Elitism in an Elite Sport
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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.”

Both of these statements reinforce the progress that a fencer is making, but one does so at the expense of another person. You don’t have to put someone else down in order to lift yourself up.

The insidious problem with elitism is that it can spread. Instead of just being about one person being better than the person next to them, it gets into the people around them. It starts to bounce off each other, and then we find that the culture is now one of bullying and putting each other down. 

When it’s about your progress, not how much better you are than someone else, then we are focused on excellence. This is the positive place we want to be! 

Emphasizing sportsmanship

One strategy to combat elitism is to emphasize the values of sportsmanship and teamwork. 

Fencing is not just about individual success but also about collaboration and camaraderie. By promoting a sense of unity among fencers, coaches can create an environment where athletes support and uplift each other, rather than tearing each other down. Encouraging teamwork and fostering a spirit of inclusivity helps combat elitism and creates a positive and supportive atmosphere.

Though we are each individuals, we are all part of a collective group. We’re in this together, even with our rivals. Team building exercises can help, but this really starts with the attitude of the coach and the most advanced fencers in a club. If you build a culture of lifting up one another in the club and at competitions through coaching that is intentional about how it casts winning, then you won’t run into as many problems with elitism. 

Another important aspect to address is the notion of entitlement. Entitlement can develop when fencers believe they deserve special treatment or privileges due to their achievements or skill level. It’s essential to instill in young fencers the importance of humility, gratitude, and hard work. These are things that they can control, and also things that lift everyone up instead of just them. What are you praising fencers for? Do you praise them only when they win or do you praise them when they work extra hard in class?

We know that success is not a guarantee but rather the result of continuous effort and dedication. By emphasizing the values of humility and perseverance, coaches and mentors can help prevent the development of entitlement among fencers. How we interact with them and the way that we show our approval of one thing over another will have a major impact. 

In addition to addressing the negative aspects of elitism, it is crucial to create opportunities for all fencers to excel and grow. This sounds simple, but it’s not that easy. There are significant differences in access to fencing, and the divide between fencers who have different resources is frustratingly large. 

Though progression in our sport is very much based on hard work and talent, it’s also very much based on the means different fencers have. That fencer whose family can afford more lessons or additional competitions will progress further and faster than the fencer whose family does not. Which competitions a fencer can go to make a massive difference in how far they’re able to go, and traveling to competitions is by far the biggest expense in fencing. It’s important for us to understand the distinction here, and to educate our fencers on what this all means. Talking about it won’t change it directly, but opening the doors to conversations about this does make a difference. It’s a step in the right direction.

By breaking down barriers and providing support to all athletes, regardless of their socioeconomic status, we can foster a more inclusive and diverse fencing community. The vast majority of the USA fencing club rely on parents’ financial support and paying members to provide fencing training. Still, as Peter Westbrook showed, things can be done differently to create broader opportunities for a much more diverse population. This is a very, very long game that deals with many factors outside of fencing that we cannot affect, however, we have to be aware of what’s happening in order to cut elitism off at the knees. 

It’s a huge, huge privilege to be able to train and travel the way that competitive fencers do. Not everyone has that ability. Because you are able to do these things doesn’t make you inherently better than anyone else, rather it makes you one of a lucky few who have the ability to participate in our wonderful sport. 

Shaping the culture of the sport

Coaches and mentors play a pivotal role in shaping the culture within the sport. It is important for them to lead by example and actively promote a positive and inclusive environment. Coaches should encourage open communication, mutual respect, and the celebration of individual achievements. By nurturing a culture of inclusivity and respect, coaches can help prevent the development of elitism and its associated negative behaviors.

Educating fencers about the negative effects of elitism is also essential. Teach them about the consequences of their actions and the importance of treating their peers with respect and kindness. In our clubs and in competition, we can encourage empathy and perspective-taking by helping fencers understand the challenges and struggles that others may face. By fostering empathy and understanding, we can create a more compassionate and supportive fencing community.

There are also wonderful ways that we can provide opportunities for fencers to give back to the sport and the wider community. We can encourage volunteerism and community service as a way for fencers to develop a sense of gratitude and social responsibility. Giving back to others is an active way to push back against feelings of superiority and to combat elitism. By engaging in activities that promote inclusivity and support, fencers can develop a greater appreciation for fencing and how lucky we are to be a part of it. 

It is crucial to address these issues head-on and promote a zero-tolerance policy for such behaviors. Coaches, parents, and officials have to be vigilant about actively discouraging any form of distinction between fencers that’s negative. When someone exhibits signs of elitism, we can shut them down. If you see something, say something! Whether it’s within your club or outside of it. Oftentimes the simple act of telling someone their behavior isn’t ok is enough to stop it. 

It’s up to us to foster an environment of respect and empathy. We can do it together.

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