“The Importance of Setting Goals” deals with looking at the year ahead and laying out a sort of roadmap to follow, deciding on goals that are within reach and do-able.
But what makes them do-able? How you get from here to there? Medals, rankings, and ratings are important tangible evidence of success. But, you can’t get the results without putting in the effort. Personal goals or tasks that are within your fencer’s control can help keep your fencer moving forward even if and when those end goals remain somewhat elusive. Personal goals will help your fencer be successful whether winning or losing. And, setting them up and working on them will play an important role in helping your fencer reach those more tangible goals.
When my son Stafford started fencing, medals and competition were frankly not even a part of the conversation. My son was extremely shy as a young boy, something that he shares with a lot of fencers. At 8 years old, he basically lived in a hoodie, sometimes even two. He preferred not to speak up and when he did, you had to lean forward to hear. As a parent, I wanted to find a way, hopefully a fun way, to help him feel more confident. Fencing, I thought, might be a perfect solution. First of all, he gets to wear a mask (certainly more interesting than those two hoodies). Second of all, he gets to hold a sword. He liked Star Wars, so, I reasoned; let’s give it a shot.
Our first fencing goals had nothing to do with medals, rankings, points, etc. These goals had little to do even with fencing. The main goal at that time was for Stafford to be more confident and assertive. How do you get there?
One of Staff’s first basic tasks he set for himself in fencing was to literally be able to stay on the strip when fencing. It was more comfortable to walk off the end of the strip when a fencer came towards him, which was a direct result of not being able or willing to assert himself. At one of my son’s very first tournaments, Staff walked backwards off the end of the strip giving his opponent a point. His coach, who was watching, said, “Don’t walk off the end of a strip again. That is like quitting. Worse, it is like you are hitting yourself. If your opponent is going to get a point, make it one he has to earn.” Right then and there, Staff made that a goal. It was on his mind every time he fenced. I think that was maybe the last time Staff walked off the end to avoid a touch. Now, it is so ingrained in his fencing that he no longer even thinks about it. That’s not to say he hasn’t heard, “One foot! One foot! Go forward!” during a bout to make him aware that he is at the end, but I swear that foot has stayed glued on the strip every time until he has been able to take that step forward again. That goal certainly helped him become more assertive. I can remember him, after losing a bout during those early tournaments, saying, “Well, at least I didn’t walk off the strip!” Even though he lost, he knew a way in which he had also triumphed. And he could name it, which is important. It was a specific task that he had set for himself.
These tasks are important because they are under the fencer’s control. They can be something that helps your fencer prepare for competition, and they can be tasks your fencer wants to accomplish on the strip. And they are not dependent on results.
Stafford is always working on something in his fencing. Whether it is a specific flick of the wrist, or keeping emotions under control, he has his hands full. He is a teen-age boy, and as he gets into those teen years, he’s got growing pains, which make life and fencing so much more complicated. Certainly the fact that his shoe size went from 8 to 12 in four months makes fencing more complicated. Anyone who has seen a German Shepard puppy get tangled up with his own paws can imagine how a 14-year old can have problems. With suddenly huge feet and a wing span that seems to rival a 747, he has a lunge and reach that keep changing, and constantly is having to re-evaluate the distance between him and the other fencer on the strip. Very frustrating.
The teen years are complicated by emotional growing pains as well. Life in high school just becomes complicated and more emotional, right? Stakes for everything seem higher, and trying to navigate socially, trying to be “cool,” and survive through a day at school without somehow attracting negative attention, can become the goal for the day. There are the pressures of schoolwork, and those college conversations are starting. Pile on top of all of that, the emotions swirling around winning and losing in fencing, so much focused on just 15 minutes, and yet we expect our teenagers to control all of those emotions and conduct themselves at such a heightened level. As I write this, I am thinking, wow, that is asking a lot. How on earth can my son deal with all of this? Yet, I will still ask that of my son. More important, he asks this of himself. That is part of the game he signed up for. We talk about these pressures and ways he might help get prepared when those emotions seem to get the better of him on the strip. Frustration can easily turn to anger, when a touch is missed or the score, seemingly a done deal, suddenly tips the other way in a matter of seconds.
One thing that helps when that frustration is overwhelming, is to have enough physical stamina and muscle memory solid enough that even when your brain freezes, your hand does not. So, personal tasks include ways to get in great shape, and also ways to increase muscle memory - to just fence, not think. My son works on his point control on his own every day. There is a golf ball on a string, permanently tied to an overhead light in our living room. Every day it is lowered to chest level so he can practice his point control. Different kinds of touches. Over and over and over again.
In addition to improving his coordination and muscle memory, some of Staff’s personal tasks focus on controlling his emotions, not getting frustrated, and, hand in hand with that, being patient. There is an older fencer Staff really admires because he has such control over his emotions. Staff likes that he can’t tell when this fencer finishes a bout, if he has won or lost. When Staff fences these days, he tries to stay calm and just focus on the touch. Whether he wins or loses the bout, if he is able to accomplish keeping his emotions under control, he has won. It is of course difficult to work on this if he’s not actually competing. Situational bouts in class can’t really provide that rush of nerves and emotion. So right now, we are going to every tournament we can, RYCs, Opens, NACs, etc. Putting him in the situation where he can work on these issues. Opens, by the way, are great for this. Senior fencers bring a different type of experience and strength to the strip. They want to win of course, but they go about it a bit differently. What they might lack in pure teen adrenaline, they make up for in strength, strategy, and patience. In class, his coach is also great at setting up situations, “fencers on this side of the room are down 10- 14,” etc. But nothing really compares to keeping your head in battle, so to speak.
Right now, Staff has those tangible, specific goals he wants to reach this year. He wants to qualify for the next World Cup. He would like to medal in Cadet at a NAC. In addition, he has personal tasks that he is responsible for. He has a daily workout routine. He has an agenda for his practice bouts in class and during open fencing. I am sure he has other personal goals that I don’t even know about. I hope so. At the end of each day, he wants to be able to say he did something that day to become stronger, faster, better. These tasks help him become more confident, more self-determined. He is already a winner, regardless of the score.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu
As tournament season gets into full swing, this seems like a good time to talk about goals. Here are a few thoughts on goals – their importance, how to set them, change them, and keep things healthy.
Setting goals is a great way to start off a season of fencing. And it is important to be realistic. Is your child just starting fencing? Then help him or her decide what goals might be attainable, what are the stretches, and try to keep “pie in the sky” goals out of the discussion. You want to encourage, not discourage, your fencer. And if goals are quickly reached, celebrate! Then, together, set new ones. By the way, there are short-term goals too. It is a good idea to always discuss the events before each tournament and what the goal is for that particular event.
Here are a few goals for students competing in the first couple of years (and all of these goals still apply even for top fencers, by the way):
Win all the bouts in your pool. This is a good one, because it is clear and straightforward.
Come out of pools ranked first in the seeding. This is a great goal because when a fencer begins to understand that every touch matters, (every touch scored against the fencer is subtracted from the total touches made, and affects the seeding for the next round) the approach to the pool bouts becomes more focused.
Earn a medal. Local tournaments or national tournaments, medals are medals. They are cool. And in fencing, you have to earn them. You don’t get them for just showing up.
Beat “that guy”. At a certain point, there will be some fencer who seems to be unbeatable. Name him or her. Then, make beating that fencer a goal. Sometimes, that can be more important that even the tournament results.
As a personal example, early on in fencing, we had a terrible tournament. My son was nervous, had stomach cramps, wanted to leave, and begged me to take him home. We had paid the entry fee, driven all this way, I even found a great parking space (again, parking is important!) so no way were we just going to leave. And of course, his fencing at that tournament was not the best. Lost most of his pool bouts. Then came the Direct Eliminations. And my son would be fencing against him. Mr. Unbeatable. And my son beat him. I think my son was eliminated in the next round, but it didn’t even matter. He had proved something to himself. He could beat that guy. And guess what - There will always be a next “that guy.” My son beat a fencer this summer who he thought was truly unbeatable. He had nicknamed him The Demi-God. Now my son has moved on, has the next that guy on his radar.
I know that my son is now a “that guy” to a few younger fencers. I love that. There is a wonderful family in Northern California with two young fencers. The mom told me at one of the tournaments, when our boys were about to fence each other, that her son was so excited to fence my son. That he had been disappointed that they had not yet met on the strip. He couldn’t wait. He didn’t expect to win; he just wanted to fence him. That day, her son did not beat my son, but I’m betting that one day he will.
Every August is a good time to discuss the past year’s results and talk about goals for the upcoming year. And it is important to have your child be a part of the discussion, so that it is not just you telling him or her the expectations. And you can list several, knowing that they can change and evolve through the year.
The first thing to do when setting goals is to look at where your child is coming from, how did he do the year before? Going from that point, what are reasonable hopes for the upcoming year? Set your fencer up for success, not failure.
In 2015-16, my son’s goals were clear, and all attainable, though some were a definite reach.
Goal 1. The Regional US Fencing Patch
Did you know that US Fencing awards patches in each region to the top three fencers in regional tournaments (RYCs- regional youth circuit)? This is a great incentive for young fencers and a lot of parents don’t even know about this. You can find details in the fencing handbook on the US Fencing website, The patches are given out at Summer Nationals. In 2014-15, Stafford came in 4th in the region, just missing getting a patch. But, my son was fencing well, and at each tournament he seemed to grow in confidence, skill, and determination. So, the patch went on the list.
Goal 2. Win an SYC
He had not yet won a sectional tournament, but had come in second, so it was perfectly reasonable to believe that it was attainable. So he set that as his second goal. By the way, he did not achieve this goal. He won his first SYC the next year.
Goal 3. Qualify for Junior Olympics
This goal was a reach. And, he missed qualifying by one, placing fourth in the qualifiers. I was fine with that though. He had just turned 12, fencing against 15 and 16 year olds, and really wasn’t ready, in a number of ways. So, we kept that goal for 2016-17, and he went to his first JO’s last February.
Goal 3. Medal at a NAC (North American Cup)
By the time the March North American Cup rolled around, Stafford had already won a couple of regional tournaments and was currently ranked number one in our region (close to earning that patch!). We were walking to the car from school one day near the time we were getting ready to leave for Salt Lake City where the NAC was taking place. He asked me, “Where do you think I should end up in the tournament? Do you think I could make top 8?” Well, of course, I wanted to say, “Actually, I think you could win it.” Which he could. California is one of the most competitive arenas. I think that the top three fencers in Southern California are almost always in the top ten in the nation in any given age group. Technically at this time he was number one, but there were easily five or so other fencers who could beat him on any given day. Just as he could beat them on any given day. So, I did not tell him I thought he should win. I pointed out that he was number one in the region, and SoCal is one of the most competitive, so he could certainly place in the top 8. But I thought he could make the top 3. “Really?” That made him think. He hadn’t put together his success in the regional tournaments with what that might mean nationally. “Sure,” I replied. “Why not?”
In Salt Lake City, Stafford took the bronze. It was his first national medal. He achieved his goal of placing in the top 8. On Instagram and Facebook, US Fencing posted a shot of the top four medalists. That was pretty cool. And he got a patch that said Bronze Medal Y12 National. When he got his regional patch at that year’s Summer Nationals it was almost an afterthought.
One of the wonderful outcomes of achieving goals is the gaining in confidence. Once my son won the bronze in Salt Lake City, his fencing, his focus and determination, and his true enjoyment of fencing blossomed. He went on to win the Y12 event at Summer Nationals.
It is important to remember that all of the smaller goals from the past years led to where he is now. All of those goals were stepping-stones to his maturing as a competitor and gaining self-confidence as a fencer and as a young man.
We have had fun planning our goals this year. One of them has already been reached, and we are going to the World Cup in three weeks. Wish us luck!
I welcome any comments, questions, stock tips, etc.
Five years ago, my son competed in his first tournament. After eight months of fencing classes and constantly saying he was not interested in competing, my son unexpectedly announced at the end of a class that he thought he might like to try entering a tournament after all. It turned out there was a regional tournament the very next weekend. I had no idea what a regional tournament was. His coach said we should sign up on the US Fencing website, go to the tournament, and however he did, as long as he competed, he would qualify for Summer Nationals. Summer Nationals? I had no idea what that meant. But the coach seemed to think it was a good thing for him to do, so okay.
I signed him up for a competitive membership at US Fencing, and we went to the tournament that weekend. It was a disaster on so many levels. Though we did find a great parking spot, right in front. I found out later finding parking was almost as competitive as the fencing itself. Who knew?
The tournament at LAIFC (Los Angeles International Fencing Center) was an RYC (Regional Youth Circuit). There were a number of different events going on, so though there were only 14 fencers in my son’s Y10 (Youth ages 10 and under) event, the place was crowded with fencers, parents, coaches. It was overwhelming. And we had no idea what to do, where to go, etc. Luckily, a very nice mother at the desk, Ellen, who I still see all the time at tournaments, introduced herself and gave a quick rundown of what we needed to know. How the tournament worked, pools, DE’s (Direct Eliminations), and that we needed two body cords for example. The basics.
My son lost all but one pool bout, and that one he won by one touch (point). He lost his first DE. As fast as it had started, it was over. My son, still wearing his mask, shook hands with the opponent and with the referee. Then he picked up his bag and carried everything straight out to our car in that prime spot. He put his gear in the trunk, got in the back seat. We rode home in silence, with the exception of very quiet crying coming from the back seat, muffled slightly by the mask he was still wearing. “Oh, well,” I thought. “At least he tried.”
Two weeks later, much to my surprise, he wanted to try again. Luckily there was another tournament coming up that weekend. This time is was just a little local tournament. Much less intimidating. That afternoon, again, I drove back with a boy wearing a fencing mask crying in the back seat. But this time, about half way home, I heard this tearful little voice say, “So, when is the next tournament?” And we were in.
He came in last in the next tournament as well. But he took his mask off on the way home. We were making progress.
Summer Nationals took place in Anaheim that year. We went because we didn’t have to travel on a plane, so it would not be too expensive. Why not go? It would be a good experience. We drove down the day before his Y10 event. As we pulled in to the hotel, it was a sea of fencing bags. Every single person, young and old, was pulling a fencing bag behind them. My son sat in the back seat, looking out the window in horror. “I can’t do this.” I knew exactly how he was feeling. It was an intimidating sight. “Tell you what,” I said. “I’ve already paid for the room. Let’s just check in. The convention center is attached to the hotel. We can just walk over and find your coach, and look around and see what it is like. And if you don’t want to fence, that’s fine. You don’t have to. No pressure.” He ended up placing 41 out of 60. More important, though, he fenced. He was 9. And he has never looked back. That was in 2012.
What is amazing to me, and what I certainly didn’t know at the time, was that a lot of those fencers are still competing. These boys have grown up together. They see each other at tournaments across the country. They follow each other on snap chat and Instagram. They text each other. My son has friends from across the country, from New York and Texas.
He will go to his first international competition, a World Cup in Austria in four weeks. He, we, have come a long way. We have learned a lot.
I am starting this blog to help other parents, new to fencing, understand how wonderful this sport is, how it works, and how to support their child through success and failure. I will cover basics, from the first competition to how to cope with injuries. I would love feedback, welcome follow up questions, topic suggestions, and any stock tips you care to share!
- Kathryn Atwood