Team Sierra is spending the weekend in beautiful Santa Rosa, California running Bout Committee for the Swords by the Bay SYC.
As you all know, one of the great reasons to travel for our sport is to get the chance to compete against and talk to different people. During several chats this weekend, a couple of us coaches kept returning to these questions: How much should young fencers be pushed to compete at a high level? Should they be allowed to “play” our sport (as is developmentally appropriate for 8-13 year olds) or should coaches be pushing them to compete at ever greater heights?
The Bout Committee table is smack dab in the middle of the venue so I have had the opportunity to observe various coaches/parents and their methods. Some yell advice, some provide hugs, others get angry when the fencer loses. Which is way is best? That is a hard question to answer, but one that every Coach needs to consider carefully as it will be a part of the philosophy that will shape their fencing club and the programs within it.
At Cutting Edge Fencing, we subscribe to the idea that kids are kids and should be allowed to learn this sport through trial and error. They need to “play” during practice (which means there is a current trend of 10 and 12 year olds flunging all over the place since they’ve seen the older competitors doing it). For us, competitions are for seeing if your current moves work and making adjustments during subsequent practices if they don’t. We applaud effort, creativity, self-reliance, and risk-taking. We do not create little robots that are programmed to respond instantly to a Coach’s command.
This means they fail. A lot.
Is this cruel? Does this set them up for frustrating competition experiences? Maybe.
More often than not, though, it teaches them very valuable life lessons: 1) we learn from our mistakes, 2) success is built on failure, and 3) failure at one point does not mean future failure. It also makes their victories–which can take many forms as I talked about in this post–even sweeter. Their victories truly belong to them.
Could I use my years of competitive experience to yell instructions to them that will help them beat their opponents? Sure. But that would create a whole field of fencers that are just like me. What if they can think of a creative solution I would never consider? Their younger bodies can do things I have never thought of. And that would eliminate the whole reason kids should try out a sport: to learn about themselves and their personal abilities. My main role as a strip coach for young fencers is to encourage, encourage, encourage. I will also help them figure out how they are scoring touches, what their opponents are doing to score touches on them, and to remind them to “try that new thing you’ve been working on”. This method takes longer but is healthier for kids in the long run as there is less burnout and injury in athletes that are allowed to progress at their own rate.
We also need to keep in mind that there is a wide gap in physical and emotional development in kids ages 10-14. What one fencer can achieve at age 11, another might not physically be able to do until several years later. Pushing all of them to perform the same actions is not possible as some may not be legitimately physically capable of doing it. Expecting the same level of performance from fencers of the same age category is not fair to them as individuals or beneficial to their personal development.
What do you think is the role of a Youth Fencing Coach? As always, I welcome your comments and contributions.