Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Parenting Insight from Elena Grishina, Champion Fencing Mom of the World’s #1 Epee Fencer, Sergey Bida

Sergey Bida and Elena Grishina
Sergey Bida and Elena Grishina

Even if you are a fencing champion yourself, there is still a lot of learning that happens on the job when you’re a fencing parent. This is something that we learned from Elena Grishina, mom of Russian epee fencer Sergey Bida, part of a championship sporting family, during our recent interview with her. 

Grishina is a Russian foilist who competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, barely missing out on a podium finish. She comes from an Olympic family – her father was an Olympic water polo medalist, and her brother is an Olympic water polo champion. Her mother was a foil fencer who also made it to the podiums in two Olympics, was a six time World Champion, and was Russian sport royalty. Her son, Sergey, is now poised to take his place among the upper echelon of sport with his current number one world rank in epee. She herself is a highly visible writer and commentator in fencing.

We were lucky to sit down (via zoom) with Elena to talk about her perspective on fencing today, and on her role as a mother to a high level fencing competitor. It’s an interview that delighted and challenged us, pushing our understanding of fencing parenting into new areas. 

Thank you tremendously for your incredible point of view and for sharing it with us! This interview will be a great read for fencing parents and fencers alike as well word to improve, even in these liminal times. 

An Interview with Elena Grishina

Igor – Hello, Elena. Thank you very much for your attention and time. We are honored to meet you personally, as we have long been big fans of you. We hope that this conversation today will be interesting for both sides for you and, of course, for us and our readers.

A few years ago, I translated your interview with Dmitry Rigin before the Olympics in Rio. After that I started to follow you in publications, in your work, and of course with regard to your son Sergey Bida, who has come onto the scene as a very bright, interesting epee fencer. For a long time after he aged out of Juniors, he did not show any good result, but then in this last year he has burst onto the scene. They say “Behind every outstanding person is his mother.”

EG – Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say. I agree.

IG – Elena, your situation is unique. You are a representative of a stunning family line of Olympians. Your family is one of the few in which there are great athletes that go across three generations. This is rare in fencing. The legacy continues as well with your son Sergey, who is developing right before our eyes and is now coming close to his first Olympics. I watched the World Championship 2019 in Budapest, and honestly I was very much surprised when Sergey won only silver, although this in itself is an outstanding result.

Budapest, 15-23 July 2019  World Championships Epee Men  In photo: BIDA Sergey  Photo by #BizziTeam
Budapest, 15-23 July 2019 World Championships Epee Men In photo: BIDA Sergey Photo by #BizziTeam

EG – I agree with you, and I also think that this is a very good result. As for the silver, yes it was a shame. Sergey himself was very worried after the championship that he did not win the gold.

When he was a Junior, everything was much simpler. I was not worried about whether he won or lost. When he aged out of Juniors and started to compete in the Senior circle, everything became much more exciting. Sergey had a long period when he did not perform with the results we wanted. For two or three years he had a series of losses. This dragged on, to the extent that he even thought about ending his career as a fencer. 

I was worried that he would get tired of losing and decide to quit. We all know that when there are no victories for a long time, when continuous failures haunt you, and when everyone expects something from you while you expect more from yourself and cannot deliver, it’s hard. 

One day Sergey came to me and said that he had decided to quit fencing. Everything inside of me started to break when he said this. But I did not argue, because that would not help anyway. I did not say: “You are crazy! Why are you doing this? You have to be patient!” Instead, I agreed with him, but asked him when he would inform his coach Alexander Glazunov about his decision. He replied; “Well, I’ll go to one last training camp, and then I’ll talk to him.” He still did not have guts yet (laughing)…

Honestly, as both a mom and as a fencer, it hurt me to watch him lose in the early stages. It was painful. But his coach, Alexander Glazunov, always believed in him and never gave up. 

I think that his self-confidence started to re-emerge through team competitions. It was through team tournaments that Sergey began to gain self-confidence in his skills. It is easier to keep up your morale when you are on a team in fencing because you are not alone. 

In general, the whole Russian men’s epee squad went through a very interesting phase. With the team, they performed at the top, they were prize winners, and they showed mature beautiful fencing. However, in individual events, they didn’t even make it to the top sixty-four.

But Glazunov believed that Sergey should definitely start showing results. He said that if an athlete once won in Juniors and Cadets, this means that he knows how to do it. This means he must not give up. For Sergey, the Universiade in 2017 became such a moment. He won the gold there, and this is what I’d consider to be his starting point. Maybe this was not the most important and highest profile competition in the world, but this gold brought back his belief that he could do what he needed to, that this was just the beginning. Psychologically, it was a breakthrough.

Irina – Elena, as a mother how did you respond during this difficult time when your son, a promising junior, experienced only failures in the senior tournaments for a long time?

EG – It was a very difficult time for me personally. In Juniors, Sergey had many victories. In the team, the guys won the Junior World Championships and the European Championships. In the same year, Sergey took second place at the Russian Championship among Seniors and, it seemed now everything would start to improve. He was taken to the Senior European Championships, but nothing worked out there and this undermined his self-confidence.

I didn’t jump in and give him a lot of advice, although I really wanted to. Doing so does not help. Instead, I continued to tell him that he was incredibly talented and that I believed in him. Moreover, I even began to convince him that this is a normal situation, and that is exactly what usually happens before success starts to come. In other words, I “hung noodles on his ears” [Editor’s Note: to understand this Russian idiom, read this post] to remove from him the psychological burden of bearing the responsibility of his failures. I maintained faith in him myself. 

It is very delicate work to speak in metaphors, to tell positive stories that are supposedly about other people. This is a way to build faith in a person through fairy tales that work on the subconscious, in the background. Of course, I wanted to say what is in the front of my mind, which is “Come on, let’s discuss everything that’s going on with you right now. I know how to help you through this. ” But he would have taken this as a hostile action, and the information would not have been gotten to him. Every athlete themselves must come to this through self awareness, to analyze himself. They must be brought to this subtly and delicately.

I learned this from David Abramovich Tyshler. He always said in cases of terrible defeats that an athlete should not be scolded. On the contrary, you should say that this happens normally and for everyone. Moreover, this is a good thing.

The founders of Soviet fencing were geniuses. Many of the techniques and thinking that they developed turned out to be deep and important, even after decades. 

When I was a young student we did not take Tyshler too seriously. He was such a wonderful old man, an almost crazy dear professor who could catch you in the school’s corridor and tell you stories for hours. Only many years later did I realize how brilliant he was.

I came to him once and complained about Sergey’s bad results. I told him that everything was bad. He told me: “No, what are you saying! Everything is fine. Everything is beautiful. ” I said, “No, it’s still terrible.” And he said, “No, everything is fine.” I asked him, “Ok, so what should I say to Sergey?” “Go,” he says, “and say that it is all part of a bigger plan and that it’s on purpose. This is the plan we have with you in order for you to grow. ” Honestly, I was shocked. Then I realized that this is how it works. 

Usually everyone says that you need to be patient, you need to push harder, you need to put pressure. But the fact is that this does not work. The athlete is already stressed, and here we are with our own: “Come on, come on, buck up.” When everything goes bad, our children and athletes at this moment need our help and our support. Only when everything is OK for them, then “Come on, come on, buck up” works.

When Sergey returned from unsuccessful competitions and said that everything was bad, just terrible, I immediately recalled Tyshler’s advice, “The worse the performance, the more praise.” 

So he would say, “Mom, everything is bad,” and I would reply, “No, Sergey everything is fine. This is how it’s supposed to be, you just don’t know it. ” Of course, my son looked at me as if I was crazy. But, then his mind began to work in positive ways. The main task here is to remove the severity from the defeat and the responsibility for the bad result.

IG – Elena, you were a professional athlete. You went through the same ups and downs that he did. Did this help you in communicating with your son, or conversely prevented you from communicating?

EG – I think it’s about 50/50. On the one hand, I was tormented by the fact that I saw it all and knew everything about what would happen. Sometimes it seemed to me that I should have told him and then he would not have made the same mistakes that I made. But, as practice shows, each athlete must make their mistakes. There is no other way for them to learn. You cannot protect them from this process, because it will happen anyway. To watch when your son makes the same mistakes you did is terribly difficult. Here you are holding yourself tight with your hands and feet in order not to get involved and not to say “Don’t do this.” I know, he must make these mistakes on his own. But on the other side, my personal experience allowed me to see the most important moments of my son’s career and do what I could to influence him. 

Legendary Olympic Family

IG – Since childhood, you have always been in the position of having a high bar. You have legendary parents. Your mom, Valentina Rastvorova, is a foil fencer and an Olympic champion and 2 times silver medalist. She is a six-time World Champion, one of the great fencers in the history of the Soviet Union. Your dad, Boris Grishin, is a two-time Olympic water polo medalist. You brother, Yevgeny Grishin, is an Olympic champion in water polo. In such a legendary family, did you feel under the pressure of the accomplishment of your parents and the need for success and self-realization at the highest level? If you go back to your childhood, how did your parents and brother influence you?

EG – Yes, the history of my family definitely influenced me. But when I was little, there was no pressure. My parents, although they were an accomplished sport couple, were in fact ordinary athletes, especially since both of them grew up in the post-war period. Contrary to popular belief that I was specifically put into fencing and then I put Sergey into it, this is not so. In fact, neither Sergey or I came into fencing on purpose. The story of how I came into it is that it just happened. 

Before I started fencing, I played tennis and swam. My mother always disappeared in the fencing gym, coaching her students. I occasionally ended up in the same gym, because there was no one to leave me with. Once, so that I wouldn’t bother anyone, they gave me a foil. That’s how everything began.  

Sergey has a similar story. At first he was interested in tennis, but this did not work. Then he practiced water polo for five years, which was a serious sport for him. And then, in a way that was completely unexpected by anyone, he got sinusitis and he was banned from the pool. He was 12 years old, and at that age they no longer take kids into sports anywhere. The only thing he could take was fencing. Honestly, there was simply no other choice.

As for my brother, there is a big age difference between us. Nine Years. He married early and moved out of the family home. When finally I grew up, we began to talk more and have been in a close relationship ever since. His win at the Olympics did not significantly affect me in childhood. Once I was older, I realized what it meant. After we had both finished our careers in sports, we became very close.

When I myself was at the peak of my fencing, I once asked my mother how she won, what her wins were based on. She shrugged and told me, “The coach said, ‘Move, move well.’ I moved well and I won.”

Unfortunately, there was nothing really for me to take from this. Her whole team was coached by the great Ivan Manaenko, and his absolute genius was that he saw and developed the strengths of each individual athlete while at the same time he “stuffed” many tricks into their technique that were automatic. He believed that in the heat of the moment the athlete would not have time to make a decision, but the body would react with an automatic reflex and that these reflexes just needed to be honed.

IG – Nevertheless, your mom’s team was absolutely stellar.

EG – Definitely. My mother was a real fencing star, one of the elite of Soviet sports. She was always well-dressed, always well-groomed, and always beautiful. This was the post-war period, and the stars of Soviet sports had a special aura about them. They were appreciated, adored, and glorified. They had everything – fame, cars, apartments. They traveled abroad, which is something that all other citizens could not do. Here’s an example. For trips to Italy, chic dresses were sewn, people met them in fancy cars and drove them to banquets in their honor. The best Soviet athletes had their own special circle of people around them, in which there were bright and unusual people. It was a different, beautiful time in its own way.

I myself won medals at the World and European Championships, and participated in two Olympics. I did not realize my dream – I did not win the Olympic medal, but I was one step away from it, taking the fourth place in the team twice. Of course I would like an Olympic medal, but now I know what needs to be done to win it. I hope my son will do it.

Parenting a Champion

IG – It’s easy to be the champion’s mother when the children win and everything is going well.

EG – The main thing here is not to “include” your parental ambitions, or unfulfilled dreams in your parenting. You cannot think about how you did not win and now must succeed with your child. At some point, I was so carried away by Sergey that I called him “my project” to myself. Many parents make this mistake. We are sad when the children lose, or everything is fine with us when they win. We begin to depend on them at every step. 

A few years into doing this, I realized that I did not have my own life. I realized that I had to step aside and no longer tie my life to his. We mothers should always work tirelessly and sincerely to repeat to our children that they are talented and they are worthwhile. I always told Sergey “Well, I’m amazed at how gifted you are, how cool you are. I’ve never seen anything like it. ” In fact, this is true. Our children are unique in the way that they do things that no one else does.

This works like a hidden advertisement, it is recorded on the subconscious of the child. It’s put into their mind by being praised in passing. From the flow of our faith in our children, their heart starts to believe in themselves to burn and painful things are perceived as temporary. After all, with our children’s talents, it is possible for everything good to happen.

IG – When did you realize that your son is talented?

EG – Actually, if we talk about the physical side of it, I would not say that he is very gifted for fencing. He is very powerful and he’s very big, while at the same time he has great speed. They say he is the fastest fencer on the circuit.

His main strength is character. He is a fighter to the bone. He was still very young, but he was so fanatical about fencing, he was so hungry for victories that he even slept with an epee. Then carefully, with passion, he prepared for each tournament, going over and over everything in his head. Sometimes he was so overwhelmed by what was happening that for breakfast before the competition he would come fully dressed in a fencing uniform, even with a fencing glove.  

From the time of his childhood, he always stood out by the power of his energy, an intense kind of charge that he had for the fight. He needed to win, he needed to be the person who took the point. Fencing was his ideal sport for releasing the powerful energy that he has within him.

In a good sense, he is greedy. It’s not something I would take away from him. It is something he has had since he was a child. It doesn’t matter what it is, he won’t give up the battle! Each athlete should be greedy in a sense, because they should be sorry to lose and give up their victory. That is, if you are too good-natured, if you give yourself too much slack, then the opponent will definitely take away the bout from you. Taking it for yourself, this is a strong quality of the fencer.

Almost three years ago, Sergey had a daughter. This changed him a lot. He became more responsible, more collected and purposeful. His daughter gave him a strong sense of fatherhood and thus responsibility.

Role of the Coach

Alexander Glazunov, Head Coach Russian Men's Epee and Personal Coach of Sergey Bida
2019 European Fencing Championships Dusseldorf, 18 June II day Photo BizziTeam

IG – Would you say that his coach had great faith in Sergey?

EG – Yes, definitely. I must say that Glazunov began to work with him a year before they won the World Junior Championship. 2012 was a stellar year for Sergey, a time when he showed a high level of fencing. Both of them – both Sergey and his coach – remember this explosive period well. They believed at the time that everything from that season would come back and that they would then push towards even greater heights.

IG – It is clear that the growth of Sergey as an athlete occurred precisely after the transition to Glazunov. How did their relationship develop? What has changed in the relationship of the coach and the athlete over ten years?

EG – They both have grown and changed, the way that people who think and are creative do. Their relationship does not ever stand still, they have something going on all the time. Glazunov has always been and remains a mentor for Sergey. He is the one at the center of this partnership.

Today’s achievements are to Glazunov’s merit, above all, but in general is the result of the enormous work of both. It is their ability to listen and hear each other and of course, the coach’s incredible faith in the student. Even during a loss at the World Championship, Glazunov said that no matter what anyone said, they would take their gold at the Olympics.

Aren’t you worried?

IG – Elena, where were you during the World Championship finals?

EG –  If you can imagine this, I was commenting on this live on the Match TV. Honestly, this is a unique situation! When a mom comments on her son’s fights on television. It’s how it happened. I have been working as a commentator since the 2000 Olympics when Sergey was in first grade, then I lived on to the point that I commented on his fights. I never imagined that this would be possible.

Many people ask me: “How can you do this? Aren’t you worried? ” Of course I’m worried, but I do not show or try not to show it on the air. I found a way to do this for myself. When I comment, I try to ignore the fact that this is my son fencing for the world title. At this moment, he is an athlete for me, representing our country. He is like a soldier to me, and I’m not a mother.

I can’t be on the air all over the country and give free rein to emotions. This is unprofessional. Therefore, I step as far away as possible from that relationship while I’m doing it.

IG – In fact, it is not so often that Russian men’s epeeist win individual medals at the World Championship. If we ignore the fact that it was most likely a loss of first place than winning a silver medal, is it still a major result and probably the biggest in his life?

EG – It is definitely a great result. The most important thing in this result is that Sergey proved to himself that he can do anything. He realized that he was on the right track and could win a gold medal in individual competition in any tournament. This gave him a great deal of self-confidence.

IG – Often, defeat gives the athlete more growth than victory. In a recent interview, Sofya Velikaya said that if she won the “gold” at her first Olympics, then most likely she would have ended her career.

EG – Yes, you can look at Sergey’s silver medal at the World Championship as a medal that motivates. Given his age and hunger for personal victories, this medal gave him a tremendous impulse to strive up. Today he has the clear eyes of a man who understands how and what to do. It is clear that there will still be mistakes and there will be losses, but after this medal he is at a different level of understanding himself, his fencing and his sport.

IG – The next great goal is the Olympics, however the Olympics have been postponed for a year. What do you think about this? How do you look at this situation and how does Sergey look at it? He was truly one of the contenders for a medal. 

EG – The whole pandemic story from the point of view of the Olympics is very difficult for athletes. In fencing, this happened at the height of the Olympic season when everyone, including Sergey, was ready in terms of both physical and psychological conditions. Everything went off with a bang, and suddenly a break. From this point of view, it is bad.

However, every coin has two sides. Now there is time to do some mental work. Think about what to change, what to look for. As for physical condition, Sergey is doing everything possible to preserve it. Before quarantine, he managed to buy himself an exercise bike and is now riding it. Of course, this is difficult. Laziness is tempting, and you have to force yourself to train, but he does it.

He hopes that a ticket to the Olympics is almost guaranteed for him. Nevertheless, we know that until the last “seal” has been delivered, there is no total certainty. Today it is not even clear whether he won the World Cup. He is now first in the world in his ranking, but there is no official information about the end of the season. We still hope that the Russian team will qualify for the team competition, although it is very difficult for this to happen.

We will wait for the end of quarantine and return to training. Now it is difficult to predict the course of events. We will work and maintain optimism and the Olympic fighting spirit. The main thing is that everyone be healthy, that the world defeats the pandemic.

Irina – Elena, thank you very much, you have incredible energy and you are an absolutely mesmerizing personality. Our conversation was important to me both from a professional point of view, and from a personal one as I am the mother of four fencers. As a fencing mother, I learned a lot of important things for myself and I have no doubt that many parents will feel the same way. Thank you very much for sharing this invaluable experience of the mother of a great athlete.

This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our wonderful interview with Elena Grishina. It is published with her approval on this blog.

Thank you so much to the powerful fencer and mother Elena Grishina, who was so kind to share her thoughts on fencing and fencing parenting. This interview showed us a new and important side of the fencing world that is very much needed right now. We know that her story will be wonderful fuel for fencing parents and fencers alike!


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