Fencing for a Lifetime

Because fencing is a lifetime sport, I teach people of all ages.  Every age bring its own identity and its own challenges for a coach.   This year we have the full spectrum, finally! This Saturday marks our first Y10 event.  I am so excited!

Young children do not question the coach regarding what they do.  Most are in the moment, experiencing the joy of movement, asking “was that my point?”  They learn soon that winning means something.  Parents almost always direct that meaning first, peers second, and then coaches third.  The difficulty in coaching or teaching young kids is that they are socialized to behave within groups differently.  Any child who is oppositional to the coach, resistant to learning is a difficult student.  These students end up having a difficult time opening to the learning process, as their egos are front and center. They often have a difficult time with the truth, and soon find themselves isolated among their peers.   If their hurt is major, I would it is say impossible to continue to the competitive level at our club.

The Twelve-Year-Old group is fun.  They, at this point, have competed at something in their life, they may have started to practice, or started to want something.  This “want” is what a coach is looking for.  It doesn’t matter their “natural ability.”  I want a student who wants to learn.

Teenagers come in all motivation levels, styles, colors and attitudes.  They are like twelve year olds with hormones.  We don’t yet have a “one kind fits all” model of competitive attitude or culture at our club.  I have some teens who have fencing as one of their primary social outlets.  Some come to escape something else, a few have fencing goals.  Many have fitness goals, enjoy the workout, the environment, and a place they can be themselves and be with people that mostly don’t get on their nerves.   Their reasons for coming are a mixture of many things, but they feel accepted.  It feels good to be good at something, and our teens are good or are getting good.

As teens are the primary consumer in our club, I feel it is very important for them to feel comfortable to “train,” make mistakes, and offer self-correction opportunities. All fencers can experience a wide range of emotion, test boundaries, and learn social skills in our little Mid-South vacuum. Some behaviors need to be extinguished.  I don’t like doing that, but the health of my club supercedes one person’s need to rule the roost (so to speak.) The art as head coach over a club is balancing allowing the freedom to train (within the structure of the boundaries) while regulating and holding the student accountable to their training commitments.

Our Adults range from 20’s to 70’s., but mostly in the 40-50 range.  Many have come to the sport for the same reasons the kids have… they got hooked.  It is easier than running on the body, more fun.  They get out of their bodies, loose weight and enjoy each other’s company.  Also, where else do you get to spend the evening with such age diversity?   They learn pop culture, know Jay-Z is a popular artist. They are not known as professionals, just someone else to whack.  It’s kind of a liberating feeling (once you get past a 14 year old beating you over and over again…

My eldest fencer is my coaching teacher this year, more than any other student currently.  He has lived a full life.  He is fighting cancer, winning most days, but hurting others.   He uses our fencing lessons to gage how his body is doing.  He gives me updates and asks me hard questions.  I know focusing his mind, putting his body to test once a week on our Tuesday morning lessons is a big event for him.  These lessons are his “outings.”

I realized through this work with my fencing elder, the importance of self-respect, feeling useful, and feeling improvement is in every stage of life.  It is no different for him than for a 40 year old, 17 year old, or 11 year old.  I have started focusing more with him on his joys, the actions he likes.  I have let go of the process of “attaining a goal” to just being with him on the strip and letting him lead the lesson.  It’s quite an amazing experience to be in the moment with a fencer, challenge them, yet protect them (from themselves mostly).

My focus shifted first within his lesson one day, and in that shift I felt moved to emphasize something very important about coaching- the caring part.  I do care.  We do care, you have to in a service job.  Sometimes we get caught up in other things or goals or desires outside the person whose full attention we have for 20 minutes in an individual lesson or an hour in a class. These personal needs that demand sometimes negative attention and are disruptive EVERY CLASS or seemly every lesson, can be a big, big challenge. How to care, how to challenge yet protect your students (and yourself) simultaneously? Protect your club? Care for the individual? Do this with all your students, fully, hourly, daily, weekly and add tournaments after you teach back to back for a week. THIS IS HARD, but it really just sounds hard as I write this.  Mostly, it does come easy.  One hard day to make 50 smooth days is worth it.