As parents, we always want to be there for our kids. There’s no doubt that we love them, and to express that love we’re drawn to be right there with them, giving them everything we possibly can to support them as much of the time as possible.
This tends to be especially true of sports parents in general and fencing parents in particular. Showing up, both physically and emotionally, is important. There’s a cliche about the enthusiastic sports parent on the sidelines with the camera, clapping and shouting out their kid’s name, for a reason. It’s absolutely true.
Certainly, this kind of enthusiasm and this constant presence is a good thing. It must be, right? Not necessarily.
When support turns to stress
I recently had a long discussion with a fencing dad who said that his son always underperforms in competition. In class, the young man went at his opponents with wonderful focus and confidence, but once he got into the competition he was suddenly not as confident or as capable.
This father couldn’t imagine what must be happening because it seemed so night and day. The father didn’t come by to watch at practice often, but he was at every single competition right there on the side of the piste, cheering and watching intently.
My suggestion to the father was this – walk away. Though it can really help fencers to have someone there for them, it can also put a lot of pressure on them.
Maybe the fencer is stressed out when they’re in front of you. There are kids that love for their parents to be there for them, who feel bolstered when they have mom or dad on the sidelines loudly cheering for them. That’s not the case for every kid, though. Sometimes, the parents being there adds a whole lot of additional pressure that they don’t feel in the club during practice.
This doesn’t mean that the parents are doing anything wrong. In fact, it might be that the child wants their parent’s approval so badly that they lose focus. They’re in their head about whether mom or dad is seeing them, whether they’re living up to the expectations. This might not be something that they can verbalize, and it might not be something that they would verbalize even if they could.
Unintentionally negative distraction
When a fencer is in class, everyone in that class is there for a specific purpose – to learn fencing and to practice fencing. There are no outsiders there who are not fencers, so there’s a collective feeling of safety in that everyone is joining in and working on the same goal.
In this situation, there’s a huge comfort. The people participating can focus on what they’re doing because they aren’t concerned about the perceptions and expectations of non-fencers. They don’t have to put on a show for anyone else. They can authentically be themselves, in the moment and there on the strip with their opponent and the referee.
For novice fencers and for young fencers, it’s easy to get distracted. This is a cliche about kids, and it’s a cliche because it’s true! Their minds tend to go in lots of different directions as they look for information and seek to learn new things. When a parent walks into the venue or cheers from the audience, it can often add an unintentionally negative distraction that pulls them out of the match and lessens their ability to focus on the task at hand.
Two effects of the audience
There are two different ways that someone can view the audience that’s watching them do something. Everyone has their own set of internal processes that come to bear during any kind of performance, whether it’s in sport or some other arena. With any kind of audience, there are two ways that we perceive the people around us when we are unable to push them out of our minds.
1 – They’re judging me
Judging can come in two different forms, which can either help or hurt an athlete’s performance.
One is that the person is judging me negatively, so I am constantly concerned about the things that I might be doing wrong. This makes it harder for fencers to perform well. The emotional toll of having onlookers who are deriding your performance, even if it’s only something that’s in your head, is very tough to recover from.
The other is that the person is judging me positively. This is supportive and helps boost performance. This is the feeling that we are aiming to give our fencers when we show up to their tournaments and cheer them on. Depending on the needs of the child, they might need a lot of reinforcement outside of the competition to believe that we really are not judging them.
2 – They’re distracting me
The other thing that onlookers can do is simply to distract the athlete. This is comes down to sensory stimulation, rather than any kind of emotional reaction. The colors of someone’s clothes, the flash of a camera, the sounds of feet shuffling or chairs scraping the floor. Even the smells that waft onto the strip from a concession stand can cause a fencer’s mind to go elsewhere.
Simple distraction can be a real problem for fencers who are not able to shut it all out. They miss the movement of the opponent’s sword because they are distracted by the yell of a child in the crowd or the glimpse of a bright red jacket that passes in their field of vision. It could be anything, but the more familiar it is, the more easily distracted they can be.
Why are strangers different than family and friends?
Strangers are patently different than family or friends because they are an “other”, whereas family or friends are easily identifiable and thus more distracting by far.
Think about this the next time you walk through a crowded place. In a grocery store alone, you’ll walk past dozens of people picking up cans of tomatoes and inspecting piles of apples. How often do you even register those people? They are more like parts of the scenery than people you’d interact with. This isn’t a negative assertion about you as a person, rather it’s a decidedly important factor of our human brains making sense of the world in the best way that we can.
Our brains are constantly filtering information to sift out the most important things. If something is not relevant to what we need, then it’s best that it is shoved out of the brain and put into the background. Putting everything into the foreground is only going to distract us from the important things that we need to pay attention to.
This effect is even more pronounced with parents. When your child was little and in a crowded place, they had to know how to identify mom and dad out of all of those people in order to protect themselves. The faces of the other people were much less important than the faces of their parents. We train our kids from a young age to seek out people they trust in situations where they’re scared or nervous, and with good reason – to keep them safe.
In a fencing match during competition, that adrenaline is rushing hard through our fencers. Their bodies and minds are on high alert, looking for the next opportunity and trying to figure out how to respond to it. The “danger” in this case is their opponent, who is right in front of them. When those stress signals start to fire off and they know that their parent or family member, people who they have relied on in times of stress, are now in the audience, they are going to be naturally distracted by them.
It’s not necessarily a conscious thought that they are looking for support in that moment, rather a habit that we’ve purposefully ingrained in them to protect them.
Getting in the zone
The concept of “dropping in”, “finding flow”, or “getting in the zone” is a constant subject of conversation in sport. An athlete must be able to find their rhythm and bring their peak skill and focus to the experience to maximize the outcome.
We see this all the time – assuming that two fencers are equally or nearly equally matched, the fencer who is able to drop into that flow zone is always going to prevail over the fencer who is distracted. In the flow state, athletes make decisions more quickly and are able to respond to their opponent using a wider range of the tools that they’ve worked on in their sport.
Learning how to turn that focus on and off is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Rarely are athletes born with it, though for some it’s easier than others. We’ve written about this before, and it’s well worth working on getting into the flow state. Meditation, grounding exercises, and even just educating yourself about what flow feels like can help fencers to achieve it more often.
When someone is in the zone, the world falls away. Who’s in the audience, what the final outcome will be, and even what the current score is don’t matter. All that matters is the opponent right there and the two swords that are going head to head against each other. It’s a rewarding experience, and it’s one of the things that makes elite athletes able to achieve the things that they are able to achieve.
Distraction isn’t forever
Let’s point out here that this does change over time as people go from novice to experienced in a subject. There’s a fascinating study about pool players that showed that they performed worse with an audience if they were new to the sport, but markedly much better with an audience if they were experienced pool players. This is something that we see anecdotal evidence of in fencing as well – new fencers tend to struggle more in competition in front of an audience than seasoned fencers who have done it before.
Though it might be tough for your child to perform well when you’re watching them in fencing competitions today, that doesn’t mean it will be like that forever! This is one of those things that needs time to work itself out.
My advice for the father in the earlier story was to step out of the venue during his child’s matches for a while and see if that improved the fencer’s performance. I don’t think he’ll be banished from the competition forever – just until his fencer gets a little more experience under his belt. With time and practice, it will hopefully help the child perform even better to know that their parent is cheering them on right there!