It’s tournament day! If your child participates in any competitive sports other than fencing, you may have a different idea of how to cheer than parents whose children have fenced competitively for many years. As parents, we know that you want to support your children as best you can, so this blog is meant to help those parents newer to the sport by giving some tips on how best to do that in the fencing arena.
Let’s use football as our example of a contrasting competitive sport—as I’m sure you know, cheering for a football team is necessarily very different than cheering for a fencing bout. The environment encourages loud cheering. You’re usually outside and far away from the players compared to a fencing event. The expectations for sportsmanship are a bit different, fouls are typically part of the game and penalties are the norm.
Fencing is a considerably more delicate and PRECISE sport than football, with clearly defined times in a bout when cheering is appropriate. In football, the players are generally aided by a cheering crowd, but in fencing a cheer at the wrong time can interrupt focus and, quite frankly, really mess with the athletes. Also, sportsmanship is a high priority in fencing and bad sportsmanship can even result in a fencer being ejected from a tournament.
With all of this in mind, here are some hints to help you to encourage your fencer in the most constructive way.
Perhaps the most important rule is that all of your cheering should take place AFTER the referee says the word “Halt.” If, when you’re in the heat of that first match, you remember no other advice about cheering, remember this. It is considered the height of rudeness to yell, cheer, or offer instruction while the competitors are fencing, and may even disrupt your child’s concentration, causing them to lose a critical point. In fact, it is not unheard of for a parent to be offered the dreaded black card for cheering excessively or at an inappropriate time—all the more reason to make sure you’re offering the right encouragement at the right time.
The best thing you can do for your fencer is to ask them what kind of feedback or encouragement they would like from you during the bout. If you’ve supported your child in other athletic competitions, you may think you already know the answer. But fencing is unique: both in the parent’s proximity to the fencing strip and in the possibility for constant interaction in between each and every touch. Make time to talk to your child specifically about your support in fencing before the competition gets underway. Try not to be offended if they request silent support from you, or even if they ask you to stand where they can’t see you while they compete.
Because children know their parents so well, the slightest look or vocalization from you can make a big impression, and they may prefer to exercise their craft without that input from you. Come up with a plan before the bout about where you will stand (you are permitted to be near the strip, but never on the fencing floor), what verbal support you will offer, and whether or not you will take pictures or video (no flash, please!). Keep in mind, though, that your child may very well change his or her mind once they hit the strip! Stick to the plan, but be flexible in case of a change of heart.
If encouragement in between touches is part of the plan, stick to positive reinforcement (phrases like “great job,” “you’ll get it,” and “attaboy”). Parents often offer “constructive” comments (things like “concentrate,” “keep moving,” “take your time”); however, no matter the parent’s intention, it is my belief that these comments are very distracting and potentially destructive. Always keep in mind that it is the coach’s job to coach, and the referee’s job to keep score and manage the time remaining in the match … your job is simply to encourage.
My best piece of advice is this: do not be too involved in the match. It is not your match—this match belongs to your child. You cannot live their bout, and even if you are the world champion in fencing, it is now your child’s turn to compete.
You can offer support in many ways other than cheering or offering advice. You can keep score, make sure your child is well provisioned with food and water, help with a malfunctioning weapon, seek resolution in case of a problem, find the coach if a bout starts to go poorly and you think they can help, help your child manage their expectations, and be prepared for the emotional turmoil of competition (both big wins and big losses can be emotionally taxing on your athlete).
Lastly, help your athlete be a good sport by modeling good sportsmanship. By being polite to those around you, showing respect for the referee, coaches, and tournament administrators, cheering at the appropriate times, always applauding at the end of the bout (win or lose), and by exuding positive energy, you will show your athlete what is expected. It is always appropriate for your fencer to shake hands with their opponent at the end of a bout and to thank the referee—encourage this behavior. Moreover, congratulate and shake hands with the fencer (and coach) that beat your child—this says a great deal about your respect for the sport and teaches your child more about good sportsmanship than any lecture. If you model good sportsmanship, it will be all the easier for your child to do so, too.
Above all, remember that competitions are meant to be fun! So most importantly, just relax and enjoy yourself. Your fencer has worked hard to make it to competition—now it’s time for you to appreciate the fruits of your child’s labor. Enjoy!