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.
There’s a high level of skill, dedication, and commitment that goes along with fencing. We are part of an Olympic sport that has a strong, proud history.
While it’s great for us to pursue excellence, and we definitely encourage everyone to try to be the best they possibly can be, there is a danger that an environment of elitism can develop in such a way that it is detrimental to our own goals. If we put up roadblocks to participation or even progress because we are so focused on this concept of being set apart, it can harm everything we’re working towards. And it can happen to such young fencers as Youth 10 and all the way to seniors.
It’s important for us to talk about the negative aspects of elitism in fencing, such as bullying, trash talk, and entitlement, and discuss strategies to cultivate a more inclusive and supportive culture within our beloved sport.
Why we need excellence but not entitlement
Elitism can lead to a toxic environment where certain fencers believe they are superior to others based on their achievements or skill level. Achievement is important, and we of course want to encourage it, but being at the top of the podium doesn’t make someone better than anyone else. We are always competing with ourselves to become better – not with anyone else.
It’s a topic that’s relevant not just to our sport of fencing, but across youth sports. We’ve seen a lot of discussion in the past few years about bullying, but oftentimes we miss the bigger picture when we just focus on that one aspect.
Fencing is unique. Because of the combat nature of the sport coupled with the strong historical ties of this sport to the upper class, we hold a special place in the world of sports. When you hold a sword and step out onto that strip, it puts you in a headspace that feels powerful, and that’s something to encourage and be celebrated. It’s one of the things that makes our sport so amazing, but we have to put that within an environment that is positive for everyone.
Elitism can manifest in various ways, and it can happen online as well as in person. It’s when you are building yourself up by creating a divide between yourself and others. Excellence means you are getting better than you were yesterday. You are competing against yourself to become the best possible fencer you can be.
Here’s a simple way to think about it:
“I am great because I am better than you.”
“I am great because I am better than I was yesterday.”
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.
Sparring is more the key to developing fencing strength or fencing proficiency than any other thing you can do. You can focus on individual lessons, group lessons, line drills, good advice, books you read, and competitive experience, but all is for not, if you don’t know how to spar.
I was a boxer for many years before I ever heard of fencing. The one thing that separated boxers from people who ended up not boxing was sparring technique. You think in boxing you have an option. Perhaps you decide to work on your development. If you think that boxing and competition are the same thing, they’re going to get out there and try to knock each other out and there can be no learning. Boxers soon learn that there has to be a way to train without making it all out warfare. Sparring means we don’t hit hard, it means we hit for touches. When boxers learn to hit for touches, they are really learning power, because they learn to control the quality of the punch, which develops tremendous sensitivity. With the control it takes to hit lightly, you automatically learn to release your energy so that you can go as hard as you want to and there is no limit to how hard that can be given the right timing and distance. People who go on slugging all the time and cannot slow down and control the quality of their actions never learn to hit hard. The same is true in fencing, but it is more difficult to see because in fencing you can hit someone really hard and not hurt them. You can go for touches and there is nothing that reminds you that that might not be the way to go. If you start slugging in boxing, someone gets hurt pretty fast and those two boxers quit boxing each other, so they have nobody to train with. In fencing, you have an alternative. You can fence for touches, which means competition or you can fence for sparring, which means the learning process in light competitive practice. The learning process is the focal point and the action of scoring touches is the secondary factor.
offers the fencer the same as it offers the boxer–a place where you can go try
things out. If it does not work, that’s fine. It has not cost anything. On
failing an action, you learn what you should not be doing, which is more
important than what you should be doing. Fencing is a subtractive process
rather than an additive one. In the process of fencing and in sparring, you are
learning what you should discontinue in your game. You shed the over-reaction,
you shed too much attack-oriented fencing, you shed this and that and
pretty soon you end up with the stuff that works.
There are high-tech ways to get in shape as a fencer, and there are low-tech ways to get in shape as a fencer. Though we tend to think that jumping rope is something for children to do on the playground, in reality, it’s a great way to train inexpensively and anywhere you are.
Why is jumping rope good for fencers?
When you jump rope, you’re bouncing up and down on the balls of your feet (or, as it is often said, on your toes), which is not dissimilar from how we want to put our weight towards the balls of our feet on the strip. The movement that you’re practicing when you jump rope is complementary to the movement that you want to improve on the strip. The whole notion of “being light on your feet” is exactly what we want to foster as fencers, and jumping rope does this beautifully. Overall, jumping rope is one of the most popular exercise tools for millions of athletes in any sport and one of my favorite suggestions to fencers.
Overall, this is a fantastic tool for fencers. Jump ropes are great for:
Posture, core, and leg strength
These are all aspects of physical fitness that are good for fencers, and as such it’s a good idea to leverage this tool as a way to get better in our sport. As a bonus, jumping rope can be done just about anywhere with obviously very little equipment. Even the more advanced jump ropes are inexpensive and tend to last users a long time. It’s a fantastic thing to pack for competition, as a jump rope doesn’t take up much room and can be used just about anywhere, including in a tightly packed competition venue when all you have is a few square feet for your pre-competition warmup.