Fencing, like any competitive sport, is a rollercoaster of emotions. Victories can elate fencers, filling them with a sense of accomplishment and pride. However, on the flip side, defeat can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for young athletes who may struggle to control the intense emotions that come with losing.
We’ve seen this recently in large competitions, and it’s always troubling when it happens. It can have serious consequences for everyone involved, and things can reach well beyond the player involved, as we saw with a recent incident at the Pan American Games that could keep the U.S. Men’s Epee Team out of the Paris Olympics.
An outburst at the Pan-American Games
Curtis McDowald, a 2020 Olympian representing the U.S. men’s épée team, had serious trouble controlling his emotions during the Pan-American fencing championships in Lima, Peru in June.
Following a crucial loss in the semifinals against Colombia, McDowald received a red card on the decisive point. Frustrated, he stormed off the competition strip and expressed his anger by kicking and damaging a free-standing banner nearby. We’ve seen it before in other competitions with other fencers, and though we can understand the emotions, the consequences of these actions are serious. Another member of USA Fencing attempted to calm him down amidst the heated moment.
As a consequence of his actions, McDowald was shown a black card, resulting in a complete disqualification for the U.S. men’s épée team. This disqualified them from participating in the bronze-medal match and dealt a severe blow to their chances of qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. Prior to the incident, the U.S. men’s epee team held a strong position to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
In response to the incident, USA Fencing expressed disappointment in Curtis’s actions, acknowledging the harm it caused to Team USA’s Olympic qualification prospects. The national governing body revealed that McDowald had been removed from the Pan-American Championships team following a hearing. As a consequence of his actions, he was also ineligible to compete at the 2023 Fencing World Championships.
His actions have highlighted the importance of sportsmanship and maintaining composure in the face of defeat, as emotions can have significant consequences on an athlete’s career and their team’s prospects.
As coaches, parents, and mentors, it is crucial to teach young fencers how to control their emotions in the face of defeat, fostering resilience and empowering them to grow from setbacks. These are important life skills not just for right now in their pursuit of sports, but for their whole life as they have to learn how to control their emotions in all kinds of situations.
We want to grow a group of young people who can interact in healthy ways by handling their emotions effectively. It’s important for them and it’s important for society as a whole. Finding effective ways to support young people when their feelings are too big for them is a great way to help our fencers. Learning emotional control and how to cope with losses in a constructive way will help your fencers get to the next level on the piste and off.
But how can we do it? How can we learn from these kinds of incidents and show our kids that they don’t have to respond with this kind of outburst? Here are some effective strategies.
1. Normalize Emotions
First and foremost, it is essential to normalize emotions and let young fencers know that it is entirely natural to feel upset, disappointed, or frustrated after a loss. We need them to understand that experiencing these emotions does not make them weak or inadequate as athletes.
Let’s be clear here – we’re normalizing the emotions, not negative actions. You can feel a specific emotion deeply and it can bother you, and that’s completely ok and completely normal. What’s not ok is for you to take those emotions and act out on them in negative ways. You can’t throw things or hit things to release those hard feelings. It’s not about how you feel, it’s about what you do with those feelings.
What’s underneath this is something that we see all too often in competition. Youth fencers get out there and compete, then don’t reach their goals and start to think that they are completely horrible fencers, even if they just had a bad day. It’s a really normal, totally understandable set of feelings. Openly discussing these feelings with them can help reduce the stigma associated with emotions and create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable expressing themselves.
One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to share with them experiences that I’ve had when I felt out of control with a loss, not only in fencing but in life and in business. Talk to young fencers about what it felt like for you and how you learned to be resilient. It can be difficult for us as adults to be vulnerable like this with kids, but it goes a long way towards giving them insight into what it means to have control over your emotions. It’s even better if you can share with them your experiences when you didn’t have great emotional control and then talk about how you changed that.
It’s difficult to quantify these kinds of feelings without giving concrete examples, which is why giving examples is such a great way to build empathy and support personal growth.
Unlike parents, coaches can do this in a group setting. It’s well worth the time to check in with emotions during small fencing classes or even when you’re just hanging out around the club. These don’t have to be in-depth conversations, and they don’t have to be formal. The idea is to give kids a consistent window into how others deal with these same emotions. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for fencers to express their feelings and emotions. Encourage them to talk about what they are going through and validate their emotions. Let them know that it is okay to feel a wide range of emotions and that you, as a group, are there to support them. Community matters.
The more we talk about these things, the easier it is for kids to feel comfortable with their emotions. Talk about the incident with Curtis McDowald and others. Don’t be afraid to bring these things up. They need to see lots of examples so that they can identify ways that work for them. It’s also really important so that they don’t feel alone. Isolation breeds increased anxiety, and we want to combat that as much as possible because it only makes things worse.
2. Teach Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Instead of suppressing their emotions, teach young fencers healthy coping mechanisms to deal with disappointment.
Encourage them to talk about their feelings, whether with a coach, a parent, or a teammate. Listening attentively to their concerns and offering support can go a long way in helping them process their emotions. Sometimes all you need to do is to talk it over with someone and you’ll feel so much better than you did before.
You can also engage in physical activities or hobbies outside of fencing that can serve as positive outlets for emotional release. Sometimes a long run through the park or even a round of video games will help kids to separate their identity from their fencing so that they can think about what all of this means in perspective. Learning to disengage, process our feelings, and then reengage is a really healthy emotional coping method.
For kids who struggle a lot, you can think about coping techniques like visualization and focus exercises. Things like breathing practices, journaling, and meditation are effective ways to learn to control emotions, and there are multiple ways to help kids get into them. These are cliches, but they are cliches because they work. Introduce your fencers to mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation. These practices can help them become more aware of their emotions and learn to manage stress and anxiety. You have to know what you’re feeling in order to manage it.
Help your fencers find healthy outlets for their emotions, and fencing can be one of those. But art, writing, or any other activities they enjoy can work in conjunction. Physical exercise, in particular, can be an effective way to release pent-up emotions and improve overall well-being. Going for a challenging bike ride or even doing some jumping jacks can make all the difference.
If your child is really struggling with emotions, it’s worthwhile to talk to a therapist or counselor to help them get on the right path.
Most importantly, talk to them about what you do to bring yourself peace when you get really frustrated. They’ll learn much more by mentorship and exploration than anything else. Try lots of things until you find what works. Remember that emotional control is a skill that takes time to develop, and it is okay for teenagers to have occasional emotional outbursts or struggles. You, as a mentor, need to focus on being patient and supportive, and continue to provide guidance and encouragement as they learn to manage their emotions effectively through fencing.
3. Focus on Effort and Improvement
Emotional intelligence involves understanding and managing your emotions and being empathetic towards others. That extends to yourself, which is why kids need to learn that they are worthy of second chances and that it’s ok for them to lose or make mistakes.
In the aftermath of a loss, it is crucial to shift the focus away from the result and towards the effort and improvement made during the match. This has everything to do with what you think and how you react to a child’s loss. If you give them negative feedback about what they are doing, then they’ll internalize that. Instead, we have to emphasize the progress they have made in their skills, tactics, and overall performance.
Recognizing and celebrating their hard work and commitment to the sport, irrespective of the outcome of a particular bout, takes the sting out of loss in a positive way. Though it’s heartbreaking to lose, it’s not the end of the world. The majority of the satisfaction in fencing should come from actually fencing, not from the medals that we get. The sheer joy of being on the strip in competition is where we want our kids to derive most of their satisfaction from.
Setting realistic goals is a crucial aspect of fostering emotional control in young fencers. Unrealistic expectations will always lead to disappointment and frustration when they are not achieved. Work with them to set achievable and measurable objectives, ensuring they understand that success is a journey, and setbacks are a natural part of the learning process. Chart how they improve along the way, celebrating the milestones that they reach with every single step. Show your fencers how to approach challenging situations with a problem-solving mindset. Help them break down problems into manageable parts and encourage them to explore different solutions.
Encourage a growth mindset in young fencers, teaching them that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Help them understand that a loss is an opportunity to learn and improve rather than a reflection of their worth as an athlete. This mindset shift can transform setbacks into stepping stones towards success.
4. Model Emotional Control
Children and teenagers learn a lot from observing the behavior of adults around them. Show your teenagers how you manage your emotions in various situations when you’re frustrated in class, at competitions, or in any situation. Driving and you let loose when someone cuts you off? The kids are watching and they think that’s the right way to handle emotions. When you encounter challenges or setbacks, demonstrate healthy coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. Just like the healthy skills you want them to use.
As coaches and parents, we are powerful role models for young fencers. Demonstrating emotional control in our own actions and reactions can positively influence how they respond to their own emotions. Show them that it is okay to feel disappointed, but also showcase effective ways to process and manage these feelings.
If a fencer in your care doesn’t see you doing healthy things when they have a loss, then they are less likely to be able to handle things effectively themselves. How would they know to do differently if they don’t see it? Emphasize the value of showing respect to opponents, acknowledging their effort, and gracefully accepting the outcome of a match.
As much as we’ve seen poor behavior from fencers like what happened in the Pan-American Games, we’ve seen it from parents and coaches as well. Good sportsmanship not only reflects positively on each of us as individuals but also fosters a positive and supportive fencing community. When someone acts in a way that’s rude or destructive, it pulls us all down.
5. Understand the whole picture to control emotions
While some stress is a normal part of life, excessive stress can overwhelm youth fencers and hinder their abilities to control emotions. Help them identify sources of stress both in and out of the sport and find ways to manage or reduce them.
Positive and supportive relationships with family, friends, and peers can significantly impact emotional regulation. Encourage your fencers to surround themselves with people who uplift and support them. The fencing community is on the whole a wonderfully supportive place. We can even see that with Curtis McDowald when a member of USA Fencing came over and tried to help him calm down. People will understand if you are struggling and are there to help.
Fencers tend to be high flyers who have a lot going on. Teenage fencers in particular are often involved in a lot of activities, and they have a lot of pressure to do everything right in academics, sports, and social arenas. We must help them to understand that they can’t do everything and they can’t be everything.
They say you never know the inner struggles that someone is going through, and that’s incredibly true. You never know if someone has family strife or health issues that we can’t see. A fencer might be struggling with emotional control on the strip because of something happening that we don’t have any idea about.
If a fencer has an incidence where they couldn’t control their emotions in loss, it’s absolutely important that we think beyond fencing to what might be behind it.
Emotional control starts with youth fencers
Emotional control is a vital skill for young fencers to develop as they navigate the ups and downs of competitive fencing. By normalizing emotions, teaching healthy coping mechanisms, focusing on effort and improvement, setting realistic goals, fostering a growth mindset, and modeling emotional control and good sportsmanship, we can empower young fencers to handle losses in a constructive and resilient manner.
Incidents like what happened at the Pan American Games can be a window into conversation about how to make this less of a problem for our youth fencers. We can help them learn positive coping skills so that they don’t become destructive when they have a loss, hurting themselves and their teams.
As they grow in emotional maturity and learn to control emotions, they will not only become better athletes but also better equipped to navigate the challenges that life throws their way.
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