Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rules for Fencing Parents

When she was 12 and first competing, my younger daughter gave me a set of rules for behavior at fencing tournaments. She was quite serious about them—and she still calls me out when she catches me in violation. (I still have a hard time with #11, though she's not nearly so adamant about that one as she used to be.)

The Rules:

1. Do not carry my fencing bag.

2. Do not move my gear unless I ask you to.

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

4. Do not talk to me while I am warming up.

5. Do keep a filled water bottle at hand at all times.

6. Do not keep track of my bouts.

7. Do not go to the bout committee to figure out how I’m doing, who I’m fencing next, or who my referee will be.

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

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

10. Don’t be annoying.

11. Do not say anything corny, such as, "Just go out and have fun." I repeat, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING CORNY!!!

12. Remember that you are my money.


I get to meet a lot of parents of fencers, both at my home club and at national tournaments. Some of them I like much more than others.

Consider Family A. Kid A is about ten years old, enchanted with fencing, and is a generally upbeat and happy kid. His parents are both excited about his fencing, but more because he is excited about it than because they have any particular expectations about it all. He comes to classes, with at least one—and often, both—parents accompanying him. He looks like he'll turn out to be a pretty decent fencer, in time. His parents buy him a full set of gear, including electric gear, and after only four months, they decide to enter him in a Regional Youth Circuit (RYC) event.

We tell them all about tournaments: check-in, weapons check, referees, the format. We warn him that he will lose all his bouts, and explain that his goal should be to try to get a touch in every bout, to simply do the best he can and just figure out how tournaments work.

And he has a pretty good day. He does indeed lose all his bouts, but he gets more than one touch in a couple of his pool bouts, and he even manages to win one of the 5-touch bouts in his only DE bout, to force his opponent to a third. He doesn't come in last.

And he and his parents can't wait to try it again, once he's had a chance to learn some more about fencing.

There is, of course, a Family B. The B kid is about twelve, and Dad B is really excited about the kid's fencing. "I expect him to win me a mantel full of trophies for me," he says. "That's why we're here." Kid B comes to class regularly, with Dad along every time. They buy gear for both Kid and Dad, so Dad can help him practice at home. Kid B shows signs of one day becoming a pretty decent fencer. Dad B has to be asked to stay away from class, because he starts to try to coach his son in class. (What Dad B knows of fencing is what he's learned from watching his son's classes.)

After three or four months, Dad and Kid B decide that the kid will fence in an unrated event at the club. We start the usual "You will lose, so just work on getting one touch" lecture, but Dad will have none of it. "You have no idea how competitive this kid is—he's gonna win this tournament because he wants it more than any of the rest of them." We mention that there will be fencers there who will have more skill and experience, and suggest that perhaps such expectations are unrealistic. Later, we pull the kid aside and give him the rest of the lecture, anyway.

Tournament day arrives, and both Mom and Dad B come along to watch their kid fence. They offer advice with every touch, at fairly high volume, and complain to coach and bout committee that the referee isn't giving their son any touches. Coach and bout committee carefully explain that the referee makes calls according to the rules of fencing, and that their son is fencing more experienced and knowledgeable kids. Mom and Dad B listen, and then when their son comes up again to fence his DE, start yelling at him, about what he's doing wrong, about how he needs to want it more, about how he has to get his act in gear. B's results and scores end up about the same as the scores A got in his first tournament, but he's pretty bummed about it all.

Guess which kid's not fencing any longer?

I'll take the parents who get pulled into the sport by their kids—you can have the pushers.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Mental Game

My daughter (a saber fencer and referee) laughs at how little I see when I watch fencing. She's right—I miss a lot of the details. I can usually (that is, often enough for a spectator) tell who gets the touch and who is winning, even if I can't see the scoring box. I can tell good fencers from newbies, and I love to watch good fencing.

But the intricacies of good technique, essential as they may be to good fencers, are not what fascinate me. As one who has never fenced (and never will, thanks to some interesting knees), I'm attracted by the mental game in fencing.

A couple of years ago, I asked a number of fencers and coaches around the country to asnwer a questionnaire about fencing for me, for a book I was planning. (It's still a project I plan to complete, by the way, though it's turning into a somewhat different creature than I'd originally envisioned.) I asked about how important the mental game was, and the overwhelming majority said that the mental aspects were 90% of the game.

It's not that technique is trivial. But there is a specific set of skills that every fencer can learn, and with a few years' experience, most fencers can learn to apply those skills well enough to become reasonably competent fencers.

Beyond that novice stage, though, the differences among fencers start to become more apparent, and the mental game becomes increasingly important. There's the ability to control one's moods: Stay relaxed enough to keep those shoulders loose, but tensed and alert enough to stay focused.

There's the matter of pacing: Know how much energy you have and how much to expend in pools and in early DEs and still have enough strength left for the final bouts.

And there's that whole grit and determination thing: How to be stubborn and determined enough to win on those days when fencing just isn't fun, when the joints and muscles ache, and the brain is listless.

Working bout committee at national events, when I get to run an event from beginning to end, I often see fencers wrestling with themselves, struggling to pull themselves out of a fencing funk or make an uncooperative body function more effectively. That's the game I like to watch, and it's one at which the best fencers are exceptional.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tournament Time

National tournaments are weird events, if you're a fencing official.

You show up when it's time for you to show up—7:45 or 8:00 am, if you're a referee; 7:00 or 7:30 am, if you're a bout committee member; and usually even earlier if you're an armorer.

Your day is a bipolar experience—stretches of waiting around for something to happen interspersed with mad frenzies to get the next event or the next round started or finished, sometimes with the operatic accompaniment of coaches' tirades or lengthy asides of Talmudic discussions of the application of obscure rules.

Time expands and contracts in mysterious ways. At 10:00 am, you despair of your épée pools ever coming in, so you help someone else get their big foil event started. After about two hours, you discover it's almost 10:15. Finally, you get your pools in and your DEs out and find those DEs moving along at a remarkable pace—after only a couple of hours, your almost-full table of 256 is nearly to the finals. The only problem is, the clock says it's 7:45 pm, and you can't remember whether you've had lunch or not.

This is Tournament Time, recognition of which is helpful for surviving NACs and essential for surviving Summer Nationals. Tournament Time means that once you get to the tournament, it doesn't matter what time it is or what day, except for knowing which events are supposed to start when. The world is the tournament, and you never even notice the continual noise: The blade contact. The referees calling "Fence!" and "Halt!" The fencers yelling in triumph and frustration. The endless—and often garbled—PA announcments.

Until suddenly a single high-pitched electronic whine from one of the dozens of scoring boxes left on too loud penetrates your consciousness like a dental drill, and just when you think you'll throw something at the next innocent who asks which strip her great-granddaughter's Youth-10 women's saber DE will be on the day after tomorrow, some merciful soul turns the machine off and brings you back from the brink of hysteria.

Is, was, and ever shall be. That's Tournament Time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Non-Fencing Fan

I was dragged into the world of fencing before I really knew what was happening.

There I was, in 1998, a perfectly innocent fencing mom, watching my older daughter, Kate, learn saber. She fenced in a few local tournaments and eventually qualified for the Junior Olympics that season. (JOs that year were in Chattanooga—we laughed at the idea of traveling across the country just to fence in one tournament. Ha!)

By the summer of 1999, I had a little extra income from book royalties and Kate had qualified for five events at Summer Nationals, so we decided it would be fun to give Charlotte a try. No expectations except to see what national tournaments were like and watch a little fencing. Kate fenced better and better each day she competed, and by her final event, on the last day of the tournament, she earned a medal in the Youth-14 Women's Saber.

We were hooked, and we were tickled when we got back home, to learn that Junior Olympics was to be in Sacramento the next season. Kate fenced in more tournaments, and as her fencing improved, my stomach churned more and more watching her, which distracted her. When the fencing powers-that-be asked for volunteers to help with running the tournament computers at JOs, I jumped at the opportunity—it was perfect: I'd be detached and away from Kate's fencing but still have access to all the information about how she was doing.

So that February, I began to learn about XSeed, US Fencing's in-house tournament software, and I was asked to work as a bout committee trainee at the next Summer Nationals in Austin. In Texas, I discovered the "table" side of bout committee, the part where you get to deal with fencers and parents and coaches and referees and strange personality conflicts and questions from spectators who've wandered into the hall from the needlepoint and fabric arts exhibition in the hall next door. I was doomed. I had found my niche in fencing.

Working bout committee is one of the stranger hobbies I know of. We work long hours at what is fundamentally glorified clerical work under highly stressful conditions (especially during Summer Nationals) for a pittance of an honorarium, intermittent offerings of chocolate and other minor but crucial munchies, and occasional thank-you comments from fencers and their families.

Usually, it's on or about the sixth or seventh day of Nationals, when we are deep into that stage of exhaustion in which we must do everything very carefully and consciously and deliberately (rather like drunks trying not to be obviously drunk) in order to avoid egregious errors (and multiple reseeds), we stare at each other in our dazed fugue states and ponder yet again the question we've never been able to answer satisfactorily: Why again is it that we do this?

This blog is my attempt at a real answer. I've come to love watching fencing and fencers (in which group I include all those ancillary personnel like coaches and referees and other officials—so in a sense, I can legitimately call myself a fencer, too, even though I'll never set foot on a strip as a competitor myself) and the passion with which so many pursue their sport.

In the process of sharing some of what I've observed and learned over the last few years, maybe I'll also finally understand exactly what keeps me making myself available for NACs all season long and coming back every year to work that grueling ultramarathon that is Summer Nationals.