can do it in competition.
This can be truly challenging when kids make that cross into tournament fencing. The intimidation of putting themselves out there against unknown opponents is not easy, and it requires a level of confidence or a leap of faith.
Part of the problem is that kids sometimes struggle with their emotions when they don’t perform the way they think they should. For example, a fencer who has been doing great in their fencing bouts in class can then get into a competition and find that they aren’t doing as well against new opponents as they expected to. This can quickly erode their confidence in their ability, even when their coach and team are telling them that the transition is going well.
Imposter syndrome is something that we see increasingly with athletes. Despite the fact that they are performing well in fencing, they assume that it’s just a fluke and not indicative of their real skill level. They jump to the assumption that they are doing well because their opponent happens to be having a bad day or because they just found a random flow in their fencing. Kids (and adults for that matter) are happier when they learn to own their talent and growth.
We can help these young athletes move to the next level in their fencing lives by giving them strategies to learn to trust their skills.
Strategy #1 – Positive Self Talk
The person that kids talk to the most is themselves. Though the social interactions with parents, siblings, teachers, fellow fencers, and others have an impact, it’s the way that they talk about themselves that carries the most weight.
We must encourage youth athletes to practice positive self-talk. This involves replacing self-doubt or negative thoughts with positive and affirming statements.
“I am a strong fencer who is growing with every match” versus “I can’t do this because I’m not getting good fast enough.” “Everyone loses a match sometimes, and it’s ok for me to” versus “I lost the match and so I must be no good at fencing.”
Talking about the inner monologue is important. Oftentimes, kids don’t even realize how they talk about themselves until we bring it up. It can start with saying things out loud, and of course, the way that we talk to fencers about their skill is important as well. This can help build confidence and reinforce belief in their abilities. Teach them to focus on their strengths, past successes, and the hard work they have put into developing their skills.
This dovetails with visualization and mental rehearsal, which can help support positive self-talk. Fencers can visualize themselves performing their skills successfully in their mind’s eye, crafting the way that they see themselves. This mental rehearsal helps create a positive image and reinforces belief in their abilities. Vividly imagining executing their skills with precision, confidence, and success will also help them to improve their performance practically. It’s definitely a win-win.
Strategy #2 – Process over product
We repeat this over and over on the blog and in our club, but that’s because it’s so, so important. Whether you get to a podium or win a match is not something that you can control entirely. We do our best, we practice hard, and then we have to trust that the outcome will be authentic.
Young fencers should set process-oriented goals that focus on skill development, effort, and improvement rather than just winning or specific results. By focusing on the controllable factors, they can build confidence in their ability to execute the skills they’re developing through all that practice and all those private lessons effectively.
This is where the training really comes in. Consistent and deliberate practice is essential for skill development and building trust in a fencer’s own ability. Dedicated practice sessions, private lessons, and open fencing all work together to support the development of athletic skill and reinforce their technical abilities. As they see their skills improving through consistent practice, their confidence in their abilities will naturally grow.
The big growth points don’t happen in competition – they happen in the club. The podium and the medals are only an acknowledgment of what has happened throughout the process.
Strategy #3 – Setting realistic expectations
Youth fencers need to set realistic expectations for themselves. It takes years to develop into a champion fencer, and there’s no way to rush the process. Unrealistic expectations can lead to self-doubt and frustration. By setting achievable goals and recognizing progress, fencers will gain confidence in their abilities and trust the incremental growth they experience over time.
We can help support this by giving them lots of feedback along the way. Fencers need feedback from coaches, mentors, experienced fencers, and their parents. Constructive feedback provides valuable insights for improvement and helps them trust their skills by identifying areas of strength and areas that need work. Both seeing the good and seeing the bad are important. We can’t keep kids in a bubble because they know that’s not real. Mistakes should be seen as learning opportunities rather than failures, as they contribute to growth across all areas.
We must encourage our youth fencers to embrace challenges and step outside their comfort zones. By taking on new experiences in the sport, trying different movements and learning about what works for them and what doesn’t, they’re able to test their skills and prove to themselves that they are capable of performing in various situations in fencing. Each successful challenge helps build trust in their skills. This kind of cyclical learning is exactly what the best fencers benefit from and how we have to help them progress.
That being said, we also need to celebrate successes, both big and small. Recognizing their achievements boosts their confidence and reinforces their trust in their skills. They have to hear it from you. Personal bests and displays of improvement are part of the goal-setting process that really boosts fencers growth.
Consistency is key
Building trust in one’s skills takes time and consistent effort. It also takes a whole group of people to raise strong fencers who believe in themselves, and that’s exactly what we’re here for. When there are hard days, we can build them up to believe in themselves. Learning to take the good and the bad without falling down takes time.
By implementing these strategies and providing a supportive environment, we can help our young fencers develop confidence and trust in their abilities, enabling them to perform at their best. We all want to see our fencers succeed, but in the end they have to learn to do it on their own.