Art of Fencing, Art of Life

The Fine Art of Consoling a Child Fencer Who Just Lost

The Fine Art of Consoling a Child Fencer Who Just LostWho’s fault is it when a fencer loses a match? Here are your multiple choice answers:

  1. The parent
  2. The coach
  3. The ref
  4. The opponent
  5. The child
  6. All of the above

There is a correct answer here, and we all know it.

It’s not your fault that your child lost the match, after all it’s not your job to do everything for them but to facilitate them doing things for themselves. It can’t be the coach’s fault, though of course it is the coach’s job to offer your child training and support. Might it be the referee’s fault? Sometimes refs do make bad calls after all, so the ref plays a role. The opponent is a huge factor of course, but it’s unfair to say that it’s their “fault” that they won, that’s what they were supposed to do!

That leaves the child. Yes, the child fencer is ultimately responsible for their own victory or defeat, but we all know that it’s not that simple. Children rely on adults, and it’s ultimately the adult’s responsibility to give children the scaffolding that they need to succeed. Most every child will work hard if their interests are fostered and their value recognized.  

It’s the last one – F. Every person in the process has a hand in the outcome of a bout. It can even extend beyond this list to siblings, school teachers, support staff at the fencing club, waitresses at the cafe for lunch, administrators at the tournament, etc. etc. Each fencing match is itself the amalgamation of the experiences and focus of each of the two fencers, and those are influenced by an unnamable host of variables and individuals along the way. You can never, ever truly pinpoint the “one thing” or the “one person” who caused the outcome of a match. It’s impossible.  

Saber tooth tigers and fencing

Even though every parent of a child fencer knows that the blame for a lost match can’t be set at the feet of any one individual in the process, nonetheless it’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction to a loss by our child. It’s instinctual – we want to protect our children from harm. That part of our brain kicks in that would in other instances encourage us to pull them out of the way of a moving bus or rip them from the paws of a saber tooth tiger. In our modern, relatively safe society that can translate into saving them from a referee.

Recently I watched a situation in which a child lost 14-15 in his Direct Elimination match for the medal round. The fuss around the last call by the ref, the call that determined the match, was unforgettable. The child’s father stepped in to defend his child against what he thought was a grave injustice, and the commotion was impossible to ignore for the rest of the spectators and athletes at the venue. Naturally the referee stood by his call and refused to change it, so in the end the boy was eliminated.

After the match, the father proclaimed to his child (loud enough that others could clearly hear him) that the referee was wrong, that the call was wrong, and that the boy had by rights one the match in spirit, even if the ref had taken the match from him.

The point here isn’t to shame this dad, who was at his heart trying to protect his child, just as he would from a saber tooth tiger. However the ref isn’t a massive beast out to eat this boy, the ref is also doing his best. When you as a parent instill in your child that it’s right to blame someone else for a loss, the real loss is for the child’s growth. Yes, some refs are consistently not great and will sometimes make a bad call. But that’s part of the game.

Whether you are laying this massive burden of blame on the child’s coach, their teammates, their coach, their referee, or worst of all the child themselves, it’s wrong and hurtful to their development both as a fencer and as a human being. While the ref might have made the deciding call in my example, the whole bout determined the outcome – not just that one last call.

Four ways to help your child fencer after a loss

It’s easy enough to recognize what not to do, but that begs the question of what DO you do when your child loses a fencing match? Especially if it’s a big one in a competition that they’ve worked hard for?

1. Let your child process the loss

Watching your child hurt is never easy. Your instincts kick in and you want to jump up and help them immediately. But in this situation you will absolutely do your child a disservice by not allowing them to feel the hurt. No matter how hard it may be to lose a match, that pain will subside with time. In fact there are very few painful experiences in life that don’t flow away if you just let them.

Feel it fully, then you can let it go.

This goes for trying to “brighten up” your child by telling them to be sunny, trying to “toughen up” your child by telling them to suck up their emotions, and blaming someone else. Just let them experience the pain all the way down, then watch as it goes away on its own. If it doesn’t go away on it’s own, then that’s when you step in.

2. Listen to your child

Before you jump to any conclusion about the match, let your child speak up about their experience. Oftentimes kids aren’t as upset as parents are about a loss, and in fact it’s the reaction of the parent that makes it such a big deal. Ask them how they feel, what they felt went wrong, and what things they can learn from the experience. Let it be about your child’s feelings and what they are taking away rather than your assumptions.

Listening to your child has the added bonus of validating them, which is the best way to build self esteem. Your child will know that they matter, even when things don’t go their way.

3. Model good behavior

This is a big one. Your child is going to do whatever you do, which is both a blessing and a curse. If you get mad at the ref, fire the coach, yell at their teammates, etc., then your child is going to grow to do those exact same things. Close your eyes and imagine your child, as an adult, acting the way that you’re acting. Are you proud of them? Do you think they’re being healthy?

4. Don’t play the blame game

Just don’t do it. Period. Ever. There are a thousand reasons that fencing match goes one way or another, never any one thing. While yes, fencers should analyze matches to see where they could improve, what you might find is that there wasn’t a moment in the match that solidified the outcome for one fencer or another.

That means that it’s not a ref’s fault you lost. If the match was close and it came down to a final call, remember that it was already close. Yes, there are rarely egregious times when a ref is totally off base for the whole match. That’s highly unlikely, but when and if it happens it’s noticeable enough to be worthy of a challenge by more than just a parent going off on the fencing referee.

Instill in your child the truth of the matter, which is that there is a network of reasons that things happen in fencing matches and in life.

Love them anyway

Child athletes, especially as they progress higher in the sport, easily get their self worth wrapped up in whether they win or lose a match. It’s easy to do, as the more time and effort they put into their fencing, the more they are invested in doing it well. It’s also potentially very dangerous, as kids learn that it’s what they do that matter rather than who they are.

Whether your child wins or loses a fencing match, you will still love them for who they are. Even if they screw it up big time. Even if they perhaps should have won. It’s not the win that matters, it’s that you’re there sharing this experience together.

There is a fine line between giving your child what they need in a fencing loss and overstepping. Every parent is different, every fencer is different, and every match is different. However we can all work to grow through sportsmanship and through fencing!


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  1. R

    t.109 Everybody taking part in or present at a fencing competition must remain orderly and must not disturb the smooth running of the competition….At no time is anyone allowed to criticize the Officials or their decisions, to insult them or to attempt to influence them in any way…Any person who, for any reason, threatens or insults an official commits an offence of the 4th group and is penalized according to Article t.169.

    • Shannon

      Wow. This was your take after reading this fantastic article? You are missing the big picture and your role in this process. I would hope people like you are in the minority of your job as referee.

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