The Measuring Mentality - How Constant Calculations Hurt Youth Fencers

Before kids are even born, we’re bombarded with the idea that everything has to be measured. How long is the baby during each sonogram? How many times did they kick in the last 24 hours? Are they on time for their due date?  Once they get here, we’re told to monitor their height and weight percentile, count how many teeth they’ve lost, list the words that they know. How do they compare to the norm? From academic milestones to physical changes to social interactions, we are constantly measuring how much our children are doing as compared to other kids their age. Society conditions us to constantly evaluate our children’s progress and compare them to their peers. 

This measuring mentality extends to the world of youth fencing, where parents often find themselves caught up in a web of constant calculations and comparisons. Are they doing as well as other kids in the Y8 age category? They started fencing at the same beginner fencing camp as another child who just earned a new rating, are they measuring up? 

All of this measuring misses the point, and more importantly it can even be detrimental. We must understand that nurturing our children’s unique abilities and focusing on their individual growth is much more relevant to their overall happiness than any measure that we might have against other kids. Embracing individual progress is much more important than pitting kids against each other, even if it’s done with the best intentions.

The Pressure of Comparison

We all want what’s best for our children. This leads most of us to compare them to others, both because society tells us that’s what we’re supposed to be doing and because it does offer us some degree of comfort in a world of parenting that is often difficult for us, too. It’s not just kids who are figuring it out. 

We scrutinize their rankings, competition results, and training hours, constantly seeking reassurance. This pressure to fit into a box is not good for their overall well-being. Putting a child’s progress against that of their peers can create a real sense of stress and anxiety. All of that piled on them actually has the opposite effect for most kids – it hinders their enjoyment of the sport and keeps them from reaching their potential. 

The measuring mentality can lead to significant worry over whether they are meeting expectations. Stagnation anxiety is the notion that kids are not measuring up to their peers or meeting predefined milestones. This can come from parents, but in the high-flying kids who are fencers, it can also come from the kids themselves. 

We can all get into our heads where we “should be,” and often, this concept is not grounded on what’s best or even what’s realistic. Somewhere along the line, we read something in a blog or see another fencer performing at some specific level, and it sticks. Oftentimes, when I sit down with fencers or parents to figure out where these ideas came from, they can’t even remember.  

There is so much pressure on kids, and this is very often true of fencers even more, to be in the top percentage of everything. “You need to get a top score on your end-of-year tests so that you can get into an advanced level class next year so that you can get into the best classes so you can get into a good college so you can get a good job etc. etc.” Kids feel like the decisions they make right now and the level at which they perform will have this major impact on their forever happiness. 

Parents really feel this measuring pressure, too. If we don’t support our kids in the right way, we think they will have horrible lives. They need to be the best so they can be happy. Does being the best always make you happy, though? If you are better than the other kids in the tournament, will it really fulfill you? There will always be someone who is better, faster, stronger, than your child. Instead of being pushed down by this reality, we can use it to make ourselves feel free. Because there will always be someone better, faster, stronger, then we are free to only compare ourselves to ourselves. The only progress that matters is the one measured against the person we were yesterday. 

It’s important for parents to encourage their children to focus on personal progress rather than fixating on comparisons with others. Though fencing is a competitive sport, that’s not at all where the value lies for fencers or for parents.

The Fallacy of Linear Growth

Growth doesn’t happen in a straight line. There are starts and stops along the way, curves and winding paths. 

How progress really feels like

This image from Big Life Journal (a journal for kids) really shows what the path looks like for kids, and for adults, in anything. 

Just like personal growth in any part of life, fencing doesn’t take the form of a climb straight up. While parents and kids alike can become fixated on tracking their child’s movement through fencing ranks, competitions, and milestones, skill development in fencing often occurs in leaps and bounds that come at irregular intervals. You never know what will trigger that push forward, and more importantly, you can’t really control it. 

Those measurements we’re obsessing over? They might not even capture what’s really happening. We must recognize that growth takes time and happens at different rates for each fencer. Because your child started with a group of fencers in a class who are now doing things that you perceive as being “further along” doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your child. It only means that your child is growing at their own pace. 

Speaking from direct experience, kids who continue to train and work will eventually get to a similar place if they are putting in a similar level of commitment. 

Just as we don’t usually see career growth or social development until much later when we reflect back on what we experienced, progress in fencing is best seen if you look at it from a long view. Instead of obsessing over immediate results or comparisons to others, parents should focus on providing a supportive environment for their children’s growth. This is what kids will remember most, and it’s the way that we can help them progress more effectively. 

By allowing them to enjoy the process and evaluating their progress later, parents can help their young fencers build resilience. Every time you put the focus on measuring their progress in minutiae, you’re taking valuable focus away from the things that will help them enjoy the sport and get better at it. Kids only have a limited bandwidth – do you really want to fill it with stringent expectations of measured progress? Or would you rather fill their cup with support that builds them up to be stronger and have long term success? You cannot have both. 

Embrace the individuality of your child!

Every young fencer has unique strengths, weaknesses, and potential. When we wrap them up in a world that celebrates individuality, we are helping our children embrace their tablets and find joy. Would you really want your child to be like any other child out there? Of course not. You want your child to be the wonderfully different and distinct person who they are. 

Fencing is not solely about winning competitions or achieving top rankings; it’s about personal growth, character development, and enjoying the sport for its intrinsic value. Success in youth fencing should not be solely defined by external measurements or rankings. It should be about personal improvement, sportsmanship, and a love for the sport. 

This all sounds great, but how do you go about shifting the focus from external validation to internal growth and development? Here are some ideas:

  • Watch kids at practice and celebrate small milestones
  • Emphasize your child’s intrinsic value by praising their effort over the outcome
  • Talk to your child directly about expectations and measurement
  • Connect with your child’s coach to develop a plan for their training rather than medal count goals
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue about emotions, including pressure and comparison
  • Be flexible in the planning that you make for tournaments, especially at times that your child is feeling most under pressure
  • Let go of any guilt YOU feel about where your child is at through your own positive affirmations

These are things that all parents can participate in, because we all need an extra boost to move from our data driven model. 

Fencing tournaments are inherently list-based. We go online and dig through the rankings to see who is where and how they are performing in a given season. That’s a part of the sport that you can’t get away from totally, and it’s good for us to think about this whole thing in terms of balance. Rankings and measurement are a necessary evil right now, but they don’t have to be the only thing in a fencer’s world. We have the opportunity to expand and support our youth fencers far beyond these methods.

As parents, it’s natural for us to be concerned about our children’s progress and compare them to others. We have to resist the temptation to indulge in constant calculations and measurements for our kids.. Instead, let us shift our focus to nurturing their individuality, celebrating their achievements, and supporting their personal growth. Remember, the true measure of success lies not in comparison, but in the growth and happiness of kids. 

Patience is the key here. Over the long term, kids will grow and blossom if we allow them to.

Image: Flickr user MonkeyMyshkin