Today I’d like to address a very serious and sensitive topic: discipline and the black card in youth fencing. Experienced fencers are all aware of the rules of the game. They know that fencing is a gentlemen’s sport with specific rules around procedure and etiquette. They know that they must shake hands with their opponent after a match, and they know that losing their temper on the strip is strictly forbidden. When a violation occurs, an experienced fencer knows the consequences and should be prepared to be carded, and potentially eliminated from the tournament. But what about when a young child loses their temper? Is a red or black card an effective means of teaching a lesson? And who should be responsible for teaching children to maintain decorum on the strip and remain gracious no matter if they win or lose? Is it the parents’ responsibility? The coach? How about the referee?
I decided to write on this topic today because I recently witnessed this issue firsthand. Few weeks ago a young male fencer (about eight years old) was competing in a DE bout. He was down 7:6 few seconds before the end of the bout and his dad instructed him to attack. He followed father’s advice, but when he attacked his opponent scored instead and the boy lost the bout. After losing, he threw his mask off onto the floor and came to his dad to throw a tantrum. He screamed because he felt his dad had given him bad advice. He cried and yelled because he lost. He didn’t know that throwing his mask off was a punishable offense. And because of these actions, he was black-carded.
In my personal opinion, the referee should not have done this. The boy’s anger was not directed towards the referee or towards his opponent, but only to the father. Of course it was inappropriate behavior regardless, but coping with losing is something we learn as we get older. It is something that is taught to us by our parents and mentors. In this instance, I believe the boy would have been better served if the referee had pulled him aside and explained to him what he did wrong, why it was wrong, and the right way to act in these situations. No young child will have read the fencing rulebook from cover to cover. We are responsible for teaching them these lessons as they continue to compete and grow. In the same competition in a similar situation another referee decided to act differently and ignored the tantrum altogether, leaving it to the fencer’s parents and coach to explain the right and the wrong.
I’d like to share another story about a nine-year-old girl who also broke the rules. After the first break in a DE bout, she went off strip to talk to her mother. It was her first competition and she clearly didn’t know the difference in rules between DE and pools. The referee laughed a little, went to get her, and explained what she had done and what the “break” means in DE. This offense would normally be deserving of a yellow card, but the referee understood that it was an honest mistake and decided to teach her a lesson rather than simply punish her. He was considerate and aware that fencers make their way into the sport and learn things as they go. Could he have taught her a lasting lesson by yellow-carding her? Certainly. But I think he would have been wrong to do that.
When a referee chooses to card a young child for an infraction rather than talk to them and explain why their behavior is wrong, they are leaving the responsibility to explain what happened and why they got carded to the parent—and trust me, the parent is the last person on the planet a child wants to hear this explanation from. I’m not sure an eight-year-old boy can fully grasp the meaning of a black card at this stage in his life (especially since he is leaving the competition anyway due to being eliminated). I think that referees should take the responsibility and try to aid in the education process. It’s not officially in the rules, but in my opinion every person that deals with children, regardless of the rules or their position, should serve as a role model and be an educator first, and an enforcer second.
Obviously, at some point young fencers become young adult fencers and rules should be enforced when they are broken. Maintaining decorum in the face of loss is one of the toughest things for even many adults to handle. Fencing is a highly combative sport in which kids have a high level of emotional investment. And when emotions run high, even the best of us have lost our temper or cried when we have failed. By the time our children are competing as cadets, I believe they should be able to manage these emotions on the strip. But for those competing in Y10, of which many are often only seven or eight years old, I think it makes more sense to help them learn through calmly explaining the error rather than through severely punishing them for it. When a referee notices a young child who has broken the rules, perhaps they should have a serious talk with them, call their coach over, give them a warning, and talk about what the proper reaction should be, and what the punishment will be if it happens again.
So to all the parents who are reading this, remember to prepare your child as best you can for competition, and be prepared yourself to address difficult situations if and when they arrive. And for all the referees out there ready to black-card young fencers, please take the time to think if a card is really the best way to teach them what they need to know while helping them to grow as fencers, as well as human beings.