This post was borne out of my personal parental experience at 2019 Fencing Summer Nationals in Columbus, OH, watching as my kids lost their bouts. How they cried. How they struggled. How they processed their defeat. How they talked about their lost bout afterwards, never right away.
Inside a kid fencer’s mind after a lost bout
For a parent, it is always difficult to watch your child cry. You understand that they are crying out of frustration. You know that they put a huge amount of effort into their training. They are now asking themselves tough questions like these:
- “Am I worth it?”
- “Am I any good at fencing?”
- “Is all of this hard work even worth it?”
- “Am I doing anything right? Can I do anything right?”
- “Why is she/he better than me?”
- “Why does this girl/boy train for half the time that I do and still beat me?”
- “Why are the refs so bad, calling for my opponent all the time?”
They might even start to ask themselves the really tough question.
- “Should I just quit fencing?”
It’s difficult for kids to process all of these questions without questioning their own self worth. Defeat can feel deeply personal, like a loss is a reflection of their whole personality rather than just an event that happens in one moment and for many reasons. That’s understandable, mostly because kids by nature don’t have the same kind of experience that adults do. They haven’t had as many opportunities to have a bad outcome and then find out that those outcomes are short-lived.
It only takes a few times of having your confidence knocked as a kid to feel overwhelmed. If you think of it as how a child only has a very few experiences. For example if this is their second time at Fencing Summer Nationals, they might have had two dozen total bouts at this highest level of competition. If they lose eight of those bouts, that’s one third. They don’t realize because of lack of experience what a small number that is! It feels like a huge number to them!
Fencers of this age are going to struggle with understanding that they will have so many opportunities to fence again, even at a high level. It is partly our job as parents to help them understand that this is only one bout of many. This is where growth happens. All parents want to protect our children from harm. We instinctively jump to check on them when they are hurting. That’s natural and it’s a good thing. However we should embrace these times of growth for them, even if they do seem to hurt our young fencers in the moment. These are the growing pains that we all need to feel in childhood.
Inside a young fencer’s mind when they lose a bout is a lot of confusion. They are trying to make sense of which direction they should go in, how they should be reacting to the defeat. When I watch my kids go through loss, I am reminded of my youth when I first lost matches. It was very difficult for me to lose, but then I look back at the challenges that I met with later and I am glad that I learned to make sense of the mental chaos that comes with loss. That’s what I want my kids to do.
It is difficult for my kids to process all these questions without questioning their self worth. It is more difficult for us as parents to explain the answers to our kids and to keep them motivated.
Learning to give kids space
I am not perfect, and sometimes I also get frustrated when my fencer loses to a much less experienced fencer. It happens all the time. Trust me it is difficult to not get angry off as a father. I still try to contain my emotions and focus on the positives.
A short advice that works for me and I am sure it will work for you: I leave my kids alone when they cry after a lost bout. I do nothing, just give them space and focus on other things or other kids. I leave them alone for however long it takes for them to calm down and change their attitude. Sometimes this will be five minutes, sometimes twenty, sometimes even more than an hour. I give them whatever time they need, not approaching them and not talking to them. They will eventually stop with the self pity and will be ready to talk, and more importantly to think.
Once they are calmed down and their attitude has come back around, then it’s time for us to engage. I then try, as calmly as I can humanly manage, to explain to them what I loved in their fencing. That must come first from the mouth of the parent. We must model good actions for them, otherwise how will they learn to have good actions? Only after I have pointed out the positive do I then talk about why I think they lost.
There is no match in which a fencer is all bad, they are always somehow good in some way. There is also no losing a match without a reason for the loss, whether it is the fencer’s fault or not. There is always something to be learned. These are three things that are important for me to highlight with my child fencer once they are able to think clearly.
Let me be clear about this too, it’s hard for me to stay away from my child when they are hurting. At first, I would almost say that it was harder for me to stay away than it might have been for them to lose the bout. You see your child in pain and you want to comfort them. Soothing that heartache might feel right in the moment, but they are learning to depend on you.
When you let them figure it out, they are learning how to process the emotions. We parents will not always be there for our children. They will grow up and go off on their own, and it will feel like it happens too soon. They must learn how to deal with problems independently if they are going to be successful adults though. It is essential.
My own kids take it hard most of the time when they lose a bout. They thought they would/could/should win, though this almost never happens when they lose a bout to a very clearly superior opponent. In that case they know they are ok, right from the outset. They might still cry a bit, but it’s not the deep heartache of knowing that they could have had a chance to win.
My own personal experience as a father of fencers is that most of their lost bouts are due to their struggling with the mental facet of the game. It is the biggest challenge for young fencers, beyond physicality or anything else. They are afraid to lose vs. wanting to win, and that is not the way sports work. If you are working from a place of fear, you will never advance on your opponent effectively or defend with the boldness that is needed. If you want to win, you will be confident and aggressive in your fencing, and that is where the good things happen for fencers.
This gets to be more and more true the higher in rank a fencer goes. The good thing is that mindset is a clear opportunity to improve! A fencer can always get their mindset right. For this part of it, I know that it is a work in progress for me to help them grow past this, and I am very hopeful that I will succeed in that.
Why I love the loss
There are tons of reasons for which I actually cherish the moment they lose. It’s not as thrilling as watching my child win, and believe me I want to watch them win! But lost bout is where we get to be better fencers. Really, a loss is just as good as a win in my book, as long as we are encouraging our fencers to process it properly. I see them here becoming, bit by bit, more ready for life.
Here are the ways that I see young fencers getting something beautiful out of a loss:
- How it helps them to grow. The growth happens in the loss! We do not get better by winning all the time, we get better by losing and then coming back around to fix things
- How it helps them to keep going. Keeping the fencing going all the way to the end of the bout, that feels very good to me. I love to watch my fencers push to the very end of a match that they clearly will not win. They are still growing! Even when they are sure to lose!
- How it helps them to think and analyze. Close matches make fencers think harder and analyze better than easy matches ever could. A tough lost bout turns the brain on.
- How it helps them to stop thinking about life is unfair. Just because you lose a match, that doesn’t mean something unfair happened. The other fencer was just better on that day in that match, nothing more. It does not help any child ever to look at the world as being unfair.
- How it helps them to stop blaming others for their failure. Kids need to learn that failing does not make them a failure! Blaming other people only teaching children that they are only good if they win.
- How it helps them to look for the reasons that outside of their control (eg, time zone, sickness, bad ref, etc.) Sometimes outside forces push on us and that can make things harder. When kids lose in fencing, they can learn how to recognize outside factors and then how to compensate for them in the future. This is a great coping skill.
- How it makes me grow as a parent. As I said earlier, it is very hard to hold back and let my child process defeat. I am practicing my self control as much as they are being asked to practice theirs. I love that it makes me get better, because I want to grow too.
- How it helps me to develop a deeper bond with them. Kids will remember those times that you support them when it’s tough. Even more than they remember all of the good happy times you spent with them. When my child loses a fencing match, it’s a chance for me to show them the reasons that I am proud of them, which are all of the above and more!
The biggest key to cherishing every fencing bout that your fencer loses is to embrace the process. Part of fencing is losing. Part of fencing is winning. Neither one is an outcome that any fencer, no matter their age, should expect to happen all of the time. No matter what level a fencer is at, someone will always be better than they are. Someone who is just the same or not as good as they are could have a great day and beat them anyway. By that same token, sometimes my fencer can win a bout against an opponent that they have no business winning, but would we ever question that? Of course not.
What we want is to prepare our kids for anything that life might throw at them, and there are so many ways that a losing fencing bout is getting them ready for the world outside the strip. That’s why I cherish every bout my child loses.