Have you ever played with one of those Magic 8 Ball toys? You know, the ones that look like a pool ball and are supposed to tell you the future if you shake them and look in the little window.
There have been times when I see fencing parents who seem to have used some method like this to see into the future of their child’s fencing career. It’s also the case that parents often want to know whether a coach or I can tell the future of a young child’s fencing skills based on little more than our intuition. While both parents and coaches are going to be more accurate than a child’s toy, we’re still trying to tell the future, and no one can do that.
One of the hardest things that I see in running a fencing club is parents who have great intentions for their children, but who are frustratingly focused on getting their kids to some nebulous end goal of elite sport success more than they are focused on nurturing the love of a sport in their kids.
This kind of thing happens all the time for those of us running fencing clubs. You see kids come in who just fall in love with the sport, only to have them pulled out by parents too soon. In this scenario, kids don’t get the chance to explore the thing that they love, and it’s pretty heartbreaking for coaches and staff to watch happen.
Parents certainly have the ultimate choice about what to do with their kids, but I must encourage parents to think hard about prioritizing their child’s happiness and development over some imagined future that is far away.
Not long ago, I had a discussion with a parent on this very issue. Though I’ve seen this kind of thing happen many times before, the candid way that this parent told me what they were thinking gave me a new window into how parents get to this place.
Four months to determine your fate in fencing?
Recently, out of the blue, a parent told me that they want to pull their ten-year-old out of fencing to let their son “focus on other activities.”
I was taken aback as it was totally unexpected.
This child seemed to really love fencing. He was eager to learn, focused in class, and always ready to get up and bout. The coaches got along well with him, and his peers in the class were also excited to have him around. He was genuinely happy in class, and he developed well because of that enthusiasm for the sport.
“Your son seems to really enjoy fencing, and he’s only been in the sport for a few months. May I ask why you’re pulling him out?” I said.
“I don’t see him succeeding long term,” the parent replied. “He is still in 4th grade, so there is enough time to try other sports where he can have a better future.”
The answer was, quite frankly, very blunt. It took me a moment to process what he was saying.
This child had been fencing for four months. He hadn’t yet participated in a single competition, not even a small local tournament or a tournament within our club. This young man hadn’t taken a single private lesson or been to an open fencing night. He had come to class happily every week, and his progress in fencing was consummate with his age and experience level.
All told, the child had spent, what, maybe 20 hours actually in a fencing environment?
I wondered if the parent had some magic way of knowing the future of his child. I certainly did not have a way to know, and I have spent a lot of time watching young fencers grow and mature.
There’s no scenario in which that’s enough time for anyone to determine whether a child is going to be successful in anything long-term. During that time, you can definitely know whether someone likes an activity. After a single trial class, you can tell if something makes you excited or not enough to come back for another class.
The mercantile approach and tiger parenting
Though it’s faded in the popular imagination, a few years ago we saw a lot of buzz around the idea of “tiger parents.” Tiger parents refers to parents who push their children to achieve high levels of success in academics, extracurricular activities, and other areas of life. For youth sports and fencing tiger parents are often intensely focused on their child’s athletic development and their willingness to invest significant time, money, and resources into their child’s sports activities.
The mercantile approach to youth sports views youth sports primarily as a business opportunity rather than a means of fostering athletic development, personal growth, and community engagement.
In this case, we’re looking at it through the lens of the parent. The mercantile approach and tiger parenting are two sides of the same coin. That’s not the kind of sport I have found healthy for kids to grow through. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of our philosophy.
The pressure from tiger parents can be overwhelming for young athletes, leading to stress, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed. This can negatively impact their mental health and overall well-being. Kids are increasingly experiencing high levels of anxiety and other mental health struggles, and high levels of pressure from parents to succeed, no matter the consequences, is clearly tied to this phenomenon.
Looking at youth sports like this means focusing on winning at all costs, with little regard for what kids are enjoying or the values that they get from practicing fencing or some other sport. It’s the idea that parents invest money into their children’s athletic development, with the long-term goal of scholarships or prestige through winning at a high level.
Parents might pull their kids from a sport primarily because they want to find something else that the child can reach higher heights with, that their child can get a higher level of prestige from. It’s not about the personal development or joy here – it’s all about the outcome.
The mercantile approach to youth sports can have negative consequences for young athletes. Parents with this emphasis are loading kids down with increased pressure to perform, a lack of emphasis on sportsmanship and fair play, and a decreased sense of enjoyment and fulfillment in the sports that they’re going to head into.
The intense pressure to perform can lead to burnout, injury, and a decreased sense of enjoyment and fulfillment in sports. It can also contribute to a culture of over-investment in sports at the expense of other important aspects of life. Things like education, social development, and personal growth take a back seat to finding the sport that they enjoy.
Parents hearts’ are in the right place
Make no mistake – this parent and the parents who are making similar choices for their children – they tend to have their hearts in the right place.
My real sense from the parent of the fourth grade was that they wanted their son to have success in life. They wanted their child to be able to reach their full potential, and that’s understandable for any parent. Of course, we want to give our kids the best possible chance to become their best selves.
The question here is how we describe the “best self.” Does being your best self mean that you are a champion in a sport? Does it mean that you get a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League school? For some people, that’s definitely their best version of themselves, but the problem with parents putting this kind of emphasis on becoming an elite athlete is that kids get a different message. Rather than kids hearing “my parents want to support me to become the best I can be”, what kids often hear is “I’m only valuable to my parents if I win, and if I don’t win then they will be disappointed in me.”
Sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the wrong path.
By pulling a child from a sport that they love doing, parents send the message to their child that it is not the enjoyment that is valuable, but rather the outcome. Their personal fulfillment is not the key, only their ability to perform. This is so, so detrimental to kids, and I hope that’s obvious when we look at it in this light.
Parents need to come to youth sports with a more balanced approach that prioritizes the well-being of young athletes, emphasizes the values of sportsmanship and fair play. They need to be in a place that fosters a sense of community engagement, because that is likely to be more effective in promoting healthy youth development through fencing and other sports.
The clock is ticking, but youth sports needs to slow down
Author Gretchen Rubin famously wrote, “The days are long, but the years are short.”
There is this constant sense as a parent that the clock is ticking on your time with your child. We only have about eighteen years with a child to help them grow into an independent person. During that precious time, we want to make sure that we give them the best possible support that we can, and that means making sure that we’re making the right decisions.
It’s understandable that you want to make sure that your child is in the afterschool activity that fits them the best. There are, after all, only a few years that they’ll be able to participate in sports activities when they’re kids. That puts a lot of pressure on parents to get their kids into the right thing. It’s ok to feel that pressure.
The problem comes when parents transfer the pressure they feel and the anxiety that’s squeezing them about whether they’re being the best parent that they can be to their kids. If you think about it, that’s what’s going on here. Parents who push their kids super hard are worried that if their kids aren’t doing the exact right thing at the exact right time, then something horrible will happen.
Parents, I invite you to take some of that pressure off of yourself. There is no magic bullet that will make your kid’s life perfect. Instead, I suggest that you focus on what makes your child happy. We’re not talking about them playing video games all day, not that kind of immediate gratification happiness. But if they are doing something constructive that they enjoy, let them follow that thread to see if it’s something that they will be passionate about.
There is no Magic 8 Ball
You cannot tell in a few months whether a child will be an elite athlete in fencing. Sometimes, kids need time to catch up to their potential. For certain, you cannot know if a child is going to be a great fencer if they have never been in a competition!
I have seen this all too often, and I always wonder about what might have been if the child had been allowed to stay and nurture the enthusiasm that they feel for the sport, rather than being pulled out because they didn’t perform well enough in a short span of time. It’s such a tremendous amount of pressure to put on a child who is still in elementary school.
Part of the joy of parenting can be discovering these things along with our children. We don’t have to make rush decisions, we can just allow things to unfold. That’s part of the journey, and it can be one of the most rewarding parts of the journey if let it be.
I encourage parents to take a step back and take a breath. Watch your child fencing. Watch their joy and their excitement. Allow yourself to feel that, without worrying about what the future might hold. In the long days, we can get lost in the worry about a future that we cannot have any control over, no matter how much we might like to have control over that future.
There is no Magic 8 Ball that will tell you whether your child is going to be a champion fencer in the future. But ask yourself, does it matter? Would you really want to know? Or is it, just maybe, better to live in the moment and relish the good feelings that they’re enjoying in an activity that is productive and builds them up. The future isn’t going anywhere, and fencing is a way to help your child meet it with strength and self confidence – whether they are champions or not.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons