Rules for Fencing Parents, Annotated

The Friday morning armory line at JOs this year was impressive. We BC folk gaped at it.

It wasn’t the length of the line. Friday morning armory lines are always long, and fencers and coaches always come and ask what we’re going to do about the start of the 8:00 am events because the line is so long. We always tell them not to worry, that by the time we’re ready to start the fencing, the line will be gone, and everything will be okay. Every once in a while, we tell the head referees they don’t need to rush their assignments because of the line, but the line almost always shrinks and disappears on its own by the time we send out the pools.

What had us gaping in Baltimore was the make-up of the armory line: at least half of the people standing in the line were parents.

I know what they were thinking. They were just trying to help their kids, so their kids could warm up properly for their event. Just like some parents like to help their kids by hauling their fencing bag or carrying their extra weapons and body cords for them or by tracking of their pool and DE scores for them, or by keeping their USFA card handy. What could be wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that none of those is a parent’s job.

When she was 12, when she began competing (after her older sister had been competing for a year), my younger daughter wrote up a set of rules for my behavior at tournaments. Her rules were in somewhat random order, written as they occurred to her, so for our purpose today, I’ve re-ordered and grouped them by topic. But they are an excellent set of guidelines, well worth serious consideration by any fencing family, and proven over a decade of her competitive fencing career.

13. No interviewing me!!!!

We’ll dispense with this one right away as a special case, irrelevant to most fencing families. My daughters are the offspring of someone who, when they were younger, was a medium-sized fish in a tiny pond, or what the older one facetiously referred to as a “Famous Homeschool Author.” This meant that whenever I was interviewed for PR for my books or whatever conference I was speaking at next, reporters often wanted to talk to the girls to judge for themselves whether homeschooling was turning them into antisocial oddballs. Neither was particularly interested in this continuing into their fencing lives, and by the time they were fencing, I’d become less active in the homeschooling community, so it turned out not to be much of an issue. (This demonstrates, however, my capacity for learning things from my kids.)

11. Do not carry my fencing bag.

1. Do not move my gear unless asked to do so.

5. Do not dare help me get my gear on.

“Fencing is my thing,” my daughter told me. “I am the athlete. I am responsible for my own gear. How else will I learn to take care of it unless I do it myself?” You wouldn’t have believed it seeing the normal state of her room, but her fencing bag was always neatly packed, every item in the same place every time—that’s how she could tell she had everything she needed. If I’d dared make even a slight move toward helping her with her bag, her instant response was a ferocious glare. The only exceptions were when a body cord failed or a blade damaged her lamé during a bout—only then was I allowed to purchase a replacement or repair and have it inspected for her.

4. Do not keep track of my bouts.

6. Do not go to the bout committee to figure out how I’m doing, who I’m fencing, or who my ref is.

Neither of my daughters ever wanted to know their opponents’ ratings, how they were seeded, or how they did in the pool round. “Just tell me where and when to fence and when to stop.” Everything else was a distraction from focusing on the next bout—no, the next touch. She never wanted what she considered extraneous information to influence how she thought she should do or what she believed herself capable of. Grudgingly, she eventually decided it was okay for me to look up all that stuff for myself as long as I never let a hint of it out to her. At some point, she began keeping her own notebook to record her scores and comments on opponents and referees and her own performance, and she quickly learned to check how each bout was recorded as soon as the referee wrote it on the scoresheet. (Each girl, as most fencers do at some point early in their competitive careers, signed a scoresheet with a reversed score once and only once. Neither ever let it happen again.)

8. Do keep a filled water bottle on hand at all times.

9. Don’t go wandering off with my water bottle.

10. Do get me food. (Hot dogs are unacceptable.)

12. Remember that you’re my money!!!

Providing food and water and purchasing power for new and replacement equipment fell into the category of general parental care, so they were considered perfectly reasonable things for me to do and were always allowed and appreciated.

2. Do not talk to me when I am warming up.

3. Do not say anything corny such as “Just go out and get ‘em.” I repeat, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING CORNY!!!

7. Don’t be annoying.

#3 was always difficult for me. “How do I know?” I asked her. “I never know whether you’ll consider something corny until I’ve already said it.” At which point, of course, she would just smirk at me. To paraphrase Thumper, if you can’t say anything uncorny, don’t say anything at all.

It’s tough being a fencing parent. Or the parent of any athlete. I remember seeing TV shots of parents watching their kids compete in some sport during the Olympics and being amused at their facial expressions, at how they looked like they couldn’t bear to watch and couldn’t bear not to watch. Once my kids started competing, I thoroughly understood that reaction. As parents, we want our kids to do well and we want to help them do it. We’re emotionally invested in their success.

But we aren’t the athletes. We aren’t the ones competing on the strip, figuring out what action is needed right now this instant, trying to maintain focus through long rounds of demanding competition. We can’t make them do it. We can’t do it for them. All we can do is give them the opportunity to do it for themselves. And that’s incredibly difficult. I couldn’t take the stomach-churning caused by silently watching my kids fence. As much as I loved watching them compete, it was too hard. I had to back away.

I found something to do to keep myself occupied at tournaments, of course.

But please consider whether the help you provide to your fencing child in fact helps. Are you sure? Have you asked your child? And are you sure you’re getting an honest answer, that they’re not just trying not to hurt your feelings? Are you certain that you’re not the sort of parent likely to be anonymously commemorated in the annals of the #imaginarysyc?

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15 comments on “Rules for Fencing Parents, Annotated

    • I’ve seen a 16-year-old boy turn and yell at the mom hauling his bag for walking too slowly. I’ve heard college coaches astounded at a new recruit who did not know how to pack a fencing bag for a tournament because a parent had always done it. I’ve seen parents scream at their kids in ways that would get them arrested in a workplace. I’m baffled by parents who can’t see that their purpose as parents is to help their children become competent and capable human beings who can act on their own initiative. Just as I’m baffled by adults who don’t assume that respect from their kids has to be earned by respecting them in turn.

  1. If I had used that sort of vocabulary and tone with my parents, like your bratty daughter did, I would have been dead. Why did you tolerate this?

    • Goodness – what an assumption? Her daughter is courteous, friendly, and very self-reliant (as a young person when I first met her and as the adult she is now). The message was candid, certainly, but speaks of a relationship that is confident and comfortable between the two people.

  2. WHy not have this article published in the American Fencing magazine? It is important to have as many see it as possible for those who will understand, learn and accept.

  3. Interesting article, with many good points. I try to deploy what I call The Magwitch Principle-support from a distance. Happy to make booking arrangements, provide transport etc., etc.-drop 16 year old d’Artagnan off at the event-‘Enjoy yourself’-then pick him up in the evening-I don’t attend the event (one exception was when his Mum and I attended his first international representation-she ‘watched’ through hands covered eyes-‘Has he finished yet’!-Best to avoid being a ‘gobby’ touchline parent-also helps avoid ulcers from watching! Initially he very occasionally missed ‘support in his corner’, but it’s made him very independent-after all when he fights he’s on his own on the piste. Come the evening, ‘Had a good day?’-A minute later he plugs in and listens to his music and messages, I listen to my Playaway novel-an hour later we enjoy a rare McDonald’s treat at Perth-if he wants to talk about the day, fine, if not fine-two hour drive up the A9 to the Highlands-if either of us wants to talk, the signal is removing one of our ear-plugs! Happy days!

  4. Wow, I am shocked. The time spent at fencing tourney’s with my daughter is priceless. Sure , it can be nerve racking watching, but thats part of being a parent. We have had a few, small ‘moments ‘ over the years, but that is life. If my 12 year old had to write me a set of ‘rules’, then there is something wrong with the both of us. I ask if she wants help rolling her bag. Having her schlep 20 things after a full day of fencing doesn’t teach responsibility. She is 16 now and will be gone to college before I know it. If she wants to roll her bag, great. If she wants my offer of help, even better. Respect isn’t given, it’s earned. I have even waited in the armory line with her! i get to hold the cords and we predict which person will be the quickest. And at the end of the fencing day, she still can manage to give me , her Dad, a hug. It doesn’t matter if its off the podium, or a round 2 DE exit. Cherish every moment, I do.

  5. So many good points, but having a teen aged boy is a world of its own. That boy may have grown an inch the night before, and is stumbling trying to stand up at 8am. An 8 am anything is bad news during a growth spurt, so if my standing in line at armory helps as he tries to figure out which giant foot goes in which giant shoe, I’ll keep doing it. When the cadet bouts start at 2pm, I’ll gladly drop him off at the door, because by then his brain is on!

  6. I appreciate the concern and sympathy from a few commenters about my clearly troubled relationship with my kids. Thanks, but you needn’t worry—one of the true pleasures of my life has been watching and helping my daughters transform themselves into the amazing adults they have become. I undoubtedly witnessed more of that process at close hand than the average parent, just because of the homeschooling, and their fencing experiences were definitely a huge factor in their growth and maturation.

    After our separate but identical responses to last season’s relocation of SN (“Road trip!”), my daughter’s now attempting to persuade me to fly to up-state New York to meet her so we can drive from there to Columbus this summer like we did from here to Anaheim last year. I just might.

    Fascinating responses this post is provoking, though.

    • Mary,

      It would be wonderful to see you in Rochester. This is a great article and I will be reposting on the RFC Facebook.

      Your daughter continues to amaze me as she works with her students. We are lucky to have her here in Rochester.

  7. I think it’s great that Mary’s 12 yo daughter wants to be independent and have space. I think it’s also important to remember that what is “right” for one parent/child relationship is not right for another. I did “help” my son, for 10 years (age 8-18), by doing equipment check lines at late or early hours so he could eat, sleep, get homework done. I did stand by his strip to help watch for director call styles, opponent techniques, hold his water bottle, and offer advice if his coach wasn’t available…. he wanted, asked for and appreciated this. What he wanted/needed would vary from event to event, from year to year. I was there to give him what he wanted and support him with what he needed. I remember running to get him a new glove when we realized he had my right handed glove. His time was better spent warming up than standing in line to buy, then in line with the armourer. I remember sewing his lame to repair it while he warmed up….. better use of his time than learning to sew. I believe that his successes were often due to the support we gave him – which he wanted. Does that make my child wrong, dependent, less than worthy because he appreciated the help we gave – no. Does it make me an overbearing, indulgent, helimom because I wanted and enjoyed being able to help – no. I think it is a great thing if you as a parent can have open communication with your child and be able to be supportive in what ever type of role works for you both. Please don’t judge or belittle the Mom’s and Dad’s who do help their kids. PS – standing in the armoury line was often a time for me to chat with and catch up with some of the other parents I had become good friends with – and sometimes the only time we had where we weren’t too busy cheering for our kids to actually talk.

  8. When I wrote these “Parent Rules” as a 12 year old fencer, it was not my intention to be demanding nor decree how all fencing parents must behave. As a young fencer, I was nervous during competitions, and this was my way (partially jokingly) to anticipate the things that would cause extra anxiety or distraction while fencing. As my relationship with my parents was and remains a relatively candid one, it seemed only sensible to line out what they could do to help me perform at tournaments. And for me, that meant holding their distance while I competed. Over time, these rules mattered less and less as I progressed as an athlete and was able to keep my mind focused on what was important (one touch at a time!). My mother was in fact one of my best allies in allowing me to talk about my training and being open to what I thought I needed.

    Today as a coach, I train my students that it is their responsibility to maintain and keep track of their own equipment, to be able to check in, check their strips and bout scores, and to check their own equipment independently. In extenuating circumstances I have no problem with parents (or coaches and teammates, for that matter) helping out their fencer by checking equipment when there are long lines, so that the athlete can get a decent warm-up. In fact, I actually recommend this procedure in worst case scenarios.

    Most importantly, fencers have the responsibility to communicate with their parents on what is going to help them perform at their best. This is going to vary from athlete to athlete. I have students who prefer their parents provide support from a quiet distance, while others benefit from talking strategy between their bouts.

    In short, these ‘rules’ I wrote as a 12 year old were more meant as guidelines then actual rules 🙂

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