A Parent Fencing Question - When Will It ClickWe recently received an email from a parent about helping his daughter face the struggles of improving her performance in fencing. This is a topic that nearly every parent of an athlete can recognize as very important, and it’s one that we thought would be best addressed right here on the blog! That way everyone can learn something from this parent’s letter.

Hi Irina,

My wife and I really enjoy your blogs.  We used your blogs as a reference to get our daughter into fencing and taking care of her equipment, and we look forward to reading your upcoming blogs in the future.

I am wondering if you have written, or will you write a blog for parents who used to fence (or are still fencing).  I fenced from middle school to college, so when I watch our daughter fence other kids, a lot of time, I find that her forms were just not acceptable to me as a former fencer.  I cannot help but wonder when will everything she has learned, from the classes to private lessons, click with her brain? 

When she practiced in her classes, private lessons, or sometimes with me, she was able to keep her forms (En garde, parries, feint, disengages, etc.) on point.  But when she fenced her classmate, her forms became distorted, her parries became wild, she forgot to disengage and kept doing the same movements.  I don’t want to let this become a habit for her, but I don’t know what else I can do to make everything click with her. 

Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to help her, or what I can do to adjust my mind set? 

Thank you for your time.  I really appreciate your help


A Fencing Father

Fluency comes with time

Learning physical skills is something that happens in a progression.

Let’s take a simple example that every parent knows – mobility. Here’s how it goes:

  • Sit
  • Crawl
  • Stand
  • Cruise holding onto things
  • Walk – wobbly
  • Walk – straight
  • Run
  • Hop
  • Move over obstacles

When that baby is just sitting there, it can seem impossible that leaping will ever happen. How could it possibly happen? The process from lying there rolling around to jumping over objects seems totally implausible, yet it happens for infants over time. Then as children progress, they learn to experience all kinds of mobility. When our little kid, that little infant, starts learning these skills we know it takes time. We know that our little child will learn walking step by step. Those first steps are often many funny steps, with a lot of falls and bumps. While little ones are learning would we, “experts” in walking, be impatient and immediately require our little 1 year child to improve her form and walk straight without falling? Of course not. Parents know that learning to walk takes time and patience.

This is the same thing that happens with fencing. Fencers start off by learning forms – that en garde, parry, feint, disengage, etc. that the Fencing Father mentioned in his letter. More skills come with time.

Parents like the Fencing Father can see perfection or imperfection in every move because they do have fencing experience. First off, let’s recognize that it can be a bit of a struggle for a parent who has that fencing knowledge. Kudos to this fencing dad for recognizing that he is bringing his fencing experience into the equation. It can be a real challenge for parents who know what their child should be doing to step back and allow the natural course of development to run its course.

Understanding the process

We cannot force our fencers to be great immediately. It just takes time.

This is a process. Look at it from your child’s perspective – fencing is basically like growing up. It’s very much like what happened when they were young and learning to walk. It didn’t just happen in a little while, it was a process that took over a year to come to fruition. Incorporating those skills seamlessly could take even more time.

During your child’s private lesson, they’ll do more things correctly. That’s because the coach is slowing things down and fixing it all as it goes. The coach will correct things bit by bit, requiring your fencer to slow those movements down to crawl and to make those corrections in a very conscious way. They’ll do things with the exact speed, distance, and precision required to execute the action correctly.

Muscle memory. That’s what we’re training! The goal is for your child to be able to do these actions without thinking, to simply react with the correct form and execution not in their conscious mind, but through their unconscious mind. During each bout, there’s not some “perfect” way to execute any specific movement. And when faced with that moment, your child is going to revert to their natural body shape and movement. They’re going to rely on instinct.

One of the things that happens during a bout is that our stress levels go up. All of those stress hormones are released in the brain, flooding us with an inability to let our bodies move in the way that our conscious mind could make them. The rush of excitement takes over, and it’s our instincts that guide us. In fencing, we’re essentially re-training the brain to have different instincts.  What we want to see in your young fencer is that when that stress takes over and their conscious mind turns off, that their training comes in and guides them to doing the movements correctly. That takes time, repetition, and good old fashioned diligence. There are no short cuts.

The coach can’t stop to fix every move in a bout, nor would they want to if they had the power to do so. Rather we want to allow that child to move through the bout with his or her own fluidity and drive, outside of the support network. Independence and freedom of thought are essential parts of the fencing training equation. During a bout, the coach will focus on fixing some major things, and with persistence your child will start to do things more correctly.

How long will it take for fencing to click?

Just as you cannot force your child walk correctly in the first month, just as it takes time until you can say, yes, they can learn to walk like adults, so too with fencing. You cannot force your child to start doing everything right in a short amount of time. It takes years to master a skill.

A good analogy here is to the martial arts. How long does it take to get a black belt? Years right? We would never expect a young child to get that black belt early on.  It’s a thing that we recognize as a years long process that just takes a ton of time and practice. Fencing is very much the same. What we say when we want perfect form during a bout is essentially that we want that child to look like a black belt in fencing. When you think of it that way, it’s easy to see that the expectation there is a little over the top.

The click doesn’t happen all at once. My suggestion to you is to watch your child for those little clicks along the way during their training. They won’t get it right every time, but they will start to have little bits of clicking here and there along the way. Watch out for the occasional perfect parry, the sometimes perfect footwork during a bout. A few seconds of greatness might not seem like much, but it’s a lot when you’re first learning! Or even after a couple of years of fencing.

Whatever your imaginary timeline is for your child to start to manifest these skills, double it. This is going to take much longer than you want it to or than you think it should, but we parents learning patience is a bonus skill that comes from fencing.  Don’t rush things. The more you expect your child to tackle things quickly, the more frustrated you’re going to become. That’s not good for anyone.

One of the biggest struggles that parents can face is helping their children to face the struggles of their children getting the support that they need in order to succeed. We want our kids to find their way quickly and easily. It’s no small thing!

Final answer

Your best bet is to sit back, relax, and enjoy your daughter’s journey in fencing. If she loves it and continues with the sport, then her form will eventually be good. And someday we can hope that she will tell you “dad, you are doing this wrong, let me help you” 🙂