Without thinking, without overanalyzing, answer this question – “What’s the most important thing in fencing?”
If your answer was “winning the match”, then we need to talk. Though winning is the ultimate goal of any sport, it’s not the driving force behind playing. Winning is not the reason that we play! Yet somewhere along the line, winning became this ultimate, hugely important thing. That’s not just in fencing, it’s something that we see across the board in sports. Everyone seems to think that winning is the thing that’s at the top of the list! The problem is that putting that kind of emphasis on winning is ultimately detrimental to everyone – especially new fencers.
Black and White
When we put an emphasis on winning, we’re drawing a natural dichotomy between winning and losing. After all, you can’t really have a winner unless you have a loser can you? Of course not. If someone is going to win then there has to be a loser. That creates this incredible black and white contrast between the two, one that is monumental for fencers, or anyone for that matter, to overcome.
What a black and white view of winning and losing teaches fencers is that this is an all or nothing kind of sport. Rather than teaching them how to get through tough times, focusing on winning teaches them to avoid challenges. If you’re going to be punished for losing, then why would you risk losing?
This is also why we see kids quit.
We all avoid things that make us feel bad. If there’s an overwhelming feeling that fencing is negative, then a fencer isn’t going to want to stick with it. No one wants to get yelled at when they make a mistake! No matter how great it feels to win, if it feels overwhelmingly bad to lose then we’re likely to avoid the thing altogether.
Competition Without Losing
It’s important here to make it clear that there is a middle path between giving everyone a trophy and putting too much emphasis on winning. Fencing is incredibly competitive, and it should be competitive. But competition doesn’t have to be about winning! The challenge of competition is what propels us to higher levels both in sport and in life, not whether we make it to the podium or not.
We see so often today that kids do just get that trophy for showing up to practice. While that seems like it should be a good idea because then everyone gets a boost, we know from studies on winning that everyone getting a trophy actually does the opposite. Instead of boosting everyone’s self-esteem, giving everyone a trophy simply devalues all of the trophies. But we don’t need to give them a trophy in order to show them that fencing is worthwhile! Instead, the key is to give them a healthy perspective on what there is to love about the sport.
The outcome doesn’t matter. The competition does.
The Bigger Picture
Fencing gives us the chance to dig deeper into understanding what’s happening. Instead of just going with the flow and bopping along, we have the chance to look at what exactly the environment is. If a fencing coach or parent is putting a great deal of emphasis on winning, why are they doing that? What’s the motivation behind pushing a child?
When a child loses a match, what is the reaction to everyone around them? How about when they score a point? By understanding these smaller interactions, we can make headway in understanding the bigger picture. We can choose what is acceptable within this competitive sport, what behaviors we are willing to tolerate and what behaviors we want to foster.
When an environment isn’t positive for everyone involved, both those who score the most points in a match and those who do not, then the message is all wrong. What we’re talking about here really is value judgements. That means that we assume that the fencer who had the most points at the end of the match is somehow more valuable than the fencer who got fewer points, and that’s the exact message that we send to fencers when we overemphasize winning. We’re telling them that winners are more valuable, intrinsically, than losers.
Who would want to stick around for that? Unless a fencer feels valued with consistency, they aren’t going to want to continue to participate in the sport if they feel emotionally punished for losing. Everyone loses. Everyone. Even the best fencers in the world lose matches! They lose points, they have off days, and they fence people who are just better than they are. If you can’t win all the time, then you have to find some other motivator to keep you interested in the sport on those days when you lose.
What Besides Winning?
Let’s be real – one of the things that we do want our kids to learn in fencing is that grit that will carry them through life. The world is a tough place to live in, and winning in the real world can be important. But grit isn’t about winning – grit is about getting through when you lose. Just like everyone is going to lose on the fencing strip, everyone is going to lose in life. Putting an overemphasis on winning doesn’t teach kids to be more tenacious, rather it teaches them that the rest of life isn’t going to be worthwhile if they aren’t winning. And out in the real world, they’re going to need to know how to deal with loss much more than they’re going to have to know how to win.
What we want is for our kids to see how rewarding the challenge of fencing competition can be, not to only feel the thrill of winning. Beyond that, winning is much more meaningful if you’ve lost a few times along the way!
So if winning isn’t the thing that’s going to keep a fencer interested and engaged in fencing, then what is the point? That’s the real question, and the good news is that there are real answers for that.
Here are some other motivators for fencing that AREN’T winning:
- Physical sensation – the good feeling of exercise
- Adrenaline – scoring a point, whether or not you win the match, feels good
- Almost winning – you get a brain boost even when you lose! But only if you’re open to it.
- Camaraderie – opponents are not enemies, and fighting each other can make better friends!
- Getting better – even when you don’t win, if you got better on ONE skill in a match and that’s what’s focused on, it feels really good.
- Comfort zone breakout – whether you win or lose, just trying means facing fear. That’s a great thing!
- Swords are cool – let’s face it, no matter who you are it’s fun to hold a sword.
These are just a few reasons, but everyone has their own reasons for loving fencing. Those reasons most often have nothing to do with winning! It’s one of the things that we really love about the fencing community in general. Part of the reason that people stick with it so well is that there isn’t an over-emphasis on winning that might be found in other competitive sports.
If you ask older fencers, the champions, what they love most about fencing, you’ll get a wide variety of answers. But most of what you’re going to hear will be similar. They’re going to talk to you about something that boils down to “a passion for fencing” or a “love of the strategy” or the “thrill of competition”. Note that none of those things entails winning. Getting better at any sport, no matter how naturally gifted a person is, requires practice. It requires hours and hours and hours of practice and hard work. Getting better at fencing requires learning to lose points and matches, but to keep going anyway.
The real crux here is that if we don’t make fencing about fun and about learning then no one is going to stick around. If we teach our fencers that losing is something that they should feel shame about, then we’re teaching them that no matter how hard they work or how talented they are, they’re never going to be good enough because everyone loses sometimes. Pulling the attention off of winning is actually a perfect method for helping fencers to become better, and therefore ironically become more likely to win!
If we don’t want fencers to be turned off to the sport, then we have to put our focus on the right places. The goal here is to create a lifelong love of fencing that will carry our fencers through years of competition. The best way to do that is to take the pressure off and allow fencers to enjoy all of the rest of the amazing aspects of this sport!