Art of Fencing, Art of Life

The Four Pillars of Success for Fencers

Four pillars of success for fencers

Of all of the questions that I get from parents about their children in fencing, the one that I get the most is:

“Will my child be a successful fencer?”

This question comes up early and often from fencing parents, and it’s understandable that they would want to know whether their child will make it as a fencer. From my point of view, it’s better to pivot the question instead to: 

“What are the necessary ingredients for your child to succeed in fencing?”

There is, unfortunately, no way to tell the future. Not only that, “success” is not something that is so easily defined. For some fencers, that could mean that they compete regionally or nationally, for others it could mean that they get a college fencing scholarship, and yet for others, it means they won a World Cup. Every child (and adult) can and should make fencing goals that are attainable. Technically, there is no such thing as a fencer who is incapable of achieving success if you understand where you start and where you want to go. 

Predicting the future

We cannot know for sure whether a child will be lit on fire with a devotion to the sport, or that they will have a natural talent that will make fencing easier for them, or that they will be buoyed forward in their fencing career by a work ethic that drives them to rise to the top. 

What we can do is to look at the possible paths for them to find a way forward, and for this we’re going to lay a foundation with what I call the Four Pillars of Success. This is what successful fencing always comes back to, what it always boils down to. These four things are nearly universal, and they’re a fantastic place for fencing family.

For a child to be successful in fencing, he/she needs to:

  1. Possess a burning desire to succeed
  2. Be a fighter
  3. Have strong parental support
  4. Work with a strong coach/club

These are all four essential qualities for fencers at the elite level. Having interviewed high-level fencers and worked with hundreds of families, these are the things that I see again and again. The hardest part is that not everything about these four pillars are totally in your control, nor are they even totally in your child’s control. That being said, there are ways that we can make headway on aspects that we can control. 

Let’s break down each of them.

1 – Have a burning desire to succeed. 

In order to put in the number of hours that it takes to become an elite level fencer, you have to put in so, so many hours of work. It’s almost unreal to think of how much work has to go into the path to even national competition. 

If a young fencer doesn’t want to do this, there’s nothing that a parent can do to make them want it. Rather than fight against it, it’s better for parents to embrace where their child is at and support them in whatever other goals they have that aren’t competitive fencing. That’s not about giving up, it’s about being real with the level of commitment that’s needed. 

Oftentimes, if a child is not a competitive fencer just now, maybe in the short future things will change and he/she will become one. Sometimes, kids need time to acclimate to the sport, and then suddenly a lever seems to be pulled and they are all in. It’s an adjustment period, not only to the physical and mental demands that the sport requires, but to the whole culture of fencing. Too often, we see families give up on fencing rather than giving that passion time to grow. 

On those same lines, it’s important to view this sport as a long game, even when there is a burning desire to succeed. There is no instant gratification. This again is why the joy in the sport has to be there. There is no one there with a fencer to push them through on hard days – they have to push themselves. It has to come from within them. 

We see this as parents often with things like getting a kid to clean their room. A teenager or a kid will often argue with you and push against you when you tell them they need to clean their room. You have to tell them again and again that the clothes have to come off the floor and the books need to be straightened on the shelf. What happens if they know their friends are coming over and will see their messy room? Suddenly it’s a fast job to get the room totally spic and span. This is the same with fencing – you can fight with your young fencer tooth and nail, but you’ll both just get exhausted. They have to want to do it. 

Most often, the lack of a burning desire is seen plainly in fencing parents who are trying to live out their dreams through their kids. Though the young people might do it for a long time in order to please their parents, and though wanting to do what your parents think is good is a noble goal to a point, it cannot push a fencer to the next level. 

Fencing requires resilience. In the course of a fencing career, the individual will get knocked down over and over again, only to have to get back up and keep going. There will be many defeats, and that’s a positive part of the process. It’s difficult, but when a fencer is passionate it’s all worth it. 

2 – Be a fighter. 

Fencing is a combat sport. It’s a sport of hitting other people with metal weapons while at the same time being hit by another person with a metal weapon. There is not violence in any real way, but there is a lot of combat involved. 

In order to be a successful fencer, a person has to enjoy this back and forth. They have to enjoy the process of seeing an opponent and trying to best them. They have to enjoy hitting the other person, even though we know that we aren’t hurting them physically. Even without the intent to do actual harm, the essence of battle is still an essential part of the equation here. 

Unlike other combat sports – wrestling, karate, boxing, etc, fencing doesn’t result in injuries. We’ve said before that fencing is an incredibly safe sport that doesn’t have the same rate of serious injury as non-combat sports like soccer or volleyball, and this extends to it of course having a much lower rate of injury compared to combat sports. This is because, despite the use of weapons, there is effective protective equipment and a relatively small amount of contact. 

The threat of injury is not the biggest problem, however. Being a fighter is about having a fighting spirit. This comes back to the notion of resilience because you will get hit. You will get down 5 points and need to come back. You will get overwhelmed by an opponent’s coach. You will get the wrong decisive call from a referee. Your weapon will malfunction in the most critical moment. You will get a red card when you are so behind. You will be searching in panic for your coach only to spot her on the other side of the venue trying to help your teammate exactly when you need her on your side. You will be down. Period. Time and again. And then some more. And you need to stand up and fight. In that bout, in the next one, today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.

When a person embraces this, that fighting spirit equates to freedom. It’s empowering. It’s exciting. 

Though Rocky Balboa is perhaps the least of the Rocky films, it gave us the best quote about being a fighter:

“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.”

To be a successful fencer, you don’t have to get in the ring and throw a punch, but you do have to be a fighter. 

3 – Parental support. 

A young fencer simply cannot succeed if they don’t have the support of their family. A strong support system is the reason that any athlete goes from doing a sport at the local level to reaching up for the highest heights.

Support is not just one thing, either. There are three major ways that parental support has to be there for a fencer to be successful.  

1. Financial 

Fencing is expensive. This is a reality that we wish wasn’t the case, but it’s part of the reality of fencing. 

Simply the gear is a pricey prospect – a full set of fencing gear costs several hundred dollars, and fencers who train and compete a lot will have to replace and supplement throughout the season. Private lessons and classes are also expensive, with lots of fencers needing to participate in many hours of training each week in order to grow their skill. Competitive fencers also participate in clinics and camps to hone their skills further and expand their expertise. Finally, competitions and traveling to those competitions is a major financial consideration. During a fencing season at the national level, out of state travel is guaranteed for most fencers as they work to qualify, in addition to traveling to Summer Nationals. 

2. Time 

For all of those hours that a fencer has to spend in training and competition, their parent will also have to spend hours getting them to and from those trainings and tournaments. Even if money was not a concern at all, the amount of time a parent has to support their fencer is necessarily limited thanks to all of the other responsibilities that they carry. 

The sacrifice of time is a major one. Parents need to understand that they will drive to and from training, wait long hours while kids take lessons, spend weekends and sometimes weekdays going to competitions, and also spend time at home supporting nutrition and practice needs. While it is super fun to see your child up there on the strip, it is a commitment that parents need to be aware what they are taking on. 

3. Mental support 

The mental load of supporting an athlete is something that we don’t often give enough credence to. For a youth fencer, the parent is their bastion in good times and in bad times. When a fencer loses, when their coach gives them a difficult new skill to work on, when they are tired and frustrated, their parents are the ones they lean on for support. 

The hard days will happen. They’ll happen more often than we’d like them to, and young people aren’t able to handle all of that on their own. They need their parents there to support them and tell them that it will be ok. 

The level of mental support that fencers need, especially as the competition gets harder and the stakes feel higher, is significant. Being there for them is critically important, and it’s also a challenge for families who have lots of things going on, as we all do. 

Of everything that a parent provides for their fencer, this is perhaps the most difficult but also the most important. It’s this mental support that helps a child to learn how to get back up when they fall down. Parents make the difference. 

4 – Strong coach/club

The final critical pillar of success in fencing is a strong coach and club. This is the environment that young fencer grows in, that they are able to thrive in. If you don’t plant a seed in soil that is nurturing, then it can’t grow. If you don’t put a young fencer in an environment that is nurturing and knowledgeable, they can’t become the great fencers that they have the potential to be. 

All clubs and coaches are not equipped to raise fencers to the highest level. There’s a reason we often see multiple champions come out of certain clubs and from certain coaches. There are lots of these programs around the country, but unfortunately there are not enough of them. One reality of our sport is that it is still a niche sport, so there are not enough clubs to support all of the people who would like to compete. Proximity to a great club is a thing to appreciate. 

One reason that we often see lots of highly skilled fencers clustered together in a club is because they are able to practice with each other and push each other to become better. When you fence regularly against really good fencers around your age category, you become better for it. In instances where there isn’t the opportunity within a club for a fencer to practice with those great opponents, the next best thing is to compete as often and at as high a level as possible. Competition fuels growth. The competitive environment is definitely part of the equation. 

Coach relationships in particular become mentor relationships. Fencers who stay with a good coach find a strong bond that enriches both of their lives. A strong club that is well structured and focused on meeting the needs of all of the fencers in that club makes all the difference. This is all in no small part because of the community of support that is baked into a good club. Fencing might be an individual sport, but it’s one that is done better when there is community there to lift everyone up. The fencing club is an essential part of that community.

Leveraging the four pillars of fencing success

Many people might look at these four essential supports for fencers and become frustrated. If these are the keys to success and a fencer doesn’t have all of these, why even try? Don’t people succeed without everything being perfect?

Of course fencers can succeed with the odds stacked against them. The great underdog story is one that we all appreciate, but it’s also a hard path. When fencing parents ask “What does my child need to succeed?”, they’re looking for the structures that they need to put into place to get their kids there. That’s exactly what these four pillars are about. 

Do whatever you can for your kids, and sleep well at night knowing that you did your best by them. However, come back around to those first two pillars when you are frustrated, and realize that they have to have a stake in it and a willingness to fight for it themselves. 

Bringing all of this together is a challenge, but it’s also a joyful experience. When we know where to put our focus, we also know how to find the path forward to success. 


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  1. R

    Look to this week’s “Lion of Bonn” World Cup foilist Adam Matheu to see how long one might have to work before results.

    At last weekend’s most-excellent NAC-level Super Regional, I reffed a Y14WE who cried every time she was touched. Fencing is *not* appropriate for her, despite someone writing that “fencing is great for [challenge].”

  2. Alan Buchwald

    Really well written (not that you haven’t done that before. AB

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