Every sports parent has been in this situation.
You take your child to fencing practice, you support them, you work with them, you see their growth and you are so excited to watch them compete. They’ve been growing and changing, and it’s a great feeling!
You’ve been talking to them about their growth in fencing, listening as they tell you about their newest skills in parrying or fast footwork. They’ve gotten better with their ability to dodge attacks from opponents, and they’ve been on a hot streak in the club. Private lessons are going great, and they’re really working well with their mentors and coaches. They’ve come into their own, and it’s so very heartening for you to see. This is the kind of progress that parents revel in because it feels so great to watch your child succeeding.
The big day comes, and you’re right there at the fencing tournament to watch them. You don’t stand all too close, because you don’t want to distract them. Instead, you’re off to the side a little, able to see everything but not super close to the strip. You can hear all of the other bouts going on around you, but all you can see is your child, lunging and dodging. You watch as your child misses a point they should have gotten, as their opponent bests them on skills that you know your child has mastered. How is this happening? Another green light for their opponent. And another. . . and another. Before you know it, the score for your child’s opponent is fifteen and the bout is over. It all happened so fast.
The disappointment that you feel presses down on you, and your heart becomes heavy as you think about how the bout went off the rails. It’s a weighty feeling, and you can’t help but slump your shoulders and shake your head. How did this match go so wrong?
Almost every child looks up
Though you might be looking down at the floor, your shoulders pointing towards the ground as you stare at your feet and try to figure out what just happened, your child is almost always going to be looking at you.
When a parent is attending a competition, the child knows that they’re there. They are looking towards that parent for reassurance and for cues as to how to process the situation. They are looking for comfort during a moment of their own deep disappointment. They don’t have a clear idea of what should happen next or how they should proceed, so they look to you to find out.
You’ve been there for them, likely encouraging them to start fencing in the first place, then supporting them along the way. You’ve been there for them even before that first step into fencing, all the way back to that first step.
Remember back when you child was little and learning to walk? They would fall down and then look straight up to you to see how to react. If you made a big deal of the fall, running over to them and giving them lots of comfort, they would probably start to cry and would reach up to you. If you just looked at them with reassurance and stayed where you were, they likely pulled themselves back up and kept on going.
Your children have been reading you for their entire lives. Now, during a fencing competition, they are looking to you again. Just like they did when they were little.
A huge responsibility
When your child is in competition, you as a parent take a huge responsibility. It’s not an easy responsibility.
Your behavior during that fencing competition has a huge impact on your child. Obviously, you’re nervous. I’m nervous when my child is fencing. The thing is, oftentimes when we feel that huge wave of disappointment, we show it outwardly in ways that our children are cued into. It’s clear as day to them exactly what’s going on with us, because our kids know us so well and have been learning from how we react to situations for their entire lives. Kids see us, they see our body language, even if we are far, far away from the stage.
As we said before, almost every child searches for his or her parents in the wake of a fencing match, no matter which direction the outcome goes. They always see our joy, and they always see our disappointment. t’s a huge, huge thing for a child not to see their parent’s approval, or at the very least their parent’s supportive stance.
When we wave our hands or hold our head, when we sigh loudly, when we slump our shoulders and look away – our kids see it. They register all of that emotion that’s coming off of us. They are tightly keyed into their parents disapproval, and it affects them all the way down to their core. They feel the world that they are surrounded by pressing in with weight. Just the same way that you do, but now they have the added feeling of this hugely important person to them being disappointed in them in addition to their own disappointment in themselves.
A vicious cycle
When a child feels disappointment from their parents, they start being afraid of that feeling. They don’t want to let us down again and they don’t want to see that look of disapproval from us again. They want to keep going and to get the results they were going for in the first place. They are longing for the chance to get into your good graces, to feel the glow of your approval. It’s almost as powerful as the feeling of winning itself.
When that approval isn’t there, it hurts them deeply. It hurts them to the point that when they go to the next bout, they start to be afraid before the bout starts that they are going to disappoint you again and again and again. It increases their anxiety, and it makes it very difficult for children to focus on their fencing. The opponent needs to be the person across the strip from them, not the shadow of their parent’s disappointment.
As kids get older and have more autonomy, we start to see this manifest in them standing up for themselves. We often see instances of children sending their parents out of the venue. They tell their parents “I don’t want you to be here, I can feel your nerves.” That’s absolutely true. Though coaches have nerves, because this is their profession and they care deeply about the way that their students perform, it doesn’t have the same impact that the nerves of a parent has on a child. Kids are much more in tune with their parents than they are with anyone else. A parent’s approval is the highest level of approval that a child can get in the whole world. More than any medal or podium finish.
This all becomes a vicious cycle if parents aren’t careful. The kids are nervous about performing in front of them because they have experienced strong emotions of regret and powerful discouragement in the past. This makes parents more frustrated and more disappointed, because they so desperately want to see their children succeed. It goes around and around, and the wedge over the situation only becomes more substantive.
The need never goes away
You might say that this is only true when kids are younger, but when you think about it for a minute you know that’s not the case. How common is it to see an adult reach a height in their career and say of a lost parent “I only wish that my mom or dad were here to see this.” Grownups still think about their parents and still want to have the approval of them.
Teenagers and young adults do certainly learn how to cope with these situations more than younger kids. That thing happens when preteens and teens start to push their parents away so that they can feel more of who they are without their parents, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still want that approval. They still care a lot.
Let’s go back to children pushing their parents away when they don’t want to feel their nerves in the venue at a fencing competition. Children push their parents far away because they say it gives them nerves, but that is precisely because they do care so much. Of everyone in the room, the people who they want to see them perform at their best are also the people who they will be most affected by if they perform less than their best.
Dealing with your feelings
Sports parents deal with real disappointment in competition when their kids don’t perform to the level that everyone expects them to. It’s important to validate your own feelings, because all of that is real. The impact that it has on you as a human being with emotions is real. You have to acknowledge that reality if you’re going to be able to show your children how to cope with disappointment.
Trying to just be tough and keep on going is only going to make it harder for everyone. Children can tell when you’re disappointed. That being said, how you process it can make all the difference for your child.
You need to understand that, as much as you are here for them and as much as you are a part of their fencing journey, it is still their fencing journey and not yours. We are not in the business of horse racing, where the jockey and the horse are both part of the winning team. (I’m not even sure who would be the horse and who would be the rider in this analogy.) Though you’re in it together to a certain extent, your child is up there on the strip all by themselves. They can’t lean on you when they are facing their opponent, and that’s part of the point.
However you need to process your own emotions, whether it’s through journaling or talking with other parents, you need to figure that out. You aren’t the only parent who has experienced this! There are lots of parents who have been in the same situation, and likely there are some right there in your fencing club. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them and open up. It will greatly benefit your child.
Part of that processing might be getting really detailed about how you carry yourself when your child had a less than perfect finish in a competitions. Do you telegraph how you feel in obvious ways? You might need to sit down instead of standing up, or vice versa. You might have to train yourself to smile and clap and give a thumbs up to your child when the match is over, regardless of the result. This could take some practice, just like your child has to practice their fencing.
The pressure cooker
We can all put a lot of stock into what fencing means for our children. We sometimes tie it closely to college admission or big dreams that we have for them. Those are all great things, and fencing can definitely support other goals that our kids have, but those have to be kept in context if we’re going to all be healthy about it.
This one match will not determine whether your child gets into a good college. It won’t determine the course of their life. This match is not a make-or-break time. There are very few fencing matches that are actually end-all-be-all points in life. Though it’s important to seize the moment and perform at our best, it’s also true that life moves on and that there are other opportunities out there waiting for us.
When kids get into this pressure cooker of feeling like they have to perform at this huge level, that yanks all of the fun right out of fencing for them. The reason a lot of fencers end up quitting isn’t because they don’t love the sport or because they don’t want to continue, it’s because they are totally drowning in the pressure that is put on them from all sides.
Of course we should applaud a good work ethic. Of course we should encourage high standards. Yes, it’s important that kids push themselves and continue to grow as much as they can. That rigor can only happen if they are supported in the right ways. The support starts with you!
All of the huge pressure that gets put on kids in youth sports can be incredibly detrimental to them. You as their parent naturally don’t want to be part of that problem, and the good news is that you can be a major part of the solution for them. Learning how to control yourself so that you can model great coping skills is a good step.
Do’s and dont’s for fencing parents avoiding disappointment
Let’s go over some dos and don’ts for parents who are struggling with disappointment surrounding their child’s fencing.
- DO talk to your child about disappointment. The more open the dialogue between you and your child, the more comfortable they will feel talking to you about how your behavior affects them.
- DO respect their wishes if they ask you to leave the venue. This is nothing personal, but it has everything to do with self preservation. Understand that it doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t want you to see them compete! It means that they care so much about what you’ll think of them that it overwhelms their emotions and distracts them.
- DON’T make it about you. This is your child’s time to shine. The moment you start to fight against their needs is the moment that things turn sour.
- DON’T try to lie to your kids about your feelings. They can definitely tell that you are not happy with their performance, so trying to hide that or be obtuse about it will only put a barrier between you and your child.
- DO work to rethink how you frame disappointment. Every loss is an opportunity to learn something, and your child is growing even more when they are losing that when they are winning. When you start to go down that path of feeling frustrated or defeated, come back to this! You can read our previous thoughts about it, as we’ve written about it often in the past. Losing is not a bad thing, even if it hurts.
- DON’T bury your own emotions about how your child’s losses affect you. You need to work through these feelings in healthy ways, just as your child needs to.
- DON’T use your child as a sounding board for your own emotions. Find another parent, a friend, your partner, or another adult in your life who you can process your emotions with. Leaning on your child will only hurt them and it will cause the relationship to become unbalanced. They need you to be strong, so go find a healthy place to draw that strength from.
- DO step outside of yourself and try to see what this situation looks like from the outside. Then ask yourself, if I were giving someone in this exact situation some advice, what would I advise them to do? Then follow your own advice!
Parents need to tell their kids how important it is for them to learn to lose, but the learning should start with yourself. You need to learn that it’s ok for your child to lose. It’s ok for them to totally blow a huge competition and to fail spectacularly. The world will not end, and your child’s life will not be forever ruined because they lost this fencing match or that fencing match. Perspective is so important.
Your feelings are not easy for your child to cope with. Their lives are lived in these moments, and we as parents have a huge hand in shaping their reality and their perceptions. You need to learn to cope with the fact that your child in this specific bout is weaker than their opponent and control your disappointment. That doesn’t make them a weak person, and it doesn’t affect their worth as a human being or as your child.
Children are children, and sometimes they have bad days. Sometimes they have good days. They can perform well today and perform better tomorrow. They can win against an opponent today, they lose to that same person tomorrow and the whole next month in their every meet. It’s all totally ok, or at least it should be. It’s up to you as their parent to show them that!