By Andrew Lorenz
As we approach Autumn, I’ve done some reflecting on my son’s first two seasons of fencing. It had been a long-time goal of mine to involve Ethan in fencing, a sport I grew to love in college.
Ethan started in the Beginner’s class in January, moved to Intermediate in late February, competed a few times, began weekly private foil lessons with Natasha, and competed a few more times. We missed Nationals due to the birth of our second son, Henry, but the break offered Ethan the chance to bond with his future training partner.
As I’ve mentioned before, we tried the team sports – Campbell Little League, Campbell Community Center Basketball, South Bay Youth Soccer, and Flag Football – and my son got lost in the crowd. My wife, Carrissa, and I noticed that Ethan would quickly lose interest in practices and games because much of the time he wasn’t played, or because he was put into positions he didn’t want to play. Usually within a few weeks of any given season the allure of the game was for him based solely in which goodies he was going to get at the Snack Shack afterwards.
I could blame it all on poor coaching, but that’s not the full picture. Often it was my own lack of interest in children’s team sports that affected Ethan’s attitude. I’ll admit my taste is biased, as my job is in the realm of professional sports, but I imagine anyone, parents or not, can understand how amoeba amoeba soccer (the ball is the nucleus, and both teams of kids are the blob that stay glued to it), coach-pitch baseball (which would be more accurately called “Ode to Weakly Hit Grounders”), or 8-year-old basketball (not a single slam dunk? Yawn) can be.
But it’s not about the game, it’s about the experience, right? The self esteem? Learning to work as a group toward a common goal? In theory, sure. But in reality the coaches play favorites, the games are too long, and the teams are often built to focus on those kids who are already decent – or who are the sons or daughters of the coaches. They’re not always taught the game, they’re often simply just told what to do, step by step. This renders them incapable of thinking and acting outside the box when situations arise that weren’t specifically addressed in practices. Ethan didn’t learn much, but I’m certain my own negative attitudes were palpable and affected his. I know this wasn’t fair to him and that I could have done more to show interest, but it would have been a feigned interest, and I owed my best friend more than that.
My attitude would reach its height of negativity at end of each tedious season when all the undeserving kids on non-championship teams received their coveted Participation Trophy: the ultimate symbol of our entitled Millennial generation. They go to practice, they go to the games… and we give them a trophy and tell them they’re winners just for trying. As a contributing member of real life, the very notion of it triggers my gag reflex. The masses are being raised to think they’re oh so very special, and they’re in for an oh so rude awakening once they leave the nest and embark on their banal ascent up the ladder of mediocrity.
So I enrolled him in fencing, because that’s what I wanted. I knew for certain I had made the right choice when Irina shared an analogy about Natasha’s coaching style with me. She said that Natasha is a Key Master. She has in her mentoring arsenal an enormous ring of differently shaped keys. Each child possesses a unique lock. Natasha just needs to find the proper key to unlock each child’s potential. It’s genius. At this age level you simply cannot get that kind of attention from team-sport coaches.
As soon as Ethan began fencing his attitude toward sports was thrown into a 180 degree power spin. Little frustrations that had begun to seep through to other areas – school, home, friends – began to diminish. He now had an outlet for two major needs in his life: first, the need to learn that being a champion is something to be earned, not given or expected; and second, the need to exert the pent up angst that seasons of frustrating team sports had caused.
Now I’ll backpedal and reflect that much of this “angst” had to have been brought on by me and my prejudice. The honest truth is, I probably understand very little about the emotional dynamics of team sport vs. individual sport. I’m no psychologist; I went to journalism school, and the pretentiousness of my tone in this post is slightly embarrassing. I suppose the reality is just as likely that Ethan took to fencing not because of any disillusionment with team sports, but because there aren’t many things cooler to a 9-year-old boy than sword fighting.
Regardless of the pseudo-psychoanalytics I’m spewing here, I hold firm in my belief that fencing brings with it a unique culture. It’s reserved for a class of thinkers and doers and real champions. It teaches possibly the most important rule of life: you will try and sometimes you will fail, but nonetheless you will behave like a lady or gentleman, you will be cordial and gracious to your competitors and hosts, and you will always try again. All sports claim teach this theory, but in fencing, because gentility is such an important and prominent aspect of fencing, it seems to succeed in driving home the point more effectively.
Ethan still needs to learn to handle his emotions when he loses in direct elimination, but he’s in an odd place in his fencing career (and he’s just a kid, anyhow). He’s grasping the concepts and he seems to have some level of instinct toward the sport, but his body doesn’t always do what his mind wants, and vice versa. But with each competition, with each loss, he’s learning. He’s bringing that experience back to his classes and lessons, whether in school or in sport, and he’s showing improvement. He may be upset at the time of defeat, but he’s surrounded by a stellar group of fellow fencers and role models, and I see that together they’re all learning to become gracious, interesting, self-assured, stand-out ladies and gentlemen.
And so maybe fencing is a team sport after all…