Can you train to win in sports while still building positive relationships with your opponents, and be a compassionate competitor?
The answer is a big, bold, YES!
Competitive sports, even at the highest levels, don’t have to mean throwing your opponent under the bus to win. Too often today we see fierce competition devolve into schoolyard bullying or sometimes worse. Not just in sports, but in our wider culture as well. People can feel disconnected from each other anyway, and when you add on top of that a results-oriented mindset, the combination has the potential to become toxic.
Figuring out how to balance the desire to win on the strip with the importance of being a good sportsman is no easy task, especially with all of the pressure that comes with working towards large competitions. However once fencers develop a mindset of compassionate competition, it’s easy to maintain it! In fact, it feels much better to fence from a place of camaraderie than it does to get on that podium!
This is where many sports participants get hung up, especially kids who are still working on their emotional development and especially when they have parents or coaches who are pushing them to win at any cost. Driving home to kids that what matters most is the growth that they are experiencing through their training and competition is the path to balance. Being a competitor who is compassionate towards themselves and towards their opponents is a sweet spot.
A tradition of camaraderie
Camaraderie in fencing feels in many ways like it’s built into our sport, just as much as competition is. It might have to do with the combative nature of our sport, because it does come from genuine fighting. Remember that in war there are rules and that in duels there was honor. You might be sworn enemies with your opponent in a duel, but you still respect them, and the outcome. No matter what it is.
I see this playing out consistently in the fencing community, where that sense of honor is still very much a part of fencing tournaments. That goes all the way down to the youngest fencers and all the way up to the eldest of our veterans. You see it at local competitions and on the international stage.
I do want to be clear on this – our sport is not perfect. We do see people put a major emphasis on winning, and sometimes that emphasis comes at the cost of camaraderie. But it’s exceedingly rare, even as fencing has grown in numbers and geographic spread over the last couple of decades. Rivalries within our still niche community of athletes and coaches are potent, but they are generally genial. We want to lift each other up.
Part of the reason for this is that there is an ultimate rivalry between countries on the international level. That puts fencers within the United States on the same team in a way. They know that the Olympic dream is a big dream, and the path to the Olympics is about coming together. As to rivalries with other countries, that’s slightly less of a warm relationship. What remains the same is the respect for competitors.
Fencers are not known for their outlandish antics within the sport like you might see in soccer or hockey. That baseline of mutual respect is a defining aspect of our sport. Bullying isn’t a common feature of our sport, for which I am thankful. There is determination and focus, and there are always dynamics that we would like to see improved, but the culture of fencing is generally about pushing ourselves to grow instead of pushing others.
Breaking down compassionate competition
Negative dynamics in sports are common, but they don’t have to be. Unfortunately, sometimes people confuse trying to get an edge through mental intimidation for good sports. It’s not. There are other ways to push forward through challenges that don’t involve shaming, negative language, or otherwise tearing down the opponent. This is true for all levels, from coaches to parents to teammates.
We want to give our fencers a positive and identity-building experience that propels them forward rather than trying to push their opponents down.
How can we foster compassion in fencing? Here are three solid techniques that will help create an environment that leads to success through good relationships instead of through hypercompetitiveness.
Self Worth, Self Respect, Self Confidence
The act of putting someone else down is always driven from a lack of self-esteem. In order to combat hyper-competitiveness, we have to build up our young fencers. This isn’t captive to the fencing strip, but rather it’s something that follows our kids around everywhere. When you build up the self in one area, it naturally bleeds over into other parts of life.
It is not all about putting up boundaries for kids and showing them what not to do. If we want them to treat their opponents on the strip with compassion, we first have to work on how well they can treat themselves with compassion. The goal is for them to be independent and able to feel so confident in themselves that they never even think to tear someone else down.
Fostering self-esteem is sometimes confused with entitlement, but they are not the same thing. No child is entitled to a point or to a place on the podium. Even if they have remarkable speed or strength, even if their parents pay for lots of extra lessons or they go to the top fencing school in the country.
We can take down entitlement by putting the emphasis on the growth of the individual at the front of the process rather than the end result. What’s really valuable to a young fencer is the hard work that they do to refine their skills. The medals are nice, but the point is what they do in their club, not what happens in the competition hall.
When we do this, we are helping kids to learn to love life and fencing instead of medals! Medals and ranks can come in any sport, lunges and parrys can only come in fencing. Kids who can learn to love the process will transfer that skill to other areas of life. This is part of the whole self-building from number one. Fencers are entitled to the process of growing, they are not entitled to a result.
Whether it’s a parent or a coach, adults in the lives of young fencers have to model this behavior if kids are going to do it. Children are little mimic machines – they do what we do. We have to show it more than anything else. When “that was an unfair call” or “you got robbed of that win” comes out of the mouth of an adult in a child’s life, it’s powerful. They start to internalize what that means, even if it’s only occasionally that it’s said in their presence. We have to watch what we do and say!
Some kids are naturally competitive, it’s part of who they are. Being naturally competitive doesn’t have to mean not being compassionate for the opponent, and it definitely doesn’t have to mean bullying. That goes for naturally competitive parents too – you don’t have to be heavy-handed about your kid’s opponents in order to be a power fencing parent.
Celebrate their victories instead of bemoaning their competitors. Remember, all fencers are cut from the same cloth and working towards similar goals. We are more alike than different! If you show courtesy and compassion to your child’s competitors, they’ll follow along.
This issue of fighting to win vs. connecting with other members of the sport is seen in all kinds of sports, but it’s something that we focus on in fencing. We have plenty of room to grow and to support our fencers in more effective ways, because this is a vitally important issue. The more proactive we are in creating a compassionate competitive culture, the better off all fencers will be. Remember, it’s not just the opponent who benefits but it’s also the individual fencer who is compassionate. We all get better when we work together.
What all of this really boils down to is this – FOCUS ON THE GOOD. There is a good thing inside of your child fencer and there is good inside their competitor. There is good in you and there is good in the parent of your child’s competitor. We are in this fencing life together! Even when we compete.