High school is no walk in the park for anyone. For almost everyone who’s lived through the ups and downs of high school, it’s a challenging time. There are transitions, there’s pressure. Young people suddenly feel the weight of adulthood coming for them, and the world itself gets more real than it ever has been before. College and choices are coming, and teenagers are just dipping their toes into making some of those huge decisions.
What it really boils down to is that there are real consequences for the choices that young people make when they get into high school. What they do during those years will determine which college they’ll get into, which will determine so much of their future.
How do fencers succeed?
I recently had an interesting discussion with a fencing mom in our club. Her son is in the eighth grade, getting ready to start high school in just a few weeks. Like any parent, she’s invested in his success and concerned about how he’ll fare when he makes the big transition in the fall.
“How do all of these fencers succeed?” she asked me. “How can they combine competitive fencing, with the training, competing, and traveling, and the rigorous demands of high school?”
Her question made me reflect on all of the competitive fencers that I’ve seen do this dance in the past decade. I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with our students over the years and their families. Not just those who transitioned from middle school to high school, but also those who transitioned from high school into college.
Looking back through all of our students, I can see a theme in how they handled high school. I’d say that 90% at least of our competitive fencers had a smooth and successful experience in high school. There are always challenges, of course there are always challenges, but on the whole we have seen almost no problems. And the same theme is seen in the USA Fencing All-Academic and All-American Program, which recognizes high schoolers with high achievements on-strip and in school.
This is counter to what you would intuitively think. It turns out that having lots of things to do doesn’t make it harder for competitive fencers, but instead it leads them to a better balance. Most of these fencers spend tons of time in competitions, doing all kinds of training, going to camps, and spending hours doing cross-training, and yet they successfully graduate and get accepted to top colleges.
The sentiment I hear from both students and parents is that, since they started competitive fencing, their grades went up and they found more success in school. They’re better students who are more interested in their school work and more invested in their future.
Every young person is different, but it’s well worth analyzing what’s behind this.
A different approach
When things in life work, it feels like a clock who’s gears are moving in perfect order. That clockwork is why competitive fencers are better students, because they get into a rhythm of doing it all: school – training – competition – repeat. It becomes something that they can control. That’s a powerful feeling, and it’s one that serves these students will in high school and beyond.
Competitive fencers in particular, and athletes in general, have a very different approach to time management. They have the discipline to manage their time effectively. It has to do with realism and understanding boundaries.
Oddly enough, when they add everything that goes with competitive fencing onto their plate, it pushes them to fit it all in. They are invested in making it all happen because they love fencing and want to continue it.
Once they unlock that door and realize that they can do more with their time, suddenly it becomes easier, even enjoyable to mastermind all of what they have to do. It’s a skill that they develop, and it’s one that grows over time.
They need to go to the training and go to the competition. So they figure out a way to do it. They deliver that project early so they can miss a day of school for the travel to a competition. They push through their homework after school so that they can get to that private fencing lesson.
In most cases, compressing the time and increasing the demands ends up making them much better.
Passion and self-esteem drive positive results
There’s an idea that kids today don’t have enough time on their hands. I hear a lot of parents talking to me about how their kids are overwhelmed and have too much on their plate. From what I have seen over the years of watching fencers grow through the sport, it’s not that there’s not enough time. It has much more to do with how they spend the time.
Time management is a great concept, but it’s not enough to give kids planners and calendars to organize their time. They have to have some kind of motivation behind it to get them onboard. What will get a teenager to squeeze in the school work and get it in on time? Passion will. Self-esteem will.
They need a reason to do all of this. It’s not just kids either – it’s adults, too. This is a great point for parents to reflect on. We talk all the time about how our kids make us want to be better people.
When we parents reflect on our life before having kids, we often wonder what we did with all of our time. There were so many hours in the day before we had to spend so many of them taking care of the kids! Somehow, having kids compresses our time but also makes us want to fit so much more in. We figure out how to get it all in.
The same happens for fencers. They have this driving motivation, this passion that they must follow through on. It’s not a choice. They have to do competition, so they have to figure out a way to balance it.
All the while they are juggling these things, they are increasingly discovering that they are capable of much more than they thought they were. This builds their self-confidence. The more they accomplish, the more they know they are capable of accomplishing things.
Great time management must start with passion. It’s not about actually finding extra time, rather it’s about shifting the perspective to see how much time is right there. Mindset is everything!
Fighting the endless scrolling
It’s impossible to talk about teenagers without talking about technology.
In the last fifteen years, since the invention of the iPhone, we’ve had a media in our pockets. It goes with us everywhere, and this generation has grown up with unprecedented access to content. It has totally changed the way we interact with one another, and it’s upended the way that teenagers experience their social life.
Screen time is a huge time suck. It pulls us in, and it’s very difficult to pull back out. This is even more the case for young people than it is for adults, though we adults know all too well how much time it can yank out of our day. You know yourself that you can be buried in endless scrolling of your newsfeed.
There’s a science to how social media sucks us in. It’s absolutely purposeful, and it’s done with the intention of keeping us on the platform so that our mental energy can be harnessed for revenue. It sounds a bit dystopian when you think of it that way, but it’s absolutely the way it goes.
You start with one viral video or piece of social media, then the platform immediate recommends another video for you that fits your mood and will spark your interest. You read one article that you find interesting, then the algorithm offers you another article that you will find interesting, so you go read that one. And another. And another. And another. It’s consumption over consumption.
Without realizing it, you’ve just spent a half hour just reading through a comment section.
Digital addiction is real, and it’s something our young people are wrestling with constantly. It’s highly addictive to our brains, and adolescents are on the front lines. It’s how they engage with their peers and how they make sense of everything that’s going on in their world. It’s also difficult for them to put it in the proper place.
Engaging in competitive fencing is in direct opposition to digital addiction. Where social media is ethereal, fencing is concrete. Where social media is a million people vying for attention, fencing is just two. Where social media pushes everyone to clamor for attention with the perfect selfie, fencing anonymizes us beneath a mask. There is a clear structure in competitive fencing, and it offers a genuine way to build the self esteem of the individual, as opposed to tearing it down as social media does.
That’s not to say that all technology is bad, but it is clearly not in a good proportion for our young people right now.
There is so much criticism going around right now about what schools can do better, how they can engage with students and light a fire in them that will help them live more fully, but it’s more than that. We have to give young people some kind of alternative. They have to learn to prioritize what matters to them.
Kids have to develop context for themselves. They have to learn to use their valuable time for entertainment only in limited ways, within the context of the rest of their life. Whatever form that is, whether it’s video games, being on social media, or watching an episode of streaming content.
When they learn to make priorities in the real world, everything else happens.
Advocating for themselves
Young people must learn to advocate for themselves in positive ways. This is so, so important for success in high school and for success beyond.
One way this manifests is in being comfortable talking to a teacher or administrator when they feel something isn’t working for them. In fencing, they get to practice this skill with adult coaches, referees, and tournament officials. They learn to ask for what they need and to follow up when things don’t go the way they think they should have.
Learning to put up positive boundaries and say no is so, so important for those young teenagers to learn. Stress abounds, and learning how to manage it by asking for what they need is a necessary skill for school success. The nature of fencing is to engage with others, because they have to argue for that point!
In the wake of the last couple of years, this is more important than ever. Kids have to be resilient in order to face life’s ups and downs. Adolescence is a time that is rife with social stress and school stress. Though competitive fencing has its own set of stresses, it also functions as a relief valve to let a lot of that out.
Engaging in rigorous physical activity is a proven way to reduce stress and to improve resilience. With everything else that might be swirling around them, competitive fencers get a stress boost because they are choosing to be here. They have autonomy, and that kind of self advocacy helps to make them feel in control of this particular aspect of their lives.
Social supports make the difference
Building strong relationships is essential for the development of teenagers. How many times have we seen the huge influence that peers have on young people? As parents, you probably have your own stories of how your peer group was either a great support or a negative influence.
Fencing is a place that we see young people building positive relationships with people their own age, as well as with adults. It’s an environment where everyone wants them to succeed, and everyone is working together to make it happen. Fencing clubs tend to be small, tight knit groups of people. It’s one of the benefits of our being such a niche sport.
Having a strong social group brings kids a great level of stability. They are confident in who they are because they have such a strong group of people around them. This is definitely something that we’ve seen in our own club. The way that our fencers engage with each other and form friendships that last across distance and time, is one of the best things about what we do.
In part because of the strong social support system, fencing becomes a huge stress relief for many young people. They can go train at their club and feel comfortable knowing that they’ll be supportied. It provides a relief from the anxiety levels that can so readily run away with kids.
Part of that stress relief comes from it being unattached to their school. There is a certain pressure about school activities that isn’t the same with independent activities like fencing. The social politics of the school life don’t bleed over into fencing life.
In particular, the transition from middle school to high school is easier when a young person knows that their social supports at fencing will be the same. It’s tough to have friends go off to different schools at the end of middle school. For those adolescents, it’s incredibly helpful to maintain the friendships they have across that time.
The myth of the super student
We cannot talk about this without talking about the myth of the super student, and all of the pressure that kids can feel about high school in particular.
Can a fencer combine all of the training, competition, traveling, and academics to create a super fencer/student/citizen? No. There is no such thing as a super student, and we must be careful as parents and guardians not to push kids to feel like they have to be great at doing all the things in order to be valuable.
What I see in the students in our club, as well as students from other clubs across the country while we compete, is that motivation comes from within. Competitive fencing is a wonderfully positive addition to make a teenager’s life richer when they are pushing themselves. The problem is when the pushing comes from the outside – either from a parent or from a coach, or really from anywhere that’s not the fencer themselves.
It’s a misnomer to think that pushing a child harder is going to make them more successful. It’s quite the opposite in fact. The harder you push a child to do more and be more, the more they will drown in being overwhelmed by all of that pressure. Instead of putting a lot of effort into forcing them to do all of the things, allow them to find their passion.
This, above all else, is why so many fencers do go on to be super students. They are able to truly figure out what they want in life. When you give a child support and love to do what they are passionate about, well, high school is no match for them.