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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Your child’s first fencing competition? Here’s how to prepare

Words of Coach's wisdom

Words of Coach’s wisdom

Last post, I wrote about why it’s important for your child to participate in a competitive sport.  Through competition, your child will learn to develop a tremendous amount of discipline in his/her life.  Everything from managing their time efficiently to eating healthy to honoring commitments – there are so many benefits!  Competing will give your child the tools they need to grow responsibly and maturely.

Now, it’s time to look at the next step:  Attending the actual competition.  Up until now, your child has likely trained for his or her weapon at a club or class surrounded by peers who are more or less similar in their skill set.  These are usually kids that started around the same time, progressed at the same relative speed, have the same level of experience and knowledge.  Your child knows these guys, participated in bouts with them during training, and overall feels comfortable fencing with them.  There’s no heavy pressure on them at the club.  They’re in a zone that they feel secure in.

But a competition – especially the first one – is a lot more intense.  Your child may feel that the “eyes of the world” are watching them, judging their every move.  Everything can feel magnified and exaggerated.  Even a tiny mistake can feel like a major failure.

The novelty of a competition may be intimidating:  your child doesn’t know what to expect, may be afraid of being humiliated or losing, worry about disappointing others, or even obsess over irrational fears.

To understand the pressure, we need to take a closer look at the two unique types of competition:

  • In a team sport, the pressure rests on the shoulders of the entire team, so the burden may be slightly less.  One comfort is that there is always a teammate to lean on, a captain to look to for guidance, or a chance to sit out on the bench if they’re too tired or not ready.  In a team setting, your child is never alone.  There is no “me” or “I” – it is the team, even if your child’s role is crucial to the team.  However, your child may worry about not performing well enough and letting down the team – and that pressure can be difficult.
  • In an individual competition, the sole responsibility for every action and consequence rests on the shoulders of that individual in the competition.  This can create enormous pressure, which can potentially mount each time somebody is eliminated.  Even if the competition is internal, once there is a protocol, once every point has its importance, once every victory or loss determines who is moving onto the next round, the pressure becomes intense.

All this pressure can cause your child to freak out a little.  And it’s understandable, after all, it might be a nerve-wracking experience.  That’s why it’s so important that we – parents and coaches – help the child through it effectively.  That doesn’t start during the competition or even right before, it starts long before that.

Understanding the logistics of the fencing competition

One major discrepancy that makes fencing competitions unique compared to other sports is that usually there is no “Beginner” fencing level competition.  The competitions are divided by age group.  For example if your child enters the Youth 10 age bracket (the youngest official age bracket of US fencing competitions), he or she will be competing among fencers up to 10 years.  This means the experience of the participating fencers can be all over the map.  So a child with 6 months of training may face an opponent with 4 years of training.

Maybe that sounds far-fetched – how could a 10 year old have 4 years of training?  But it’s possible.  My own children began at age 5, so by the time they reach 10 they will have been fencing for 5 years!

Additionally, if these participants have trained longer, it’s likely that they’ve competed before as well – perhaps even on the national circuit.  So they have experience in the competition world:  they know what to expect, what the judges look for, and have the know-how and drive to dominate their way into a win.  One clue about the experience of a fencer are the jackets and lames emblazoned with their name – this is a sure sign that the fencer is heavily involved in the sport.

There is a chance that the competition will take place in a controlled club environment where the coach who knows his or her students can arrange participants by experience, but usually this isn’t the case.  It’s likely your child will experience defeat in his or her first competition – in pool bouts as well as the first direct elimination round.  Of course there is always that rare case when a child wins a medal in their first competition (it’s happened even at Academy of Fencing Masters) – but this is the exception rather than the rule and you need to prepare your child for the possibility of a loss.

Losing is tough. For everyone.

No one likes to lose, especially children.  Losses can be devastating.  This is why it’s so important to instill in your child that competition is not about winning.   Teach your child that competition is a tool that helps him or her learn what they need to work on in their training to improve their technique and style.  Competition is just part of the learning process.  Using this tool, your child will enhance their fencing skills and learn how to adapt to other fencing styles and strategies as well as experience new venues and referees.  Plus, the social aspects are invaluable.  Your child will meet new people and form new relationships with other fencers passionate about the sport.

It’s important to keep expectations in check.  If your child goes into the competition with high expectations and the results are much lower than expected, it can be devastating emotionally.  If your child has low expectations but achieves a higher ranking that expected, they can feel really good about themselves.  So it’s essential to help your child have realistic expectations about their first competition.

How do you prepare your child for the possibility of defeat?

Talk to them and listen.  What are their thoughts about the competition?  What are their fears?  If they are afraid of losing, why?  Do they think they would disappoint their coach or teammates?  Do they worry about disappointing you?  Reassure them that no one will be disappointed with how they do in the competition.  Emphasize that just taking the step to engage in the competition for the first time is huge – and everyone recognizes that.

Stress that size and age don’t matter in the competition.  Children who are younger may have had a lot more experience and training than your child.

I remember one competition when a young boy was reduced to tears because he had been defeated by an opponent who was much younger and smaller than himself.

I put a comforting arm around him and asked, “How long have you been fencing?”

“Three months,” he replied.

“Ok,” I said.  “Did you know that your opponent has been fencing for the last 3 years?  If he didn’t beat someone who’s only been training for 3 months, I would question his coach!”

The boy stopped crying and thought about this.  It made sense and he was able to accept the defeat.  He went back to fence his next few bouts as a changed competitor.

The key here is that we shouldn’t wait until after the trauma of losing – we need to prepare our kids beforehand for the possibility of loss.  In a competition only a handful of participants will win, but a vast majority will lose.  And your child needs to be ready for that.

Fencing competition can be really fun for kids.  By preparing your child ahead time, making sure they understand that a competition is a learning tool, and coaching for the possibility of losing and dealing with it, your child will learn to see competitions as an enjoyable new experience.

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1 Comment

  1. L Mao

    About the names stenciled on jackets/lames… While they generally do denote an experienced fencer, my son and a bunch of his ex-clubmates actually got their lames stenciled at the second competition they ever attended, which was an RYC in SF. Their coach had told them that names were required in order to fence in the competition. So we waited in the very long line (with other confused parents) for the stenciler to do his business. If any of their opponents that day had taken the stenciled lames as a sign that they were experienced fencers, it must have come as a happy surprise to discover they were quite the opposite.

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