Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Stop Measuring Your Child’s Fencing Progress

Stop Measuring Your Child’s Fencing ProgressHow long has your child been fencing? What’s your child’s fencing rating? What was the result from the last fencing competition that your child competed in? What’s the highest level competition that your fencing child has competed in?

If you’re a fencing parent, then reading those questions probably just elicited a whole list of mental answers. Maybe you even said them out loud to yourself while you look at this blog on a screen.

We like to quantify things. It’s natural. We want to know how many minutes it is until dinner time, how much money we have in the bank, how many miles to the next exit on the highway. That kind of hard measurement can and does serve us well in life generally, but what happens when you do that to a child?

Putting your child’s fencing progress into hard numbers is intuitive, but it’s bad for you and most importantly it’s bad for them.

How is my fencer progressing?

Many parents are anxious to immediately know how their child is doing in fencing. Right after the private lesson or a class, just following  a camp and of course after a fencing competition. You want to know if your expected outcome has happened, if your child has done the things that you expect them to do.

What you’re missing when you try to measure your child’s fencing in this way is that one drip of the knowledge, one ounce of technique, one spark of understanding is not something that is visible or tangible. It is a cumulative thing that develops over time, the success that you’re building with your child. It’s a journey. It’s more than a momentary thing that you can tick off of your to do list.

Often what you see is a negative impact when your take a fencer’s progress in these bite sized chunks. Fencing progress is messy, and when you look at it under a microscope you are blowing the little setbacks into huge setbacks, which in turn will cause your young fencer to feel overly negative about what should be minor bumps in the road to success as a fencer.

For example, suppose a Y10 fencer who is generally taller than other fencers in their age category was relying on their sheer height in foil to score all the points with a single touch counter attack, not ever having to deign to parry even once. In that youth age category this boy is very successful and he “cruises” over his competitors in the competitions. This is a reasonable scenario, and one that we’ve seen variations on.

However a good fencing coach (and this boy luckily has one) knows that it’s not going to work forever. This boy might be taller than everyone right now, but that’s only because he’s hit a growth spurt early. The other kids his age will catch up, and his coach knows he’ll be in trouble then.  His coach doesn’t want him to continue this habit, instead she wants her student rely on parries more as a defensive action. So the coach works with this fencer on “forgetting” counter-attack and learning to parry and riposte. The result? Suddenly in the next few competitions this boy will start to struggle, to lose even as he does not score single touch counter attacks anymore.

Now he has to rely on his right of way elements of defense to win the points, and of course they aren’t going to necessarily work as well. The parents then come in to the coach in a panic. What is happening to their star fencing child?! He’s falling backwards instead of going forward! They then feel overwhelmed and lose motivation, so much money wasted and time thrown out the window. This of course translates to the child becoming more stressed and losing motivation and love for fencing.

Of course the reality is the total opposite. This young fencer’s coach knew what she was doing, which was to force him to grow as a fencer instead of taking the easy way. If he sticks with it through this tough period, he will be a much better fencer and won’t be in for a nasty surprise when his peers catch up to his height or develop sufficient technique and tactical understanding to win him! It is difficult to lose, but it’s also a great learning experience. This fencer needed to take a few steps back, undo his previously learned bad habits, and acquire some new and better habits. The process can look like stepping backwards, but it’s really one step backward in exchange for two steps forward. That’s uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to learn to become a better fencer!

This is only one example, of course a bit exaggerated, but we could talk about these kinds of growth patterns in fencers from many different angles. Even very experienced fencers find that at times they have to go backwards in order to grow forward. There is not straight line to success in fencing, no matter how much we might wish that there were. Experienced athletes know that, and they learn to embrace the messiness of the process.

Success and fencing progress - a much more difficult road than it looks

Bad effects of micromanaging child  fencers

Micromanaging, or helicopter parenting as it’s commonly called, is a recipe for a negative fencing experience.

Children whose parents constantly ask after their progress and try to measure it in a straight line from that first fencing lesson to an Olympic gold medal are doing the opposite of what they want to be doing for their kids. Kids start to feel a great deal of self doubt. “Did I really make any progress today? Am I working hard enough to please mom or dad? What if I don’t do well enough at this competition?” These aren’t the kind of thoughts that we want our kids to have. Kids start to constantly self measure, self criticize, self concern, and eventually they’ll start to make excuses because they can’t possibly live up to these expectations.

Too much parental attention means being constantly under this intense spotlight. Your child will understand that they are here to get some kind of return on investment, which is antithetical to the purpose of fencing. Fencing medals aren’t something you can purchase, not by paying for the best coaches or by buying the best fencing equipment. Even great parents sometimes slip into the idea that they should see a return for the amount of money and time that they put into fencing. They don’t even realize it, and a reality check can help to soften their expectations.

You will deny your child the pleasure of setbacks when you force them to measure every tiny little bit of their fencing. Yes, setbacks are deeply satisfying! That’s because a setback doesn’t last long, and nothing feels better than the joy of catching up and surpassing your previous fencing level. Everyone loves a comeback story, and we all live them out at some point. Allowing your child to have that experience is a good thing!

Stop quantifying your child’s fencing.

It sounds easy, like turning off the faucet. From experience we can say that it’s not that easy.

You have invested so much time, money, and brain space into your child’s fencing. You are also their parent, and as such you feel a big responsibility to take care of them. You want them on the right track.

A lot of the reason behind a parent micro managing their child’s fencing progress is a fear that you will let them down or it will be your fault that they miss out on an opportunity. What if you picked the wrong coach and so they never make it to the Olympics? That’s a back of the mind thought that lots of parents have experienced. You are not alone. Parenting is a huge responsibility, and you’re right to take it seriously. However at some point you just have to let it go! You have done the upfront work to pick a good coach and a good club.

Though we tend to think of letting go as a sign of weakness, in reality it is very much a sign of strength to be able to give over control.

“The miracle of children is that we just don’t know how they will change or who they will become.”  – Eileen Kennedy-Moore

You’ve got the things that you’ve built for your child fencer that form the basis for where they will go – the coaches and the training in the club, the coping skills and the family foundation. Once you do those things, you’re no longer in control at all. It’s at this point that the child takes over and has to do something with all of it. You can’t do it for them. You cannot know what they will become.

What you can do is to stay present in the moment, then look forward instead of backwards. Look ahead to the path that your child is headed towards and be realistic. You can’t know what the future will hold for your child, but you can give them the fuel that they need to keep going in their fencing career. The key is to trust that you’ve done things right along the way! If you’ve made smart decisions with focused thought and a level head, then there’s no reason to second guess yourself.

So stop measuring your child each and every time, trust their coach, trust the system and the process. Let them have fun, look at the long term, and most of all enjoy the ride!


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1 Comment

  1. R

    At the other end of the size-differential spectrum, a relatively small fencer may succeed esquiving and having points bounce off his chest protector may be less-successful when he grows and no longer uses the protector. I know a fencer who earned his A-classification thusly.// A management theory says “Measure to manage.” Results are reality checks to parents who believe fencing is a Harvard ticket. On the other hand, when I fenced then-teen foilist Race Imboden, his results didn’t point to his world #1 position.

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