Often when I attend a youth competition, especially for the Y10 and Y12 age categories, I see a lot of fencers that definitely do not look 10 or 12 years old, but rather much bigger and more developed. Sometimes they are so much bigger that I have joked with other parents about faking their children’s birth certificates! The truth is, your child competes within a certain age group, but that doesn’t mean that they develop physically at the same rate. Your child’s opponent, although similar in age, could be much taller and larger.
Actually, it happens all of the time. From local tournaments to NACs and Summer Nationals, competitions will prepare your child to meet several different types of opponents. This is a good thing. One purpose of fencing competitions is for children to learn. Not only does a child athlete have to learn the skills associated with fencing, but they also have to learn mental toughness and determination.
The challenging part is that athletes, especially children, many times get so intimidated by their opponent’s size that they lose the bout before it even begins. It is especially difficult for children to have mental fortitude in competitions compared to adults. Even a Y14 or beyond fencer may be intimidated by an opponent’s size, but for a younger child it can be downright terrifying. Children many times can’t understand that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. For a parent, it is difficult to witness a fencing opponent terrifying your child based solely on their physicality.
As a parent, you want to help your child cope with this type of intimidation. Like anything else, success in fencing builds off of a positive attitude. Psychological preparation is key! There are many ways to guide your child and prepare him or her mentally for competitions. Remember these key ideas if your child runs into a tall opponent.
1. Size isn’t everything.
It’s often said that fencing is a unique sport in that size is not as important as it is in most mainstream sports. In basketball, height is a huge factor. In football, it pays to be big, both in height and weight. In fencing, the playing field is leveled and success is much more dependent on the amount of training, discipline, and focus exhibited by the fencer. Plus, some people think it’s better to be smaller with the speed and agility that often comes along with that.
2. The coach might have a good insight.
The coach offers the necessary strategies and support needed to tackle the fear of larger opponents. During Summer Nationals in Y12 event, one of our fencers was in a pool with a much larger opponent. At the time, our fencer was still a Y10 fencer and was intimidated just by his opponent’s size, who easily scored the first three touches as a result. Seeing this, I guided our fencer to initiate attacks and finish them in low line. This happened to be his opponent’s Achilles’ heel, if you will. Following this advice, he scored three touches in the bout.
3. Confidence can win bouts (and fear can lose them).
Children see a larger opponent and immediately feel as though they aren’t good enough. It is important for you as a parent to show them that bigger doesn’t mean better. Point out that the larger opponent may be just as nervous or intimidated at the competition as the smaller fencer. Be a cheerleader for your child. Express how proud you are of them. Be encouraging! As a parent, you are there to offer love and support. Also, be sure to cheer on other fencers. Your child will see that you enjoy watching the fencing competition, and in return they will also enjoy the atmosphere and be more comfortable. When your fencer knows you will support them no matter what, the opponents won’t seem so scary or intimidating.
4. Focus on strengths.
Remind your fencer of everything that he or she does right. Once again, communicate with the coach and watch your fencer to determine your child’s best fencing attributes to focus on. If your child is the shorter fencer, you can help them take their mind off what they perceive as a disadvantage by helping them remember what they can focus on strategically.
For epee fencers, the shorter fencer may want to focus on hits to the hand. Although they’re shorter, their blade is the same length as their opponent’s. Your child can just as easily take a shot at their hand as they can your child’s. For foil, the general strategy is on closing the distance and winning the priority. A shorter fencer may want to focus on quickness and using fakes to keep their opponent off-balance and thereby gain the advantage.
5. If all else fails, fake it ’til you make it.
It might sound cliché, but it is effective. This psychological trick is used in all sorts of situations where intimidation can control a person. Sometimes mental toughness and determination start with pretending. If your child encounters a fearsome opponent, advise them to pretend to be undaunted. In all honesty, this simple thought process could help your child perform better.
Athletes shouldn’t assume that their opponent has an advantage because of height or size. It’s simply one piece of information to inform your strategy. They may consider your smaller stature to be an advantage and be intimidated by you! It’s important to always walk onto the strip with confidence, stay in the moment, and fence your best—no matter the opponent.