Fencing Masks and ClaustrophobiaHow can you fence if you can’t wear a fencing mask?

A real world story of fencing mask claustrophobia

We once had a little boy, an eleven year old in our beginner fencing class. For a couple of years he’d asked parents to find him a fencing club because he absolutely loved Star Wars and swords. He was thrilled to come and finally try fencing! On the day of his first lesson, when we instruct kids about fencing rules, safety and teach footwork, he was just super excited and really happy. He asked when he would start actually fencing, excited to dig in. He came to the first lesson, and then to the second lesson when he was standing holding his breath.

When we dressed all the kids up for the first time, he started to shake and screamed : “You put ME INSIDE THE MASK!” Not an opposite – you put the mask on me – he described it in his own words as though it was like he was inside the tiny mask and he was scared. That day his parents realized for the first time that he had claustrophobic attack.

Spoiler alert – the little boy learned to deal with it and continued to fence! Read on to find out what we did to help.

An unexpected problem

Most fencers just slip on their mask and don’t think twice about it, but it’s not unheard of for fencers to experience some significant claustrophobia. Most often we see this in new fencers when they first start having to wear the protective gear, and it’s especially likely to happen to children. It can also happen when a more experienced fencer gets a new mask or even just suddenly starts to experience this issue. The reaction can be large or small, but it’s always a disruption to the fencing routine, no matter when it happens or how long it lasts.

Though it might seem like this is something that you or your child is just stuck with, mask claustrophobia doesn’t have to impede your ability to fence. There are actually lots of action steps that you can take to dial down or even eliminate fencing mask claustrophobia.

What you can do to help

Here are some simple but truly effective ways to put fencing mask claustrophobia in the past.

1.  Clean the mask

This one might seem a bit odd, but smells can sometimes be a big trigger of reactions. That’s particularly true if the sense of claustrophobia has come on with a mask that didn’t bother you previous.  In order to combat the problem, give your mask a thorough cleaning. This could offer a really simple fix!

2.  Try a different mask

A fencing mask is not just a fencing mask – different brands of masks can have strikingly different feels. For many people, the problem with mask claustrophobia is completely remedied with a new mask that fits differently! The Leon Paul Exchange mask is probably the roomiest out there, as it has less padding around the ears and face than others. Ask your coach about masks that have less padding.  If you or your child can give several masks a try by borrowing one from a friend or going to a shop, you might quickly find that you’re able to get something that doesn’t bother so much!

3.  Practice practice

It’s quite often possible to get over a problem like this by simply exposing yourself to the thing that’s the problem. Essentially you get used to it! Try putting the mask on for just a couple of minutes, even just a couple of seconds at a time to begin with. Then slowly increase the time that you leave it on as you’re able to.

With practice, you’ll likely find that you’re able to get the mask on and off more easily, moving from a two handed method to doing it with just one hand. The more easily and smoothly you put the mask on, the less likely you are to feel overwhelmed.

For kids, allow them to practice on their own. Encourage them to practice putting on their mask in their bedroom or another safe space where they don’t feel lots of pressure.

This is actually the technique that worked for our young fencer. We asked him to take the mask off and stay in the class really not, and told him that he was a referee standing nearby the coach.  Then we gave his mom two masks to take home: one Large and one Small  of his size. We asked her to have him to wear the large one at home during the weekend, than to try on the small one. Bottom line – he fenced and was happy!

4.  Change your paradigm

Fear and anxiety are things that are in our heads, even though they might be brought on my physical things like masks. Instead of thinking about this process as overcoming a fear, try thinking about it as learning a new task, just as you learn lots of new tasks in fencing. Simply shifting the focus is often a powerful way to move forward!

Realize that wearing a fencing mask is something that everyone has to get used to at first, and that most everyone feels a bit stifled by it at first. Fencing masks, while they look constrictive, actually provide plenty of airflow for an athlete to breathe. These essential pieces of safety equipment are part of the process, but you don’t have to give up or let your child give up on fencing because of this issue! You can overcome it and still participate in the amazing art of fencing.