Mentorship is life changing. It is unlike any other relationship that an individual can have in the personal way that it inspires growth and development. Mentorship that is founded upon peer relationships is often even more powerful than the mentorship that comes from an authority figure. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that the individual can see a very attainable path in a peer who is on the same path ahead of them. It’s something that they can reach.
There is a very real sense that this is passing the torch along to the next generation, and that is a hugely powerful thing. You are fellows on the same journey, compatriots and brethren. It is a very special relationship, and it benefits both the mentor and the mentee in profound and lasting ways.
The driving force
We had a discussion recently with one of our junior fencers. He told us a fascinating piece of insight about what mentorship means to a young fencer. When he was young, several years ago and just starting at AFM, one of the most shining things that happened to him was the access that he had to the most advanced fencers in the club. He said that this was a huge benefit for him. It was a huge inspiration for him. They became the driving force for him in his fencing, one that was integral in his continued growth in the sport.
From his perspective, what was important was not that he fenced up, which is of course cool and it’s great. This was not the most important thing however. It was their shared passion for fencing just for the sake of fencing that made the major impression on him. Almost none of them he said, even if they were A or B rated fencers, viewed this in terms of fencing being their ticket to college. They all did fencing because they loved it so much, no other reason! This young man described how this love of fencing was infectious. It made him want to keep going and to be a part of this wonderful thing.
What this did for this young man was to show him how precious and motivating fencing can be, beyond the opportunity that it has for opening college doors. He became very passionate about fencing because they were passionate about fencing.
This is the huge influence that senior fencers can have over young fencers. They have the opportunity to be a bright spark of inspiration for young fencers that they didn’t even know they needed! It is this love of the sport that is more than just going after each other with swords. This love of the sport is deep and abiding. It’s transformative. You are giving another fencer, another human being, a joy that they did not have access to previously. It is a thing that doesn’t just stay with them for this one moment – it stays with them for their whole lives. It is a wonderful feeling!
The world is challenging
More than ever, fencers need to find ways to carry the passion that they have within them, to give it to the people in their lives that matter.
This year is challenging. The world is a challenging place to live in. There are less competitions, and this means there will be less motivation for fencers. Some colleges like Brown and Stanford have shut down their fencing programs. We hope they will reopen, but it has happened this way that they are closed and we truly just don’t know what is coming. The challenges of how to train and what that looks like, they will be even more profound and more pronounced over the next year.
It is not the time to shy away from fencing. It takes more effort than usual to stay in the game, with the opportunities to train becoming more challenging. As time goes on, the online classes and socially distant lessons become more of a struggle and we feel the void in a different way. Humans are social creatures, and it is built into the way that we develop in fencing. The camaraderie that fencers build is one of the hallmarks of our sport. Though we are fighting against each other on the piste, there is always the sense that we are part of a shared community. This aspect of our sport easily ranks up there with the benefits of fencing like physical fitness and mental development. The human connection, well we didn’t know how integral it was to our lives until it was gone.
The strange thing right now is that the thing that usually gets us all through hard times is the one thing that has been snatched from us. When we think about other hard times, like natural disasters or community tragedies, we always think about people coming together. We cook food and visit each other to sit and listen, to offer a hug and an open ear. I look back at the pictures of fencing now, the competitions when teams of fencers are jumping in the air together after a victory or embracing one another after a loss, and it is impossible not to miss that world deeply.
The challenge now is to find ways to come together anyway.
Pandemic skills for Senior fencers
It is not only something that lifts up the person who is the mentee – it also lifts up the people who are the mentors. With the state of the world right now, it is more important than ever that we encourage our young people to mentor one another.
A major concern for parents right now is seeming halt in progress for their kids. Online school, lack of after school activities, loss of the forward motion that the fencing season spurs on in kids. Without all of these outside forces to help propel our kids to grow, it can seem like there is not room for growth. It’s not only a point of frustration for parents, it brings a visceral sense of worry about our kids. It’s not just parents that are worried though. Young people, all the way down to the elementary age, they know that life is not in line right now with what it’s supposed to be. They miss the milestones that they know they should be experiencing in school and in their afterschool activities.
What if we framed it differently? What if focused on developing skills that are not usually focused on? That forward progress can keep going, it’s just a matter of adapting it to what is available. Traditional methods are not available, but that doesn’t mean this time is wasted twiddling our thumbs or feeling overwhelmed. Action breeds self esteem.
When the pandemic started, we pivoted to online classes at our fencing club almost immediately. It was uncharted territory, and we could no longer work many of the skills that we would usually focus on. No bouting, No coach’s hand guiding form. No full view of the class. We started off missing the things that we couldn’t do. What came soon after was the realization of what we can do. Footwork and conditioning are developed more readily through online classes. Target work and form improve more easily. There are lots of facets lost, but there are so many more dimensions gained that it still propels us forward.
Mentorship is an area of skill development that is ripe for this time. Senior fencers have the chance to connect with and support their fellow fencers right now, and it’s a skill that should be encouraged. Though none of us has been in a situation like this before, we can feel assured that senior fencers who are more experienced are better able to weather the loss of competitions than their younger counterparts. At the same time, their younger counterparts are able to bring an enthusiasm and an adaptability that mentors can draw inspiration from.
There is a huge responsibility on us, on fencers, to actually carry down the torch of passion, of love to the sport. The motivation that we feel can be magnified when we take on this responsibility and embrace it. Of this motivation. It’s more than ever important for fencing seniors, especially high school juniors and seniors of this year, to not only think about themselves and about their goals. That only exacerbates the isolation that we all feel.. It’s very important for them to think about the younger generation, the ones that are going to train in their club post pandemic.
This time reminds us that it is not about winning medals. Though goals are good, the spirit of the sport has nothing at all to do with winning them. Every fencing club has older fencers and younger fencers who can connect during this time, safely and with social distance, to create a stronger fencing community and to pass the torch. We see the impact that it’s had with our own fencers here, and we see how much those connections are missed during the pandemic.
How you can create the fencing spirit right now
When I think about our fencer that opened up to us about this experience, I cannot help but wonder if he ever told the senior fencers who were so inspiring to him about the impact that they had on him. Did they know that they had been so transformative to his life?
In this time of the pandemic, we are missing almost all of the human contact that we had become accustomed to and relied upon. Humans need to connect with other humans. It is in our nature. It is not something that we can do so simply now. This gives us the opportunity to open up in other ways and to reset old patterns.
So here is the proposal on this World Fencing Day. What if everyone reading this blog reached out to a fencer in their life that made a difference to them? I am almost certain that when you read that sentence, someone popped into your mind. What if you reached out and thanked them for their positive influence? It could be over text or a zoom call, email or with an old fashioned ring of the telephone. Social media is a great place, and you can even go so far as to do a public shoutout if that’s where your comfort level is. However you decide to reach out, be specific about what you learned from them. Was it a spark of fencing joy like our junior fencer? It might have been an especially poignant word said at a competition right as you went for the strip. It doesn’t matter what it is. It matters that you share it with someone.
We are far past the time when we can or should be keeping these things to ourselves. This is how we pass the torch along! This is how we keep the spirit of fencing alive when we are here without competitions and without each other to rely on.